Tony Barrell’s Banging on About Drumming

Born to Drum is most engaging when it gets away from worrying so specifically about what draws people to the instrument.

A friend asked me recently why Jim Keltner is considered such a legendary drummer. My friend knew I played the drums, and other friends of his who also played the drums had singled out Keltner as being particularly great. I pointed him to Keltner’s classic drum break in Steely Dan’s “Josie”, and to his playing on George Harrison’s “Sue You, Sue Me, Blues” and Randy Newman’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On”. I should have added the gorgeous little fill Keltner plays on the last chorus of Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again”, or his drum duet with Matt Chamberlain on Fiona Apple’s “To Your Love”, but they slipped my mind.

Keltner’s playing is described with words like “slinky”, “laid back”, and “behind the beat”. These are impossible things to actually quantify, and almost equally impossible to describe. The fill from “Here You Come Again”, for example, slips past before you know anything is happening. Keltner’s most fist-raising drum moment might be the stunning tom rolls that he plays in Gary Wright’s “DreamWeaver”, or the one he plays on Harry Nilsson’s “Without You”. They certainly don’t have the same kind of immediate gratification of, say, Neal Peart’s jaw-dropping fills that open “The Spirit of the Radio” or the epic force of Ginger Baker’s tom pounding in “Sunshine of Your Love”, but that Keltner is able to so seamlessly sew these moments into ballads is a large part of his appeal.

You won’t find anything about Keltner in Tony Barrell’s Born to Drum, however. This isn’t necessarily a problem, though it sort of is. Born to Drum doesn’t focus on what makes particular drum parts work or not, or what makes one drummer’s playing different from another’s. It focuses, instead, on the questions of why anyone would choose to play the drums in the first place, and do drummers have traits in common that actually make them ‘drummers’ and therefore different from other people? Certainly there’s a set of characteristics that attract someone to playing the drums in the first place, the same way some are drawn to painting, or running, or poetry, or swimming, or gardening. Drums are loud, big, and exciting to play. And like any musical instrument, drums require a lifetime of practice and dedication.

Barrell’s line of questioning isn’t unreasonable, but his staunch dedication to it is full of such naïve sincerity that it slows the pace of his narrative. There are extended sections exploring whether perhaps people are attracted to drums because they have an affinity for collecting things, or because of their economic background, or because they like to show off, or simply because they’re crazy. All kinds of people wind up as drummers, though, so it feels a bit silly to really assume there’s some sociological trait they all share. Some like collecting stuff; some don’t. Some start off poor; some start off rich. Some struggle with addiction and mental illness, and others don’t.

Barrell’s quest for an answer never really seems to lead anywhere. And when discussing drumming, the least interesting thing about Steve Gadd, a man who has played with hundreds of artists across a huge variety of genres, is his tattoos. Ditto for Tommy Lee. And repeating Lee’s advice for handling threesomes and foursomes almost makes it easier to lose appreciation for his specific talent for playing crisp, concussive beats.

Barrell conducted interviews with a number of fine drummers, including Ash Soan, Omar Hakim, Joey Waronker, Debbi Peterson, and Phil Collins, but there’s a startling lack of variety that’s hard to look past. Drummers from virtually any style of music outside of rock and pop go largely unmentioned, and this isn’t carping over leaving out obscure players. While there are brief anecdotes about a handful of jazz greats, as well as the drummers of Motown and Stax, the greats of reggae, fusion, afro-pop, modern R&B, hip-hop, and funk are ignored almost completely. It may be that Barrell was only interested in rock and pop drumming, but if that’s the case, it seems an unforgivably limited view to take. And it would be less of an issue if Barrell didn’t quote from the same drummers so regularly. As the book progresses, it begins to feel overly repetitive.

Born to Drum is most engaging when it gets away from worrying so specifically about what draws people to the instrument, and instead explores the struggles drummers face when sticking with the instrument. Barrell interviews Mindy Abovitz, the drummer who runs the female-centered drum magazine Tom Tom, who says, “I remember typing into Google, ‘woman drummer’ or ‘female drummer’ or ‘girl drummer,’ and every search result brought up something like, ‘Can girls play the drums?’ Like a Yahoo question: ‘Can girls play?’ ‘How many women play?’ And then it’d be a bunch of sexy pictures of women next to drum sets. And I was thinking, ‘This is fucked! This isn’t real! This doesn’t match my world.’” Open any drum magazine and look at their ads, and you can easily see her point demonstrated.

Aerosmith’s Joey Kramer talks about the unique stress that comes with having people in your band, particularly your opinionated, larger-than-life, lead singer, offer their opinions on what you should be playing and how he handles that. Hole’s Patty Schemel talks about being replaced in the studio by Deen Castronovo for the recording of Celebrity Skin, and the impact that had on her life. And there are asides on the lack of songwriting credit and royalties granted to drummers, and the pain drummers face when their bands dissolve and how the fear of losing their band often drives them to be peace-keepers whenever intra-band tensions arise.

Drumming, more than most instruments, requires the right kind of confidence to be successful. A drummer is looked at as the timekeeper and the driving force of the band, and when things go wrong in a band, drummers are also usually the first to be blamed and replaced. Being a drummer in a band can shake you like nothing else. It’s not by mistake that Whiplash, a movie about self-torture and humiliation, focuses on a drummer. All that said, there’s nothing like playing the drums.

Barrell collects up the kinds of drum lore and asides that drummers talk to eachother about, and in that respect, Born to Drum is the kind of book that young drummers may enjoy. There’s the story about the cymbal Bill Bruford found in the trash and used to great effect on King Crimson’s Red, and the story of John Bonham forced to work in a stairwell during the recording of “When the Levee Breaks”. (Engineers will tell you the reason they made Bonham stay in the stairwell was because he was such an asshole that no could stand being around him).

Born to Drum is notably good-natured and sincere, but spends too much time on some rather dull lines of questioning, while barely skimming over some much more engaging avenues. The book is driven by an admirable amount of curiosity, but it’s a curiosity that’s frustratingly limited and it thus, the scope of the book is too narrow.

RATING 5 / 10