Drummers are the oft-neglected musicians, hidden at the back of the stage behind their kits and subjected to derisory jokes. How do you tell if the stage is level? The drummer is drooling from both sides of his mouth.
However, forget the interminable drum solos and the Dairy Milk gorillas, here are the drummers that really changed the game. Not necessarily the most skilled or influential – no space for Art Blakey or Buddy Rich here – this is just a list of our favourite drummers.
When most people think of Cream, it is of psychedelic lyrics, sprawling live shows and Clapton’s woozy riffs. However, the entirety of the band’s catalogue is underpinned and enhanced by Baker’s idiosyncratic and imaginative drumming. Influenced far more by jazz than rock ‘n’ roll, Baker refused to be utilised as a mere backbeat.
Take, for example, “Sunshine of Your Love”. Great riff, yes, but what could easily have played out as a rock-blues standard was brought to life by Baker’s rhythm section. Instead of a straight 4/4 beat, emphasising beats 2 and 4, Baker emphasised beats 1 and 3, constantly interrupting Clapton’s guitar track with chopped-up fills. Baker ensured that the drumming became more than just an intrinsic part of every track he played on – it enhanced the tracks, making them what they are.
Confrontational, yes – he recently stated that John Bonham ‘couldn’t swing a sack of shit’.
Disruptive, yes – he never lasted longer than a couple of years in any one band.
Hell-raising, yes – he was addicted to heroin from his teens and remains the most easily-riled man in music.
Influential, commanding, mesmerising – undoubtedly yes.
Everything about Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham was super sized. From volume, to kit size, to simply playing with tree trunk like sticks, he just oozed huge. But to discount Bonham as a no-thrills ox industriously turning the ostentatious wheels on which Led Zeppelin ran is to overlook much of what made him such a star.
Admittedly much of Bonzo’s sound did come from his exceptional brute force, but it was equally his subtle finesse and impeccable groove that allowed him to stand out in what is generally considered the golden age of rock drumming. Indeed it is said by his peers that his footwork could be so delicate it would make a ballerina weep.
Aside from his unique skill set, he was also an innovator and with his Zep cohorts helped push the boundaries of how drums sounded and were recorded.
Standout track: “Four Sticks” – I mean he played it with four sticks people… Four sticks!!!
Pete Townsend has often described The Who as a band set up in reverse. His guitar is the rhythm section, holding the tracks together, while John Entwistle’s basslines and Keith Moon’s drumming provided the melody and interest, much like a keyboard and lead guitar in a standard rock setup.
Known for his eccentric antics, particularly smashing his own kits on stage, ‘Moon the Loon’s drumming seemed to be about squeezing in as many fills into tracks as possible. Take, for instance, “The Real Me”, in which his drumming is relentless and desperate to take over the track. More than anyone else, Keith Moon taught future rhythm wannabes that just because you’re the drummer doesn’t mean that you’re the man at the back, either physically or metaphorically.
Standout track: “Baba O’Reilly”
I know what some of you are thinking: ‘Seb who?’ Well that’s on you not Mr Rochford I’m afraid. Seb Rochford, the musical leader of Polar Bear (see our review here) and umpteen other bands is blessed with a virtuosity that is much in demand these days. He’s the one degree of separation between Brett Anderson and Herbie Hancock, Yoko Ono and Peter Doherty, Brian Eno and Adele. It’s almost absurd. Tune in most weeks to Jools Holland and it’s him sat at the back of the main band with his distinctive mop of hair silhouetted against the dark scenery.
Far less demonstrative than the other performers on this list, his true talent lies in his ability to mix up more styles than Heston Blumenthal. Melting from jazz to rock, from drum and bass to world rhythms and back around again he is a musical chameleon who knows his history but strides for the future.
Standout track: “Be Free” – his knockout track from the excellent ‘In Each and Everyone’
Perhaps the most underrated drummer on our list, Stephen Morris is conceivably the most innovative and unique sounding percussionist to have ever bolted up a high hat. Fusing cutting edge electric sounds with a raw punk sensibility, his style laid the foundations on which most modern guitar bands’ drum sound is constructed.
The Macclesfield native, who once upon a time was questioned about the Yorkshire Ripper case, has played with not one but two of Britain’s most influential bands. When Joy Division crumbled and became New Order he even had the temerity to walk away from his kit and onto a computer to come up with the fantastically imaginative and probably most sampled synthesised drum beat ever recorded.
Standout track: “Blue Monday” – to this day a dance floor filler from Fabric to school discos.