British music journalist Tony Barrell tries to get timekeepers some props. Or at least figure out why Tommy Lee has that Mighty Mouse tattoo.
Born to DrumPublisher: Dey Street
Length: 302 pages
Author: Tony Barrell
Publication date: 2016-02
Quick, how many famous drummers can you name? Unless you are a drummer yourself, chances are you wouldn’t need more than one hand to count them.
Yet from rock to soul to techno to reggae, taking the drums out of any form of popular music necessitates an immediate change in nomenclature. “Acoustic”, “unplugged”, “ambient”. This is what we call music without drums. Or, as Barrell puts it in an ominously clunky simile in his introduction, “A band without a drummer is like a rocking chair that somebody has cruelly bolted to the floor: while it may appear to rock, it actually doesn’t.”
How could a position so essential to the very fabric of modern music be so easily overlooked and undersold? That is the question the British music journalist Tony Barrell aims to tackle in Born to Drum.
Here's a confession. I, your humble reviewer, am a drummer. I would be lying if I said I was not a bit excited about the prospect of a proper music journalist taking up the cause, trying to get drummers some respect and, more daunting, present them as a compelling subject worth reading words on paper about. “The truth about the world’s greatest drummers”, teases the front cover, implying some secret, undiscovered drumming epiphany or conspiracy was there to be uncovered. If only Born to Drum were half that interesting.
More on the lousy application later. First, though, consider Barrell’s lousy concept. Have a look online, and you will find there are not a lot of books about guitarists. Or bassists, or even singers. There are instructional books, sure. There are many biographies of individual guitarists, bassists, and singers. There are even collections and countdowns, and lists of biographies of guitarists, bassists, and singers. But there are few books that try to cover the entire gamut of any of those in one single, continuous volume. Why?
Because it's impossible to cover such a subject in such a sweeping, definitive way. Simply put, Barrell in Born to Drum is attempting to put all drummers, of every shape, type, style, genre, gender, and era, under a single umbrella. “What makes drummers different from ordinary people who don’t use sticks for a living?” he asks rhetorically, not realizing he has answered his own question: Most drummers are ordinary people. It’s like trying to write a book that unlocks “the truth” about lawyers. There are too many variables. Too many lines of delineation, too many substrata. When your premise is moot, you don’t have much room to move. And so Barrell adds that he wants to address “the culture, history, and psychology of drumming”. All in 300 pages or less.
Brammell therefore flounders around, stretching to draw comparisons or identify common denominators or find any type of narrative thread. To use a silly drumming metaphor the author might appreciate, it’s the journalistic equivalent of slopping a bunch of porridge on a snare drum and beating it repeatedly with a large mallet. Stuff goes everywhere in every which direction, and it’s all pretty bland.
Mind, Born to Drum is organized into supposedly thematic chapters. Naturally, the first of those addresses the notion that drummers are crazy. Is it well-founded? First Barrell cues up Keith Moon and John Bonham, before quickly covering some other drummers who also might have been crazy, or had psychological problems. But then he lets slip that most drummers are not certifiably crazy.
OK, then, what about the assumption drummers are dim-witted? Well, some of them are pretty funny. Barrell goes through a few more anecdotes before revealing his first bit of truth. “When you sign up as a drummer, some people are going to assume automatically that you’re either insane or stupid.”
Having come to this shocking revelation on page 31, Barrell then has to, erm, say some other stuff about drummers. They have “normal” jobs doing things like flipping burgers before they join bands full time. They have nicknames. They have tattoos. They are like goalkeepers, Barrell says, because “In soccer or hockey, the goalkeeper may not receive his fair share of respect from his teammates.” It reminds me of a line in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, where one character is struggling to connect with a much older woman he is infatuated with: “So we both have dead people in our families.”
Ever the thoughtful sociologist, Barrell does address the prejudice, cultural neglect, and general abuse female drummers have had to deal with. Ironically, he does so by cramming them into their own little chapter. A couple, like the Bangles’ Debbi Peterson, show up elsewhere, but most do not. Male drummers who don't show up at all include African American jazz greats like Max Roach and Art Blakey and reggae and worldbeat legends such as Sly Dunbar, Carlton Barrett, and Tony Allen. I imagine by pointing this out I am just being one of the “whigners and trolls” Barrell attempts to pre-empt on page 207, "People will complain about this book… the impossible-to-please whigners (sic) and trolls who lurk in the cold, damp crawlspaces of the Internet will moan that I have… inexcusably left out their Favorite Drummer of All Time… the concept of subjectivity may be beyond their grasp.”
What is amazing is that Barrell comes up with such a clunker despite first-hand interviews with quite a few big-time drummers. He talked with the likes of Phil Collins, Ginger Baker, Nick Mason, and many more. But only in the final hodgepodge chapter of a hodgepodge book does Barrell uncover anything approaching valuable insight. That comes in the form of Pink Floyd’s Mason on the paradox of why bands split up, and producer Ben Hillier on the long-standing and complementary rhythm sections in U2 and Blur.
Barrell also dabbles in discussions on gear, time signatures, and drum machines. But Born to Drum is both too technical for a general audience and too watered down for gearheads. Had it been organized as an almanac or book of lists, it just might have worked. Or, rather, not failed so miserably.