Tag Archives: Drums

Pneuma – 50 Foot Wave

In the mid-1990s, the economics of the record industry caught up with Kristin Hersh. She couldn’t afford to keep Throwing Muses on the road and the band weren’t selling enough records to justify the effort and expense of making them under the old model. Her solo albums, on the other hand, were very useful money-spinners: cheap and quick to knock out, and cheap and simple to tour behind. Have guitar will travel. Cheaply.

But eventually she reconvened the Muses for what longtime fans assumed would be one last hurrah, a self-titled record released in 2003. A belligerent-sounding effort, only marginally sweetened by the presence of Muses co-founder Tanya Donelly on harmony vocals, it contained many of the elements she would bring the following year to her new band, 50 Foot Wave: asymmetrical song structures, knotty time signatures and elliptical melodies.

Hersh has written (in her memoir, released as Rat Girl in the US and Paradoxical Undressing in the UK), that she has heard music in her head since a car hit knocked her off her bike in 1985 and her head slammed into the ground. In the mid-2000s, the songs she was hearing called for a different approach, particularly percussively. They needed greater aggression, more power, less finesse. David Narcizo, a player with impressive marching-band snare drum skills but fundamentally a guy with a light touch, was replaced by Rob Ahlers, who plays with enormous power and what sounds like desperation, as if his drums need to be constantly beaten off with sticks lest they do him some kind of physical injury.

Golden Ocean, the band’s 2004 debut full-length, was a shock in an age when so much popular rock music aped the loose-limbed grooves of British post-punk and the first side of David Bowie’s Low. Frantic and scabrous, 50 Foot Wave were unapologetically about power, energy and attack. Hersh, her voice long since abraded into an old-lady croak (a croak that, if I’m honest, limits the appeal to me of hearing her in acoustic guitar-and-vocal mode; it’s not a subtle instrument), frequently broke into raspy screams as the snare drum took a vicious beating. To give you an idea of the tone of Golden Ocean, Pneuma – one of the best things on the record, but by no means the only standout – hinges on a breakdown section where Hersh drawls “You know what?” three times over guitar feedback, as if beckoning the listener to come closer to her, before screaming, “Shut the fuck up!” But while the music was somewhat difficult – loud and confrontational, and with frequent hard left turns in structure and rhythm – it was the best record she made in the noughties, the more welcome for being so unexpected.

50ftwave1l-r Hersh, Muses/50 Foot Wave mainstay Bernard Georges, Rob Ahlers

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Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2017, Part Four: Fool (If You Think it’s Over) – Elkie Brooks

Apologies for my elongated absence. I moved house last week, so it’s been crazy busy.

If you didn’t know anything about Middlesbrough’s Chris Rea, born into an ice cream-making family, or Salford’s Elkie Brooks, formerly an English Tina Turner-style screamer in Vinegar Joe and latterly an MOR Pebble Mill at One regular, you could easily hear Fool (If You Think it’s Over) as a species of yacht rock. Especially in Brooks’s version, it’s smooth, opulent, adult and eminently yachty. Have JD Ryznar and Hunter Stair claimed it as one of their own? Maybe they have.

Fool (If You Think it’s Over) was first cut by Rea for his 1978 debut album, Whatever Happened to Benny Santini. It’s an undeniable song, but I always feel like his version’s a little too slow, and as a result doesn’t feel quite as effortless as it could do. Elkie Brooks’s 1982 cover, from her album Pearls, picks up the tempo by a few bpm, and this makes a world of difference.

The same producer, Gus Dudgeon, was in the chair for both recordings, so it’s instructive to compare the two, even if we need to be a little careful in suggesting that the differences between the two versions amount to Dudgeon “fixing” the flaws he heard in Rea’s version. Especially as so much of it is the same. While the tempo is faster for Elkie’s version, the basic layers of the drum track are constructed in the same way, and it’s an excellent construction. Both recordings begin with drum machine, which runs throughout the track. The rhythm box on Rea’s recording is notably more lo-fi than on the Brooks version, but they sound like the same machine to me: the Roland CompuRhythm CR-78. You’ll have heard this classic drum machine on countless recordings from the late seventies, including In the Air Tonight, Heart of Glass and I Can’t Go For That.

With the drum machine in place to give the song a steady four-square chassis, on top are laid some sort of shaken percussion (shekere, I think) congas and then full drum kit. On both versions, the drummers are almost heroically understated*, just playing two and four with a good feel and keeping fills to an absolute minimum. Brooks’s drummer plays the odd pssst on the hats, a little double tap on the snare going into the chorus and a few gentle cymbal crashes.

It’s beautifully simple, but the effect when all the layers are added together is an ultra-smooth, great-feeling rhythm track (aided by some superlative bass playing) that has a machine-led tightness and a very human sense of power kept in reserve – and if you’ve heard Brooks belting her way through Proud to be a Honky Woman or Pearl’s a Singer, you’ll know how much vocal power she keeps on reserve during this song, too.

I almost never do a post like this when I don’t know the identity of the drummer on the recording, but unfortunately, since Pearls is a compilation album, three drummers are listed on the sleeve, and no resource I could find online breaks down who plays on which song. So the drummer was one of Trevor Morais, Graham Jarvis or Steve Holley.

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2017, Part Three: Love My Way – Psychedelic Furs

Or “Lahve moi wye”, as singer Richard Butler would have it.

Yes, Love My Way is about the marimba part played by Todd Rundgren. Yes, it’s about Richard Butler’s croaky sneer. Yes, it’s about Flo and Eddie’s harmonies. Yes, it’s about Tim Butler’s rumbling bass. But it’s also very much about Vince Ely’s drums.*

I’ve said this over and over in these drum posts, but as I get older, I respond most favourably to players who do what’s needed and nothing more, and don’t let their ego influence what they play. The thinking behind everything that Vince Ely does during Love My Way is immediately clear when you listen to the song. As much as Richard Butler, Ely narrates the song. There’s nothing in his performance that feels like it’s just a lick, like it’s just there for Ely to show off to Modern Drummer readers.

Let’s take the drum track apart and see what he’s doing.

Two and four on the snare. Eights on the hi-hat, with a “psst” every two bars. That’s all obvious enough.

On the kick, he plays a two-bar pattern: single strokes on beats one and three in bar one; then a bar with extra strokes on the “and”, so all together the pattern is kick, snare, kick snare; kick-kick snare, kick-kick snare. This variation gives the song extra drive and momentum, and stops it from feeling too rigid and repetitive.

In the choruses, he switches to keeping time on the floor tom. This is a pretty rare move in rock. Most of the time, drummers move to a cymbal of some kind for choruses – usually a ride, but also sometimes a crash or china. Drummers are more likely to use floor toms to keep time during intros, verses or breakdowns. To me, the effect of going to the floor tom for the chorus is an increase in tension. You think you know what the drummer’s going to play, then he plays something else. You get an unexpected increase in energy in the low end of the frequency spectrum (the floor tom is the biggest tom, and usually has the lowest fundamental note of any drum in the kit except the bass drum) when you’re expecting the opposite, and the whole thing sounds like it has to be about to resolve somewhere else, an effect that’s enhanced by the bass drum following along with the floor tom and also playing eights. But, first time round, it doesn’t go somewhere else; it simply repeats the verse again.

A cool detail: coming out of the chorus, Ely doesn’t hit his crash cymbal on the first “one” of the new section – something drummers do 99.9% of the time. Ah, you think, he’s not going to play cymbal crashes in this song. Nice. That’s different. Then he hits it on the “three” of that first bar. Woah, you think, that’s really different. I don’t know whether that was his idea or producer Todd Rundgren, but it’s great.

So we go round again, but next time we have a double chorus. Halfway through, Ely switches out of his floor-tom beat and plays his verse pattern (again, with that displaced crash cymbal and the original kick-drum pattern). By doing so, he releases all that pent-up tension, making the chorus more celebratory.

The song’s final minute sees Flo & Eddie (Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, formerly of the Turtles and Zappa’s Mothers of Invention**) come to the party to add their falsetto harmonies, a section introduced by Ely with the simplest of drum fills: seven eighth-note strokes on the snare. For the last forty seconds of the song, he lays off the hat, again preferring the floor tom, but gradually complicating his pattern so it becomes increasingly syncopated and, for lack of a better term, tribal.

Drum performances that heighten, reinforce and indeed comment upon the emotional journey of a song are actually pretty rare in pop and rock music, which is why Love My Way is a bit special. It’s hard to know whether the ideas came from Rundgren or Ely but  they’re certainly executed well, whoever was responsible.

https://i2.wp.com/images.genius.com/dcc63fe5e6ac6200369699f9c1446b04.900x920x1.jpg
1982 parent album, Forever Now

*I’m not 100% certain it’s a live drum track. I think it is, but the drum sound is very weird and doesn’t sound much like an acoustic drum kit. But that’s often the case with records engineered by Todd Rundgren. Also the tempo is very solid. It’s the section at the end where Ely starts playing the tribal-style tom pattern that makes me reasonably sure it’s not programmed.

**If you’ve heard Flo & Eddie’s super-high harmonies anywhere, it’ll be on T.Rex records, most notably Get It On.

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2017, Part Two: After the Love Has Gone – Earth, Wind & Fire

Sorry about my elongated absence. I’ve was at a work thing from Thursday to Sunday and it wiped out my blogging time. Back now.

Fred White knew something many drummers don’t. You may have the loudest instrument in the rehearsal room, you may have half a dozen cymbals, two kick drums and a battery of toms, and maybe even a 12-foot gong behind you, but if you’re a drummer, it ain’t about you. However big your kit and however loud you play, you’re there to serve the song. The most important aspect of your performance is not the bitchin’ fill you play coming out of the second chorus or your tricky little hi-hat variations. It’s your groove. Your feel. Your dynamic. Your consistency. The tone and timbre of your drums. All of that has to sound and – even more crucially – feel good.

Fred White, drummer of Earth, Wind & Fire from 1975 to 1983, knew this stuff. Whether he was playing funk, disco or a ballad, his hallmark was the same: a solid groove with only the embellishment that was needed, and only that which was driven by the emotion of the music in the moment. In uptempo disco songs, White frequently played 60- or 90-second stretches of two and four with no fills whatsoever, not even a cymbal crash. OK, you might say, EWF had such a maximalist sound that there wasn’t space for him to play lots of drum fills. True, but I can think of many drummers who wouldn’t have let a little detail like that stop them trying.

The band’s ballads gave White a little more scope to add ornamentation to his grooves, and on After the Love Has Gone (written by David Foster, Bill Champlin and Jay Graydon – yep, he of Steely Dan Peg solo fame) he does so while remaining tasteful and sympathetic to the song. He was only 24 when he played on After the Love Has Gone, but he’d been in training a long time already. At the age of just 16, White had appeared on Donny Hathaway’s Live album (recorded at The Troubadour in LA and the Bitter End in New York), on which his playing was superlative. He’d had the opportunity to learn from players like Willie Weeks, Cornell Dupree and Hathaway himself when to play licks and when to just keep the groove. Consequently he always came down on the side of the groove.

On After the Love Has Gone, White plays steady 16ths with his right hand, two and four with his left and a bass drum pattern that’s notably lively and light on its feet – not the big, obvious one and three. His attention to detail with his right foot, and his flawless execution of it, is where this song really shines.

We’ve noted before how Walter Orange’s similarly syncopated bass drum work kept Commodores ballads like Easy and Sail On from becoming rigid and plodding, despite rather stately tempos. White does the same thing here, resulting in a compelling, great-feeling track, even before you add Phillip Bailey’s skyscraping harmonies and the Phenix Horns’ beautiful, sleepy-sounding countermelodies (a sound created through the use of flugelhorns instead of trumpets). So while After the Love Has Gone is brilliantly played by everyone involved in it, it still seems to me especially dependent on the stellar contributions of its drummer, the great Fred White. Almost any drummer could learn a lot about playing for the song from him.

 

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2016, Part 5 – Fearless by Pink Floyd

Everyone has their own opinion on what makes a great drummer. Some revere Keith Moon for his energy, his invention. They hear passion and a love of music in his gonzo style. His playing does absolutely nothing for me. In fact it drives me up the wall. I hear ego and a wilful deafness to the needs of the song. It makes me physically uncomfortable. I’m tense and on edge whenever anyone puts the Who on, and it’s all Moon.

My kind of drummer says less and means more. Breathes. Leaves spaces. It was a lesson hard learned in my own playing. When I listen back at my own early drumming performances on recordings – and god help me, some of them have been released – the thing that mortifies me most is the overplaying, the desire to fill every space with something, whether necessary or not. So maybe my Moon antipathy is a reflection of what I hate most in my own drumming.

Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, around the time of Meddle, became one of the kings of saying less and meaning more. He’s never been a flashy drummer (although he was a master of atmosphere), but even so, as Floyd’s music being more conventionally song based, Mason simplified his playing to suit the songs his bandmates were writing.

Fearless is a great case in point. It’s one of those great slow-groove songs that Floyd did so well. At bottom, Mason is just playing boom-boom bap. But it’s the little things that really make the song: his gorgeous ride cymbal sound, that rat-a-tat snare fill in the verses after every second line, the occasional extra bass-drum stroke, knowing when to switch between the hats and ride and, especially, that cymbal crash in time with the snare when Dave Gilmour’s ascending guitar riff lands back on an open G chord. That cymbal hit alone would allow a Floyd fan to know what song Mason was playing if all they could hear was the drums on their own.

Asked about Mason’s playing, Gilmour once said, “Nick’s the right man for the job”. That’s exactly it. He was. Mason suited Pink Floyd and Pink Floyd suited him. Further, Mason had the ability to play for the song while also creating instantly recognisable, even iconic, drum parts. That’s not easy, and Mason did it repeatedly. Fearless is just the example we’re looking at today. I could as easily have chosen Time, Shine On You Crazy Diamond or Wish You Were Here.

nickmason3
Mason in the early 1970s. Note the see-through perspex kit with two bass drums

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2016, Part 3 – Marquee Moon by Television

In 2004, I was playing guitar in a band called Great Days of Sail, led by Yo Zushi (with whom I still play today). Our first show was supporting Lach at the Barfly in Camden. Lach was, even then, a veteran figure, and a biggish name for a new band to be supporting. He’s a New York songwriter and the originator of antifolk*, and is responsible for nurturing a host of like-minded artists at The Fort, the night he ran at the Sidewalk Cafe. On stage with him that night was Billy Ficca, the drummer from Television.

I was way more stoked about playing on the same stage as Billy Ficca than Lach, if I’m honest. Antifolk is not really my thing, but from the time back in high school I bought an issue of Total Guitar with a full transcription of Marquee Moon in it, Television have very much been my thing.

The glory of Television is the lucidity of their arrangements. There is no padding, just drums, bass, two guitars, a vocal and that’s it. Everything is mixed and recorded dry, tight and close. You can hear every single note that is played, and, more importantly for our purposes today, every nuance of the drum performances.

Billy Ficca is one of the best. His playing is powerful and authoritative, yet also full of subtle details. He gives you a solid backbeat and so many cool hi-hat licks that it takes dozens of listens to absorb them all (especially when you’ve got Tom Verlaine’s and Richard Lloyd’s superb soloing to take in, too). My favourite Ficca performances from Marquee Moon are Elevation and the title track, which features career-high performances from all involved, Ficca not least.

Billy’s playing on these songs is seriously inventive. Elevation features super-cool triplet fills on the hats, and an absolutely savage push in the choruses. Marquee Moon, meanwhile, features, well, everything. In its 10 and a half minutes, Ficca plays pretty much every conceivable idea on the drums. The verses are driven along by his funk-infused hi-hat work. The pre-chorus guitar-melody sections are lifted by his creative emphases on the cymbals. The choruses see Ficaa throwing in rapid-fire snare fills before bringing the band back round for another verse with whole-kit fills. During the long instrumental section that follows Verlaine’s solo, Ficca knows just when to swap from the hats to the ride, from the ride to the toms, from the toms to snare and from the snare to the brass. It’s compelling as all hell, and when it all breaks down after the “seagull” section and Ficca launches back into the verse groove, joined at first by Fred Smith’s bass and then Lloyd’s and Verlaine’s guitars, it’s a glorious moment.

A lot of attention is paid to Television’s guitarists, and rightly so: Verlaine and Lloyd were magnificent players, both technically accomplished and allergic to blues-rock cliche. But every great rock band from the Beatles and the Stones onwards have been built on a great rhythm section, and Television’s was one of the best. After the band ended, Ficca played with the Waitresses (yep, that’s him playing on Christmas Wrapping) – another great rhythm section.

television0.jpgTelevision: l-r Tom Verlaine, Richard Lloyd, Billy Ficca, Fred Smith

*Antifolk was briefly a big noise in above-ground publications. To the uninitiated, it may sound like lo-fi folk, or like folk played by punk musicians, and that’s not far wrong in many cases. But it’s easier to define as an attitude than an identifiable style of music. Lach began his antifolk nights after being unable to get shows at established folk clubs in New York in the mid-1980s and deciding that if no one else would give him a gig, he’d have to do it himself, so the key element of the genre name isn’t “folk”, but “anti”. That is, it’s about not fitting in and being proud of it, rather than striving to sound a certain way.

Yo’s music at the time had more to do with country and Leonard Cohen, but the antifolk association was certainly useful. My involvement with GDoS lasted about eight months, and the band crashed and burned within 18, but those were rarefied circles we moved in for a while, huh?

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2016, Part 2 – Luka by Suzanne Vega

Music fans can get pretty hung up on constructing taxonomies – making connections between artists, giving a name to every genre and sub-genre, and fitting everyone neatly into their boxes. Bookshelves groan under the weight of literature telling the story of popular music through the prism of scenes (be it Merseybeat, Brill Building, Chicago blues, Motown, Laurel Canyon, grunge, or whatever). The problem with taking the scene-based approach to pop music history, though, is the tendency to overlook musicians who don’t fit easily into a sonic, chronological or geographical category. They get forgotten.

Take Suzanne Vega – a huge fan of both Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen, whose first recordings were released through Jack Hardy’s Fast Folk magazine, also a vehicle for the much more obviously rootsy likes of Lyle Lovett, John Gorka and Shawn Colvin (all were regulars at Hardy’s Greenwich Village Songwriter’s Exchange). Vega’s early work was produced by Patti Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye, and her later, more electronic work would see garner her US Modern Rock hits (number ones, even, in the case of Blood Makes Noise), yet she has always been an essentially mainstream figure, one whom my grandparents recognised and approved of. It’s a strange space she occupies, or so many spaces that she ends up in a sort of non-space.

Her famous early recordings aren’t much help as we try to work out what kind of music we’re listening to. There’s something a little prissy about Small Blue Thing and Marlene on the Wall, in both sonics and arrangement, that doesn’t sound alt. or indie; the Suzanne-in-a-cavern reverb of Small Blue Thing, meanwhile, immediately dates the recording to the mid-eighties, and tells us we’re not listening to a straightforward folksinger record, which typically are recorded and mixed drier, closer and more intimate.

Things become a little clearer on Solitude Standing, Vega’s second album – the record that gave us Tom’s Diner and her breakthrough hit Luka. Rather like contemporaneous records such as Crowded House’s Don’t Dream it’s Over or Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car, Luka’s sound is inflated a little bigger than it needs to be, and the guitarist’s tone is regrettable (that quacky out-of-phase Strat tone was already a cliché in 1987), but the sensibility of the production isn’t at war with that of the writing on Luka (everyone seems to agree that they’re making pop music, whereas no one seemed really to know on her debut) – and while Stephen Ferrera’s drums are a little on the big side, he delivers a performance that’s just as musical as it is muscular.

Ferrera assumes more than just a timekeeping role on Luka. From his opening snare fill, he provides a sort of commentary on the song as it progresses, responding to Vega’s vocal with emphases on the toms, anxious snare fills and cymbal crashes. When the guitarist comes in with his first quacky solo, Ferrera begins to vary his kick drum pattern to provide more lift and propulsion. It’s a clever detail that gives the song a push without actually shifting the tempo.

The most notable element of the rhythm track is of course those huge tom hits that are used as punctuation at the end of every second bar in the verses. As Ferrera’s hi-hat maintains steady eighth notes at the same time, and as most drummers who play the song with her live forsake those tom hits,* I guess they were overdubbed. Possibly their being recorded in isolation from the rest of the kit accounts for how huge they are in the mix; they make a pretty mighty thud. Either way, they’re really integral to the arrangement; the song always loses something, for me anyway, when I hear a live performance that doesn’t feature them.

Ferrera’s ear for detail eventually took him from studio drummer to producer to A&R to record executive. He landed the American Idol franchise for RCA, helping to launch Kelly Clarkson’s recording career, before becoming Senior VP of A&R at Columbia. He died of lung cancer in January 2014. As a drummer, he was the very definition of underrated.

stephen-ferrera
The only photo I could find of Stephen Ferrera from his drumming days

*One exception was Anton Fig, when Vega played the song on Letterman. I assume it was Fig, anyway. That performance was 1987, and he joined in 1986, so it’s him unless someone was depping that night.