Mojo

Whatever Happened To The Great Rock Drummer?



Happy birthday, Led Zeppelin I! Fortyyears ago this week, the world was rocked by a band that might have struggledto establish themselves as something rather more than Jeff Beck Group copycatsbut for one oh-so-crucial difference. The drummer. Jeff Beck had Micky Waller(who died lastyear). But Led Zeppelin had John Bonham, and overnight rock 'n' roll had abrand new beat which echoes to this day.

The arrival of Bonzo on the scene makes 1969 the year of the rock stardrummer. For 1969 was the year Jagger rhetorically enquired from the stage at Madison Square Garden,"Charlie's good tonight, innee?" (and Wattshad indeed made a giant leap that summer with the cowbell-and-kick-drumbump-and-grind of Honky Tonk Women,a worldwide Number 1 for the Stones). It was the year even Ringo treated us--onAbbey Road--to a solo to show hecould keep up with the Keith Moons, Ginger Bakers and Mitch Mitchells--drummerswhose combination of prowess and showmanship demanded they share the spotlightwith the front-stage rock gods swinging the mike stands, humping the humbuckersand being busted by the Man.

These war baby rock 'n' roll drummers so bulged withstyle, panache and personality that you didn't have to be a trained muso toknow at gut-level that if you subtracted them from the band, you no longer hada band. Or at least, not one half so good. Whatever happened to drummers likethat? Drummers whose names even non-drummers knew? Drummers you'd champion in Melody Maker and Playboy year-end polls? Drummers at whom you'd even shout, "DoToad!!"?

Struggling to name a contemporary rock 'n' roll drummer with the kind ofclout that back in the Nixon era turned every velvet-looned fan of rock music'sfiner points into a gleeful, head-banging idiot, I came up with just threenames: Dave Grohl and, at a pinch,Larry Mullen and Meg White.

Only three? Either there is something wrong with drummers these days, orsomething wrong with me. I craved guidance, and for my pains was furnished witha list of names and YouTube links featuring hot polyrhythmic action. So I gotlost online for a while, and guess what? The best drummer alive is still funk legend Bernard Purdie (whichis to say, you can watch him host a drum clinic and find yourself tapping your footand muttering a groovy "Yeah!" to a computerscreen, for crying out loud). But his aren't the kind of chops I was after.

So, factoring out post-'69-but-no-longer-cutting-edge masters (forinstance, Richie Hayward, Paul Thompson, Stewart Copeland, Pete Thomas, Paul Cook,Topper Headon, Budgie, Steve Morris, John Maher, Reni or Brendan Canty) andstill-breathing hired hotshots (like "Pretty" Purdie, Hal Blaine, Steve Gadd,Sly Dunbar, Steve Jordan or Phil Collins--wonderful on Eno and John Martynrecords even if his band work with Genesis, like that of Bill Bruford with Yesand King Crimson, is more likely to induce a cerebral aneurism rather than awiggle in your hips) I give you a thumb less handful of drummers who wouldmerit comparison with the class of '69 if they had a little more originality:Phil Rudd of AC/DC, The Roots' ?uestlove, Rammstein's Christoph Schneider and The E Street Band's MaxWeinberg.

I alsogive you, and you're welcome to them, any number of onanistic speed-freaks,paradiddlists and swing-free flamsters for whom the human pulse, heartbeat andfeet are an utter irrelevance, thus flying straight over my head.

I'm sureDanny Carey (Tool), Joey Jordison (Slipknot), DaveLombardo (Slayer), Brian Chippendale (Lightning Bolt) and Todd Trainer (Shellac) are lovely guys, but, please God, don't move in next door.Nor, frankly, do Lars Ulrich of Metallica or the Red Hot Chili Peppers' ChadSmith measure up to the Great Generation either: too pedantic, too short onswing, too, in a word, white.

For it seems to me that a drummer's apprenticeshiplies at the heart of why the class-of-'69 so overshadows every generationsince. The greats-of-'69 learned their trade copping R&B and jazz drummerslike Baby Dodds, Gene Krupa, Dave Tough, Elvin Jones, Cozy Cole, Benny Benjaminand Jabo Starks, and honed their chops on a highly competitive live circuitwhere if they didn't get the customers to their feet, they wouldn't be askedback.

And if there's no denying that Metallica's Lars and the Chili Peppers'Chad have been getting their fans to their feet in far greater numbers and forfar, far longer than did Cream's Ginger Baker, then there's no denying eitherthat these cold and uncharismatic drummers rule right now because they are,quite frankly, the only game in town. We march to a different drum these days.

Rant over. Instead, a challenge: here are six mind-blowing showcasemoments from my class of '69. Can today's skinsmen get within a rim-shot of anyof them? Over to you.

Ringo Starr: "Rain" by The Beatles (single B-side, 1966)

Mitch Mitchell: "I Don't Live Today" by The JimiHendrix Experience ("Are You Experienced," 1967)

GingerBaker: "Tales Of Brave Ulysses" by Cream (LiveCream Volume II, recorded 1968)

Charlie Watts: "Monkey Man" by The Rolling Stones (Let It Bleed, 1969)

Keith Moon: "Magic Bus" by The Who (LiveAt Leeds, 1970)

John Bonham: "In My Time Of Dying" by Led Zeppelin (Physical Graffiti, 1975)

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