Monday, 19 November 2012

The Greatest AAA Drum Solos (Or Near Solos!): News, Views and Music Issue 171 Top Ten


Everyone in the AAA house please make some noise for this week’s top ten: a run-down of AAA drummers and their solos. Keen music watchers will know that, while lesser spotted than the guitar or keyboard solo, the heavy rumble of a properly played drum solo is easy to spot and is often the most exciting part of the record. Not every group has them and few groups use them all the time (take a bow Keith Moon!) but enough AAA drummers have had a go at recording a drum solo – or something very close to it (vocal/drum duets are allowed) for us to include a top 10 of them. In the interests of fairness we’ve restricted appearance on this list to once per drummer – please note that our two Who appearances on this list feature different drummers! Rather than go for the safe alphabetical/chronological options we’ve gone for naming and shaming our favourite down to our least favourite moments. Right, now that’s done, a drum roll please...

1) Bobby Elliott (The Hollies) “Survival Of The Fittest” (‘Confessions Of The Mind’ 1970)

The last ever Clarke-Hicks-Nash song to appear on a Hollies album, this spiffing song about the pressures of fame and the shabbiness of tinseltown mythology inspires perhaps the single greatest Hollies performance. The harmonies are in full stride, Tony Hicks’ guitar is powerful and loud, but underpinning it all is Bobby Elliott’s inspired jazzy drum licks and quickstep rat-tat-tats. In the middle eight of the song the players and singers all drop out leaving 20 seconds or so of what we rate as the greatest drum solo of all time. Bobby gradually moves further and durther out of the song’s main riff, going for an exploratory look round his full drum kit while doubling with a cowbell rhythmically ticking down the seconds. The sheer power of his last drum fill, which somehow staggers through the back door back to the song’s main riff, is a masterpiece of precision, power and timing. Sadly Bobby never gets a true drum solo on a Hollies record again – fans salivated over the news that a piece named ‘Bobby’s Solo’ had been spotted on a Hollies sessionography, but it turns out that it’s just the drummer reading out some poetry. Boo!

2) Keith Moon (The Who) “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (‘Who’s Next’ 1971)

Almost every Who song is a near-drum instrumental, with Keith filling up the band’s ‘power trio’ sound so much that his work is often quoted as being the ‘lead instrument’ in the band. Some critics say he’s really a sloppy drummer but they’re wrong – Keith doesn’t just hit the notes wildly, he hits all the right ones every other drummer hits, but twice as fast and with several passing notes in between. However real solos are actually remarkably few and far between – the closest we could come up with was a TV-broadcast version of ‘So Sad About Us’ (as featured in the ‘30 Years Of Maximum R and B’ DVD) and the middle (well, two thirds in to be picky) instrumental break during one of the band’s most famous songs. A paean to the downtrodden and misled, generation after generation, this sterling Pete Townshend song inspires a great performance by the whole band, especially Moon’s rush of energy before Roger Daltrey kicks back into the final verse screaming his lungs out. A slow charge suddenly builds up a head of steam, is pummelled to the floor and finally lets go all the tension of the previous (gulp) six minutes in an exhilarating moment of free-form playing. Incidentally, if you own the Who ‘Kids Are Alright’ DVD set and haven’t checked out the extras yet have a watch of the ‘Moon Cam’ and see how busy and energetic Keith’s part on a 1978 live version of this song and ‘Baba O’Riley’ are, even with Keith already very ill after years of wine, women, drugs and TV sets thrown out of windows and playing his last show with the band.

3) Bill Kreutzmann and Micky Hart (Grateful Dead) “That’s It For The Other One” (‘Anthem Of The Sun’ 1968)

A bit of a cheat in that the Dead in this period used two drummers, who in Jerry Garcia’s words are ‘the serpent that chases its own tail’, following, echoing and inspiring each other rather than playing straight duets. I love this 1968-71 period of the Dead mainly than any other, partly because of the brilliant songs in this period but partly also because of having the two drummers working together to inspire the best in each other. Of all the drummers on this list Kreutzmann is one of the most capable but also one of the most generous – few bands can manage two drummers properly because they fight over control of a band’s sound, especially after several years playing alone. But the pair have a spooky telepathy together, both in their notorious ‘drums’ battles heard in most Dead concerts and in songs like this one, a rambling flowing tale of, well, everything (‘getting psychedelic’ is the best description I’ve read). Garcia’s opening is all about fate and mortality, Bob Weir’s middle is about escapism and adventure and in between we have a marvellous example of the band’s drummer interplay, tearing this way and that and linking these two sections between the known and the unknown. All of human life is contained within this song and the rush of energy in the drum parts is a perfect microcosm of coming to terms with the two sides of human nature. Well, that and the fact these two guys whack a piece of skin tied over plastic really really well.

4) Nick Mason (Pink Floyd) “One Of These Days” (‘Meddle’ 1971)

I was a little stuck which of Mason’s mini drum outbreaks to go for, especially as I admire his looser, more psychedelic (read ‘improvised’) playing in the Syd Barrett years most of all. But I’ve always felt that, to some extent, Mason was wasted in such a thoughtful, ponderous, controlled band – his real mettle comes in the few chances the Floyd have to let down their hair and play straight forward rock and roll. Mason’s power is his main role in the band and his playing on perhaps the greatest of all Floyd rock and roll songs is extraordinary: leaping and attacking everything that moves throughout half the song and dropping back to build up tension in the other. The studio version as heard on ‘Meddle’ is impressive indeed, but check out the ‘Live at Pompeii’ DVD for Mason at his best, dominating the band sound like never before (it helps that the director for the film lost half of his footage in transit and only had film of the drummer and a little bit of guitarist David Gilmour to include in the finished version!)

5) Mick Avory (The Kinks) “She’s Bought A Hat Like Princess Marina” (‘Arthur’ 1969)

Let’s remember, Mick Avory was a straightforward rock and roll drummer who was one of the most in demand rock drummers in London in the early 60s (he played with the Stones for a spell too). He wasn’t built for Ray Davies’ more pastoral, more English, more – well – eccentric songs such as this, a music hall spoof of a working class fooled into buying hats to be like the rich, even though that means they can’t afford food. The rest of the band – of any period in Kinks history – often struggle with Ray’s weirdest material, but Avory was always there, playing at his best (till he left the band in 1985 at least). This song is basically a duet for kazoo and drums, with a bit of fiery vocals over the top, and Avory never gets this space for his playing again, absolutely letting fly on the conclusion with a noisy drum battle between himself that sounds particularly great on headphones. ‘Arthur’ is Mick;s greatest moment as a drummer (his double-tracked playing on ‘Mr Churchill Say’s is another special AAA moment), but this solo – encompassing the sarcasm, the empathy and the frustration in this song – wins by a nose.

6) Gene Parsons (The Byrds) “Fido” (‘The Ballad Of Easy Rider’ 1969)

John York wrote this song partly to show off the drumming skills of his new friend Gene Parsons. An excellent banjo player, Parsons played a bit of everything in his youth before winding up as the Byrds’ third drummer and his looser-than-average playing thrills and fails fans in equal measure. Personally I love Parsons’ looser work, much more suited to the band’s rocking style than their country one despite his background in Nashville bands, and this song is as good a rock and roll song as the band ever made. Playing what sounds like glass bottles, Parsons doubles the riff on his bass drum, managing to make his extended solo sound both exotic and powerfully raw at the same time. Whether it fits this song about a dog keeping the narrator up at night is another matter, but I’d rate this burst of energy as perhaps the greatest 10 second moment of the Byrds’ ‘Ballad Of Easy Rider’ album.

7) Kenney Jones (The Who) “Cry If You Want” (‘It’s Hard’ 1982)

I always felt that Small Faces drummer Jones got a raw deal when he joined The Who as Keith Moon’s replacement in 1979. Like Keith, he’s raw aznd wild, but with an inner discipline which means he still hits all the right notes other drummers do (along with a few extra!) His time in the band co-incided with Pete Townshend’s biggest insecurity and some pretty weak (by Who standards) songs , but his playing is ever so nearly as good as Moon’s (as close as any drummer alive can ever get anyway). The closest Kenney ever came to a solo in his Small Faces days was the instrumental title track of ‘Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake’ – this Who performance wins by a nose thanks to some tight rat-a-tat military drumming and an ability to break out of the tight, controlled space at just the right times. A scathing self-loathing song from Townshend, its highlighted by a middle eight calling for the narrator to let his emotions go, sounding like an addiction self-help group mantra and makes for a loud and powerful, though uncomfortable, last track on a last final Who album (for some 24 years at least!)

8) Micky Dolenz (The Monkees) “Randy Scouse Git” (‘Headquarters’ 1967)

By his own admission, Micky was an actor playing the part of a rock and roll drummer and was so wayward a player on the band’s studio session that the others soon got tired and brought in a professional session musicians to play (I was always surprised Davy wasn’t made the drummer, given his strong sense of timing with the tambourine, which is often used instead of Micky’s drumming on the Monkees’ middle period work). Still, Dolenz – already an accomplished guitarist, had a good feel and style all of his own and excelled on his own work where he left himself more space to play around and experiment with his sounds and styles. The kettle drum sound in the beginning, middle and end of ‘Randy Scouse Git’ (better known in the UK as ‘Alternate Title’ after the name got banned by the BBC) is wild and furious, the rumble unsettling and signifying something new and dangerous, something that’s doubled up in the song’s hazy menace and surreal images of Dolenz’s trip to England. Basic it may be, but few players would have had the imagination to come up with such a part, which is so integral to one of The Monkees’ better songs.

9) Ringo (The Beatles) “The End” (‘Abbey Road’ 1969)

I must admit I’m not a big fan of Ringo’s playing (come back Pete Best!) who only really comes alive on a couple of the more impassioned Lennon songs like ‘Rain’ ‘A Day In The Life’ and ‘She Said She Said’. Sadly none of those songs really have the drumming central to the song so what we’re left with is the rather tentative and basic solo towards the end of the infamous Abbey Road medley. Figuring that the three guitarists in the band (in order George, John and Paul) had been given their own instrumental part at the beginning of ‘The End’, Paul kept pleading and cajoling Ringo to record his first drum solo for the band and give himself a moment to shine. The guitarists all shine using their different personalities to infuse their playing, but for these ears Ringo’s playing really lets the side down, so cautious and inexpressive you don’t really get any feeling of personality or particular skill. Much better are McCartney’s solo live versions of this track, which feature respectively Chris Whitten, Blair Cunningham or Abe Lorial Jnr (depending on whether you’re listening to Macca’s 1989-90, 1993 or 2001-date tours).

10) Dennis Wilson (The Beach Boys) “Denny’s Drums” (‘Shut Down Volume 2’ 1964)

Even worse, however, is this bit of ‘filler’ from the Beach Boys, who are so desperate to make up their four-albums-a-year allowance dictated by record label Capitol that they let Dennis Wilson have a go at his own drum solo. In Dennis words, ‘I’m a clubber, not a drummer’ and Dennis only ever learnt to play so that he could get in on the interest girls were showing in brother Brian on stage in the band’s early days and his playing remains shaky to the end (surprisingly for one so musically gifted in other ways – his piano playing, for instance, is warm and patient across his solo work, a world away from the wild thrash on display here). Unfortunately Dennis’ playing here sounds like exactly what it is – a feisty attempt to play by a beginner – rather than evidence of real talent or skill like the drummers at the top of our list. How typical then – the one AAA song that really is an undiluted drum solo and it’s from the drummer who, by his own admission, was probably the least talented percussionist on this list!

That’s all for another week. Join us soon for more news, views and music at the AAA!

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