After learning their first drummer died, I remember asking my older brother which one of the men on the cover of Who Are You was the dead one. “The one in the chair,” he said. “Keith Moon.” I was probably around eight years old, but right away I noticed the phrase stencilled on the back of the chair Moon was sitting backwards on: NOT TO BE TAKEN AWAY.
Who Are You — released Aug. 18, 1978 — is the last studio album of new material to feature Moon, but it wasn’t his last recording. In late August, 1978, he was called in to do overdubs for the Kids Are Alright film project. He had to re-perform drums on two songs as well as recreate the sound of him smashing his drums, which was needed for a bit of silent 8mm film being used. The audio portion of that bit in the first part of the movie where Moon hits a drum with a mic stand and then throws it into the audience, is actually the last thing he ever recorded. About two weeks later — on Sept. 7, 1978 — he died of an overdose of the anti-alcoholic sedative Heminevrin.
When it comes to final songs recorded by musicians who died, there are essentially two storylines: Those whose death was expected, and those whose death was sudden. I’ll put Moon in the latter category. Here are a few notable ones, and an accompanying playlist.
• Rapper/producer Mac Miller also died of an accidental drug overdose — exactly 40 years to the day after Keith Moon. According to rapper Young Thug, the last song Miller recorded was with him the day before. Bizarrely, the song was actually called Day Before, and appears on Thug’s 2021 album Punk.
• Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis died of suicide on the 18th of May, 1980. Four days earlier he and Joy Division recorded Ceremony, which wasn’t released until New Order re-recorded it. You can hear a live version featuring Curtis on Still, from their final concert at High Hall, Birmingham University on May 2, 1980. An Ian Curtis studio version is available on the Heart and Soul box set.
• Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain also died of suicide. A coroner’s report indicated he died April 5, 1994. You Know You’re Right was recorded on January 30, 1994. It wasn’t released until their best-of collection Nirvana in 2002.
• Vocalist Amy Winehouse died of misadventure by alcohol poisoning on July 23, 2011. Her last recorded song was Body And Soul, a duet with Tony Bennett in March 2011 intended for a third album. The song was released as a single on Sept. 14, 2011 — what would have been her 28th birthday.
• John Lennon was actually on his way home from the recording studio when he was assassinated Dec. 8, 1980. He had been recording guitar parts on a new Yoko Ono song titled Walking On Thin Ice, which appeared on Season Of Glass in 1981. The last of his own songs Lennon recorded were four home demos on Nov. 14th. Two of these — Dear John and Serve Yourself — were released on the Lennon Anthology in 1998 . The other two, Pop Is The Name Of The Game and You Saved My Soul, have never been released.
• Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Elliott Smith died of two stab wounds to the chest on Oct. 21, 2003. At the time he was working on a new album — From A Basement On A Hill. Fans believe the last thing he recorded was the vocal for a song called Suicide Machine, which was a reworking of a song called Tiny Time Machine, recorded a few years earlier. Given the title, the song was left off From A Basement On A Hill, when it was eventually released posthumously, at the request of the family. It is, however, available online.
• Carpenters lead vocalist Karen Carpenter — also an excellent drummer — died of complications from anorexia nervosa on Feb. 4, 1983. The last Carpenters album released during her lifetime came out two years earlier. At the time of her death, she and her brother Richard were recording new material. Two songs from her final recording session in April 1982 — Now and You’re Enough — appeared on the posthumous Voice Of The Heart in October, 1983.
• Vocalist Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose on Oct. 4, 1970 in Room 105 at the Landmark Motor Hotel in Los Angeles. Just hours earlier she had recorded the a cappella Mercedes Benz in a single take. It appears on Pearl, which was released in January 1971.
• Singer-songwriter Nick Drake died of a drug overdose in relative obscurity at his home in rural England on Nov. 25, 1974. He hadn’t released new material since 1972’s Pink Moon, but had been working on songs. Thought to be the last of these, Tow The Line was discovered at the end of a July 1974 tape reel 20 years later and issued on the compilation Made To Love Magic.
• Singer-songwriter Marvin Gaye was fatally shot by his father on April 1, 1984 following an altercation between the two. The last song he’s believed to have recorded is Joy, which was the final single from his 1983 album Midnight Love. During the subsequent tour, Gaye introduced the song as a tribute to his father.
• Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham died when he choked on his own vomit in his sleep, on Sept. 25, 1980 at Jimmy Page’s house. The band were in rehearsals for a North American tour, scheduled to begin Oct. 17 in Montreal. The last time the band was in the studio was in November 1978, finishing In Through The Out Door. The last song? I’m Gonna Crawl, recorded on Nov. 23. The album was released in August 1979.
• The Doors’ frontman Jim Morrison died in his bathtub in Paris on July 3, 1971. There was no autopsy and the cause of his death is disputed. His final — all spoken-word — recordings happened in Los Angeles on Dec. 8, 1970 at Village Recorder Studio. Other recordings from this time period were later set to music by the surviving members of The Doors in 1978 and released on An American Prayer.
• Grateful Dead vocalist, guitarist and leader Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack on Aug. 9, 1995. On July 23 he recorded Blue Yodel #9 as part of a Jimmie Rodgers tribute curated by Bob Dylan. It wasn’t a Dead recording, but one done with drummer George Marsh, Sally Van Meter on dobro, mandolin player David Grisman and bassist John Kahn. Five takes were recorded and the final result was issued in 1997 on Songs of Jimmie Rodgers: A Tribute. The day after the recording, Garcia checked himself into the Betty Ford Clinic.
• Singer-songwriter, musician and actor David Bowie died of liver cancer on Jan. 10, 2016 in his New York City apartment, a year and a half after receiving the diagnosis. In that time he kept the illness quiet and crafted the album Blackstar in secret as a parting gift, released on his 69th birthday two days before his death. It was recorded between January and May, with Bowie’s final vocal overdubs being done in a single day in April. It was during this time that the final three songs for his last EP No Plan were recorded. It was released posthumously on what would have been Bowie’s 70th birthday.
• Singer-songwriter Johnny Cash died in hospital of complications from diabetes on Sept. 12, 2003. On Aug. 21, he and producer Rick Rubin recorded Like The 309. It was released on American V on the 4th of July, 2006.
• Vocalist Billie Holiday died in hospital on July 17, 1959 of heart failure related to cirrhosis of the liver. She had been handcuffed to the bed after being accused of having heroin in her apartment and was allowed to have several days of methadone treatment. The last recording sessions happened March 3, 4 and 11, 1959 and produced the album Billie Holiday. The last song recorded on the 11th was Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home. It’s also the last song on the album.
• Guitarist, singer, songwriter, actor and television host Glen Campbell died of complications of Alzheimer’s on Aug. 8, 2017 — six years after diagnosis. As shown in the documentary film I’ll Be Me, Campbell’s last studio recording session happened in January 2013, to complete the song I’m Not Gonna Miss You in four takes. The co-written song focuses on his diagnosis. “You’re the last person I will love. You’re the last face I will recall. And best of all — I’m not gonna miss you.”
• Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie had an incredibly productive year in the wake of his December 2015 brain tumour diagnosis. He died Oct. 17, 2017 having completed a cross-Canada tour and four new albums — one a double. His last recordings, from July 17-20 2017, were released on Away Is Mine posthumously Oct. 16, 2020. The last song on the album, Untitled, has the lyric “No one says goodbye anymore for fear that’ll be goodbye.”
• Motörhead bassist, vocalist and founder Lemmy Kilmister’s health was in steady decline before he passed away four days after his 70th birthday on Dec. 28, 2015 from prostate cancer, cardiac arrhythmia, and congestive heart failure. His final recording is believed to be the final track from the 2015 Motörhead album Bad Magic — a cover of the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy For The Devil.
• Queen lead vocalist Freddie Mercury passed away on the 24th of November, 1991 from complications of AIDS. The last Queen album — Innuendo — came out in February of that year. By this time, Mercury was quite ill and knew he wouldn’t survive to complete another album, but he was determined to get as much done as he could. The last song he recorded, a co-write with Brian May, was Mother Love in May, 1991. Mercury finished the second verse and told May he didn’t feel well. He said he would go home and finish it tomorrow. He never did, so when the group got together two years later to complete the album, May sang the final verse for his departed friend and bandmate. It was issued on Made In Heaven in November 1995.
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Area Resident is an Ottawa-based journalist, recording artist, music collector and re-seller. Hear (and buy) his music on Bandcamp, email him HERE, follow him on Instagram and check out him out on Discogs.