The Who’s drummer, Keith Moon, was at the height of his career and fame in 1970, the same year his name was plastered all over the news for reasons other than his band’s massive success or his typical rockstar antics. Unluckily for him – and tragically for his driver and bodyguard – Moon was suddenly found himself charged with murder.
What happened at a London pub on January 4, 1970, resulted in the end of Neil Boland’s life at the hands of Keith Moon. If you’re looking for the snapshot: The drunk drummer ran over his chauffeur while trying to escape from a group of teenaged skinheads. Now, if you’re looking for an in-depth account of what on earth happened that night, then stick around.
Moon effectively killed his chauffeur and bodyguard, Neil Boland, but the truth is that it was an accident. Not everyone believed his innocence, though, considering Moon’s reputation for violence and crazy antics. He was, after all, a boozing ladies’ man who needed someone to drive him around to pubs and parties. But it ended terribly… for Boland and his loved ones. And for Moon? Well, he didn’t get more than a slap on the wrist.
There was quite a bit of controversy surrounding the tragic, fatal incident. What made people turn heads was the fact that Moon was cleared of all charges. (You can imagine how Boland’s family felt about that).
Another topic of controversy concerning the accident was the possibility that it may not have actually been Moon who was driving the car that night. Regardless of whether the drummer was there or not, or if he got off scot-free, one fact remains the same: Boland’s death was utterly needless.
Moon was 24 at the time of the incident, and it haunted him until the end of his life, which wasn’t long – He died eight years later at the age of 32. In January of 1970, Moon and a group of his friends were at a bar in London (the Red Lion Pub) when a group of skinheads noticed them. Most of the patrons at this pub were working-class people (and not necessarily white supremacists).
But this group of skinheads was especially pissed off that night. They didn’t like the way Moon was conducting himself. Apparently, he was ordering expensive brandy instead of beer. And the fact that he arrived in a Bentley didn’t help his cause. These guys hated Moon’s public display of his wealth, and when Moon and his crew got into the Bentley that his driver and bodyguard Neil Boland had pulled around, it was time to strike.
The bullies attacked the group, including Moon’s wife Kim, by throwing coins and rocks at the car. They even started rocking the Bentley, preventing the guys from leaving the lot. Boland, who was initially in the driver’s seat, got out of the car to confront the roughnecks. He should have stayed in the car…
Later, investigators were not sure whether Boland actually exited the car on his own accord or if he was literally dragged out of it. But, chances are, he chose to get out. Boland was the musician’s bodyguard, after all, so it did make sense that he would step out and try to gain control of the situation that was quickly getting out of hand.
But once he got out, things immediately went south. Despite being a bodyguard, Boland was no match for these angry skinheads, who chased him down and began beating him senseless. Boland’s body ended up in front of the car. You can guess what happened next…
To add insult (or tragedy) to injury, Boland was then run over as Moon drove away. The thing is, Moon had zero intentions of driving that night. He hardly ever drove – hence the purpose of hiring a driver. Even when he was sober, he preferred to be driven around.
On this specific night, Moon had every intention of getting drunk. What nobody anticipated, though, was the horrific turn of events. For Moon’s part, he was just desperate to get to safety. He simply and swiftly hopped into the driver’s seat and put his foot on the gas without thinking much further than that.
It sounds pretty simple, but the details were a lot hazier than that. One of the debates in the investigation was whether Moon stepped on the accelerator or grabbed the wheel of the car, which was already in drive. If so, it means that Boland left the car in drive when he got out of it.
Let’s not forget that there were eyewitnesses at the scene. According to those who saw it all unfold, the Bentley “shot out of the car park,” which suggests that Moon accelerated the car rather than just steering it out of the parking lot.
Either way, the car jolted hard and began its exit from the lot, moving at about 10 mph down the road as the group of hooligans continued to pound on the vehicle. As Moon swerved drunkenly away from the chaos, people began shouting at the car.
Naturally, Moon and the others inside the car just assumed it was continued harassment from drunk attackers who joined in on the madness. It was only about 100 yards down the road from the pub when Moon pulled over to get help. That’s when he realized he was being chased by regular civilians…
The bystanders were trying to reach the car to tell the driver that someone was pinned underneath the car. Those 100 yards or so down the road? Boland came along for the ride. According to one account, which is also the most gruesome and devastating detail of the night, Moon reached underneath to grab Boland and “pulled out brains.”
It goes without saying that Boland was declared dead on arrival at the hospital. After an in-depth investigation, the coroner ruled Boland’s death an accident. But the undeniable fact that Moon hired Boland as a chauffeur basically so that he could get drunk was not lost on Boland’s family.
Boland’s family believed that if he hadn’t been working for Moon on that specific night, he never would have been killed. The whole thing caused a media frenzy, and the press had a field day making Moon the guiltiest party involved.
Not having a driver’s license on him that night was just the cherry on top. The media’s spin on the story was that the drummer “did it on purpose,” which really took a toll on Moon, who broke down over it. Moon may have been known as a wild musician, but a cold-blooded murderer he was not. Still, he was arrested on multiple charges.
According to Moon, when he drove out of the parking lot that night, he was aiming for a lit area away from all the attackers. He knew he was leaving Boland behind to fend for himself, but considering that Boland was a large man and a bodyguard, everyone in the Bentley just figured the guy could handle it.
When rescuers arrived at the scene, they managed to get the Bentley off of Boland and found an unpleasant sight. His body was face down, and “his head was like an eggshell,” according to Moon’s wife Kim.
After such an event, it doesn’t come as a surprise that theories were created to explain what really happened. One of the wilder theories to emerge from the incident was the one that said Moon didn’t kill him at all – that it was his wife Kim instead.
This theory suggests that she was actually the one driving. Boland’s daughter, Michelle, was just three at the time but grew up convinced that it was Kim who was driving the Bentley. But, according to multiple eyewitnesses, it was indeed the famed drummer behind the wheel. However, the Bolands weren’t convinced.
(More on this theory later…)
The Boland family was certain that some sort of cover-up was going on – that Moon couldn’t have been driving. The truth is that it’s consistent with the fact that the drummer never, ever drove. The problem is that it was so chaotic, and the eyewitness accounts were so scattered and murky that we will probably never know for sure who was driving.
Everyone in that Bentley was drunk. We all know that intoxicated accounts are not reliable. Fortunately for Moon, both the jury and the judge in the case didn’t find him guilty of Boland’s death.
In fact, it took the jury a mere 10 minutes to rule Boland’s death accidental. Even though the judge ultimately found him not guilty, the entire incident was still considered a terrible accident. What the Bolands were furious to hear was that the judge even went so far as to try to morally exonerate Moon.
The drummer felt incredibly guilty over the incident, so when the judge said, “You had no choice but to act the way you did, and no moral culpability is attached to you,” you would think it would help relieve your feelings of guilt and shame. It didn’t.
Aside from being arrested for Boland’s death, Moon was also charged with drunk driving (he was breathalyzed that night) as well as driving without a license or insurance. After being cleared of Boland’s death, Moon pled guilty to the other two driving charges.
But he was cleared of all three charges. While the court let Moon go scot-free, those who were at the scene had a very different perspective. Every single eyewitness had a different point of view that night, and since it was 1970, nothing was caught on video.
But what about the group of teenagers who started this whole thing?
Those skinheads didn’t get off as easily as Moon did. Five of the eight teenagers brought to trial were found guilty but let off with fines. As for their motive in the quarrel, they blamed Moon’s entourage for what went down that night.
What provoked them to start a fight? Well, first off, Moon ordered a large brandy. And secondly, Kim refused to give them a ride home in the Bentley. Apparently, that’s enough of a reason to attack – and use it as an excuse in court!
The teenagers, however, weren’t the only ones to blame Moon for Boland’s death. The Boland family, included his wife, were convinced it was all a cover-up, and they were outraged over the fact that Moon was found not guilty.
Boland’s parents declared that they wouldn’t rest until they were sure the police figured out exactly how their son was killed that night. Unable to get over the guilt, Moon tried to look after Boland’s family, but they didn’t want anything to do with him. In the end, Moon blamed himself and was haunted by it for the rest of his life.
Rolling Stone magazine published the verdict with the headline “Keith Moon gets off easy.” It was a bit harsh considering some reports made by those close to Moon. Pamela Des Barres, a famous ‘70s groupie, gave The Sun a personal account.
She told the paper (while promoting her memoir) that, “One night when we were in bed, he broke down and started to cry, calling himself a murderer. He would wake up screaming.” Clearly, Moon was still suffering even without the jail sentence. There’s another reason why saying “he got off easy” might be unfair…
According to Ultimate Classic Rock, Boland’s daughter claims it was Kim Moon behind the wheel, and that’s because of an email she received from a man named Peter Thorpe. Thorpe said he was one of the teens bombarding the car.
But Thorpe’s unofficial testimony directly contradicts what Jean Battye, a member of Moon’s party that night, said. Battye gave a statement to Tony Fletcher for his book, Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon. She told him: “He literally thought he was saving our lives by driving us out of that car park.”
Fletcher’s book graphically recounts the fateful day, mostly through the perspectives of Kim Moon and Larry “Legs” Smith, two of the four passengers in the car that night. In 2003, Michelle Boland (his daughter) got in contact with Fletcher.
She told him that his book awakened a determination in her to find out what had actually happened to her father that night. She then explained how she also tracked down Peter Thorpe, one of the five teens found guilty of the “affray” (brawl). After a few email exchanges, she met Thorpe in a pub.
By the time she left the pub, she was convinced that there was a hidden side to the story. Michelle then put Fletcher in touch with Thorpe, whom he spoke with on the phone for the purpose of the book’s Afterword. Thorpe was 19 years old at the time, and his account paints a fuller picture of that night.
The way he remembers it, he and his friends were out for an evening of fun; they were “provoked” into a fight with Neil Boland. Thorpe was adamant that he and his buddies were not the “skinheads” they were portrayed as – both in the media and in Fletcher’s book.
Thorpe also believes that he and his buddies were made into scapegoats, and the people in the Bentley were just as culpable. Fletcher then tracked down the last surviving passenger from the Bentley: Jean Battye.
Jean was Larry Smith’s girlfriend at the time. She, Smith, and Kim Moon all shared similar memories of what transpired that night. Fletcher said that Battye was able to answer one key question: Why did Keith Moon ever agreed to help “open” the pub at the Red Lion that night?
According to Battye, it was a favor to Ron Mears – the father of a friend of Moon’s (with whom he went into partnership on the Crown and Cushion Pub). Moon had agreed to attend the “opening” as a celebrity, as a favor. Following Boland’s death, Moon hired John Mears as his new personal chauffeur.
Fletcher interviewed Battye, and one of the first things she told him was the part she remembers: She and Smith “didn’t particularly want to go,” but Moon had promised Ron and Yvonne (John Mears’ parents) that he would do it. She was referring to the owners of the pub.
Battye explained: “We got to the place and we hadn’t really been given much of a brief as to what it was. But as soon as we got there, we realized it was exactly the sort of place that we tried to avoid.” She further described that the people at the pub weren’t the kind of people “who were going to be particularly pleased to see Keith.”
Battye recalled how Moon was “unmoved” by all the chatter that was going on about him and just went ahead and bought lots of drinks. She and Smith then got into a big fight, with Smith going out to the Bentley.
Boland then convinced her to go out to the car and make up with her boyfriend. The two sat in the back of the car (it was January in London, so, yes, it was freezing). She remembered there being frost on the car windows.
So, as the two kissed and made up, they were essentially waiting for Moon and his wife to leave the pub. Battye then told Fletcher about how Moon would always order brandy (instead of beer) and how in a pub like that, it only made him look like a snob.
Something that came up in the trial was that the defense lawyer said, “One of my clients offered Keith a drink, and he asked for a… Large brandy, dear boy.” That’s exactly what Keith would say to anyone who asked him if he wanted a drink.
Now, for young working-class teenagers, brandy was an expensive drink – about the price of four beers. But according to Battye, “he wasn’t showing off or anything like that. He was just being Keith.” Still, it was a bad atmosphere. While she and Smith were waiting in the Bentley, people kept coming and looking at the car.
Back then, a car like that was “quite extreme.” She recalls people making comments about what a “flash motor” it was. Finally, Keith and Kim came out with people all around them. A lot of “nasty sort of insults” were being thrown around at the couple.
If you’re wondering why they didn’t just leave then and there, before things got ugly, Battye claimed it was because Moon “didn’t want to let anybody down.” He didn’t want to let his friend down – those for whom he was doing a favor. Moon was also “immensely committed” to making a performance that night at the pub.
More comments were being made about the Bentley, and things like “who do you think you are?” were being yelled at them. “And then there was this howling mob… and money being thrown, that’s right, coins being thrown, a really nasty atmosphere,” Battye recounted.
That was when the four of them and Boland got in the car. Boland was trying to drive out, and that’s the point when things get blurry in Battye’s memory. “I can’t remember very well except that they were all over the car, and they were rocking it and trying to turn it over.”
What she does remember clearly is Smith saying, “Lock the door,” and the next thing they know, Boland’s door opened. Meanwhile, the howling didn’t stop. Whether he was dragged out or not, she doesn’t know – “everything happened so quickly.”
She remembers Moon sliding into the driver’s seat and driving out of the lot and onto the road. But the mob of people was all around the car again. He drove up the road until he came to a place with lights. “It was pitch black, and we were terrified.” Kim crawled into the back seat to sit with Battye as Smith and Moon got out to call the police.
That’s when another car pulled up in front of them. Battye recalls a man getting out and shouting, “there’s somebody under your car!” she doesn’t remember when, but they were taken to the police station, where they told Kim that Boland was in the hospital and they needed her to identify him.
She said to the police: “Why does she need to identify him if he’s alive?” It was then that they felt “terrified that he was dead.” But nobody would tell them – they just kept saying they needed to identify him. Moon was then taken into another room.
And there was a power outage…
They were taken to another station, where they got questioned. Battye was there when Boland’s family came down. But at that point, they weren’t yet pointing the blame at anyone in particular. The next morning, reporters were everywhere.
The newspapers reported that the troublemakers were primarily “skinheads.” Contrary to what Thorpe said – that they weren’t skinheads at all – Battye actually remembers her boyfriend saying as they drove into the pub that night: “Oh God, it’s a skinhead pub.” If they would have known, she said, they wouldn’t have come along in the first place.
Battye claims that Moon “literally thought he was saving our lives by driving us out of that car park.” She also remembers Moon getting in the driver’s seat and saying, “We’ve got to get out of this.” Smith had told Fletcher that he leaned over the seat from behind and helped steer the car.
“It was an absolute panic.” And Keith Moon never recovered from the nightmare. The event that night resulted in the breakdown of his marriage to Kim as well as a deep fall into addiction. In 1978, eight years after that night, Moon died from an overdose of Heminevrin (alcohol withdrawal medication).
A close friend of Moon’s once said the drummer was “like a train ride you couldn’t stop.” Like most of the drummers from the rock ‘n’ roll period that we still read about today, Moon led a self-destructive lifestyle. Not only was his drumming chaotic – so was his life.
He used amphetamines, tranquilizers, drank way too much alcohol, destroyed hotel rooms and friends’ homes, threw TVs into swimming pools, set fires, and the list goes on. According to Fletcher, Moon’s favorite stunt was throwing explosives into toilets. Yup…
Take it from the man himself: “I still don’t regret doing it… all that porcelain flying through the air was quite unforgettable… I never realized dynamite was so powerful. I’d been used to penny bangers before,” Moon once said. But it looks like toilet bowls weren’t the only things Moon liked to destroy.
According to Fletcher’s book, near the end of Moon’s time on this earth, he was in a relationship with a Swedish model named Annette Walter-Lax. Walter-Lax had begged a neighbor of theirs, Larry Hagman, to take Moon to a rehab clinic.
Hagman took Moon to the doctor instead, who then asked him to describe his daily regimen. Hagman later recalled what Moon told the doctor to Fletcher. Now, Moon’s daily regimen is either exactly what you expect to hear or absolutely terrifying. You be the judge…
“I always get up at six in the morning, and I have my bangers and eggs, and I drink a bottle of Dom Perignon and half a bottle of brandy, and then I’ll take a couple downers, and then it’s about 10 o’clock, and I’ll have a nice nap and sleep until about five or six,” Moon had said.
“Then I’ll get up, have a couple black beauties, some brandy, a little champagne and go out of town.” The doctor sent him for detox in the hospital. Moon then did his rehab and went back on tour with his band. By the end of 1978, Moon was still trying to recover from his alcohol addiction.
His doctor prescribed him Heminevrin, a sedative for alcohol withdrawal. But according to experts, the drug is meant to be taken in hospitals only because if it’s taken at home and unsupervised, it can be highly addictive (oh, the irony). And, of course, Moon was taking Hemievrin at home, unsupervised.
The doctor told Moon to take one pill a day as he handed him a bottle of 100 pills. Fletcher also interviewed the doctor for his book, who stressed to the author that he didn’t know about Moon’s history of drug abuse before prescribing.
They had been in a doctor-patient relationship for “maybe a month or something.” According to his girlfriend, Annette Walter-Lax, whenever he took the medication, “he acted drunk.” Then, on September 7, 1978, the day after he and Walter-Lax had dined with Paul and Linda McCartney, the 32-year-old rock star died.
Moon died in an apartment in Mayfair, London, that he was renting from a friend, the singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson. Eerily enough, it was the same apartment (or flat as the English like to call it) that Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas died in four years earlier – also at the age of 32.
Because of Cass’s death in his apartment, Nilsson was concerned about letting his friend Keith Moon rent it out, believing it was cursed. But Moon’s bandmate Pete Townshend disagreed, assuring the guy that “lightning wouldn’t strike the same place twice.”
It wasn’t long after moving into Nilsson’s apartment that Moon started his course with Hemievrin. On September 6th, after their dinner with the McCartneys, Moon and Walter-Lax returned to the apartment and turned on the TV. As they were watching The Abominable Dr. Phibes, the couple fell asleep.
The next morning, Moon asked her to cook him something. She refused, and he said: “If you don’t like it, you can fuck off.” How’s that for famous last words? That morning, he took 32 pills of Heminevrin. By the afternoon, he was dead. Walter-Lax found him dead.
I’ll leave you with one of Moon’s more eloquent quotes:
“When you’ve got money, and you do the kind of things I get up to, people laugh and say that you’re eccentric, which is a polite way of saying you’re f***ing mad.” — Keith Moon