Why do we always beat up on drummers?

Where would Fleetwood Mac be without Mick, or Steely Dan without Keith Carlock - or The Beatles without Ringo?

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

It’s rare that I see a piece about music that makes me want to cheer from the rafters and shake the perpetrator by the hand, but one such appeared in these pages last week on the subject of Ringo Starr, 75 this week. James Woodall, who may or may not be a Beatles tragic of the first water, argued that Ringo was a genius and that the Beatles were lucky to have him. True Beatles fans know this to be true and are enraged when anyone suggests otherwise. For years an urban myth had it that John Lennon, when asked if Ringo was the best drummer around, said that he wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles. But as Woodall reported, Lennon never said this. Jasper Carrott did, in 1983. Carrott was never actually a member of the Beatles as I understand it, although his song ‘Funky Moped’ did reach number five in the UK charts 40 years ago next month.

Drummers are perennially underrated. Other musicians make drummer jokes. Some writers make rock critic jokes. How many rock critics does it take to change a light bulb? None: they like working in the dark. What do you say to a drummer in a three-piece suit? ‘Will the defendant please rise.’ For a while, in the 1980s and 1990s, it looked as though drummers would soon be out of a job. All but replaced in the studio by machines, they could only argue that machines sound like machines, and wait for everyone else to notice and start employing them again. Drum machines responded by becoming even more artful and complicated, like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator films. My friend Phil, who has been drumming professionally for 30 years, would listen to the latest apparently unplayable drum figure someone had created on a computer, and become determined to master it. In so doing, he could give groove and feel to even the driest combination of moves. Nothing beats a human being. Nothing beats a drum like a human being.

Happily, we are past the worst of the 1990s, when albums were routinely blighted by the ugliness of their percussion. Dance music is lost for ever, but that need not worry us, for drummers must have been very bored having to play that stuff. But the more real and the more human the music, the greater the need for a real drummer. Kate Bush, a keen exponent of the electronic drum sound in the late 1980s and 1990s, now prefers the delicacy and control of the American sessioneer Steve Gadd, who won’t be coming cheap. Would Fleetwood Mac have gone anywhere at all without Mick Fleetwood behind the kit? My favourite band Steely Dan have long used an incredibly nifty jazz drummer called Keith Carlock, but for his most recent solo record Donald Fagen preferred the more rudimentary drumming of his multi-instrumentalist co-producer Michael Leonhart. The result, to my unbiased ears, was his dullest recording in a long time. Apparently Carlock was restored to duty on the subsequent tour, and the songs began to breathe again.

Fagen and his Steely Dan confrere Walter Becker, of course, were famous for using a huge number of session musicians on their albums, usually the very best New York and LA had to offer. On 1977’s Aja, for instance, they used six different drummers on seven tracks, with only the legendary Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie being called back for another go. My drumming friend Phil, who knows a thing or two, says that each one absolutely inhabits the track he plays on: inhabits it, forms it, shapes it. With untutored ears like mine, all you hear is: this is right. Becker and Fagen were only ever waiting for musicians to play what they already heard in their heads, which would explain why their recordings took for ever and cost more than several bands’ cocaine budget.

Ringo, it always seemed to me, performed a similar role in the Beatles. Let’s not forget that when George Martin first heard them, he instantly identified their drummer Pete Best as the weak link and persuaded the others that he had to go. Ringo, with his experience, talent and adaptability, completed the picture. Congratulations to him for reaching 75. And congratulations to me for not using the word ‘skinsman’ in these 700 or so words, despite almost unbearable temptation. Unless you count that mention just there, which I choose not to.

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  • ghostoflectricity

    A truism in the pop music business is that a good band with a mediocre drummer (e.g., The Beatles, Pete Best era) will go nowhere whilst a mediocre band with a good drummer will be successful. I have read that music professionals who listen only to the drum track of a Beatles song can immediately identify it; Ringo made subtle variations in his playing and so every song sounds distinct from the beat alone. It can also be said that The Rolling Stones finally clicked into place, after months together with no permanent drummer, when they finally persuaded an initially-reluctant Charlie Watts (who loved jazz, especially bebop- his hero was Charlie Parker- and looked askance at this scruffy, Delta-blues-loving crew) to join up in January 1963. Charlie is still providing the rhythm 52-plus years later. By the way, neither Ringo nor Charlie has ever done an extended drum solo- Ringo had to be persuaded by the other three Beatles to do a relatively brief one on the “Golden Slumbers” medley that concludes “Abbey Road.”

    Among ’60s-early ’70s drummers I will never argue with the Keith Moon, John Bonham, and Ginger Baker fans- what’s the point? But I feel they all went out of their way to call attention to themselves. We certainly got a lesson in over-extended drum solos watching the Grateful Dead pair (Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart) pound away for what seemed like hours in the band’s recent swan-song “Fare Thee Well” performances. My favorite rock drummers (leaving aside studio aces like Hal Blaine who have played on literally thousands of hit tracks but don’t belong to long-standing bands) are Bill Bruford (who left rock for jazz) and the late Mitch Mitchell (who was essentially a jazz drummer in an experimental rock band).

    • Innit Bruv

      I agree entirely about Ringo. I only realised how good he was when listening to Beatles Anthology III.
      With some of the instruments missing it was possible to focus on the drumming. It was a revelation.
      I have heard a Beatles track with Best on the drums
      (Love me do if memory serves). It was pretty basic to say the least. He certainly didn’t live up to his surname.

    • Scradje

      Re Charlie, the stones were a very raw band in their early days. What he did manage to do was hold their ramshackle sound together. I saw a vid on YouTube recently of them performing ‘Off the Hook’ on US TV during an early tour. They really would have sounded crap were it not for his built in jazz swing which gave them their all-important swagger. If you want to sound great, get a drummer who can both swing and play a shuffle properly. Muddy Waters had a guy called Willie ‘Big-Eyes’ Smith. Boy could he shuffle.

      • ghostoflectricity

        True that; Brian Jones had mastered guitar and slide guitar and Ian Stewart was a maven of boogie-woogie piano, but Jagger and Richards were still learning their skills and puzzling over their stage presences, as was Dick Taylor (no relation to Mick Taylor), the original bass player (who departed, preferring to play guitar, to form The Pretty Things with Phil May, and was replaced by Bill Wyman). Charlie’s arrival began to lock things into place; when Andrew Loog Oldham took over as manager, spring 1963, he officially made them a quintet by demoting Stewie, who took it well, and the rest was, as they say, history.

    • You sure sound like a drum lover. Come have a look at
      “A Purdie Good Life”, our upcoming documentary film project featuring one of the world’s most recorded and sampled drummer; Bernard “Pretty” Purdie!


    • Callipygian

      Rather unfair to Kreutzmann and Hart, who never, in the entire history of the band, tried to monopolize time or attention or did anything but be a fully integrated part of the band’s sound!

  • greencoat

    What does ‘beat up on’ mean?

    • post_x_it

      Don’t worry about it. The Speccie has gone American this week.
      In another article, it refers to a “gray” building.

      • Please come have a look at
        “A Purdie Good Life”, our upcoming documentary film project featuring the world’s most recorded and sampled drummer;
        Bernard “Pretty” Purdie!


        • post_x_it

          No sorry, I’m busy.

  • Partner

    Very amusing to see Eric Clapton’s face in the Baker documentary when asked if Keef Moon or Bonham were in the same league as Baker………

  • If you guys want to learn more about the world’s most recorded drummer: Bernard Purdie, we invite you to come support our documentary project paying homage to him.

    A Purdie Good Life, the Film:

    • Callipygian

      Once would have been enough. Or even twice….

  • Callipygian

    Pete Best was worst: a sad twist of nomenclature and fate combined.

    I like some Steely Dan songs. But your favourite band? Christ, what’s wrong with The Grateful Dead? Or if you need a smoother more electronic rock band, what’s wrong with Queen?