November 4th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY National Energy Guarantee: lots of smoke, but no coal-fired power

EDITORIAL Popular revolt against the ideology of globalism

CANBERRA OBSERVED Paris still rules in the party room

ENERGY Renewables and gas conspire to push up prices

ENVIRONMENT Climate change did not cause California fires

ELECTRICITY Consumers will wake up only when there are blackouts: economists

ECONOMICS Something new under the sun from China

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Abbott gets brickbats for exposing house of straw

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Australia is far from fulfilling its potential

TECHNOLOGY Aussie scientists 'write' with adult stem cells

75TH ANNIVERSARY NCC: new challenges, kind of new adversaries

MUSIC All around the beat: the essential drummer

CINEMA Happy Death Day: Deja vu with a sharp edge

BOOK REVIEW Traditions under threat fight back

BOOK REVIEW Journey to freedom


ENERGY Coal-fired power needed to restore economic growth

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All around the beat: the essential drummer

by David James

News Weekly, November 4, 2017

Drummers are not always accorded the greatest respect by other musicians. Indeed, there is an entire genre of drummer jokes – most of which are entirely inappropriate in a family magazine, so I shall refrain from telling them. Well, perhaps one. “How do you know it is a drummer knocking on your door delivering your pizza? Because he slows down, of course.”

In one sense, drummers are more restricted than other musicians, which is the reason for the jokes at their expense. They only deal in rhythm; they do not produce melody, harmony, or much orchestration.

Restriction for freedom

Yet it is obvious, particularly in rock music and to some extent jazz music, that the quality of the drummer is what really matters. A quick consideration of some of the better exponents demonstrates that in many ways they are the most important members of bands.

Consider a short list of rock and jazz drummers who have unarguably stood out in popular and jazz music: John Bonham in Led Zeppelin, Charlie Watts in the Rolling Stones, Stewart Copeland in the Police, Ginger Baker in Cream and Al Foster, who played in many of Miles Davis’ electric bands in the 1970s and 1980s.

First, Bonham. The opening of the song, When the Levee Breaks, features Bonham playing solo, and you hear him establish a glorious, rolling swing. His playing is deliciously behind the beat and simple. The interplay between the snare drum playing the back beat and the more on-the-beat rhythms from the rest of the drum kit establishes intense excitement. When the rest of the band enters they enter an intense musical arena.

It is unlikely that Bonham was especially conscious of these subtleties; it probably just felt good to play that way. But his playing was distinct and superior, and it is little surprise that when he died the remaining members of Led Zeppelin could not continue.

Where Bonham dominated the rhythms of Led Zeppelin, raising the other band members up, Charlie Watts tended to be more of a follower in the Rolling Stones. The rhythmic power of guitarist Keith Richards, with his exceptional riffs, is the focal point of the band. Vocalist Mick Jagger also has absorbed the African-American nuances of blues music with great skill.

But like Bonham, Watts plays behind the beat with his snare drum, introducing swing into the rhythm section. The tension between his behind-the-beat playing and the other members is just as effective.

Stewart Copeland, who is a trained composer and multi-instrumentalist, famously bickered with bassist and vocalist Sting about tempos. It was never a happy rhythm section.

But his contribution was critical. At one level, he was an educated and sophisticated drummer, capable of complex fills and cross rhythms – listen, for example, to the kick drum at the end of Walking on the Moon.

But it was what he did simply that mattered most. He, too, played way behind the beat on his snare drum. Listen to the simple playing on the haunting Every Breath You Take, for example, and it is clear just how well he executed his craft. The melodic figures in that song are straightforward and the harmony fairly basic, but the performance is arresting because of what Copeland is doing.

Ginger Baker of Cream was, like Copeland, a highly educated drummer who, when the band finished, went off to study polyrhythms in Africa, and to found jazz bands. But he made his name with simple variations. In Sunshine of Your Love, for instance, he played the snare drum on the front beat in the verse and then shifted to the backbeat in the chorus. The resultant tension he exploited with complex fills, subtle syncopations and, at the end of the song, using the snare to play both the back and front beats. It was at once powerful and accessible.

Finally, we have Al Foster. Listen to the opening of Wili on Miles’ album, Dark Magus, and it creates the same impression as Bonham: a symphony of rhythm coming from one percussionist. The glorious, simple snare pattern wonderfully elevates the energy, so that when the other instruments enter they are sucked into a vortex of intensity. It is the perfect canvas for Miles, whose command of rhythm was second to none.

There is great similarity between all these drummers, and it involves how they are able to make deceptively simple rhythmic patterns sound different.

Drummers of course know how important drummers are. But to understand and enjoy jazz and rock fully everyone else should also be listening closely to what the best of them have done.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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