Kid Drumming: Adobe Stock
Kid Drumming: Adobe Stock 267673356 (standard license)

Baby’s Got Beats: Punk Drummers on How They Got Their Bang

Punk Drummers Greendays’ Tré Cool, the Wrecks’ Lynn Perko-Truell, Rat Scabies’ Shari Page, and Rough Francis’ Urian Hackney on the need to make beats.

Forbidden Beat: Perspectives on Punk Drumming
S.W. Lauden
Rare Bird
February 2022

It was the early ‘80s and I was a teenage dirtbag in training, mostly thanks to the influence of my two older brothers. With my feathered hair, ¾-length sleeve concert T-shirts, and lightning bolt necklace, I might have earned a cameo in Heavy Metal Parking Lot.

Instead, fate intervened in the form of two neighborhood high schoolers who blew my 12-year-old mind by playing me the Dead Kennedys’ 1981 album, In God We Trust, Inc. The seed was planted and my conversion to punk began. Jello Biafra’s vocals and lyrics were a little scary, and D.H Peligro’s incredible drumming on the three-song run of “Dog Bite”, “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” and “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now” was daunting, but I felt a real connection.

My fandom never manifested itself into bondage pants, mohawks, or sleeve tattoos, but it did give me the confidence to start playing drums. Whereas Aerosmith, Rush, or even Cheap Trick made being a musician feel like some far-fetched teenage daydream, punk gave me permission—a reason—to start a series of high school garage bands with clever names like Persecuted Youth and Six Feet Under.

These novice jam sessions are vital to the development of young punk drummers. Anyone who picks up an instrument for the first time is going to have a lot of work ahead of them to get proficient, but drumming comes with a host of additional logistical challenges: they’re expensive, loud, hard to transport/set up/breakdown, and physically demanding to play. And yet, every year since the dawn of punk, a new crop of drummers convinces their parents to buy them a kit. Or if that’s not possible, the kids join the school band to score a snare, get a pair of sticks and a practice pad, or improvise by bashing on pots and pans, cushions and pillows, and the occasional overturned trashcan. That ability to dive into the deep end can be critical to jumpstarting your passion for the instrument, and comprehending just how much dedication it takes to improve.

I lucked out because my parents eventually bought me a sparkly red kit that consisted of a kick drum, snare, and rack tom with hi-hats and a single crash cymbal. I was only allowed to practice play after school (before my dad got home from work), but that was enough. I was too twitchy for lessons, so I dove in as a self-taught garage rock drummer instead. Different strokes for different folks, as they say. (New drummers these days likely learn from YouTube, which is great too.)

I mostly ended up playing in alternative rock bands of various stripes over the next couple of decades, but punk rock drummers like Peligro, DJ Bonebrake of X, Bill Stevenson of Descendents, and Grant Hart of Hüsker Dü gave me that sacred spark of inspiration and a solid foundation to build on. All of this was on my mind when I started pulling together essays, interviews, and top-five lists for my new book Forbidden Beat: Perspectives on Punk Drumming (Rare Bird Books). During the process, I was quickly reminded that I wasn’t the only drummer to have my mind blown by punk at such an impressionable age.

“I knew exactly what I wanted to do in life. There was never any ‘Cover your bases. Learn a trade.’ Fuck that. Just play drums. I didn’t even graduate high school. I was like, ‘I’m not playing drums enough right now because I’m wasting time at school,’” Green Day drummer Tré Cool told me in an interview.

Cool’s journey started at the tender age of 11 when a friend introduced him to Lawrence Livermore, musician and co-founder of Lookout Records. Livermore’s girlfriend drummed for his band the Lookouts until she moved to Brazil. That’s when the tweenaged Cool volunteered to fill in on her old drum set.

“I just started bashing away, hitting the cymbals and thinking ‘this is fun.’ So, Larry stops and says ‘Let’s take your cymbals away. Learn to play the drums first and we’ll start giving you cymbals when it’s time,’” Cool recalls. “I just started earning my cymbals, like badges of honor.”

Lynn Perko-Truell discovered punk rock and drumming as a teen in Reno, Nevada. Shortly after seeing an early 7 Seconds show, she started playing with Helen Pardy-Johnson, Bessie Oakley, and Jone Stebbins in the Wrecks. She didn’t even own drums when she joined the band, so she dragged a couple of plastic trashcans into Oakley’s garage and turned them upside down. 

“The raw and rudimentary sounds of guitars, Helen yelling/singing, and me banging plastic sounded pretty cool. I realized playing punk music meant expressing yourself however you wanted to; playing even if you didn’t know how,” she recounts in her essay, “You’re Pretty Good for a Girl”, published in Forbidden Beat: Perspectives on Punk Drumming (Rare Bird, 2022).

She bought a drum set a couple of months later and the Wrecks went on to perform with other legendary hardcore bands from that era including D.O.A., Black Flag, and T.S.O.L. Their song, “Punk Is an Attitude” was also featured on the Not So Quiet on the Eastern Front compilation released by Alternative Tentacles. 

The Wrecks only lasted about 18 months, but Perko-Truell went on to have a successful career as the drummer for (SF) Dicks and a founding member of Sister Double Happiness in the ‘80s. She’s also a founding member of Imperial Teen, an alternative rock band she has been playing with since the mid-‘90s.

“Punk rock and hardcore helped me discover a fierce passion, a part of me that I may never have known. The experiences I had in my early years behind the kit helped create my identity, drum style, and a true expression of self and power that I could carry into any genre of music, ultimately giving me courage, confidence, and contentment,” she writes in conclusion.

These youthful origin stories slowly emerged as a throughline when I put the book together, from the Rat Scabies’ learning to play “on pillows and cushions” as a child in the late ‘60s to Shari Page, drummer for the band Thick, getting introduced to drum lessons at an activity fair as a third-grader in the ‘90s.

“My parents supported the lessons but wouldn’t buy me a kit due to the noise. I printed out pictures of drum sets and left them all over the house, hoping mom and dad would catch the hint,” Page writes. She eventually saved up enough of her babysitting money to buy them herself.

Perhaps the most interesting origin story in the book belongs to Rough Francis drummer Urian Hackney. It’s not only a fascinating multi-generational saga, but it also connects the dots from proto-punk bands of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s to new punk music being released today.

Hackney and his brothers Bobby and Jules grew up in a musical family, thanks to their father and uncle playing in a well-known reggae band called Lambsbread based in Burlington, Vermont. Urian was obsessed with his uncle’s electronic drums but had to settle for practice pads when he asked his parents for a kit of his own.

“For my eleventh birthday, my brother Jules handed me a red CD with a picture of a bald dude screaming into a microphone on the cover—the Minor Threat discography,” Hackney writes in his essay, “Reggae, Hardcore & Death” (Forbidden Beats). “I spent many days locked in my darkened room with a hand-me-down Discman and those practice pads, trying my best to keep up with Minor Threat’s drummer, Jeff Nelson.”

As often happens with budding musicians, Hackney went back in time to find two of his favorite all-time drummers, both from Detroit—Scott Asheton of the Stooges and Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson of MC5. This was in the early 2000s, shortly before he found out that his father Bobby and two of his uncles, David and Dannis, had once played in a Detroit proto-punk band of their own called Death. (That band’s 30-year journey from total obscurity to underground stardom is the subject of Mark Chrisopher Covino and Jeff Howlett’s 2012 documentary, A Band Called Death.)

“I remember hearing (Death) for the first time and being so excited, confused, and amazed,” Hackney writes. “I had a hard time believing it when I found out (my dad’s) old band played the kind of punk rock that my brothers and I got into…but it reassured me in the path I was already on.”

There’s a certain pre-destination to Hackney’s experience that is uniquely his own, yet so much of it feels relatable. Very few of us had close relatives who played in sleeper proto-punk bands, but many of us did have an Uncle Dannis who got us interested in drumming. Or, like Tré Cool, we met our own Lawrence Livermore, somebody who was inspired to make music and asked us to join them, even if we didn’t have drums or any clue about what we were doing.

That boundless accessibility might be the magical force that allows punk to endlessly regenerate. The genre has been declared dead a million times since the ‘70s, and it has mutated into countless other sub-genres over the decades, but the low barrier of entry means it will never fully stray too far from its purest, most rudimentary form. 

That’s great news for young wannabe drummers because they’ll always have the option to flip some trashcans over and just start bashing away.