Music venerates the gifted musician, sometimes to the point of sainthood. Every super moon or so, a band is hailed “The saviors of rock.” ”Clapton is God.” “The Beatles are Bigger than Jesus.” “Have you heard John Entwhistle’s live solo track–just fucking unreal what this guy was able to do.” Yes, there are few things more mesmerizing than watching a virtuoso plow through a ten-minute solo, crotch thrust to the hysterical masses, or a Rick Allen one handed drum exploration. And sure it’s not the crowned zenith of rock but when it happens, even fellow musicians (not untalented themselves) have to stop and lend props. Jack Bruce at the end of the notorious live “Crossroads” recording in Winterland, after shredding through one of the wildest bass accompaniments this side of the 17th century defers at the last chord, “Eric Clapton, please…” and amid the uproarious applause and the guitarist’s own gratitude, “Above all.” It’s a strange thing to watch two heroes like that clash and one ineffably come out the winner while the other sucks up lasciviously, volunteering his carcass to be dragged behind the other’s chariot– ain’t music powerful?
But this arm’s race of metaphorical penis-length belies the basic tenet of rock, that it’s not technical ability but attitude that makes an artist appealing. Feeling and intent are just as crucial as proficiency. Alas, rock has yet to reach the ivory tower where three-chords and teenage angst aren’t enough to start a band. Accessibility is crucial. And that’s only to speak of guitarists and singers, both of which, any musician will tell you, are in no shortage of supply. When high school orchestras finish churning out bassists (or disenchanted guitarists, see above), there’s only one equation left, that logistically and probably demand-wise are the hardest to come by. Not only do they single-handedly necessitate a band’s need for a van, they are prototypically loud and debaucherous lechers. Yes, because this is a post seeking to highlight the dregs of ‘the skins’, the ones who will never make lists, be on the cover Drummerworld or discussed in Berklee master classes. This piece seeks to commemorate and raise a toast to those less-than-phenomenal drummers.
Let’s begin with our friend John Bonham, who you would be hard pressed to not find in the top 3 of any “Best rock drummers” list. Bonham was never a drummer until he joined Zeppelin. Now, of course he was great – you can hear the hecklers already – and I don’t mean to say he wasn’t, only that he wasn’t a drummer’s drummer. His consciously dragged/rushed fills, the resounding boom of his ten-foot tall kick, the gong–these things are not forgotten. But do you think Neil Peart would be content laying back on something as rudimentary as the ‘bass/snare’ beat to “Kashmir”? Hell no! Maybe if he could find the time between whacking off over forty-two chromatically-tuned toms. Yet without that groove, it wouldn’t be “Kashmir”. The intrinsic simplicity, the incantation-like repetition, for Plant, Paige and Jones to lay plainsong over makes it so cosmically transcendent.
Bonham brought the sensibility and humility of a non-drummer, someone in the audience bobbing their head – not counting thirteen over eight – to the sheer thud of a beat.
Drums, for lack of a melody, can still paint a vivid story. There’s a song, ”Catch Hell Blues” by The White Stripes that brings to mind a fictional, yet droll scenario. Jack White, maven of the slide guitar, rummaging through Delta licks with deathly speed and precision, hollering, “Yes sir!” ”Try and catch me!” Meg, rather than maneuver, crushes the very rock of her companion’s invention, half-time cymbals screaming, the feel creating something like a giant’s leg taking one step for every seven of Jack’s. Meg is constantly criticized for lacking diversity in her beats–but if Jack had an avid drummer behind him, full of sophisticated technical prowess, looking to bring to the drums what he brought to guitar, who could stomach something like that? And here’s a case where you can see him, half the band, with other drummers (Patrick Keeler in The Raconteurs, Gegé Munari on Rome, himself in The Dead Weather) and maybe its Meg and Jack’s relationship but the magic just isn’t the same.
Sometimes another instrumentalist will step in out of necessity, a guitarist thinking “Yeah, I can do that.” And more often than not, from a technical perspective, they can’t. One example that comes to mind is mild-mannered Josh Homme assuming the guise of “Carlo von Sexron” in Eagles of Death Metal. Sure, Peace Love Deathmetal is a little tongue-in-cheek, but Von Sexron is not pretending to be a terrible drummer. The album is filled with ‘happy accidents’ and even attempts at the illusion that the record was done in one take, complete with talk-backs and impromptu jams. Missed hits, uneven fills–it all gets so glorious at one point that Hughes, in a down moment proclaims in sotto voice, “I am so lucky to be playing with this drummer right now.” Jesse has since acquired a proper drummer, at least for the touring act and the result has suffered considerably because of it.
It may chance that the drummer is a drummer, by training and by trade–they just suck. On Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted Gary Young was so unproficient, it may or may not have got him kicked out of the band. That or handing out mashed potatoes to fans in-line for shows.In garage and garagesque rock it’s practically a commandment– you must have a shitty drummer lest you become too polished. Nothing roughens up the edges like an out-of-time fill or an arrhythmic paradiddle. It makes, especially in days of 808s and speedmetal, the music sound somehow more human and less like a Danny Gottlieb instructional video. Then again, you don’t have to feed an 808 and there’s no risk of it sleeping with your girlfriend.
For the duration of Joy Division, Stephen Morris struggles to keep his wits about him. It’s as if his watch is never quite on the same dial as his bandmates. He is forever the uncool kid running after his jaded friends trying to ditch him. But who would trade anything for it–the negative space of his drumming, the perfunctorily straight rolls bring that haunted, claustrophobic feel to the band and later to New Order. The drummer seems prone to tragedy, even comically prone–in Spinal Tap the band recounts a former member dying in a bizarre gardening accident. Dennis Wilson didn’t play drums when he helped create the Beach Boys–but is that strictly necessary to become a drummer? His studio takes were played so poorly that Brian Wilson brought in a session drummer for many of the early iconic songs (“Sloop John B.”, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “California Girls”) while Dennis took up lessons at school. He did get noticeably better by the early seventies, developing a crisp and distinctive style, but by then Brian had seized the band for himself. Lol Turhurst, original stickman for The Cure, was notoriously rudimentary on the band’s first four albums, after Pornogrpahy he was consigned to keyboard duties and then–battling drug and alcohol addiction on Disintegration–fired altogether, none of his recordings making the final cut.
A drummer need not be a temple of technicality. Good drumming can be boring. Often, it’s invisible; a groove so perfectly laid that you can’t help but coast along, bobbing to what you imagine are guitars and lyrics. What makes drummers so ‘bad’ are the same traits that endear them to us. Their quintessentially loud and restless personalities are as annoying as they are compelling. It’s not like guitar, with its quaint, balladeer-outside-your-window connotations or the singing voice ringing forth from the egotistic throat of its creator–the beating of a drum is the sound of war! It’s something carnal and it fills you with purpose, bloodlust and sometimes even rhythm. It’s the world’s oldest instrument for a reason. Let’s keep it that way. All of House music is predicated on a beat most fourth-graders could play. You think you could do that? Please do. In the meantime, we’ll keep on loving those anti-maestros, even as we’re drowned in noise, that’s not quite half a beat behind.