Having looked at good vocalists, lyrics, guitar solos and bassists, it seems only fair to consider the drums. Rock percussion is generally a vastly underutilised area, with most drummers content to plod away on the 4/4 beat. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of thud-thud (Maureen Tucker being a great example), but, man, they can do so much more. Jazz drumming obviously is an field where it’s more about the interplay and exchange than the metronomic time-keeping, while the real thrash/death/etc drumming can be insanely kinetic and yet razor-blade precise. For whatever reason, my air instrument of choice has shifted from the air guitar to air drumming. Riddim, innnit. I must still look a complete wally, but drumming is completely fundamental to most of the music I like. Here’s some good examples. (I’ll only do one Ringo one, I promise).
1. Tony Williams – Miles Davis, “Shhh/Peaceful”
Tony Williams was the drummer in Miles Davis’ second great quintet, the one with Wayne Shorter on sax, Herbie Hancock on piano and Ron Carter on bass. William joined when he was just 17 – quite incredible. Davis throughout his career sought out young talent, on the one hand to keep himself stimulated and fresh, and on the other to guide and mould them, as Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie had done to him in the mid-40s. The potential of the group is immediately evident on the opening track of their second album together, Miles Smiles, “Orbits“: the sense of jet-stream soaring past the outer planets is incredible. But perhaps Williams’ finest moment is in the hushed, dreamy opener “Shhh/Peaceful” from the 1969 album In A Silent Way. Playing doubletime on the top-hat (as though it alone were a lead instrument!), it shimmers and dazzles, the collective musical texture giving the sense of candles, running water and crepuscular mystery. Proof that you don’t need to have a kitchen-sink set of drums to impress.
2. Donald Tardy – Obituary, “Infected”
I’m not in general too fond of death and the more extreme subgenres of metal. I find it waaaay too homogenous emotionally and texturally: all about rage and violence; all churning riffs, pounding rhythms and guttural vocals – I can enjoy it for about twenty minutes then the lack of variety really drags. One album I do like, though, is Obituary’s Cause Of Death. It’s atmospheric, intelligent and has plenty of variety in pace, emotion, texture, etc: from the dirgy “Dying” to the ferocious “Find The Arise” (so intense it’s like you’ve been turned inside out) to “Circle Of The Tyrants”, whose chorus somehow reminds me of an immense battle, the savagery and the bestial wrath, with a sense of twisted grandeur. The opener, “Infected”, is intensely atmospheric, with its pounding opening suggesting someone breaking into an evil fortress’ dungeon, guitar taking flight (at 0.58) like a flashlight exposing immense evil, and the continually rising tension satisfied by the opening of the first verse. The drumming is a major part of this: taking it from the opening (0.21) to the ferocious dam-breaking at 1.40 when the insanely bestial vocals finally kick in at 1.45. Although in the chorus it does revert to thump-thump-thump-thump on the snare, there’s enough variety to keep the listener hooked: the shifts in pace particularly. Great, intense, stuff.
3. Lars Ulrich – Metallica, “Master Of Puppets”
Lars has kind of become the Bono of metal, more likely to irritate people than have them listen to their music. Some of this might be a little unfair – the howls of anger when he and Metallica took on Napster glides over the fact that this company was profiting from facilitating the pirating their music, whatever way you look at it. Then again, when you see the film Some Kind Of Monster – jesus. What a band of complete douches. Lars especially. No, James especially. No, Lars. James. Lars. It must be pretty depressing when you’ve done all the best work in your life by 1988. (The Black Album might have sold a gazillion copies and has some awesome songs, but it has some excruciating lapses, like “My Friend Misery” and “The Struggle Within”).
All the same, he is a fucking good drummer. His work on their finest single song, “Master Of Puppets”, is endlessly inventive: in 8.36, there is literally not a dull moment. In the verse he repeatedly punctuates ends of bars with two simple tricks, the duh-duh (after “Crumb-buh-ling away” at 1.04, for example) and the roll (after “Take me, you will see” at 1.18).The instrumental break from 3.52 to 4.48 deftly articulates the bliss and ease of the nodded-out smackhead, but this is deceptively pleasant. The subsequent enormous rise in tension and power (Ulrich keeping it simple, banging away on the tom-toms – repetition leads to rising tension) from 4.48 to 5.10 take you to the central section of the song (“Master, master / Where’s the dreams that I’ve been after?”), drummed with enormous power and authority by Ulrich. This section is magnificent, evoking images of some savage Lovecraftian god in some black doom-ridden alternate dimension, far beyond the ability of any human to comprehend. (Or something like that). It’s just utterly exceptional work, and something I’ve never heard the like of since.
4. Keith Moon – The Who, “A Quick One While He’s Away”
I love all the characterful flourishes in this: the busy rolls and fills all the way through the opening section (“Your town is very famous for the little girls”) from 0.28, the tumultuous rolls when introducing “My name is Ivor / I’m an engine driver” (2.46), the rim-tapping suggesting horses hooves (3.46), the gradual and overwhelming increase in euphoric intensity in the sublime “You are forgiven!” section (from 6.17). “A Quick One”, with its rapid shifts in style, its humour and its humane empathy (the redemption in the “You are forgiven!” section is magnificent), is by far my favourite Who song. (Rumour is that The Who’s performance of it in the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus showed up the Stones so bad that Jagger sat on the video for forty years before allowing its release).
5. Ringo – The Beatles, “Rain”
This song was a b-side!! (To “Paperback Writer”, in case you were wondering). Just listen to the interplay between Ringo and Macca.
Macca doesn’t get the credit he deserves as a bass player, I often think. If Jack Bruce had done this everyone would still be wanking on about how he invented bass-as-lead-instrument. Same with Ringo: the dah-dah snare opening is terrific, and the instrumental break from 2.24, just Paul and Ringo (are they the originators of “drum and bass”?), is incredible.
6. Steven Adler – Guns N’ Roses, “Paradise City”
Stephen Fry’s book The Ode Less Travelled is an excellent introduction to the finer points of poetry. In it he decries the decline of meter in poetry, or more accurately the diminution of the great pounding rhythms of the Victorian era, which to him characterises the confidence and energy of the time. Perhaps so: I’ll still always prefer Larkin to Tennyson. But if drumming is obviously to set the meter of the song, then the opening beat (from 0.11) in “Paradise City” is an example of the supreme confidence of Reganite 1980s America. It’s so open, anthemic, capacious, and certain. There is no doubt that the Paradise City exists somewhere and that GN’R, with their furious hunger and band-of-brothers strength, will one day somehow stagger on to it.