Monday, 3 March 2014
Top Ten AAA Drummers (News, Views and Music Issue 235)
Keeping the beat, grooving and moving the sound, shaking and quaking behind the other musicians or overshadowing everybody else with something explosive: drummers can make or break a band. Everyone has a story about what hgappened when they gained a drummer: Both Keith and Mick to some extent claim the Rolling Stones only got going when they managed to fund enough for Charlie Watts to join them full-time; The Byrds started off with a drummer who was hired mainly as a fashion icon for his long blonde hair before later getting to grips with his percussion duties and The Monkees chose Micky Dolenz more by default than anything else (I still don't know why they did - Davy Jones had a great sense of rhythm and could have fulfilled the druming role easily while Micky was a fine guitarist). So here is our tribute to who we consider the top ten best AAA drummers, in as close to an order as we could come up with. If you're interested in this article you might also want to read our top ten greatest drum solos (http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/the-greatest-aaa-drum-solos-or-near.html%20%0D161) and our top twenty greatest AAA guitarists (http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/news-views-and-music-issue-129-top-ten.html and http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012_01_15_archive.html ) So who come out on top?! A drum roll please...
10) Spencer Dryden (Jefferson Airplane 1967-70)
Jefferson Airplane were, famously, 'four bands in one'. Marty Balin added pop and folk crooning, Grace Slick added dark and crazy, Paul Kantner thought up big thoughts and guitarist and bassist Jorma Kaukanen and Jack Casidy played psychedelic jazz with a hint of blues. The only musician linking this disparate band was their drummer in their peak years, Spencer Dryden who managed to sound both conventional when he needed to be and out-there and wild when the band were improvising at a hundred miles an hour. Revealed after his death to be the nephew of Charlie Chaplin (no kidding - he kept it quiet because he didn't want to 'succeed' only through the family name), Spencer may have only been the band's second of four drummers during their brief six years together but it's no coincidence he played on just about every famous Airplane song there is. Much under-rated. Our nomination for best performance: The instrumental 'Spare Chaynge' is your best bet for hearing what he's doing in the context of the band minus singers, 'Two Heads' shows what a hard-hitting rock and roller Spence could be and 'Crown Of Creation' evidence of how he could roll with any song, however uniquely structured.
9) Kenney Jones (Small Faces 1966-68)
One of the great things about the Small Faces was how much noise they made, despite looking, well, small and fragile. A lot of that was down to Kenney Jones' sterling work on the drum stool and like many of the 1960's best musicians he managed to adapt from brutal, simple no frills rock and roll in the middle of the decade to complex psychedelia at the end. To my ears Kenney had the best control of cymbals of any drummer and his constant, relentless rattle is a key part of the Faces' sound from beginning to end. Slightly lost in the poppier sound of the Faces (where he sounds a little 'busy') and heavily criticised for his work with The Who as Keith Moon's replacement (where he isn't 'busy' enough, being too regular and metronomic a drummer to keep up with the Loon), he was nevertheless the perfect foil for Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane and like the pair of chief songwriters managed to stay both earthy and soar into the skies. Another much under-rated drummer. Our nomination for best performance: 'Hey Girl', an early single low on subtlety but big on fire and power.
8) Chris Curtis (The Searchers 1963-66)
Some people dismiss the Searchers for sounding too 'pretty' compared to their peers like the Stones, The Kinks, The Who or even The Beatles. In the harmonies, maybe (although there's nothing wrong with sounding 'pretty' in my book), but the Searchers' rhythm section in both line-ups was one of the most raucous, riotous sounds of the 60s. Chris Curtis didn't play the drums, he dominated them, hurling himself at the kit and finding himself breathless at the end of nearly every song (although this never stopped him providing some weary-sounding harmonies during live shows). On record he was sufficiently clever and skilled to throw in something different on every record: his super little drum rolls just make songs like 'Don't Throw Your Love Away' the special little crafted masterpieces they are. But live his drumming takes on another gear, making the Searchers sound both primal and scary. Nomination for best performance: the 'Swedish Broadcast version of 'What'd I say?' in which call-and-answer is turned into an art form. That's Curtis singing the lead vocal at the same time as out-Mooning Keith on the drums by the way...
7) Mick Avory (The Kinks 1964-85)
With any other group Mick Avory might have sounded ordinary (he should have been the Stones' drummer and played a few gigs with them, although they only had eyes for Charlie). With the other equally shambolic players in The Kinks however, he was capable of magic, night after night. Even turning up to the band's audition in his scout's uniform - the only clean clothes he had - couldn't obscure the fact that he was a drummer clearly built for the band. Meeting him was their lucky break, especially as until the 1980s Mick was the only drummer to play with The Kinks (they'd been getting by as two guitarists and a bass player). An emotional drummer who - like Ringo - is at his best when he's 'moved' by a song he feels a connection to, it's just as well he ended up in a band with as emotional a writer as Ray Davies. The Kinks' sound changed one heck of a lot down the years, from R and B to music hall to concept albums to AOR rock and Avory judged things perfectly, becoming slowly more detailed and then gradually more basic with every throw of the Kinks' Kareer dice. For my money, though, his greatest work is on 'Arthur', Ray's concept work where the Davies' uncle is a metaphor for all the ordinary working men who got hurt by WW2 and what came afterwards. Mick turns in a searing performance which might well be the best set of drumming across a single album, sounding like the WW2 sirens, stretching out into drum solos that simply thrash all hope away and finding just the right 'empty' touches on the ballads. Mick Avory is often overlooked but he was integral part of a great band. Our nomination for greatest performance: 'Shangri-La', as five minute song with more mood swings than most 45 minute records and going from feather-light hope to battle-hardened fury in the flick of a drumstick.
6) Alan White (Oasis 1995-2003)
I always feel sorry for original Oasis drummer Tony McCarroll who certainly wasn't the worst player in the band by any means. But there's no denying that Oasis' sound stepped up a hundred gears when the band brought in his replacement Alan White. McCaroll's drumming tended to come in adrenalin rushes perfect for the band's early sound but White managed to make everything sound big and important, even (especially?) the ballads, a neat musical match for the band's 'wall of noise' guitar sound. Starting with the 'Morning Glory' album, White survived a longer stint with the Gallagher brothers than any other band member before finally calling it a day after the 'Heathen Chemistry' sessions. Loud and proud but precise and meticulous enough for the subtlety in Noel's songs, White was a very under-rated part of making Oasis' music the sound of the late 1990s, with several bands trying to copy his drumming style and all of them failing. Trivia for you here: Beatles fans might have noticed that White shares his name with the session drummer who replaced Ringo on The Beatles' album version of 'Love Me Do' and later worked with Lennon's Plastic Ono Band. The two aren't related, but Alan is the brother of Paul Weller/The Style Council's drummer Steve White. Our nomination for greatest performance: 'Headshrinker', a lowly B-side and one of White's first performances with the band but perhaps the ultimate example of Oasis working as a no-overdubs live-in-the-studio group who can play as intensely and noisily as anyone.
5) Nick Mason (Pink Floyd 1967-1994)
An architect student, like fellow Floyd Roger Waters, Mason's drumming manages the amazing double-feat of sounding meticulously detailed and pre-planned and gorgeously spontaneous. It's just as well, really, given the many different directions the Floyd took over the years, from the unorthodox Syd Barrett years to the more lyrical Roger Waters days to the poppier Gilmour pair of records. Mason is, in fact, the only member of the band to have played on every single Pink Floyd record. Nick has an unusual role to play within the Floyd, a band who pride themselves on the theme of 'absence' and who arguably spend more time on ideas and lyrics than on band performances (recording by means of overdub is quite useful for singers but a lousy deal for drummers who need to 'react' to everyone else in the room and invariably record their bits 'first' with nothing to go on). He's a very empathetic, natural player who blends into the background unless he's given a starring role to play, despite recording arguably more drum solos than any other AAA drummer (on 'Ummagumma' and across the three Floyd film soundtracks). Our nomination for greatest performance: perhaps it's the sheer unhinged noise of it all, perhaps it's the Ancient Rome backdrop or perhaps it's because the film crew 'lost' several cans of film showing the other three Floydians performing the song but the near-solo performance of 'One Of These Days' from the 'Live at Pompeii' DVD is a tour de force, with the camera riveted to Nick's drum-stool in shock and awe.
4) Charlie Watts (Rolling Stones 1962-present)
Charlie (and Bill Wyman come to that) are the Stones' safe pair of hands. Keith might be feeling messed up, Mick might be playing around with what new prop the band have on-stage this tour and Brian Jones/Ronnie Wood are busy chatting up the front row but Charlie knows exactly how to control a song, spin it out to its maximum and get the group home in time for tea. Perhaps it's his natural character, perhaps a disdain for the press or maybe even a dislike for rock and roll (Charlie is a bigger fan of jazz, despite being one of rock's steadier drummers) but Charlie doesn't do much talking within the Stones and even less outside it, so that few except the true Stones fans even acknowledge he's there. To be honest Charlie is doing enough talking in the music, deferred to by everyone - even Keith - on stage and with enough kudos amongst the world's drummers to know how good he is (he reportedly punched a drunken Jagger for calling him 'my drummer' in the mid 1970s and told him in no uncertain terms 'no - you're my singer'). Recent Stones producers have kind of latched onto Watts' role in the band, mixing him up louder and louder in the mix of each successive album, but rather miss the point: the drums should never be the biggest or most important sounding thing on a Stones record, but they should be at the centre of things the point where the music has organically spread out and grown from. Our nomination for best performance: 'Paint It Black', where West meets East, singalong meets depth and detail and the drums sound like the musical equivalent of poking the narrator with a big stick.
3) Billy Kreutzmann (Grateful Dead 1965-95)
To be fair the two Dead drummers should be treated together: after all, their distinctive sound of 'chasing their own tail' is an equal partnership. But I for one have always marvelled at how, for the short time before Mickey Hart joined the group (and again when Hart leaves briefly the group between 1970 and 1975) the drum sound of the band doesn't really change. Like most of the Dead, Billy is much happier on the road than in the studio and has played some absolutely blistering sets over the years (especially in 1971 and 1972), inventing new ways of keeping a single song fresh long past the point when a majority of drummers have run out of licks and gone back to the dressing room. Always ready to explore and search out new ground, Billy's drumming can change in a milli-second, pouncing on a phrase that one of the others (more often than not Jerry Garcia) has just thrown out to the band and running with it as fast and as brilliantly as any drummer. Even in the studio Kreutzmann is one of life's less-is-more drummers, correctly balancing the weight of percussion against the Dead's slower, quieter, gentler songs. The only band member to retire when Garcia died, we'll never fully know where his playing could have gone after a slightly dodgy 1980s, but the band's last rehearsals (in 1993) may well be the greatest revelation in his playing. Our nomination for greatest performance. here's a reason most bands don't improvise on stage: most drummers can't hack sudden, unexpected changes and keep the band on track the way that Billy (and Spencer Dryden) can. 'That's It For The Other One' (in pretty much any version), where the drums build up from nowhere and embark on a scary, hallucinatory but enlightening journey that breaks away for junctions, side-roads and shunting but still ends up exactly where it needs to go.
2) Keith Moon (The Who 1965-78)
Moon the Loon never believed that drummers were there to be heard and not seen. For him, there were no reason the drums couldn't be the lead instrument and he didn't so much play his drumkit as go several rounds in a boxing match with them. Reports of what Keith did to his drums are legendary: filled with water to 'spray' his bandmates with, throwing a stick into the air every thirty seconds and grabbing a new one mid-song, blowing his kit up with high explosives; there wasn't anything that could be done to a drumkit that Keith didn't do. Most non-Who fans think that Keith's showmanship was to cover up the fact that he couldn't play and the band continually faced accusations of 'sloppy' playing that centred on Moon's role in the band. Complete and utter nonsense - if that was true the Who would never have got past the first verse of any of their songs. What Keith did so magnificently was to play every single note that was needed - he just didn't stop there and played every other note he could think of as well. But just as in life where Moony's jokey persona did his best to disguise it, Keith knew exactly what he was doing and never played a note wrong - well not until drugs, booze and old age began to catch up with him in the mid-1970s anyway. The Who didn't just play music in their concerts in their heyday, they exploded. The fact that even an ailing Keith at the end of his life could play better than the almost as equally wonderful drummer Kenney Jones says much about how the rest of the band relied on Moon to fill up the 'holes' in their playing and what a loss he was to music when he died. Our nomination for greatest moment: '5:15'. There are very few cover versions of one of The Who's most famous songs, simply because to anyone else it's unplayable: Keith has to charge like one of rock's primal drummers, sounding like the album narrator Jimmy at his most confused and enraged, but in a tricky time signature that calls for great precision and has to 'sound' like a train coming off the rails at the end. No other drummer could have done it.
1) Bobby Elliott (The Hollies 1963-present)
Most drummers can be divided into flashy, spectacular showmen and the steady drummers who get everything spot-on every time. Bobby Elliott is a rare example of a drummer who can do both. Another musician steeped in jazz rather than rock and roll, Bobby didn't join the Hollies till their third single ('Stay') and at the time the replacement seemed an odd decision (original drummer Don Rathbone was more than adequate by 1963 standards). But it made perfect sense when you heard the energy Bobby brought to the band, the musical equivalent of Clarke, Nash and Hick's enthusiastic peeling harmonies. Even The Beatles tried to poach him when it seemed like Ringo wasn't working out (had Bobby been born anywhere except Manchester - the big rivals for a band from Mersyside - he probably would have joined). No other drummer - even Keith Moon - ever fitted in quite so many drum fills as Bobby did almost nonchalantly and yet no one would ever claim that he ever got in the way of the band's main selling point (those harmonies). You can telly Elliott is a clever drummer whose thought long and hard about what to play and is eclectic enough to handle the many changes of genre the Hollies dabbled in across their first 20 busy years and yet Elliott doesn't sound as slick and polsihed as other drummers can either, sounding spontaneous and high on energy and adrenaline. Our nomination for greatest moment: we can't decide between three great ones: 'Nitty Gritty' (in which Bobby is the band for the second half of the song) 'Survival Of The Fittest' (where Bobby's drum solo is a spectacular tour de force and one of the most exciting AAA moments of them all) and 'Soldier's Song' (where the drums singlehandedly sound like an army at battle).
Did we drum up support for your favourite entry? Or do you think our selections should have been relegated to tea, sympathy and tambourine? Let us know - and be sure to join us next week for more news, views and music