The Creation and Destruction of Keith Moon's Pictures of Lily Drum Kit

It was during The Who's first proper tour of the United States that Keith Moon's legend as rock's craziest hell-raiser took flight. The drummer's 21st birthday party in August 1967 at a Holiday Inn in Flint, Michigan, descended into wanton destruction and gave rise to the enduring yet erroneous myth of the limo in the hotel swimming pool.

The Who

But Keith's reputation was sealed the first time America witnessed The Who on national television. And here was a story without exaggeration. Today, the evidence is there for everyone to see, all over YouTube. The band appeared on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on September 15. Despite the conventional image of the two Smothers brothers, they set out to present an alternative, edgy show. But they had not bargained on Keith Moon. Then again, neither had the rest of The Who.

The band was supporting Hermans Hermits, of all people, on the tour. Such preposterous billing was commonplace in this fledgling era when promoters and managers hadn't quite sussed the enormity of the new music revolution. Jimi Hendrix opened for The Monkees around the same time. It was the unlikely Hermits who introduced Keith to cherry bombs, the explosive fireworks banned in the US the previous year. Keith soon discovered the effectiveness of cherry bombs for demolishing hotel toilet bowls, and Keith the genius publicist was not about to let an opportunity pass.

On the Smothers Brothers show, following a routine mime to "My Generation" and a staged slaughtering of the gear, Keith detonated a huge explosion in the left bass drum of his Pictures Of Lily drum kit. His arm was cut by his flying cymbals, and Pete Townshend could have been hospitalized or worse by his proximity to the blast. In those innocent days without ear protection, Pete was surely destined to suffer severe hearing loss sooner rather than later, but he maintains that Keith's explosion marked the onset.

Keith Moon with the Lily Drum Kit from a 1967 ad.

The blast momentarily blanked the broadcast and ensured the band was the talk of America. Mission accomplished! But what of the highly decorated Premier kit that Keith had almost destroyed?

Extending the Regular Kit

Keith's Pictures Of Lily drum kit was the first notable rock set to feature a customized, unique graphic finish. The Premier Drum Company in Britain appreciated the special value of its star endorser and spent an unprecedented amount of time and effort crafting the kit, applying the gaudy pictorial finish.

Keith loved the result and swore his days of smashing gear were over, now that he was almost 21 and all grown up in a band fast becoming an international sensation. Well—actually, no. He kicked Lily off stage nightly in an orgy of violence, which launched The Who's no-limits reputation in America, culminating in that historic TV appearance and explosion that is still shocking to this day.

See Sonny Greer's enormous setup in this video with Duke Ellington from 1933.

Previous generations of American jazz drummers from Sonny Greer (with Duke Ellington) to Louie Bellson had pioneered the use of greatly extended drum kits, and British drummers such as jazzer Eric Delaney and rockers Bobbie Clarke (with Vince Taylor) and Phil Wainman (The Paramounts) played double bass-drums. But generally, the middle-'60s drum set in pop and rock was a staid affair. Drummers were mostly background figures with drum sets to match—the standard four-piece with a couple of cymbals, straight out of the catalogues of the conservative drum manufacturers.

But Keith had vision. By 1966, his high-profile rival was Cream's Ginger Baker, and although Keith was not in Ginger's class technically, he was desperate to stay ahead in the public eye.

Keith Moon playing an extended silver-sparkle kit at Monterey, '67

By effectively joining together two kits, Keith and Ginger doubled their bass drums and toms, so that now they had four toms instead of two. This only spurred Keith to go one better, and within months his Premier Red Glitter kits (he had two, from mid-1966 to mid '67) were fitted with three small toms and three floor toms.

This setup formed the basis of the Pictures Of Lily kit, which astounded drummers worldwide. No one had seen the like in rock before. It sparked a fashion that would culminate in the truly mega customized sets of future show-offs like Terry Bozzio and Neil Peart. But that's another story.

Lily Takes Shape

Talking Drums, Premier's in-house publication, recounted how Keith asked the firm's promotions manager, Phil Franklin, if Premier could make a special personalized drum finish incorporating pop art designs. The company had worked with its ad agency, Cunningham-Hurst, on the idea of non-standard drum finishes, and Keith's request accelerated their efforts. A prototype was knocked up by Jeff Hurst, at which point Keith asked for additional images representing The Who's next single.

Hurst and Moon

Pete Townshend's fertile imagination had bemused British pop fans with "I'm A Boy" and "Happy Jack" that featured eccentric characters way beyond the usual safe and bland images of current pop. Lily was the most audacious so far. Pete was apparently inspired by a vintage pinup picture of Lillie Langtry, a successful actress and a mistress of the future King Edward VII. In 1967, The Who's "Pictures Of Lily" was released as a single, in April in Britain and two months later in the US. The Who were getting ever heavier, and Pete described this latest outing as power pop.

Keith told Go magazine that the drums took five people six months to complete and cost $5,000, a sum unheard of for a drum kit at the time. The kit comprised two standard 22x14-inch bass drums, three of Premier's idiosyncratic 14x8 mounted toms (Premier also made a 12x8, but no 13x9 back then), plus one 16x16 and two 16x18 floor toms. The kit, said Talking Drums, was "hand assembled with designs worked in brilliant fluorescent colours, which when seen under ultraviolet stage lighting have an 'astounding effect.'"

The graphics were slotted between the lug casings and included a risqué nude figure of Lily alternating with either the legend "Keith Moon Patent British Exploding Drummer" enclosing a Union flag or The Who's pop-art orange-on-pink 3D logo, with a miniature Keith face and paired cherubs. A similar band logo adorned each of the bass-drum heads.

Transition Time

In 1967 Premier was itself undergoing a significant transformation. Premier quoted its drum shell diameters in inches, just like US makers, but they differed slightly from American sizes. Hitherto this wasn't a problem, since Premier made its own plastic Everplay drum heads. However, more and more British drummers were swapping to the market-leading American Remo and Ludwig heads, especially now they were touring the States, and not all of these US heads fitted. Premier had little option but to convert to international "standard" diameter shells. This was no small matter, and it took until 1967 to begin the process.

In the case of Lily, the 16-inch-diameter floor toms were built with so-called "pre-international" shell diameters. A clue to this is that they have 10 lugs per head, rather than the eight lugs of later floor toms. The small toms and bass drums had eight lugs and, thus, eight panel illustrations. But the ten-lug floor toms necessitated two extra panels, showing Lily's face, not seen on the other drums.

The twin bass-drums were clamped together by two pairs of horizontally mounted Premier small-tom mounts. Their "disappearing" tube shafts meant the length they protruded could be varied. This allowed the drums to be angled as required, a neat solution that also offered much-needed stabilization. The small-tom mounts themselves were the Rogers Swiv-O-Matics beloved of many '60s drummers and considered superior to other makes.

Spurs were still the old-fashioned short retractable type, and they really were useful only in keeping the drums upright. The bass drums required nails in front to prevent creep—standard practice in 1967.

The Stage Is Set

Pete Townshend was inspired by a teacher at Ealing Art College, the auto-destructive artist Gustav Metzger, to smash up his gear at the climax of The Who's shows. While this was a semi-serious artistic statement by the deep thinking Pete, it was simply a license to go mad for the creatively destructive Moon.

Footage of the Smothers Brothers explosion shows that the heads and hoops were blown clean off the left bass drum. In fact, all the Lily bass drums seem to have been lost. (Some later pictures show the Lily toms coupled with the chrome-clad bass drums from Keith's next Premier kit.) Today, London's Victoria and Albert Museum has three small toms, while a couple of floor toms at least have made it to the safety of a private collector.

The Who My Generation Smothers Brothers, 1967

It's a tribute to Premier's sturdy build quality that all the surviving drums appear to be in pretty good condition. Roger Horrobin of Premier told me that just two Lily kits were made, marking a considerable investment for the company, although Keith proved oblivious.

Over the next couple of years following this initial US foray, The Who upped their game in every department, becoming the world's most thrilling live rock group. No longer was there any need to smash up their gear.

Keith Moon with the Lily Drum Kit

Premier's hardware likewise improved markedly—although Moon's kits still required steel reinforcement plates! It's tempting to speculate that if Lily had been made a year or two later, when Premier shells accommodated "standard" Remo sizes and the hardware was beefed up, she would have received better treatment, and an entire Lily kit might have survived intact. Who knows?

About the author: Geoff Nicholls is a musician, author, journalist, and lecturer based in London. He played drums on BBC2 TV's award-winning Rockschool in 1984 and 1987 and wrote Byte The Music for BBC Radio 3, which won first prize at the New York Radio Festival in 1994. His books include The Drum Book: A History Of The Rock Drum Kit (2007) and The Drum Handbook (2003), and he is a regular contributor to Rhythm magazine.

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