A couple of truisms. First, a group is only as good as its drummer. And second, if you have a rock drummer in your group, it will ipso facto be a rock group, irrespective of instrumentation or musical style. Conversely if you have a jazz drummer in your group, it’s a jazz group, like it or not. So we accept that if your ensemble has one, the drummer is kind of important.
With this in mind, I’ve been mulling over what was so spectacularly irritating about the drummers episode of the BBC2 TV Show “I’m in a Rock and Roll Band!” I had the misfortune to be associated with this as a marginal contributor. When the producer called, he described it as a great opportunity to ‘forensically disect’ what it is that makes drummers tick. Unhappily, he managed no such thing. He produced the tabloid cliches so beloved of the army of rock wish-I-had-beens that now, in middle-age, commission and produce TV and radio show about their heroes. These shows dwell at length on the older drummers of whom they have pre-existing ‘wild-antics’ footage – Moon, Baker and Bonham – and let’s them recreate the driving-the-limo-into-the-swimming-pool story. What fun lads. And for pity’s sake, if I see that stock aerial shot of the three Emerson, Lake and Palmer trucks with the names of the boys painted on their roofs one more time, I think I’ll scream.
But then maybe that’s right, I’ve had this wrong all along. Maybe throwing TVs out of bedrooms is all there is to it. I didn’t take myself too seriously, I just took myself seriously – an unforgiveable sin in rock. And how narrow is rock drumming as defined by the BBC! The choice of drummers you can vote for in this hopelessly one-sided ‘interactive’ little programme are overwhelmingly white, British, male, decrepit or dead – Baker, Moon, Bonham, Palmer, Collins, Starr etc – all worthies to be sure – and all wholly reflective of the producers taste, but come on! Is that all there is to rock drumming? No wonder it’s fossilised! It’s so arthritic it can barely turn over in it’s revolving drum chair during its own solo! It’s so devoid of imagination that it looks back to the days when Stewart Copeland used a little white reggae as golden! Copeland may well have been the last imaginative guy left on planet rock drum before they turned out the lights. This efforts of this decrepit list, worthy in and of their own time, are what are fed to the army of young wannabe rock drummers going through schools and colleges as we speak.
I’ll put it simply. Everything of interest in rock drumming came from, and comes from, somewhere else. In the early days, military rudiments, New Orleans jug bands, a touch of vaudeville, swing, church, and rhythm and blues, made a heady stew. In my day the picture broadened and changed, with odd-meters from Turkey, electronics from Dave Simmons, and early brushes with gamelan, minimalism, Latino and African music. Now, drummers as a wider brother (and sister)hood are looking forward to playing Indian rhythms on the drumset, getting to grips with metric modulation, absorbing dozens of sub-genres of metal, rap, and hip-hop, and learning to improvise with timbre – the texture of sound – as their control over the vast colour-palettes of hybrid electo-acoustic kits improves alarmingly.
All this will eventually find it’s way into rock, and hence the mass market, but only if we smoothe the path, and encourage it to do so. The more we prattle on about rock drumming ‘being’ Moon and Bonham – even if half a century ago it was – the greater the disservice we do to rock drumming, and the legions of smart young guys out there who have something to contribute. Talk about a golden opportunity lost. So much for ‘forensic analysis of what makes drummers tick’. Drummers’ esteem, already low, will be pushed through the floorboards if BBC2 TV is allowed to go on mis-representing drumming with such enthusiasm.
Give me the budget next time and I’ll show people what drummers do. Phew – I should write a book about this stuff.