MOON, The Life and Death of a Rock Legend
By Tony Fletcher
In the early summer of 1971,
BBC Radio Producer John Walters
enlisted Vivian Stanshall to host DJ John Peel’s Top Gear show for the few weeks Peel would be on vacation. Walters and Stanshall had much in common: an art school background, musical
proficiency on the brass (Walters had played trumpet with Alan Price for a couple of years in the mid-Sixties), and an intellectual’s sense of humor. Walters had even produced some sessions for the Bonzos at the BBC. He figured Stanshall would come into the studio, deliver a few pithy monologues in between playing records, and let everyone involved get home early to enjoy the summer.
“Of course I opened the fucking floodgates there,” he says instead. “He came in straight away and wanted to do spoof ads, and he had all these different ideas for shows, characters, and sketches.”
In particular, Stanshall wanted to do a serial. John Walters was one of the few Radio 1 producers trying to exceed the limited expectations of his bosses, but he hadn’t expected Stanshall to take up the challenge as though this was highbrow Radio 4. Still, he went along with it. The serial was recorded, an absurd play starring Stanshall as the upper crust Colonel Knutt, with his ‘likable cockney sidekick’ Lemmy, played by Keith Moon.
“Viv loved the idea of being on the radio talking with a bit of acting,” says Walters, “and all Keith would do is copy. Viv would say something and Keith would say back, ‘Cor blimey guv’nor, you’re a toff and no mistake, let’s get those gorillas back in the cage.’” Keith’s role was small but he enjoyed the opportunity to do something different. “The trouble is,” recalls Walters, “Viv became just fucking impossible. I remember the last Colonel Knutt and Lemmy serial and it was pretty much needed for the show the next day, we were running up to the wire. I remember being sat in the Beeb at twelve, and Moonie had turned up, good as gold. Now when you’ve got Moonie as an example of how it should be done, you realize what you’re dealing with... “
Walters came out of the experience having nightmares about Stanshall and his Colonel Knutt. The next summer, he filled Peel’s absence with novelty records. In the back of his mind, however, he lodged his realization that compared to the erratic Viv Stanshall, Moon “was the good guy”.