I hope you’ve been enjoying our series deconstructing some of the less heralded great drum performances. Our 2014 series is nearly at an end. I’ll do one more this weekend, then it’ll be back to business as usual
As we noted in the last installment, a truth known to record-makers through a process of deep listening and bitter experience yet understood by the majority of pop fans by instinct is that popular music is about rhythm first and foremost. Successful pop records are, in the main, built on great rhythm tracks. Even songs you might not think of as particularly rhythmically driven are often enhanced by and even built upon really good-feeling rhythm tracks, whether they were played or programmed.
For an example of this, we might take a perennial favourite like He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother in its most famous version, by the Hollies. Sure, the track is defined by the group’s vocal harmonies (even after Graham Nash left, the group remained a formidable harmony-singing collective) and by Alan Clarke’s passionate lead vocal, in which his commitment to the material is audible and moving. Music trivia fans might point to the piano — played by a pre-fame Elton John — as the crucial element in the arrangement. But this is my blog and I’ll say it’s the drum track, played by the group’s drummer Bobby Elliott.
The song is a taken at a slightly brisker tempo than you might remember if you haven’t heard it for a while. For a song with a weighty lyric, it’s light on its feet, by turns authoritative (those build-ups on snare and floor tom going into the second and final choruses) and graceful (the middle eight, where the canny Elliott plays dancing triplet rolls while Clarke proclaims that he’s not laden, or if he is it’s only with the fact that people don’t feel the same love he does). It’s a drum performance that’s as full of emotion as the vocal and a huge part of why it’s such a great record. If you can hear that 4-stroke snare fill and the five mighty cymbal crashes that accompany the line “and the load doesn’t weigh me down at all” without getting a little misty-eyed, you’ve got a harder heart than me. This song gets me, has always got me.
Produced by Ron Richards and recorded at Abbey Road in 1969, He Ain’t Heavy has an of-its-time mix, with of-its-time wide stereo panning. The drums are out hard right, the piano’s hard left and the bass is soft left. Listen to the song with the right channel only and you’ll be able to hear just the vocal, strings, harmonies, drums and a little bit of bass. It’s a really instructive way to hear the track’s most compelling elements, as well as Elliott’s little stumble at around 1.40 – a neat reminder that a drum track doesn’t have to be perfect to be a perfect drum track.
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