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Ten Songs That Made Me Love...
Among my earliest musical memories is seeing the Dave Clark Five on television. With Dave seated at the dead centre of the band (even, on occasion, in front of everyone else), with regular close-ups as he coolly pounded away - Hell, with the band even named after him - it was a natural conclusion that the drummer was a group’s most important member. Such is the influence of TV on a child’s impressionable mind.
If I don’t hold to quite that position today, the drums are still always among the first elements I listen for in a track, their pattern and how they sound critical in how highly I’ll rate it. Yet it’s often the lot of the drummer to be something of an unsung hero, so here are ten tracks chosen to (as James Brown puts it on ‘Cold Sweat’) “Give the drummer some!”
1. The Dave Clark Five - ‘Bits and Pieces’(1964) Drummer: Dave Clark
This bounces along infectiously and is great pop-rock anyway, but the key moments are where the band stomp along unaccompanied before Dave unleashes a wonderfully crisp snare break. Heard at this remove, the soulful edge to Mike Smith’s voice and the sax emphasis make it almost seem like a proto-Stax number.
2. Jimi Hendrix Experience – ‘Manic Depression’(1967) Drummer: Mitch Mitchell
Right from the start, Mitchell rolls and circles around his kit, echoing the combination of powerful riff and intense improvisation flowing from Hendrix’s guitar. Especially towards the end, Hendrix leaves spaces for Mitchell to really convey the feeling of emotional turbulence through an agile battering that melds his rock and jazz chops. Yet always there’s that sense of ultimate control of a great rock musician.
One other reason for loving Mitchell is the fact that, at the height of hippiedom, he could play as well as this while dressed in the most beautiful but impractical hippie apparel!
3. James Brown – ‘Cold Sweat’(1967) Drummer: Clyde Stubblefield
One of the key tracks in the development of funk, the cyclical, slithery rhythm Stubblefield sets up between his snare and hi-hat, with an almost imperceptible periodic pause, is perfect for provoking the feeling of frustration that wells up in Brown’s increasingly crazed vocals. The horns and rhythm guitar continually reinforce Stubblefield’s strokes, confirming his centrality. So disciplined for most of the track, when he strikes several beats together at 6:48 it has an inexplicably powerful impact.
4. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band – ‘When Big Joan Sets Up’(1969) Drummer: John French
As unconventional as the rest of the ‘Trout Mask Replica’ album, this song starts with the Magic Band in full spate, French’s drums whipping things along before the pace is all but dropped for an interlude of sax noodling, before it picks up again for Beefheart’s candid ode to the eponymous Joan, based on the solidarity of their shared corpulence.
When the vocals have ended French is again crucial, his complex interplay of drums and cymbals unfailing and compulsive as the band launch into a collectively frenzied instrumental coda. Reputedly, Beefheart kept his musicians in conditions of near-starvation while preparing ‘Trout Mask’, but despite their lack of familiarity with the kitchen, here they really cook, and French is the head chef.
5. Television - ‘Little Johnny Jewel’(1975) Drummer: Billy Ficca
Proving that a great performance can transcend almost any circumstances, this track was cheaply recorded in Patti Smith’s rehearsal space, the low buzz of the amps audible at the start as Fred Smith’s bass sketches the basic riff, behind which Billy Ficca’s drums come skittering into earshot.
Throughout Ficca constantly alters his pattern, using his basic kit to full effect, one moment pattering, the next employing sharp rim-shots, at another sibilant hi-hat slices. The song’s disorienting effect reaches its peak where Tom Verlaine’s guitar, more assault than solo, is matched by Ficca’s clattering and pounding in ordered derangement, the drums sounding oddly metallic, Ficca no trash can Sinatra but a dustbin Rimbaud. From the apparent confusion an intensely felt yet composed guitar passage emerges, notes strung together like lustrous pearls, Ficca following every step with his passionate snare and cymbal work.
6. Mahavishnu Orchestra – ‘Meeting of the Spirits' (1971) Drummer: Billy Cobham
An explosion of drums,cymbals and dramatic guitar announce the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s arrival. Only a supremely confident set of musicians would contemplate launching into an introduction at top speed, before pulling back and rebuilding the intensity more gradually.
This track can sound chaotic at times, but Cobham’s expertly judged drumming keeps both hands on the rhythmic tiller as his bandmates head for the horizon, even as he intersperses the beat with all manner of fills. He symbolises the Orchestra at its best, technically expert but full of feeling, subtle and strong.
This track isn’t a song as such, but through the resonant tuning of his large array of drums, and an arsenal of strokes that range from the delicate to all-out pummelling, Billy Cobham gets as near as anyone can to making drums sing.
7. King Crimson - ‘One More Red Nightmare’ (1974) Drummer: Bill Bruford
Like Mitch Mitchell with Hendrix, Bill Bruford blends rock and jazz styles to perfectly complement the range of Robert Fripp’s guitar. In some ways almost heavy metal due to Fripp’s strident, compelling riff, Bruford’s agile bass drum and dry-sounding snare keep the song light on its feet rather than succumbing to metal’s stodginess. And like Billy Cobham, he can play both with great subtlety, just tapping around the edge of a drum, then unleashing lithe snare and tom tom work combined with a cymbal that sounds like he’s thrashing a piece of sheet metal.
8.Led Zeppelin – ‘The Wanton Song’ (1975) Drummer: John Bonham
Never has a kick drum been more aptly named than on this track, as it pounds out of the speakers locked in with Jimmy Page’s riff and a snare of industrial strength. Yet the sheer power is only part of this song’s strength: the drums and guitars move back and forth between agile funk and rock, and make you want to shake your hips as hard as your head.
9. Buzzcocks – ‘Breakdown' (1977) Drummer : John Maher
Taken from ‘Spiral Scratch’, one of the very first UK punk records, even now it exemplifies the scene’s early promise before it became constricted by a new set of conventions. Maher’s distinctive galloping style of drumming carries along Howard Devoto’s pun-packed lyrics (“I wander loaded as a crowd/A nowherewolf of pain”) and Pete Shelley’s cheap guitar, which spews a sound so dirty it seems dredged from the bottom of the Manchester Ship Canal. The way Maher plays truly is the art of falling apart, or at least being seemingly on the verge of doing so, and aptly reflects Devoto’s neurotic intellectual.
10. Live Skull – ‘I’ll Break You’ (1987) Drummer: James Lo
A trend in drumming in the 1980s was a greater use of tom toms in so-called ‘tribal drumming’ (e.g. Killing Joke, Adam and the Ants). It’s an element in this track, but Lo’s playing stands out on account of his energy and constantly inventive fills. Production-wise, the drums have a real depth that’s the foundation of the song’s atmosphere of grim menace. As with many of the tracks I’ve chosen, the dialogue of drums and lead guitar is crucial, each echoing the other in their emotional intensity.
Why are almost all of the tracks here drawn from the ‘60s and ‘70s? One answer is simply that they’ve stood the test of time. But it does seem to me that today, while there are still good drummers around (and some great ones, like Dave Grohl), there aren’t the characters now who are at once individually expressive and technically skilful. I’d suggest that the influences of technology and dance music have both devalued the drummer’s contribution - it’s far easier just to set some programmed rhythm going than to mike up a kit and take the risk of unpredictable moments of invention. But it’s just those moments, and that undefinable but unmistakable quality of feel, that distinguishes these tracks and a living drummer. Like they used to say in reggae, “Who feels it, knows it.”
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Adrian Janes, in 'Ten Songs That Made Me Love...', reflects on his ten favourite drum tracks
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