Sooner or later, every rock band writes a song that one or more of its members doesn’t play well.
In jazz it’s never been a big deal. Players slip in and out of ensembles all the time. If Chick Corea was what Miles Davis felt he needed on a certain tune, Chick was in and Herbie was out. But rock bands, particularly punk rock bands, have always been about the band as an organic, hermetic unit. Everything for the band, nothing outside the band. It’s way more volatile; way more infantile if you want to be harsh.
When a band’s in the studio, the spotlight usually shines most unforgivingly on the drummer. This is because producers know one thing to be true: music is first and foremost about rhythm, and there has been little truly great music made by ensembles with a lousy drummer. The Byrds and early Oasis are the only exceptions that spring to mind (and Tony McCarroll wasn’t that bad – his oafishness suited an oafish band’s oafish material). In recent years, the DAW has made these kinds of problems rarer. You can, almost always, get a drum track up to a point where it is at least steady. You can fix problems in timing with editing and problems with dynamics with sample replacement/augmentation. In the analogue era, before digital editing, if the drummer wasn’t up to snuff, you’d have to cut the tapes up to physically edit an acceptable take together or have a different drummer play the part. Most would opt for the former, as the latter is politically very hard to handle. When Dave Grohl pulled that one on original Foo Fighters drummer William Goldsmith, recutting songs himself behind his back, Goldsmith was understandably hurt and left the band.
But Goldsmith’s wasn’t the most high-profile drummer departure in the 1990s. That would be Grant Young from Soul Asylum, whose sacking halfway through the sessions for Grave Dancers Union dogged the band ever after, severely hurting their cred. That he was fired for not being able to provide the drum track to Runaway Train – a truly ubiquitous hit single – and was replaced by Sterling Campbell (who by his own admission knew nothing about underground rock music and whose credits included Duran Duran and David Bowie, in his least vital era) only added to the problem. Soul Asylum wanted a hit so badly that they wrote an acoustic-guitar sellout ballad like Runaway Train and fired their founding drummer for not playing it right? Fuck those guys.
Ah, the thorny issues of authenticity and credibility in indie rock. I think Runaway Train’s a very good song, for what it’s worth. But it’s hard to deny the band made a bad choice in pursuit of good records. And while they did make a good record (and their good record certainly made them), the cost was probably too high to the band, who never really seemed to have much fire left in them after Young departed. Sure, they had a level of fame for a couple of years that seems incredible now when you look back on it (the band playing on the White House lawn, Dave Pirner dating Wynona Ryder), but when it came time to follow GDU up, the band had lost something vital. Perhaps handled differently, Young could have stayed on board. Perhaps with a different set of personalities involved, Young may have been coached to get the performance Pirner and producer Michael Bienhorn wanted. Because Young was a fine drummer. There’s ample evidence of that on previous Soul Asylum records, from their punkier, goofier, scrappier Twin/Tone and A&M eras.
And that, finally, is what we’re going to talk about. All the King’s Friends is the twisty, turny final track on …And the Horse they Rode in On, the band’s patchy final album for A&M and the one that immediately precedes Grave Dancers Union. It’s a complex song, with time and feel changes all over the place (so much so that it feels like an early essay in math rock), and Grant Young pretty much nailed it. And interestingly, the producer involved was, for a drummer, probably even more off-putting than the trigger-happy Bienhorn*: Steve Jordan (Patti Austen, Neil Young, Eric Clapton Keith Richards, John Mayer and many more). Jordan is an amazing drummer. Yet rather than trying to intimidate his charges into doing it right, he and Joe Blaney created an environment (on a soundstage with a mobile recording unit) where Young could do his best work, which is what producing’s all about. Probably the finest recorded moment by a drummer who’s had to spend the last 22 years being the guy who couldn’t play Runaway Train and a great performance by a guy and a band who’ve been saddled with a bad rep for a long time.
*Bienhorn makes fine-sounding records (GDU, Superunknown, Celebrity Skin), but often at the expense of the bands he’s worked with. He had a big hand in firing Young and Hole’s Patty Schemel, he has talked less than flatteringly about every member of Soundgarden who isn’t Chris Cornell, and even temporarily fired Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The producer has a responsibility to the label to get a product into the marketplace on time and on budget and I can understand being driven crazy by an unreliable junkie, but in a personality-driven band like RHCP, if you have no frontman, you have no band. How much, then, would the CD in the racks really matter?