It’s been a difficult few weeks for drummers. Last month, we lost Tommy Ramone. This week, Ahmad Jamal’s go-to percussionist Idris Muhammad left us. And Woody Woodson, the man behind the kit for The Isley Brothers’ funky It’s Your Thing, says he can’t play until he gets a new leg. (Great drummer, Woody, but he’d never have made it in Def Leppard.)
Meanwhile, there was good and bad news for Slipknot’s new drummer. The good news: a new Slipknot song, the band’s first since parting ways with longtime timekeeper Joey Jordison, was unveiled. The bad news: the new drummer was not. According to Slipknot frontman Corey Taylor the band prefers to keep the identity of its newest member under wraps. “We want the music to speak for itself,” he says, free of the sort of distractions that come with knowing the name of that guy at the back of the stage.
And then there’s Finnish metal band Nightwish, whose drummer’s time with the band is evidently, uh, finished. He’s taking a much-needed break, it says here, to deal with chronic insomnia. Sure, rocking and rolling all night is desirable, but only provided one sleeps through part of every day.
This week also marked the 22nd anniversary of the passing of Jeff Porcaro in a bizarre gardening accident. A trusted session man, Porcaro was also a proud member of Toto; it’s safe to say had it not been for his dextrous drumming Rosanna would have sounded like just another lame ’80s hit.
Drummers have been the butt of many a musicians joke. (“How do you know when a drummer is at your door?” That sort of thing.) Certainly, they are viewed as outsiders if not out-and-out weirdos by fellow musicians and fans alike. Often, in an endearing way, but still… Small wonder the Grand Ole Opry forbade drummers from venturing anywhere near its stage until the 1970s. (A policy they might consider returning to.) Hell, by the 1980s drummers were all but made redundant by the rise of machines willing to do the same work in exchange for far fewer beers.
Yet, without drummers would dancers ever have found the beat in pop music? Would reggae music exist? Would Brian Wilson have listened repeatedly to Be My Baby for hours/days/years? Would Jason Bonham and Zak Starkey ever have found dayjobs?
So, in these troubled double-times, let us take a moment to show some love for the metronomic men and women who count us in and make it funky.
To honour sleepless drummers everywhere as well as those who, like Mr. Porcaro, are keeping time with the big sleep, may I present:
10 great moments in percussion
Charlie Watts moves to the toms
Few drummers can build tension within a pop song as well as Charlie Watts. Rather, most drummers can build tension better.
But, in a 50-plus-year recording career, perhaps no performance by darling Charlie offers the sublime release that is found in the final chorus of Ruby Tuesday. The song marked Watts’s first attempt to keep up with his band’s quest to find new, adventurous, drugged-out sounds. Not being drugged-out — or even drugged-in — himself, Charlie resorted to filling the space at the end of practically every verse or chorus with his take on the drum roll. Boom-biddy-boom-biddy-boom, went Charlie throughout 1966 and 1967 (peaking with Their Satanic Majesties Request and the We Love You single) while three of his four bandmates worked hard at exploring new and often ill-advised musical avenues.
And so it goes through the glorious ballad Ruby Tuesday, Charlie filling each chorus by going for that roll on the snare. But when Mick decides to tack-on a repeat of the chorus as the group brings it home, the mild-mannered drummer blows everyone’s mind, making his presence felt by moving, for one roll, to the tom-tom. Magical. Moreover, it shows Charlie was paying attention. By the time of Satanic Majesties, he would be about the only one — within or without the group — to be doing so.
Ringo’s first drum solo
No, it’s not The End. (You read it here first.) Ten months before Ringo laid down that admittedly memorable eight-bar solo, he held the fort for eight bars during Birthday. Presumably, the remaining fabs dropped out long enough for John and George to coach Yoko and Pattie, respectively, for their upcoming vocal debut with The Beatles and for Paul to instruct George as to exactly how the guitar part for the bridge should be played. Ever the team-player, Richard Starkey, MBE, proves up to the challenge by doing what he does best: laying down a straight four-four beat topped with a simple flourish to welcome the boys back to the song. How very Ringo.
(In lieu of the well-worn original recording, please enjoy the above live performance, from Ringo’s 70th birthday concert in New York City. Sure, he forgets the aforementioned flourish, but then he also forgot how to play his clever Ticket to Ride drumbeat halfway through that song. He’s no less adorable for it.)
Don Brewer uses his head!
A trailblazer in the field of shirtless drumming, Grand Funk Railroad’s Don Brewer can still be counted on for at least one lengthy drum solo per show. But I well remember my big brother coming home from seeing a GFR show in Montreal back in the day, and insisting that during his 30-minute solo Brewer had at one point forsaken his sticks and played drums with his head. And sure enough, through the miracle of YouTube, there is visual evidence of this innovative approach to keeping the beat. I confess to not having caught the band’s Bluesfest set last year, but am told that when it comes to drumming Don Brewer no longer uses his head. In that sense, some might say, he is the ideal drummer.
In the Air Tonight
Oh, I know. Don’t get me started on the damage Phil Collins has done to popular music. But he also gave us the best midsong drum intro since Stairway to Heaven. And that ain’t nothing. I do not own The Best of Phil Collins, or any Phil Collins (honest — Genesis included) but I like to think the album consists solely of that moment when the drums enter In the Air Tonight. Conveniently, someone has done that work for us, as you can see.
There is no drumming on Beth. But it gets better. By stepping up to the mic to deliver a shaky vocal on an original song that virtually defined what we now know as the power ballad, Peter Criss gave hope to drummers everywhere. Prior to Beth, drummers had understandably been relegated to singing novelty numbers and non-melodic rockers. Criss changed all that, paving the way for syrupy songs by heavy bands from Cinderella to Poison. (If that counts as some sort of range.) Moreover, Criss’s tortured plea for Beth to wait just a few more hours until he and the boys had finished playing blazed a path for sensitive-as-shit drummers to follow. (Though some might argue Karen Carpenter got there first.) Imagine a world without Desperado, Sister Christian or, yes, Against All Odds. Not a world I’d want to live in, let me tell you.
Of course, less sensitive bandmates Gene and Paul marked Criss’s departure from KISS by persuading new drummer Eric Carr to record a new vocal over the original Beth backing track. That’s gratitude for you.
Reportedly, Criss’s is the best of the solo albums released by each band member in 1978. We’ll never know for certain if that is true, as it would require someone to listen to all four albums from start to finish.
No. 6, you are number one.
Not for any particular moment, really; although, the vintage blast of punk rock pleasure above is as good as any. Rather, the man born Christopher John Millar is to be celebrated for coming up with the most kickass punk pseudonym of all time. Good on ya, Rat!
Keith Moon, San Francisco, 1973
No man has done more to enhance the reputation of drummers than Keith Moon. Where to begin? This will do nicely. Supposedly, he had unwittingly ingested a horse tranquilizer prior to going onstage at (ironically) The Cow Palace. Of course, it takes a special kind of person to not notice an animal tranquilizer in his drink. Keith Moon was that kind of person. It all adds to the legend. And respectable drummers everywhere are still paying for it — and still in awe of it.
Bill Berry leaves R.E.M.; band carries on as if nothing has happened
Bassist Darryl Jones has been a member of The Rolling Stones since 1993, while at no point being a member of The Rolling Stones. In 1997, when cool-indie-band-turned-rich-major-label-band R.E.M. said goodbye to founding member Bill Berry, the pride of Athens similarly opted to continue as before. Now officially a trio, the R.E.M.s dared not tour without a backbeat, and eventually added Seattle’s Bill Rieflin to the lineup — but not to the lineup. It can be seen as a stiff middle finger thrust towards drummers everywhere, or simply as a savvy business decision. Either way, it surely wouldn’t have killed the lads to give the drummer some.
Tragically, post-R.E.M. Rieflin grew so despondent over the loss of the band he’d never had that in 2013 he accepted a position with King Crimson. He is one of three drummers the band employs, which if nothing else demonstrates that Robert Fripp, at least, is willing to take in stray drummers. Hats off to you, Robert. You are truly a humanitarian.
My Pal Foot Foot
Generations of novice drummers have boasted of, say, mastering the entire Moby Dick solo. But I’ll wager not one has successfully duplicated the dizzying series of tempos and rhythms employed by Helen Wiggin on this Shaggs classic. The Shaggs were the whole package: three siblings blessed with equal musical talent. Punk rock never got much better than this, and no stinking drum machine will ever replace Helen Wiggin’s unique take on timekeeping.
Okay, one more. After all, drummers so rarely get the spotlight.
Drummers, I’ve got your back.