All Talk and No Stick

by Scott Kenemore

20 March 2007

When it comes to drummers, style can briefly eclipse substance. Before you know it, people are coming up to you in bars talking about what a great drummer Don Henley was.
Carter Beauford 

Most of the time, it’s pretty clear when a rock drummer is great or not so great, but sometimes people get it wrong. Sometimes lousy drummers get all the attention, and great players slip through the cracks. This can happen when very so-so drummers luck into incredibly talented bands or when they do things that distract people from their sub-par drumming (like act in films or sing).  It can happen when great drummers get lost in a band’s mix, or get fired for doing things that have nothing to do with their playing (like heroin). 

I play the drums myself, and I think these misunderstandings are like anything else in life. Style can briefly eclipse substance. People can start believing PR, instead of the evidence to the contrary. And, most universal of all, once somebody is out of the spotlight, they can be all too quickly forgotten. Then, before you know it, things have gotten so out of hand that people are coming up to you in bars talking about what a great drummer Don Henley was.

So let’s try to set some of these wronged drummers right again (and vice versa). Here are my top five in both categories.

The Overrated

1. Ringo Starr Being hard on Ringo’s drumming feels a little like striking out the pitcher. No matter how strenuously one points out that Ringo was actually not all that good, it still seems the point has been somehow missed. Yet when one subtracts the mystique and myth of the Beatles—a band that is to most rock critics what L. Ron Hubbard is to Scientologists—and puts Ringo’s drumming under the microscope, one ineluctably comes back to the fact that he’s not as wonderful as he’s made out to be.

Ringo was charismatic, endearing, and one of the better actors in the band—his work in The Magic Christian notwithstanding—but as a drummer, Ringo was often barely sufficient. His beats are tepid, characterless and uncreative. When the tune’s slow, Ringo plays like Levon Helm on downers, struggling to fill the space. When the Beatles take it up-tempo, you can almost hear Ringo holding them back. Yet Ringo continues to be incorrectly esteemed as a great musician, as rock critics further and further elevate the Beatles to heights of infallibility.

Let’s be clear, there are many reasons to esteem Ringo. (I’m sure he’s a nice man, and how many drummers started playing because of him?) Unfortunately, his drumming isn’t one of them.

photo copyright Enid Faber 2000

photo copyright Enid Faber 2000

2. Cindy Blackmon It is important to note that women seem to be unfairly underrepresented in the world of rock drumming. I don’t know why this is, but the reason certainly isn’t physiological. It’s established that women tend to have slightly more body fat and slightly less muscle mass, but so what? The rock drummer who probably had the fastest hands ever (Ginger Baker) had arms like twigs at the height of his powers, and the best drummer of all time (Buddy Rich) got to be a chubby bastard toward the end with no discernable effect on his playing.

So it’s maybe cool if Cindy Blackmon, Lenny Kravitz’s enthusiastic, sometimes-afroed drummer, gives girls the courage to pick up the sticks and give it a shot, but that’s about the only good thing I can think to say. The drummer for Lenny Kravitz should be a lot better.

Blackmon is a textbook case of a middling player holding a better artist back. True, she may have been hired for her looks and not her playing; the fault there lies with Lenny for hasty overpromotion. Still, one can’t shake the fact that Lenny himself is a better drummer than Cindy. You can hear it on songs like “Let Love Rule,” on which he plays with remarkable heart.

Cindy, on the other hand, is singularly uncreative and mechanical in her rock beats. In a review of her work with Kravitz, Jon Pareles of The New York Times wrote, “Cindy Blackmon on drums could switch from the splashy, sludgy style of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Mitch Mitchell to the casual economy of Ringo Starr.”
Just like Ringo, you say? Oh goody.

3. Don Henley Rarely do you hear a drummer who plays as though he actively hates the act of drumming. Rarer still, to hear such playing in a band as iconic as the Eagles. Nonetheless, hatred is the only explanation I have for why Henley plays the way he does.

Perhaps he preferred to concentrate on his singing, or the act of playing an instrument was too physically taxing for him. There is some evidence for this second idea. In a 1990 interview with Modern Drummer magazine, Henley said that playing the drums had given him a bad back. Whatever the reason, it’s clear on Eagles recordings that he regards playing the drums as a vagary, like cleaning his toilet or doing his taxes. There is no joy in his playing. Rather, it is uncreative and dead, a regrettable necessity that Henley hopes will be over soon.

Happily for his fans, Henley wised up when he went solo and ditched the drums entirely. Still, the idea that one would remember his work with the Eagles as having on any level involved “good drumming” is profoundly off-base.

4. Chris Frantz When the three founding members of Talking Heads began playing together in New York in the early 1970s, no member of the band was a virtuoso. When the group got its first gig opening for the Ramones, Tina Weymouth was still learning to play on a bass guitar she’d bought on layaway. But by the time of their final release in 1988—okay, their final release with David Byrne; that is, their final significant release— every member of the group had advanced to a level of skill and style worthy of rock’s top echelons. Every member except for one.

As the rest of the group noticeably improved from album to album, Chris Frantz remained mysteriously stymied. On most songs, he played a variation of the same tired four-beat, and with all the musical character of a junior high school student. The rest of Talking Heads clearly longed to move in musical directions that called for greater talent behind the drums. On Stop Making Sense, you can hear the band’s awkward attempt to accommodate for Frantz by adding a slew of backup percussionists. But there is, alas, only so much a conga drummer can do. By the time Talking Heads made Naked in 1988, Frantz’s playing was almost completely lost in a sea of backup percussionists.

But really, the most damning indictment of his playing is the exceptional solo work David Byrne has produced since leaving the rhythmically handicapped Talking Heads. The brilliant South American grooves on Bryne’s solo efforts give the listener just a taste of what the Talking Heads might have been… were it not for Chris Frantz. 

5. Carter Beauford The Dave Matthews Band’s drummer is on both of my lists. He’s on this one because when he’s praised—and he should be—it’s usually for the wrong reason. Live or recorded, Beauford’s drums sound amazing, and he gets lots of attention for this. His entire set has a great sound. However, he didn’t invent this sound, as many music fans insist. Beauford’s drum set is widely imitated. (The playing style is not, but more on that later). His deep, reverberating toms, flat snare (turned up very loud), and quick dark cymbals have become something like an industry standard. I—a drummer, you will remember—have worked on projects where the engineer mixed my drums by isolating one of my fills, isolating a DMB recording of one of Beauford’s fills, and trying to get them to sound identical.

The only problem with the influential, signature sound is that it isn’t his. It belongs to another preternatural drummer named William Kennedy, who refined it through years of playing with the Grammy-winning jazz group the Yellowjackets. Listen to any recording of William Kennedy’s and that sound is there. And it was there first. To his credit, Beauford is more than forthcoming about Kennedy’s influence whenever he is interviewed. Unfortunately, far more people listen to DMB than will ever hear (or hear of) the Yellowjackets. It is likely that Beauford will always be inaccurately celebrated as the “inventor” of an awesome new drum sound. 

The Underrated

1. Topper Headon Although his name isn’t likely to ring bells, it’s difficult to overestimate Topper’s work on the Clash’s London Calling (esteemed by Rolling Stone as “The Greatest Album of the 80’s” and ranked eighth on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time). The physically diminutive, poorly-spoken, heroin-addicted drummer for the Clash was not the group’s original skins man, nor was he its last. Topper was fired in 1982 when his drug use became unmanageable, even as the Clash toured in support of “Rock the Casbah” (a song Topper himself had written). Despite his personal failings, his contribution to the music was tremendous, and his drumming remains an undiscovered treasure for too many.

Rock fans everywhere recognize his opening beat to the Mick Jones song “Train in Vain.” A typical example of Topper’s excellent work, the beat is both catchy and deceptively complicated. Imitated in songs like “Stupid Girl” by Garbage (and just as widely sampled), one is lead to wonder where it would place if Rolling Stone did a “500 Greatest Beats of All Time”: My guess is maybe third, after “Bo Diddley” and “Wipeout”. Throughout his time with the Clash, Topper’s drumming remained superb. It does what drumming is supposed to do: make great songs even better.

Across the Clash catalog, Topper tackles punk, blues, and 1950s rockabilly with a facility that is sometimes hard to believe. And while esteeming musicians for “the notes they don’t play” is too often employed by apologists for bad drummers, Topper’s use of restraint is both clever and musically satisfying. The notes he doesn’t play, especially when those notes are cymbal crashes, leave the listener with the pleasantly funky sensation of ascending a staircase and reaching for a final, but nonexistent, step.

In the 2000 Clash documentary Westway to the World, Joe Strummer notes that the Clash auditioned an incredible 200 drummers before finding Topper. Little doubt can exist that he was worth the wait.

2. Bill Berry It is possible that R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry has been so quickly forgotten because of the way he went against the typical rock and roll lifestyle, marrying early, sensibly putting down his sticks when health problems cropped up, and quietly retiring to become a farmer. Yet this drummer (who is perhaps best known for his regrettably singular eyebrow) supported a range and breadth of music few others could.

R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck is hailed as a guitar wizard because he can craft songs that feel full and rich but on which he merely strums first-position chords or lightly plucks his strings. Few, it seems, think to credit the virtuosic playing of Berry (along with bassist Mike Mills) for the phenomenon of R.E.M.’s “mysteriously” full sound. Sure, Peter Buck can delicately pluck or distractedly strum, but only because Berry is sitting behind him actually working for a living.

Berry’s drumming is also surprisingly hard to do; it just doesn’t sound like it. His debut work on the Chronic Town EP is impressively up-tempo and very challenging but not distractingly so. The songs on Life’s Rich Pageant show a stunning refinement of his fast-paced, country-influenced style, and on “Little America” (from Reckoning) his 16-beat hi-hat work gives the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong” (notoriously difficult to play) a good run for its money. But one shouldn’t have to lawyer Berry onto this list song by song. His playing with R.E.M. speaks for itself.

3. Dino Danelli The work of very talented people can sometimes be unfairly eclipsed for no better reason than the bad luck of being born at the wrong time. The plays of Christopher Marlowe are brilliant and deserve to be read, but students will always focus on Shakespeare first. Kurt Gödel’s theorems should have made him the greatest theoretical mathematician of his day, and they would have, were it not for his contemporary Albert Einstein. And so it is with the talented but unlucky Dino Danelli.

Danelli started out as a jazz drummer and was hired to tour with vibes-great Lionel Hampton when he was only 15. In 1965, he joined a rock group called the Young Rascals (later shortened to the Rascals), and by 1967 the group had a top-20 song. This was due in no small part to Danelli’s playing.

Whatever his jazz style might have been, Danelli’s work with the (Young) Rascals was a rollicking, frenetic spectacle. It sounded great and it looked cool too. Danelli played hard and mean, hitting his drums like they owed him money. He was, for a moment, the archetypal “wild-man” drummer. Unfortunately for him, another band also had its first top-20 hit in 1967. That band was the Who, and its drummer was Keith Moon. Rightfully esteemed as one of the very best ever, Moon did everything Danelli did, and he did it just slightly better. His band also proved to be more enduring and productive than the Rascals.

After what must have seemed an instant in the spotlight, Danelli found himself eclipsed by a bigger, badder version of himself. Finishing a close second to a legend is no small feat however, and Danelli’s playing still sounds as lively today as it ever did. Literature students who make time to read Marlowe in addition to Shakespeare are deeply rewarded, and theoretical physicists who color their study of Einstein with some Gödel usually find themselves the better off for it. Likewise, rock fans who check out Dino Danelli (in addition to Moon, of course) are in for a very pleasant surprise.

4. Dave Krusen Pearl Jam’s Ten is one of the most important albums of the 1990s. Its sound and style served as a guidepost for aspiring grunge and alternative rock musicians at a time when the rules were still being written. How was grunge different from heavy metal? How was it similar? Ten helped answer some of these questions, especially when it came to drumming.

The outstanding drummer who played on Ten was Dave Krusen. He’s on my list as underrated because of the way he became a nonentity almost immediately after the album was completed. Pearl Jam fired him right as the record took off and replaced him with another drummer: the flashy, dramatically posing, product endorsing Dave Abbruzzese.

Dave A. was capable and fun to watch, but he was mostly just copying Dave K’s parts from the album. (When the time came to record a follow-up to Ten, Dave A.’s dearth of invention became all the more clear.)

Many rock fans feel that Pearl Jam has yet to capture the magic of Ten in its subsequent releases. Many drummers wonder if the missing ingredient might not be a guy named Dave Krusen.

5. Carter Beauford If Carter Beauford is such a good drummer—and he is—then why don’t more drummers sound like him? Why doesn’t his distinctive style catch on if it’s so good? When I go see local bands that imitate DMB, why don’t their drummers imitate Carter Beauford? It is, I think, telling that the last one of these questions can be answered with the simple rejoinder: “Because they fucking can’t.”

Imitation may be the greatest form of flattery, but in Beauford’s case, an exception must be made. His unique playing style—the hi-hat leads with his left hand, the independent movement of the kick drum, the impossibly quick single-stroke rolls—involves a level of musical proficiency that almost no other drummer alive today can copy. A frat boy in a dirty while baseball cap can strum and moan like Dave Matthews after a few months of practice, but to even begin to copy Beauford, one needs a natural coordination bestowed on very few.

When Rush burst on the scene, the prog rock drummers imitated Neil Peart. When Led Zeppelin hit, John’s Bonham’s influence could be heard in every other hard rock act. Yet in jam-bands influenced by DMB, one hardly detects a beat or fill influenced by Beauford, and because of this, his position as an “influential drummer” can be called into question. It shouldn’t be. Rather, his playing style, itself physically unable to be copied, should be held up as the very definition of the word inimitable.

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