I play the drums a little bit, but really I’m a guitarist. Nevertheless, since my mid-teens I’ve spent a good deal of my music-listening time focusing on drum tracks. My biggest peeve about the dominance of over-compressed mastering is the way it tends to make the drums smaller and more indistinct, taking away the impact and punch at the front of a stroke. It just reduces the physical response you have to the rhythm. And music, at bottom, is all about rhythm.
So in the past, I’ve done posts where I’ve specifically talked about songs in terms of their drum tracks (here and here, but even my post the other day on Fairport’s Genesis Hall ended as a discussion of Martin Lamble’s drums). Today I’m just going to give a nod to a bunch of songs that I think have great drum tracks and that rarely get discussed in terms of what the drummer’s doing.
1) Year of the Cat – Al Stewart
The backbone of Year of the Cat is the groove created by drummer Stuart Elliott and bassist George Ford. Elliot’s bass drum (that heartbeat quaver pattern I associate most closely with Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams) moves the song irresistibly forward, but it sounds so easy. And sure, as grooves go, it isn’t rocket science, but it is most assuredly not as easy as he and Ford make it sound. Beautifully recorded and mixed by Alan Parsons (purveyor of the most 1970s of 1970s drum sounds), Elliott and Ford are super tight but relaxed, and even a little lazy-sounding given the brisk tempo. Put another rhythm section behind this song and it just wouldn’t have been the same. Elliott adds some nice little emphases and fills during the electric guitar solo (the song has three soloists – it was the seventies, after all) and extended outro, too
2) Goodbye Yellow Brick Road – Elton John
Nigel Olsson has been playing drums with Elton John since the early seventies and his rhythm tracks with bassist Dee Murray are inimitable. Any producer or engineer can tell you that to get a big drum sound you need to leave a certain amount of space in the music. The denser the music being played, the more emphasis will have to fall on the attack of the stroke; if the drummer’s playing lightning-fast tom rolls all through the song, a big decay with prominent reverb and a lot of emphasis on the low end will make things murky and indistinct. So if you’re playing fast heavy music with a lot of steady-state energy from distorted guitars, before you know it, your drums sound like Lars Ulrich on …And Justice For All, which is to say, all clicky and ticky, like a large typewriter.
Olsson understands this, and he really seems to enjoy playing his huge tom fills, the sense of weightlessness that happens every time the song gets to that huge chord change and he plays his big fills (with extremely wide stereo separation courtesy of engineer David Henstchel and producer Gus Dudgeon). You know the chord change I mean: ‘this boy’s too young to be singing the blues‘, ‘…beyond the Yellow Brick Road‘. Elton (and Bernie Taupin of course) was lucky to have a drummer on his team who was so attuned the nuances of his songwriting.
Nigel Olsson. Note the drums without resonant heads. Very seventies, that.