Tag Archives: programmed drums

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2017, Part Five: Streets of Philadelphia – Bruce Springsteen 

Hi there. Hope you had a good Christmas!

In the early 1990s, the Boss went through something of a trough, with the Human Touch and Lucky Town LPs both critical and commercial misses, and an MTV Unplugged set failing to hit the mark, too. Bruce had temporarily parted ways with the E Street Band and was using LA session players on his records – another source of fan ire. So when those fans heard Streets of Philadelphia, it was received as something like a 1990s version of Nebraska – Springsteen throwing out the trappings of stardom and big-time rock’n’roll to make something hushed and intimate alone in his house. And if the record featured synth and drum machine rather than acoustic guitar, so be it. Better a drum machine than the drummer from Toto.

Me,  I had (have) no real attachment to or fondness for the E Street Band. They’ve always been a little too gaudily showbiz for my taste. Not lean enough, not hard enough. Much of my favourite Bruce music (Brusic?) doesn’t feature them at all. And I loved the sound of Streets of Philadelphia. The warm synth and drum machine* sounded perfect to me – and completely emotionally appropriate to the song. The artificiality of the programmed beat puts me in mind of the kind of devices (pacemakers, LVADs, artificial hearts) that allow the weakening body to continue to live. The drum machine thus provides the song’s pulse in both a literal and figurative sense.

The key thing about drum machines is that they aren’t people; try to make a programmed drum track stand in for a human drummer and you’re on a hiding to nothing. But allow the drum machine to be what it is – a metronome that can play something more than just quarter notes – and they can be wonderful tools for writing and recording. In the case of Streets of Philadelphia, the feel provided by the drum machine just wouldn’t have been achievable with a human drummer – not without editiing the performance to the point where it would have been much quicker simply to program the beat.

The song’s instrumental backing, steady and unobtrusive, was an ideal accompaniment for Sprinsteen’s heart-rending vocal, so full of empathy and humanity – much needed at the time. Streets of Philadelphia was written for the soundtrack to the movie Philadelphia, which starred Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. In the movie, a lawyer with Aids, played by Tom Hanks, is fired from his firm, and though dying enlists a former colleague, played by Washington, to represent him in an unfair-dismissal suit. That kind of thing did happen (indeed the story was the subject of a legal case brought by the family of Geoffrey Bowers, whose story inspired the film) – and probably still does, though the prejudice underlying it would have to be more carefully disguised.

In 2017, it may be hard to remember the ignorance and fear that surrounded Aids in the 1980s and 1990s, or the prejudice that attached to those with the disease. But at the time, even the existence of Philadelphia attracted controversy. It is reported that director Jonathan Demme asked Springsteen to write a song for the soundtrack specifically in the hopes that Springsteen’s presence would reach out to audiences who may not otherwise be receptive to the movie’s message. In that sense, Bruce probably never wrote a more important song. In my view, he never wrote a better one. And it’s impossible to imagine that all the players in the world and all the fanciest technology could have produced a more moving result than Springsteen cooked up at home. For those purists who disdain the programmed or looped rhythm track, Streets of Philadelphia is a powerful rejoinder.

 

*I’ve read in one biog that during this period Springsteen was actually writing using premade loops from a CD he’d bought. Most writers and fans discussing the song have assumed he used a drum machine (no one seems confident which one though), so I’ve gone along with that for the purposes of this post.

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Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 2: Don’t Let Go – En Vogue

En Vogue began their career in the new jack swing era, which meant that the rhythm tracks on their records were created with the use of samplers and drum machines(such as the ubiquitous Roland TR-808). The typical new jack swing drum track combined layers of elements so heavily syncopated that the overall track would have been all but unplayable by a single human drummer. The aesthetic of new jack swing – sonically and visually – was brash and loud, and these hyped-up, super-complex 808 tracks were a key element. They were not intended to be an undetectable replacement for a live track; the mechanistic quality was the point.

New jack swing’s moment passed quickly (by the time Michael Jackson released the NJS-influenced Dangerous, it was already becoming old hat), superseded by the more classic-sounding hip-hop soul of Mary J Blige, which relied heavily on samples from classic soul records, giving a less frenetic feel to the backing tracks and making new jack swing seem gauche in its raw energy. Hi-top fades quickly went out of style, as did the primary-colour wardrobe of NJS. Watch an episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air to remind yourself of the eye-popping NJS aesthetic. This was a time when grown men and women wore dungarees and romper suits

When En Vogue released their last single with Dawn Robinson on lead vocals, Don’t Let Go (from Set It Off), they were worlds away from their early sound and look: in was a piano line out of a James Bond theme and what sounded for all the world like a live rhythm section; the only holdover from their early sound was a wah-wah guitar, of which the group and their producers had apparently always been fond. The street feel of NJS had gone: the group’s new image looked expensive, and their new song sounded expensive. There’s even an orchestral tympani.

That rhythm track was, indeed, live, played by bassist Preston Crump (with an earth-shakin’ tone) and drummer Lil John Roberts, who has also played for Jill Scott, Monica and Janet Jackson. From the opening snare flam of his first whole-kit fill, Roberts’s performance is a monster, entirely suited to what is effectively an R&B power ballad. The groove is one of the the simplest possible: kick on one, snare on two, kick on three (played on both the fifth and sixth eighth notes in the bar) and snare on four. Roberts gives his high-tuned snare quite a thumping, playing the whole track with rimshots, to choke the snare’s low end and create more volume and cut, but there are lovely little details in the right hand, extra sixteenths and dotted notes, creating a subtle swing feel that subliminally links the song back to the group’s early hits, even as its arrangement is vastly different.

Lil John Roberts
Lil John Roberts, and his iPod-style bass drum resonant