I am a drummer. We drummers are luddite sorts, acutely aware of our vulnerability. We fear machines because we fear that other musicians, not regarding us as real musicians, would sack us in a drumbeat and upgrade to something more metronomic. So we sit at the back in loud silence.
For drummers, the technological unemployment identified by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee happened in the 1980s. Echo and the Bunnymen had a drum machine as a frontman. Kraftwerk were all electronics, ties and standing still. People flailing about were surplus to requirements. The Jesus and Mary Chain sacked him from Primal Scream as their drummer and got in a machine instead. As modernism rationalised music, even those who stuck with drummers asked them to become more robotic. David Bowie led the charge, as ever. The gated snare drum sound on Low has dated almost as quickly as the Chariots of Fire theme. Bowie’s drummer was the excellent Dennis Davis, but it might as well have been Johnny 5. Nuances and dynamics were compressed out of existence.
Thankfully, we are rediscovering the value of real drums and drummers. So let’s take a moment to, as James Brown urged us, give the drummer some. First, Clyde Stubblefield, one of James Brown’s many, many drummers, proving that subtlety is the key to funk:
Elvin Jones, taking jazz to its zenith by playing everything except the beat:
Joe Morello, with almost the only drum solo in history that makes any sense:
Steve Gadd, the session drummers’ session drummer:
Keith Moon being, well, Keith Moon
The prodigious Tony Williams, here aged 19, breaking the cardinal rule of drumming by speeding up:
And finally Animal from the Muppets, in what I consider to be the funniest sketch of all time.
Samples such as the funky drummer have become the raw material for future generations. But we should not see them in isolation. The genius of these players was in their interaction with others. When big bands were first recorded, the rudimentary microphones could barely detect the drums. The whisper of Jo Jones’s hi-hats is only faintly audible. But you can hear the effect he has on Count Basie’s band. He is unquestionably in the driving seat:
Even electroholics now appreciate the tedium of rigidly sequenced beats. They are finding new ways to scuff the edges of their drum patterns to give them a more interesting feel. Might this be another nail in the drummer’s drum case? A new study suggests not. Science appears to be rushing to the defence of luddite drummers everywhere.
A paper in PlosONE claims that listeners prefer what the researchers poetically call ‘long-range correlated fluctuations’ in music. In the Herbie Hancock tune above, Tony Williams takes about six minutes to increase the tempo, building the intensity of the tune as he does so. No contemporary producer would have let him get away with it. But it’s great. And we like it because it’s human. It is very easy to replace a bad drummer with a machine. It’s almost impossible to replace a good one. At its best, drumming is as close as music comes to dance. It is about feel, touch, dynamics and movement. It resists automation and thankfully it will carry on doing so.
Sing with me…
“To feel The Rhythm Of Life,
To feel the powerful beat,
To feel the tingle in your fingers,
To feel the tingle in your feet”
PS: I love how abstract concepts are scientised in journal papers. The PlosONE paper has, in its methodology section, this description: “Each of the different drummers performed simultaneously with their feet (for bass drum and hi-hat) and hands”. Yup.
PPS: Don’t get me started on autotune…