[4 October 2006]
If anyone deserves a reissue that is itself a tribute to excess, it’s Keith Moon. His lone solo project, 1975’s Two Sides of the Moon is an unquestionable mess, a vanity project of the most disastrous order, yet it’s been expanded and reissued as a two-disc, 50-track set that breaks the album’s history and nuances into backing tracks and studio discussions and unfinished works. It’s a bizarre project in some ways, and only enjoyable in particular ways, but it’s Keith Moon and somehow that means it makes sense.
Moon recorded the album in between Who records (for whom he drummed). For him, the album was a chance to have fun and to express himself more directly on vinyl. For everyone else connected with the band, it was the best bet for keeping an idle mind occupied in a more or less constructive way (minus of course the alcohol and cocaine, but this was ‘70s rock star LA). With a couple hundred thousand dollars to back him and the availability of friends like Ringo Starr, Moon set off to show the other side of himself.
Of course, the drummer who can’t sing left the skins in order to do lead vocals, and that initial concept leads down the exact path you’d think it would. But to criticize the album for not being good art is a waste of time. No one expected a “good” record, and no one got one, but, presumably, people still listen to it. It’s a snapshot of a beloved nut in a very specific cultural setting simply doing his thing. So we get some surf rock (including both the album and single versions of the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” as well as an appearance by Dick Dale) and some British rock (“In My Life,” “The Kids are Alright”) and whatever else Moon thought would be fun to sing. The end result—music and sound aside—is the part of Moon which was less about the exploding kit and more about a simple good time.
The oddity of this new reissue comes with the extreme depth of archival material. In the past, this type of work was reserved for special purposes: revealing the process of an artist, or providing lost material from bands with hardcore completist fans (the Who’s financial machine has reached this niche more through repackaging the same material, but that’s another story). We get, for example, six tracks focusing on Harry Nilsson’s “Together”, including surrounding dialogue, vocal highlights (in the sense of focus, not quality), and outtakes. We also get Dale’s guitar overdubs and various backing tracks or unused takes (one track contains numbers three through nine of “Lies”, which didn’t even make the album). It’s an overabundance of material more suited for a scholarly dig than a piece of Moonie chaos.
Not that there aren’t some finds in the mix, the finest coming with the cover of Randy Newman’s “Naked Man”, intended for the unfinished follow-up, (Really.) Few songs seem to need a Moon cover version, but this might be one. Of course, this performance also appeared in the bonus material of the previous CD release of Two Sides. Other, previously unavailable gems include “We Wish You a Merry Xmas” (spared a holiday ‘74 release) and Moon’s take on “My Generation”.
All this material, however, is only intriguing as artifact. It doesn’t let us in on songcrafting or production process or ideas that didn’t quite make it as pop artists worked out their concepts. Where Let It Be ... Naked offers a long-desired and debate-sparking look at a controversial process, the massive bonus material here provides simple mass. The one exception, again, being those who are interested not only in the music or the musical process, but in the moment. Fans of Nilsson’s Pussy Cats, John Lennon’s lost weekend or the lifestyle that’s easy to reflect on as excessive and debauched, may find pleasure in a lengthy listen inside the studio at one of these events. There’s Ringo babbling, and over there’s John Sebastian trying, for Pete’s sake, to get Moon a guide vocal. It’s not always enlightening for musicos, but it’s something just the same.
That’s the only way to take Two Sides of the Moon. Those of us who have always been a bit enamored with Moon can enjoy watching him play. Those who aren’t, can probably skip the whole work without feeling as if they’re leaving anything behind. Those who want to join in, can find enough to amuse themselves for a while. It’s not a record you come back to for your listening pleasure, but you can still walk away from it smiling and shaking your head.