rocked and rolled

Kenney Jones on the ‘Fondness and Sadness’ of His Who Era

“As I’m concerned there’s only one drummer for the Who, and that’s Keith Moon.”

“Sometimes I wake up and I go, Which band am I in today?” Photo: Richard E. Aaron/Redferns
“Sometimes I wake up and I go, Which band am I in today?” Photo: Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

It’s weird to think, looking back at the Who’s history from a modern vantage point, that Kenney Jones served as the band’s drummer for nearly as long as Keith Moon. No, really. Just do the math. When Jones was invited to join the band in 1978 in the aftermath of Moon’s premature death at 32, it was because Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, and John Entwistle wanted to continue creating new music despite the absence of their looney tunes drummer, and they had a vision for how Jones, cut from the same mod-hipster cloth over at the Small Faces and Faces, were to fit into that. What ensued was a bunch of tours, two studio albums (1981’s fantastic Face Dances; 1982’s slightly-less-fantastic It’s Hard), the most seminal benefit concert of all time, and even more tour dates, all of which solidified Jones’s steadying and uniting presence behind the kit during what could’ve been an otherwise tumultuous Who era. Or, dare we say, what could’ve been no new Who era at all.

And yet, rock canon doesn’t exactly treat the story this way. Despite being a full-fledged member of the Who prior to his departure in 1988 (“no one else has gotten that privilege,” he notes) the formidably kind Jones is often, quite unfairly, looked upon as an asterisk in the band’s history, as opposed to a prolific musician whose demonstrative drumming was what powered hits such as “You Better You Bet” and “Eminence Front.” Jones, who has since enjoyed a steady career as a drummer and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012 as part of the Small Faces/Faces, has also seldom discussed his time with the Who.

But now just over 40 years since Face Dances, calling from his home across the pond on a recent afternoon, Jones was happy to reminisce about the highs of lows of working alongside Daltrey, Townshend, and Entwistle for the better part of a decade, as well as share memories of his good friend Moon. Jones spoke with equal parts joy and pathos, especially while remembering his initial hesitation to join the Who.

I’m such a big fan of the Who and the Faces. What a nice meeting of your minds here.
I’ve got it all in one.

When I was doing some research to speak with you, I was surprised that there was such a lack of interviews where you discussed your time with the Who. Is this a part of your life as a musician that you generally look back on with fondness?
Yes, I do. I look upon it as fondness and sadness, because one of the things I regret in life is Keith Moon is no longer with us, and I wish he was. I mean, as far as I’m concerned there’s only one drummer for the Who, and that’s Keith Moon and always will be. So, I never tried to emulate him. Purposely, also, because I’m not nuts like he is. He was a good friend and we had such a laugh together. I miss him to this day.

The thing is, I can only play me and my style. That’s all I can do. I kept some of the drum fills and certain things that I really liked. I kept some of those in out of respect for Keith and they were nice things to play. But, yeah, I really enjoyed my time with the Who and I loved performing with them. It’s a bit up and down sometimes, though. When I joined the band we had that horrible thing happen to us in Cincinnati.

Right, the Cincinnati concert disaster.
Eleven kids died. That was very sad. But the families had written to us afterwards and didn’t blame us at all in any way. That was very kind of them.

Take me back to the ’70s. You came into the band to replace Keith, and you two shared a nice friendship prior to his passing. What was it like being his friend? I find him to be simultaneously such a tragic and interesting figure.

How so?
He was a lovely guy, and he was always humorous and very funny. But you never knew when he was going to explode. We had mutual respect for each other because we were both drummers, and we respected each other’s musicianship and our friendship. We also toured a lot together in the ’60s, when the Who and the Small Faces toured — all over Europe, England, Australia, and New Zealand. We did create a lot of problems there. Well, or should I say the Australians created a lot of problems for us. We got the blame for everything, but there you go.

Did you engage in many nights of hotel destruction?
There was a couple of things. [Laughs.] It’s funny every time I think about those memories. One of the times I think about is when we had adjoining hotel rooms and I was getting ready to go out one evening. I was in my room walking around, and suddenly I heard this scratching noise. I thought, What’s that? You know in a hotel room where you have, like, a desk that’s on the wall? There was a mirror in front of it and a telephone, and below it was a chair. I pulled the chair away, and I heard this scratching noise getting louder and louder. I thought, What’s that? I can’t believe it, we must have mice or rats or something. It got louder and louder and louder. I looked at it, and I thought, Shit, I think the wall is moving. It’s moving in and out. Rats are going to come through any minute now. Then Keith Moon poked his head through and said, Coming to the bar? Left a giant hole in the wall.

What a character.
There’s loads of stories like that. He was always fun to be with, because you never knew what was going to happen.

What do you remember about the last time you saw Keith?
I remember everything. It’s very sad thinking about it, actually, because I was putting a band together at the time, which was going to be half American and half English. I just stepped off a plane from Texas and found myself going straight to the reception and premiere of a film about Buddy Holly that Paul McCartney had invited me to. It was kind of strange, because the party was before the screening of the film. We were having drinks and Keith Moon was at my table with his girlfriend, and Paul was there with Linda [McCartney]. I was telling Keith all about my exciting times in America forming this new band. I said, “How have you been Keith? What have you been doing?” He said, “Well, I’ve given up drinking, so I’m not drinking or taking any drugs.” I said, “Great, Keith, you look great.” He responded, “I’m taking these pills, so if I have a drink, I get violently ill.” We were just talking about that most of the night, as well as talking about drums and things like that, as we normally did. I thought nothing more of it.

Then we all walked to Leicester Square where the premiere was held. We just sat in our seats and watched the film. Afterwards, we met each other in the lobby, and I said, “See you later, Keith. See you soon.” And he went, “Yeah, great, see you Kenney my friend, bye-bye.” That was it. In the morning, the news came on straight away on the television and reported he died of a drug overdose. I thought, What’s he up to now? He’s playing another bloody joke. He can’t be, because I’ve just been with him. Sure enough, it was true and I could not believe it. Absolutely could not believe it. It’s only when I joined the Who when I found out exactly what happened.

That he accidentally overdosed from his alcohol-withdrawal pills?
He went home, took his nighttime pill, and went to bed. He woke up a couple of hours later and thought it was morning, so he took another pill. If you take too many pills close together, it slows your heart down. That’s what happened. It’s terrible. It all happened so fast.

I’ll never forget the next few days. Near my home was where he was cremated, and I wanted to get to the crematorium before anyone, no press or anything, so I went earlier in the morning with a little wreath and a note, and I said good-bye to him on my own. Then I left and everyone else, like the press, was there. The rest is history.

How long after Keith’s death did you receive that “we want you as his replacement” call from the Who?
I’ll start by saying that I thought nothing about involving myself in the Who in the aftermath of Keith’s passing. As I mentioned, I was forming my band. I was getting on with my career, even outside of the Faces. Then I got a call from Bill Curbishley, the Who’s manager, a few weeks after Keith’s funeral. He said, “Kenney, I’ll come straight to the point. The Who have had a meeting and they want to stay together, and they want you to join the band, and they’re not thinking about anybody else.” I said, “Very flattering Bill, but I can’t.” I could hear his chin drop on the floor. He said, “What do you mean, you can’t? And I said, Well, I can’t. I’m forming a band.” I told him all about the band and how we were about to get a massive advance for an album. He said, “Well, look, Pete’s coming into the office late today. You want to come and see him?” I said, “Yeah, I’ll always be happy to see Pete. No problem.”

How did that conversation between the three of you unfold?
We had such a laugh. We talked about funny things and Keith. Enjoyed a couple of hours doing that. Peter finally cleared his throat and said, “Kenney, you’ve got to join the band. You’re a mod, you’re one of us.” He got to me and said the right things. I said, “Look, Pete, I got this band,” and I told him all about it. Luckily, all of the members were in town at the time. So I told him that I would talk to the band and see what their views about this were. So, I met with the band that evening and told them I’ve been asked to join the Who. They said, “Kenney, don’t be an idiot, you’ve got to do it.” They were so gracious. So that’s what finally convinced me to take the offer.

I’d love to know what the band was looking for in a new drummer, both in terms of technique and involvement. Should I assume they didn’t want someone to just be a carbon copy of Keith?
I specifically said that I wasn’t going to copy Keith Moon in any way. I said to Pete, “Look, it would be wrong for me to even try to do that.” I said that I could only play me. I’m a straighter drummer. Keith’s got his own unique style and that’s what he should be remembered for. That’s how I adopted my way. That’s how I entered the Who. Pete said to me, “Now that Keith’s no longer with us, we have a chance to do something completely different.” So I thought, Oh, different songs and a different sound. That sounded great to me. Of course, we never did anything completely different because all the fans wanted all the Who songs, so I had to adapt really quickly.

When you went into the studio to record Face Dances, did you get the sense that you would have any influence on the Who’s style?
Pete’s always great to work with and, don’t forget, I had worked with Pete and John for many years prior to that album. John and I used to do sessions for other musicians, so we also had a close relationship. Also, I did a lot of demos with Pete when I was in the Small Faces. Doing the songs we were doing for Face Dances … I just did my bit according to the song. The songs are very interesting, aren’t they? You know, you can perform well if a song is good. If the song isn’t really that interesting, you don’t really perform it as well as you should.

I love Face Dances and I’m a huge defender of the album. “You Better You Bet” is such a perfect song. “Daily Records” and “Did You Steal My Money” are unbelievably catchy. What memories do you have of being in the studio for the recording process? What were you all trying to achieve from a creative standpoint?
I took it like we could do certain things in a different way, or we didn’t have to write the same sort of songs as previous Who songs. Face Dances was a pleasure to do, because I wanted to please everyone and do my bit and make sure that I was doing the correct parts. [Laughs.] I mean, no one said anything. Everyone seemed to be happy with what I was doing, so I thought, Great, I’ll just carry on, then.

It was kind of a sigh of relief when we finished it, in a sense. I thought, We finished the first album. Lovely. We can start performing new songs. Which we did. We played a lot of those new songs onstage. But we also mixed them with the classics, like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Who Are You.” Those are great songs to play from a drummer’s point of view.

What was the fan reception like during your first shows with the band?
It was very interesting. Basically I’d come straight out of the Faces. We had broken up and it was only two years later, not even, when I found myself in the Who. I think the fans were happy to see someone like myself in there, which was good. One of the things that did give me a shock was when we played the first gig, I was concentrating so, so much on the arrangements. I had to learn all the songs within the first ten days! That was one of the hardest things. Think about it, I had to master a band’s entire discography up to that point. I made all of these notes and marks. Pete said, “Just follow me.” That was encouraging. I kind of just got on with it.

You know what’s funny? I was concentrating so much and playing away and when I finally looked up and saw the audience, I went, Shit, it’s all blokes.

Oh, like it was all men?
Especially in England, they’re all mods. Don’t forget, I come from the Faces, where it’s all women in the audience. All of the women were there for Rod Stewart. [Laughs.] Then the women started to come more and popped up.

Do you think you brought more women fans?
I like to think that Roger did. [Laughs.]

He did have great hair. That helps.
The hair and the stamina. When I joined the band, I was a bit unfit because I hadn’t played drums live for a long time. The Who played for two and a half, three hours, or three and a half hours nonstop depending on the night, so I’d slowly get fit. Whereas Roger was always a fitness nut. He still is.

Did you have to adopt an exercise regime?
They had me doing squat thrusts, running, and God knows what. I became super fit overnight. I had rowing machines, all kinds of stuff. I had to keep myself fairly in-tune, especially during downtime when we were off the road. I found myself running a lot, rowing a lot, playing a lot. I’m a bit lazier now. Also, it’s weird because I’m back with the Faces in a sense now. We’ve experienced a nice full-circle moment. It makes me laugh because the first album I did with the Who was Face Dances. The first thing I thought when I heard those words was, Hang on, that’d be a great title for the Faces album. Damn. [Laughs.] I thought it was quite good.

From left: The band performing and posing for a promotional image in the late 1970s. Photo: Michael Putland/Getty ImagesPhoto: Daniel SIMON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
From top: The band performing and posing for a promotional image in the late 1970s. Photo: Michael Putland/Getty ImagesPhoto: Daniel SIMON/Gamma-Rapho... From top: The band performing and posing for a promotional image in the late 1970s. Photo: Michael Putland/Getty ImagesPhoto: Daniel SIMON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Roger has stated in the past that he believes It’s Hard should’ve never been released because of its subpar quality. Was the recording process for that album contentious? Do you feel the same way?
I found myself thinking that some of the songs were not particularly up to scratch with what people would expect to be a Who song. But then again, there were great songs in a different way. I can understand what Roger means about that. Let’s put it this way: Anytime we get a Who album when it comes out, you want something spectacular. You want a “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” You want a “Who Are You.” You want to be surprised by it. It’s Hard didn’t quite cut the mustard to that degree. So, I understand what he means.

It’s funny, because I feel like “Eminence Front” ranks very favorably among all-time great Who songs, but it’s nestled within It’s Hard.
It’s such a great song. Straightforward to play but very fun. There’s a few little twists and tricks in it, drumming wise. It’s some bass drum techniques and stuff. It’s very disco-y type feel. It’s easy to dance to.

How would you describe your relationship with each member of the band during your tenure? I’ve read choice quotes about how Roger and Pete felt about your time together, but I’m more interested in what you have to say about it.
I enjoyed working with the band immensely, even though it was nerve-wracking at first. You don’t want to emulate Keith, but there’s certain times where you have to play like him. I didn’t want to go too far, to the edge, where the finger could be pointed at me. Like someone telling me, “You’re copying Keith Moon and it’s not working.” I didn’t want that to happen, so I was in a very delicate position. I kept saying to myself, Kenney, just stick to you and do what you do best. And that’s what I did. Roger, Pete, John, and I used to hang around together all the time. We would go to clubs, we would go drinking. Best buddies in a sense. I used to see Pete a lot. Roger, not that often because he was living in the countryside that was outside of London. I went to see him a few times there. He had a fantastic trout farm.

Oh wow! A fish farm? I didn’t know that about him.
Yeah, he was breeding fish. Every time I visited he would go, “Get in the boat,” and we went out in a row boat and fed the fish. I remember one day we boated out to the middle of the water with food and a bunch of piranhas circled the boat. He just went, “Don’t fall over the edge, they’re going to bite your leg off.” How the hell did they get into the trout farm? [Laughs.]

But to answer your original question, knowing the three of them as friends before I joined the band made a difference. I think for Roger, when I first joined, it was fine, with rehearsing and all that. Then suddenly we found ourselves doing a few more gigs, and suddenly he’d look around and instead of seeing Keith Moon, he saw me. I think that was unnerving for him. I had to put myself in his shoes and say, What would I think if I was looking around, expecting Keith, and he’s not there? I think it took Roger a while to try to come to terms with that.

Also, I got the odd whispers behind the stage. Someone was bound to say, “Oh, he’s not the same as Keith Moon.” Of course I’m going to get that. I’m not the same as Keith Moon and never will be. I said all along, “I love Keith, I love his drumming and there’s only one drummer for the Who and that’s Keith Moon, but unfortunately he’s not with us. He’s gone.” I can only do what I can do as best I can. That’s it. When the Who was on the last tour, I thought, Great, no problem, this is the last tour. Then we kept going doing another “last tour,” and then lots of different things, and God knows what, and then we found ourselves doing Live Aid.

When did you realize that your time with the Who had ended and it was best to part ways in 1988?
Pete and I had conversations about that a few times. He didn’t want to go on any longer. He wanted to do his own stuff, solo-wise. And I said, “I’m doing my own stuff, it’s fine. No problem.” We had a great time. That was it.

Did it come as a surprise when Zak Starkey became their touring drummer in the ’90s? I’m curious if you had any conversations with the band prior to him taking on that position.
I was already doing stuff with Paul Rodgers and various other bands. I’d made my break from the Who and that was that. We were moving on. I wasn’t surprised that Zak joined. I virtually taught him how to play the drums when he was a little kid.

I was great friends with Ringo Starr and his wife, Maureen, even though they were separated when Zak was young. When I joined the Who, I got Keith’s white drum kit out of storage and gave it to Zak. He had told me as a little boy that Keith had always promised him that drum kit. So I put it in a van and surprised him after school with it one day. I did my bit for him. I like him. I think Zak’s done a wonderful job with the Who. It’s a great thing and I think it’s lovely. They needed a young drummer, someone fit.

What would you say is your definitive Who song? The song you feel sounds and feels the most like Kenney Jones?
That’s difficult to say. I think it has to be “You Better You Bet.” That’s most like me. Also “Athena.” I had a nice time playing that song. I got to have some fun with its arrangement.

Do you feel that your contributions to the band have been overlooked?
I think that’s for other people to judge. I enjoyed my time with the Who and I enjoyed being with my friends. Things in music and bands change all the time. I was always told about the friction in the Who when I joined, because one minute Roger was picking on someone, and the next minute he’d be picking on Pete, next minute he’d be picking on Keith. I always felt that the friction in there was part of the electricity and part of the reason that they are called the Who. I have been … I’m not lying, but I’m a bit more peaceful.

It’s important to have a peacemaker in the band.
There you go, that was me. You know, I still get loads of fan mail praising me for being involved with the Who. In many ways, I feel like I’m still in the Who. I don’t do a lot of interviews by choice, but I do enough that people are still interested in that part of my life. In the Small Faces, and the Who, and the Faces, and I’m also doing some new stuff for myself. Sometimes I wake up and I go, Which band am I in today?

Do you ever imagine a scenario where you’ll reunite with the Who, or do you feel like that punctuation mark is there?
I don’t. It’s never going to be the same, because it’s not the same band. It’s only Pete and Roger in there now. You can put other people onstage, but it’s basically the Peter and Roger band. They’re playing their songs and that’s it. It’s just not the same, especially since John is also gone. I’m very fortunate to have been a full member of the Who, an equal member of the Who. No one else has gotten that privilege. Not to this day. So I’m happy with it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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On December 3, 1979, the Who performed in Cincinnati as a stop on their world tour. A rush of concertgoers at the venue’s entryways resulted in the deaths of 11 people by asphyxiation, which was due to trampling. Heminevrin, which was prescribed to Moon by his doctor. When asked about Jones in 1994, Daltrey offered this tepid quote: “We just filled the gap and pushed it back into the same slot with a drummer who was quite obviously the completely wrong drummer. I’m not saying he’s a bad drummer. I’m not saying he’s a bad guy. I didn’t dislike the guy, but I just felt he wasn’t the right drummer for the Who.” One of the most amusing rock facts (to this writer, anyway) is that Ringo, noted famous drummer for another band, is Zak’s father. Entwistle died in a Paradise, Nevada, hotel room in June 2002. His cause of death was a heart attack, which was induced by a sizable amount of cocaine.
Kenney Jones on the ‘Fondness and Sadness’ of His Who Era