Tag Archives: Time

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

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Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 3 – Lido Shuffle – Boz Scaggs

Session players will play on a lot of crap. It’s part of the job. You’re hired, you go in and play the songs to the best of your ability, you accumulate credits and you get more work. The quality of the material you play on is almost irrelevant. Unless you’re at the very top of the A list, you can’t afford to turn anyone down, and folks who are at the very top of the A list, well, they didn’t get there by turning down opportunities. If there’s a player on the session you’ve never hung with, or a producer who you’d like to connect with in future, who cares if this particular song is a no-hoper? This is a career, after all. You have to play the long game. If you want to understand the session player mentality, consider Matt Chamberlain, once the drummer in Edie Brickell’s New Bohemians, who was asked to do a tour with Pearl Jam in 1992, just when they were blowing up. The tour went well enough that he was offered the slot permanently (yeah, Pearl Jam weren’t Mudhoney; being a former New Bohemian didn’t disqualify you). Yet Chamberlain turned it down to play in the Saturday Night Live band. He was 25 years old. Call me an unreconstructed punk rocker if you will, but being in the SNL band should be no 25-year-old’s dream gig.

In any generation, only the most technically gifted players get to make that choice. Only the very few can make a living as a recording drummer, particularly since the advent of drum machines and drum programming software. Rock fans tend to lionise favourite players in favourite bands, but usually these guys would be the first to admit that they’re stylists, not technicians. If you want to know who the best drummers of this generation are, ask some record producers. Look at the credits for recent big-budget singer-songwriter albums: you’ll see people like Chamberlain, Joey Waronker and Jay Bellerose.

Once upon a time, you’d have seen Jeff Porcaro.

Porcaro’s credit list is a fascinating read. Reading down the list, you see him muscle his way to the very centre of the LA-based rock-soul interface in the mid-1970s when barely in his twenties by playing the hell out of some fiendish Steely Dan charts and grooving like a mother through Boz Scaggs’ Silk Degrees. His performance on Lido Shuffle is a favourite of mine. It’s an all-time-great drum track. It’s as tight as can be, yet it feels ridiculously good. There’s a half-hour instructional video of Porcaro’s on YouTube (and watching it gives you an insight into why he was so continuously employed; he put a lot of care into his bass drum patterns and his approach to both to choice of hi-hat pattern and employment of dynamics within that pattern is eye opening). He picks apart his Lido Shuffle groove for the benefit of dullards like me. On the hat he plays the first and last note of the triplet on each beat of the bar, while the second note of the triplet is played as a ghost on the snare. He plays the backbeats (two and four) on the snare. On the kick, he plays first and last note of the triplet on the first beat and the last note of triplet on the second beat, repeating that pattern for the third and fourth beats. It’s intricate, for sure, but it makes a lot of sense when he plays it. And his ability to jump in and out of it – to play his fills at the end of each verse, just before the line ‘One for the road’ – is really impressive. This guy, clearly, was a hell of a player. Yeah, he was a member of Toto. So what? He played on Bad Sneakers and Lido Shuffle.

Yet getting an overview of his career by reading his credit list is overall a dispiriting exercise. As you get further down the list into the late 1980s, the artists who employed him get ever more washed-up and irrelevant, further and further from anything you could defend artistically. I’m sure he got paid a shedload for playing on Michael Bolton’s Time, Love & Tenderness and Richard Marx’s Rush Street in the early 1990s, and sure, he was at an age where Pearl Jam wouldn’t have been calling him up to occupy the drum stool anyway, but there were genuine artists working in the major label system too, and to actively choose Bolton and Marx seems such a waste, given how abruptly his life would end in 1992, when he had an allergic reaction to pesticides he’d used in his garden.

porcaro
Mr Porcaro

If you’d like to hear some of my recent work, here you go!

Dust – Fleetwood Mac

When the white flame in us is gone,
And we that lost the world’s delight
Stiffen in darkness, left alone
To crumble in our separate night;

When your swift hair is quiet in death,
And through the lips corruption thrust
Has stilled the labour of my breath–
When we are dust, when we are dust!

Dust, Rupert Brooke

I’ve recently had a mind to investigate the Fleetwood Mac interregnum of 1970-1974, the period between Peter Green’s departure and the arrival of Buckingham and Nicks. I picked up Bare Trees (1972), largely because I recognised a couple of song titles and because of John McVie’s beautiful cover image. I was intrigued to find out what the group were doing in this period: continuing the Green-era’s soulful white blues? Trying to find their way to the foursquare California pop that would become their trademark? Or desperately groping around for a direction, under the leadership of several different guitarist/writers?

Something of all three.

The pleasure of investigating these lesser known Fleetwood Mac albums is not to listen for how different they’ve been down the years. Green, Jeremy Spencer, Danny Kirwan, Christine McVie, Bob Welch, Bob Weston, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks – any band that has been a vehicle for songs by as many writers as this should sound different over time. The eye-opener is how often they sound like, well, Fleetwood Mac.

There’s a Fleetwood Mac groove, for one thing, established in the early seventies, several years before Dreams made it the rhythm section’s calling card – mid-tempo, 4/4, strong backbeat, 8th notes on the hats, ‘heartbeat’ kick drum. But there’s also a mood, a feel, that is present throughout their career, an introspective mood of dusk and twilight that borders on the mystical. It’s there in Green’s Man of the World, in Kirwan’s Dragonfly, in Welch’s Hypnotized, in Buckingham’s I’m So Afraid, and in countless Nicks songs (Rhiannon, Gold Dust Woman, Sisters of the Moon, Storms). Perhaps they have got extraordinarily lucky that new singer-songwriters came and went whose styles overlapped and created a thematic through line. Maybe the mood is something that the group creates and that their songwriters are able to tap into. But it’s there, and it’s kept the group recognisable and intact in spirit through all of their line-up changes (except the post-Buckingham and Nicks line-up that cut Time in 1995, but we won’t count that out of respect for their legacy).

Danny Kirwan, as mentioned above, has one well-known entry into this canon of Fleetwood Mac über-songs, but it’s not his only, or even his best, song in that vein. That distinction belongs to Dust, from Bare Trees. A startling death meditation with lyrics taken from a Rupert Brooke poem (Dragonfly’s lyrics are also adapted from a poem – Kirwan was not a confident lyricist and this method helped him to finish his songs), Dust is a delight for chord-change connoisseurs. My favourite is the drop to an unexpected F#m halfway through the refrain. Kirwan deserves to be remembered for his songs as much as for his guitar playing in tandem with Peter Green – while he was a vital part of Fleetwood Mac’s blues-band days, his talent for writing melody and creating mood through chord changes came alive when he moved away from blues harmony into dreamier, more (dare I say) British, places.

Like much of Bare Trees, Dust is a treat.

Kirwan