If music be the food of love, play on” — Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
Our country tends to start Christmas too early and quit it too soon.
Many, like me, object to Yuletide décor before Thanksgiving, but I differ from most in ruing the ruthless and premature takedown of trees, tinsel and lights immediately after only one day of Christmas, on December 25th .
I am Olde School and Anglican enough to insist upon twelve days of Christmas. Properly speaking, the holiday concludes tonight: Twelfth Night, the eve of the Epiphany, when by tradition the three wise men visited and lavished gifts upon Baby Jesus.
I recognize that many dislike the concept of Twelvetide and prefer to dispense with Christmas in a single day. For my part, I revel in the holiday spirit and am sad to see it end. Yuletide tends to restore my faith in humanity. Everyone seems happier and kinder when we’re all taking time for family and friends, togetherness and gifts, gratitude and worship.
Our failure to enjoy the immense wealth of Yuletide music is particularly disappointing. Because stores and radio stations kill the spirit with repetitive playlists, most of us experience relief when they cut off the carols after Christmas Day. However, if we tapped into the full spectrum of amazing seasonal tunes across eras, genres and cultures, then more people might dig and demand a solid month of holiday ear candy.
According to “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” the logical gift for today is “twelve drummers drumming.” Mercifully, slavery is now illegal, so we can no longer bequeath human property. Nor can I afford to rent the services of a dozen drummers, though I would if I could to reward my vanishingly small readership for indulging my writing aspirations.
However, as a sometime percussionist and longtime music fan seized with a final spasm of seasonal merriment, I can offer a list of my twelve favorite drummers, with a few notes in celebration of their peculiar merits.
I restricted myself to living drummers, because even a figurative corpse-gift is kind of creepy. So, there will be no Mitch Mitchell, no Keith Moon, no John Bonham and no Stumpy Joe on this list.
Moreover, I am not claiming these are the twelve “best” living drummers. I do not pretend to possess the perfect knowledge required to make that call, though I could certainly do better than Rolling Stone, which routinely publishes “best of” lists and botches them badly every time.
Rather, this is a list of twelve drummers I really like.
- Ringo Starr of The Beatles. Like many drummers, I used to revile Richard Starkey for what I perceived as his simple, sloppy, subpar technique. But at a friend’s wedding several years ago, I ran into Semisonic drummer Jacob Slichter — who almost made this list — and he urged me to listen again to Ringo, to reconsider his musicality and the sleepy magic of his timekeeping, and to imagine how Beatles songs would work without them. I had enjoyed Slichter’s music and his book, so I respected him enough to execute the assignment, and I learned that he was right. Moreover, I came to appreciate how Starr advanced the art of drumming. Before The Beatles, rock drummers did little more than keep the beat, but Ringo opened up worlds of possibility with “Rain” (great fills), “The End” (launched by a brief and simple but compelling solo), “Here Comes the Sun” (sounds basic, but surprisingly tricky to play), and “Come Together,” one of the cleverest and catchiest drum charts ever devised.
- Stewart Copeland of The Police wins my “endlessly inventive” reward. Like most mediocre drummers, I have made peace with the limited musical latitude granted to us by most genres and bandmates. Typical drummers capitulate to monotony and repeat the same basic beat throughout each song. (This is why we often get replaced by drum machines.) Copeland, however, fully realizes the drum kit as a musical instrument. He rarely plays the same thing twice; over the course of the song, he introduces subtle variations with a restless creativity tempered only by an infallible aesthetic sensibility, always mindful of the song’s needs and what the rest of the band is doing. This endless succession of rich and subtle textures subliminally pleases the casual listener but absolutely delights musicians and audiophiles who take the time to grok Copeland’s genius. Have you ever wondered why most of Sting’s solo work feels so painfully static and dull? It’s partly because Copeland’s drumming isn’t there to break the tedium. “Walking on the Moon” and “King of Pain” would be like listening to paint dry were it not for Copeland’s funky and insistent reggae groove. Check out “Message in a Bottle” to understand how drums can create a sense of frenetic desperation. Hear Copeland rock on “Synchronicity I.” Listen to his ethereal hi-hat work on Peter Gabriel’s “Red Rain.”
- Neil Peart of Rush. Since the early 1980s, Peart has won consistent recognition as the greatest drummer in rock history. Most musicians rest on their laurels at that point and stagnate creatively. However, Peart felt that he still didn’t measure up to the great jazz drummers, so he apprenticed himself to Freddie Gruber and reinvented his technique from scratch, incorporating rhythmic and dynamic subtleties and a swing feel that took his craft to new heights. As the drummer and chief lyricist for the power trio Rush, Peart has helped his band produce by far the most distinguished body of work in the prog rock genre, including several notable concept albums. Peart’s thought-provoking lyrics eschew the bonehead cliches of most popular music. Instead, he draws themes from history, anthropology, current events, philosophy, fantasy & science fiction. He has also written several enjoyable memoirs. His drum solos are sprawling masterpieces.
- Steve Smith never particularly impressed me in the context of Journey, but his performance on Neil Peart’s Buddy Rich tribute album opened my ears to his greatness. Smith swings fluidly with Rich’s big band on “Nutville,” but his solo is an absolutely jaw-dropping clinic in the art. Smith quotes and rephrases the structure of the song in series of compelling variations that tell a story with a beginning, middle and end, before rejoining the band for a satisfying conclusion. It was that solo that inspired Peart to ask Smith how he had made such a quantum leap in his development as a musician, and the answer was the tutelage of Freddie Gruber.
- Simon Phillips has played for The Who and Toto, but he restrains himself in those contexts lest he overshadow the deceased drummers he succeeded. Before that, his efforts were largely wasted in Judas Priest. On Pete Townshend’s “Give Blood,” Phillips puts together an epic jam with David Gilmour and Pino Palladino. However, the best example of his work comes on “Dancing Men,” the opening track of the Rich tribute album Burning for Buddy. In a span of six minutes, Phillips demonstrates total domination of the drum kit.
- Alex Van Halen should be as famous as a drummer as his brother is as a guitarist. He brings more cowbell and feels the funk on “Dancing in the Streets.” He annihilates the kit on “Get Up.” His infectious countrified rhythms on “Finish What Ya Started” express the frustration the song seeks to convey more eloquently than Sammy Hagar’s wailing ever could.
- Matt Cameron of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. I’m a Generation X guy from Seattle, but I don’t like grunge that much. Dave Grohl almost made the list as a drummer for Nirvana, the Foo Fighters and Tenacious D, but I actually prefer Cameron’s work. One of his best performances is on Everyone Is Here by the Finn Brothers. The Finns are a folk-pop duo — New Zealand’s answer to the Everly Brothers — so you wouldn’t think that Cameron would be the logical choice for the gig, but he nails it. On “Homesick,” they just turn him loose at the end of the song, and he rocks so hard you’d like to break the producer’s wrist for fading out so fast.
- Ginger Baker of Cream pioneered the power trio format and infused rock with jazz drumming principles. Essential tracks include “Toad,” “Sunshine of Your Love” and “East Timor.”
- Phil Collins of Genesis became sickeningly ubiquitous as a singer in the ’80s, and many of us have yet to recover from that overdose. However, his drumming absolutely holds up. Few percussionists possess as powerful a feel for drums as a melodic instrument. Consider “I Don’t Care Anymore,” a song carried almost entirely by drumming, where guitars and keys merely accent Collins on skins and vocals. Or the (long) album version of “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight,” where the intricate interplay of drums and auxiliary percussion build up unbearable suspense and then pay it off fully. Or his signature gated drum sound on Peter Garbriel’s “Intruder.” Or his show-stealing performance on Robert Plant’s “In the Mood.”
- Mike Malinin of the Goo Goo Dolls isn’t a flashy drummer, but he is solid and creative, developing both good basic tracks and nice auxiliary percussion. Notable tracks include “Slide,” and “Stay with You” and “Feel the Silence.” Points for style for playing a few sets in the course of running a marathon. He became progressively more inventive even as his bandmates increasingly began to replace him with a drum machine. Finally, in a recent economizing move, the singer-songwriters fired him, dropping from trio to duo to increase their shares of the band’s dwindling spoils. More and more bands have begun to dump their drummers to increase the cuts of the remaining members (cf., Gin Blossoms, Matchbox 20, etc.). It’s not cool. Neither a drum machine nor a studio sideman can replace the creativity and feel of a real full-time drummer. Rage, people, rage against the soullessness of music by machines!
- Jim Fox of the James Gang combines sick chops with excellent musical judgement. There is nowhere to hide in a power trio, and Fox’s work on drums fully measured up to Joe Walsh’s greatness on guitar. For sheer bombast, consider his playing and soloing on the studio and live versions of “Lost Woman.” Then, consider the tasty and pleasing complexity of his chart for the studio version of “Walk Away,” contrasted with his badass evolution on live versions of the same song.
- Don Henley of The Eagles is justly known more for his singing and songwriting than for his meager skills on the skins. Like Ringo, he drums less and less these days, preferring to abdicate the task to others, both in the studio and in live settings. Henley has always been a liability in concert; this is best demonstrated by his pedestrian performance during an Eagles cover of “Walk Away” by the James Gang. I regret Henley’s fading ambition as an drummer, because he—more than any other musician — taught me how to play the instrument. I was going through a heavy Eagles phase when I took up the sticks in my teens. After a couple perfunctory lessons from the kid who sold me my kit, I learned to drum by playing along to Eagles cassettes. I could replicate Henley’s spare charts almost instantly. They taught me that focus, patience, restraint and subtlety are actually more important than talent or technique. “Witchy Woman” showed me that you can perpetrate interesting fills even if you haven’t mastered your rudiments, yet. “Lyin’ Eyes” and “Heartache Tonight” taught me that less is more. Before I knew what a time signature was, I learned 3/4 time from “The Hollywood Waltz” and “Take It To the Limit,” and reggae time from “Hotel California.” Before I knew what to call a flam, I knew how to do one from the intro to “The Long Run.” From Henley, I progressed to playing to cassettes of other minimalist drummers, like Chris Frantz of the Talking Heads, David Robinson of The Cars, and, of course, Mick Fleetwood, who taught me about feel and dynamics and the relentless restraint required of the truly musical drummer. But Henley was my first teacher.
So, there are your twelve drummers drumming. Happy Twelfth Night!