Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Greatest Of All Time Debate: Drummers

A few days ago, I made a mildly contentious statement in relation to the Beatles. My exact words were, “Let’s face it, Ringo sucks.” For this I received the ire of Rino who said Ringo is the greatest white drummer ever. I presume the race signifier is because there’s probably a billion amazing black jazz drummers I don’t know about but my brain kept going ‘surely Ringo can’t be the best’ but buggered if I can think of anyone else.

When I was talking about the Ringo suckage, I was actually talking about his singing and contributions to the Beatles songwriting canon rather than his drumming. However, I can’t help thinking that Ringo wasn’t the best rock drummer of all time, he was a good drummer who happened to be in the greatest band in history. Too harsh? Going back and listening to some of the later Beatles, I can see where Rino is coming from because Ringo was definitely at the top of his game. Just listen to Come Together - the drumming is amazingly restrained yet perfectly fitting the song.

The problem I face is that while I’m a connoisseur of drummer jokes, I would find it very hard to judge who is a good drummer and who isn’t. Apart from my lack of technical knowledge of drumming, how do you quantify it? I imagine it is a magic combination of technique and feel. Drummers would probably disagree. I have looked at a few drummer websites and the musicians they tout as the best are those prog guys like Neil Peart – ahh Rush, I can’t stand that shit. Like with any instrument, there are dilettantes who will always focus on the flashiest and most technical elements of it.

I totally understand this. When I was learning guitar, many of my fellow guitar playing friends were fans of guitar wankers like Satriani and Steve Vai. The problem is that those guys are all technique and no feel. I’d contend that listening to a Steve Vai record is like being dry humped by an over enthusiastic labrador - I appreciate the enthusiasm but no thanks, down boy. I accept that these albums are not for me but those guys wouldn’t even graze the bottom of my top 100 guitarists of all time.

But back to Ringo. When I was thinking through who would be better, I was drawn to the improvisational freak outs of Mitch Mitchell, the might of John Bonham and the bat-shit crazy pounding of Keith Moon. The only thing about them is that all these guy’s are dead and when I started to think about modern drummers, I’ve been scratching my head to think of anyone who might be a contender or has made an impression on me as a drummer. The other thing is that the classic rock guys are all British and the only modern rock drummers I can think of are American (apart from the Mogwai bloke) - strange how that works.

On this, one of the most memorable drummers I’ve seen is Janet Weiss from Sleater Kinney whose live drum sound was monstrous. While able to play gently, at full tilt her drumming is a propulsive storm of swing and destruction that transformed the music from Kill Rockstars punk into some transcendent, ecstatic rock action. While I didn’t really get into the fuzzy power-rock sound they embraced on their swansong The Woods, the album has ample examples of Weiss’s prowess – check this out.

I imagine some people will roll their eyes when I mention Dave Grohl but I’d say listen to the final two minutes of A Song for the Dead and then shut the fuck up. I'm also a fan of Bryan Devendorf from the National because I think his drumming is particularly inspired (I particularly love the drums on Mistaken for Strangers). There's also probably some guy who played for Frank Zappa but unfortunately I don't care about that. I guess I could name a bunch of punk and metal guys but it seems a bit redundant because they're all playing from the same hymn book. Then ?uestlove from the Roots turns up and blows them all away anyhow.

I think I'll have to think on it further but if anyone who has a suggestion on who is currently the best rock drummer and the best drummer of all time, please let me know. Cheers.



  1. ?uestlove is an inspired mention. Agree on the Grohl factor, and Bonzo, and Mitch... The list could go on. And it will: Stewart Copeland, Rick Marotta, the guy who played with Bowie on Heroes...

    Actually, I'm going to have to trot off to the collection and do a quick scan. I'll be back.

  2. Perkins. Stephen perkins.
    Parsons. Ted Parsons.
    Hurley. George Hurley.
    You're right about Grohl, but let's not forget Paul Ferguson, or Martin Atkins.
    For a left-field suggestion- Spit Stix.
    Those are just a few right off the top of my head....

  3. Rino: I was thinking Copeland too. Rick Marotta is banished because he created the theme to Everbody hates Raymond.

    Matt: You're totally right about Perkins - big miss for me and I like where you're coming from with the Killing Joke/Prong angle. Haven't heard of Spit Stix but wikipedia provides.

    My left field entry would be Vincent Signorelli from Unsane - while his drumming is pretty brutal I'd raise his name solely on his drum performance on the Foetus track Slung. It's an eleven minute big band number and the drumming is incredible. Bad recording of it here:

  4. Signorelli definitely. Even without Foetus- though the Foetus track helps.
    The reason for the Parsons is because of his use of Samples, going all the way back to Swans- he really pioneered that triggered sequence/live programming thing. Paul Ferguson- c'mon, how can you not include the drummer on the first three Killing Joke LPs- But Atkins, actually I'd include for his work in China, less for KJ.
    Spit Stix was the Drummer in Fear. Before you dismiss it, because Fear is noted mostly for anti-social/satiric lyrics- listen to the drums on this track: . Yes, that's hyper speed Afro-cuban rhythm.

  5. Also, this pithy, highly relevant quote from ?uestlove:

    "Drumming … is an overdone art. Cats overdo it. I respect cats who draw the least amount of attention to themselves. Keep it simple, stupid. You are the metronome cop. Not the center of attention."

    - that whole interview is very good, well worth the click and goggle.

    -- proves my Ringo shtick.

  6. Matt, haven't heard Fear before (although I know of them) and will be tracking some down - sounds great and vaguely demented. Paul Ferguson - definitely but I have to say I was never a Swans fan - never did much for me but I'll need to go back and check it out - it's been a while since I've heard them. They actually toured Sydney about three weeks ago so they've been on my mind.

    Rino "You are the metronome cop. Not the center of attention." Class but I think the argument that can be made both ways. I don't like mind a bit of flash with my meat and potatoes drumming. For the record, this is where you'll find my Ringo love -

  7. That is indeed one of the best Ringo grooves. Still so sharp, hypnotic, heavy rolling. This and Bonzo's When the Levee Breaks sound, that is all drumming needs to aspire to.

  8. oh dear - late conscience-popping entry: Jaki Liebezeit. How could I've forgotten him for so long. I was just thinking (as a bassplayer, only half a rhythm section) that if I met a drummer and he asked what playing styles I liked, I would've answered You know, between Fela and Can.

    What a drummer.