They Bang The Drums

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.

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9 thoughts on “They Bang The Drums

  1. I go with No. 1 Tony Williams….awesome.

    And yes, Moon sets the rock standard. Try The Who dvd live at the Isle of White. God, he has lots of fun and adds about two instruments to the band. Moon grew up on a diet of surf music, but the urban myth that he destroyed the guys drum kit when auditioning for The Who is just that…myth.

  2. Agh – Metal bores me shitless.

    No Led Zep is a shameful omission. Most people seem to nominate one of the flashier drum tracks like Moby Dick or the massive groove of When The Levee Breaks as the best bit of Bonham, but I see Achilles’ Last Stand is top of Dave Grohl’s favourites. I think I’d go for Fool In The Rain, one of their funkier numbers.

    And there surely should be something of Mitch Mitchell in a roundup like this – Fire probably the one where he gets to show off most, but he’s quietly brilliant on all the Hendrix stuff.

    I know you’re mysteriously down on Jack Bruce, but you have no time for Ginger Baker either??

    Would be nice to see Mick Fleetwood get a nod as well – Go Your Own Way, maybe?

    • I realise you’re going to think me mental, but I’ve never thought Bonham was that great. “When The Levee Breaks” seems more about great production and sound engineering than a particularly good piece of drumming per se. And Ginger Baker – well, I’m obviously not big on Cream. The whole idea of the band repels me – “we’re the cream of the London blues scene, man”. So fucking what? When I saw the DVD of them live at the Albert Hall I was almost physically repelled by them. The veneration of such primal music had utterly fossilized it.

      “Go Your Own Way” – yeah, great stuff by Mick. Rumours was very much my mum’s break-up album so I know it very well! But there’s so much great stuff on it. Have you seen the Classic Albums program on it? Lyndsey Buckingham is amazing.

      I have to confess, I’m not that big on Hendrix, in the same way that some Led Zep leaves me cold – I really don’t like heavy blues. Their poppier or rockier moments I relish of course, but for some reason the heavy blues really turns me off. No idea why this is.

      Metal’s pounding but complex rhythms does highlight skillful drumming though. Ferocious but precise. Do you really see no merit to “Master of Puppets” at all? It is one of the best metal songs ever, and this performance shows Metallica at their best.

  3. I think I’ve listened to other things by Metallica that might have held my attention slightly better; but this amply illustrates what I can’t stand about the genre. I can see that this band – and this song, maybe – represent the peak of technical virtuosity in this branch of rock, but I still find it stupefyingly DULL. (If you want a decent rock song exploiting the puppet metaphor, try Marionette by Mott The Hoople, their mid-70s attempt to ape Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.)

    The power and the anger of this sort of music can be briefly enthralling, but for me, that feeling very quickly gives way to ennui. I sit through the first 30 or 60 seconds of a “song”, thinking that it seems promising, that it’s quite atmospheric, that this would be a great ‘sound’ if they just left it in the background or used it as an occasional refrain. Very soon, though, I find myself hoping there’ll be a switch to some more melodic playing, something with a more readily discernible verse/chorus structure maybe, or at the very least a bit more variation in the dynamics. But Metal just keeps grinding on and on in the same mode for several minutes more, with very little respite or variety. Even the solos are mostly a disappointment to me, usually focusing more on speed than musicality.

    And you know I place a premium on lyrics, so that’s another major failing. The ‘demon voice’ so many of these guys affect these days is ludicrous and tiresome, and it renders the lyrics more or less unintelligible; although that’s probably a blessing in disguise, because when you read them, you realise that, at best, they’re mostly coming off like bad Lovecraft fan fiction.

    There are a few exceptions: I like quite a lot of early Motorhead and Iron Maiden. But it seems like most of the Metal genre disappeared up its own arse sometime in the 1980s and never came back.

    Perhaps a large part of my problem with post-’70s Metal is that I can’t discern the blues in it any more. The blues is the foundation of rock music, a tremendously compelling musical style, and one that conveys feeling like no other. A lot of the early ‘Metal’ bands seem to me to be more like very heavy rock, with the blues core still showing through a little (The Ace of Spades is basically a blues song played maniacally fast; did you see a few years ago they did a slowed down acoustic version of it for a beer commercial, and it was brilliant?). But now it’s more akin to the ‘dance music’ experience: it has to be very loud, very repetitive, very primal – it’s all about unthinking headbanging, achieving a trance-like state; the detail of the music has become less important.

    Your insensitivity to the blues I find baffling, Mike. I wonder if you just haven’t given it enough of a chance, or if you allowed yourself to be put off too much by an early negative reaction (your revulsion at Cream appears somewhat akin to my first encounter with a mackerel at the age of three having rendered me allergic to all seafood ever since!). The blues shares a common ancestry and/or substantial interaction with most of the other major American popular music forms: country, gospel, R’n’B, jazz. And blues is the origin of rock music, the most important strand of its DNA. I can’t see how it’s possible to like rock music but not like the blues.

    Seminal moment in my life, seeing The Blues Brothers for the first time, round about ’81 or ’82; heaps of great music throughout the film; but the most memorable scene, the real shivers-down-the-spine experience for me that first time was the (infuriatingly brief!) appearance by John Lee Hooker playing on a Chicago street. I didn’t know anything about the blues at that point; started buying albums very soon after!

    • I didn’t mean that I don’t like the blues at all. Lots of it I like, from John Lee Hooker to Robert Johnson (and I utterly adore The Blues Brothers). It’s the heavy blues that repels me: stuff like Zep’s “You Shook Me” and “What Is and What Should Never Be” (in the verse anyway) for example. Not sure why! As for Cream… as with Deep Purple or wankers like Steve Vai, any group premises on their skills as musicians has forgot what it’s all about: to convey emotion.

  4. I was a big fan of Peter Gabriel when I was a student. His early albums had some great drumming on them, mostly by a guy called Jerry Marotta. I particularly liked PG4, with tracks like Rhythm of the Heat, San Jacinto and I Have The Touch having quite an African feel to them. My favourite, though, is the very fast Kiss of Life.

    My mate Andy, something of a drumming afionado, always maintained that Family Snapshot was the very best Gabriel song for drums. Interestingly, although Marotta played the main drum part on this, there was some additional snare by Phil Collins.

    And then sometimes you just want your drumming loud and insistent and exuberant. Cozy Powell’s aptly named solo album Over The Top is wonderful for that. The title track is an arrangement of the 1812 Overture! There’s also a rather good version of the Theme from 633 Squadron. You can watch him playing both pieces live (in Germany – “Don’t mention the War!”) here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OX-nZgA-pgQ

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