Tag Archives: underrated drum tracks

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.

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://i1.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 2017, Part One: You’re No Good – Linda Ronstadt

Back again for the fifth year running, our reconsideration of well known songs through the prism of their underrated drum tracks. This week, let’s begin with a thought experiment…

Imagine you’re a producer in 1970s LA, working on a country-pop album by a well-known singer. You need someone to cut a drum track for you. Who would you call?

The obvious answer is Russ Kunkel.

Kunkel, the drummer from the Section (who backed James Taylor, Carole King, Jackson Browne, Carly Simon, Crosby and Nash, and too many others to list – they were for all practical purposes the LA industry’s house band) is, naturally, on Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel. But he didn’t actually play on You’re No Good. The identity of the drummer in question is somewhat surprising.

It was meant to be Earth, Wind & Fire drummer Fred Smith, a left-field call for a country-pop artist, but an intriguing one born from Ronstadt’s love of R&B and desire to bring those influences into her own music. Unfortunately, when Smith and bassist Peter Stallworth cut basic tracks for the song, Ronstadt wasn’t singing with them, and when she did try recording a vocal to their track, she couldn’t get the right feel. The way she phrased the song just didn’t work with the way Smith had played it.

The solution was provided by Andrew Gold, who was playing guitar on the session. Gold handled the drums himself. Producer Peter Asher liked the feel that Gold, Ronstadt’s de facto bandleader and a fine pianist and guitarist, brought to the song, so his drums became the basis of a new version.

Gold called what he did “sort of a pseudo-Motown thing”. Asher thought it was a Ringo thing, and, as a man who knew Ringo, Asher should know. I hear it as a Ringo thing, too. Its lazy backbeat and heavy tom sound (cooked up by engineer Val Garay with his favoured mic, Telefunken 251s) definitely capture that Ringo feel. “I loved the fills he did,” said Garay. “I used to call them ‘the pachyderms’—he’d go ‘pachyderm-pachyderm’.” Those repeated three-stroke fills (two on the snare and then a heavy tom hit to finish), are indeed the defining element of the drum track, and bring a pleasing rough edge to what is otherwise an elaborate and polished construction.

Gold’s Ringo drums, then, are the foundation of a hybrid arrangement that has strong country and R&B elements, but also thanks to Gold a distinct Beatles vibe, too; his harmonised guitar break is as Beatley as his drum track.

You have to give producer Asher, engineer Garay and Gold himself a lot of credit for having the imagination and open-mindedness to try a left-field solution. It would have been easy to just get Kunkel in. But as great as Kunkel is, I doubt he would have been able to improve on Gold’s effort.

Unsurprisingly, pictures of Andrew Gold playing drums are hard to come by. So no photo this time, alas!

 

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 3: Across the Great Divide by The Band

It would be hard to think of another bassist who contributed more to popular music but who is less copied than Rick Danko.

The bass player’s job is to provide low end, supporting and reinforcing the harmony. At its simplest, this means playing the root note of each chord the other band members play, usually in time with some element of the rhythm the drummer is playing (usually the bass drum pattern).

How was Rick Danko different, then? Danko’s bass provided low end, sure, and it supported and reinforced the harmony, but what was unique about Danko in the context of rock ‘n’ roll and roots music is that he played around Levon Helm’s drums rather than locking in with him. The bassists to whom he is most comparable are reggae players, not rock players.

Danko’s lines often took the form of syncopated little melodies or riffs that sometimes, but not always (and definitely not as a rule), connected with Levon’s kick drum. This technique was already in place when The Band signed to Capitol, and is nowhere to be heard in the group’s work as Bob Dylan’s backing band. In effect, Danko cooked it up in Big Pink after the end of the tour with Dyan in 1966 and had it ready to go when the group cut its first album, Music from Big Pink.*

To Kingdom Come, the second track on Big Pink, is a song I’ve written about before. Then I was talking about Robbie Robertson’s wonderful guitar solo. But the song is also notable for Danko’s idiosyncratic bassline.

danko-ing

Those of you who can’t read music or tablature will need to listen to the recording to hear what Danko is doing here. He’s playing a game of hide and seek with the kick drum, playing little off-beat runs, beginning his grace-note slides on the strong beat and hitting the root note on the off. It’s brilliant, and utterly unlike anything any of his peers were doing in 1969.

He’s on similarly great form on Across the Great Divide, the opening track of The Band’s self-titled second album.

The song is a Fats Domino-style rock ‘n’ roll tune with a triplet feel carried by Richard Manuel’s piano (Levon Helm doesn’t really spell out the triplets on the drums, instead merely suggesting them). Underneath that, Rick Danko plays this:

Danko

There are so many Danko-isms in this line that it practically constitutes one big Danko-ism in itself, but let’s actually itemise them: the rests straight after the initial root G and A notes; the rest in the middle of the third bar where you might expect a third C note; the descending triplet run in the fourth bar; and the triplet run from G up to B in the first bar of the verse sequence. This in six bars of music.

As I said up top, Danko’s style was so his own – it came out of who he was and was so much a response to what his band mates did musically – that no one within rock music has ever really picked up from where he left off. You can listen to elements of what he did and hear relations in reggae, in funk, in jazz and in country music, but ultimately Rick Danko was a one-off, and one half of what is possibly the finest rhythm section in popular music.

*I’m not actually a huge Basement Tapes buff, but it would be fascinating to listen to them with an ear to whether Danko was debuting ideas and techniques that would become part of his style when playing Band material.

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.

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

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved, Part 4 – Garoux des Larmes by Throwing Muses

As drummer for Throwing Muses, David Narcizo has held one of the trickiest jobs in popular music for thirty years. Kristin Hersh’s songs are not, and have never been, simple; they are full of twists and turns, tempo changes, time signature changes and unusual feels. Narcizo has coped with it all; he’s even made it danceable. No doubt he’s been helped by the band’s series of quality bass players: Leslie Langston, Fred Abong and Bernard Georges. But still, he’s made a tough job look pretty easy and instinctive for three decades.

The early Throwing Muses sound lasted for two albums and two EPs, more or less: the self-titled debut, the Chains Changed EP (both 1986), House Tornado and the Fat Skier EP (both 1987). Stylistically, the songs from this era are characterised by their restlessness, their abrupt changes in feel, tempo and mood. Narcizo’s drums had to find ways to live in the quiet parts of these songs without overwhelming them while driving the heavier sections along (the songs would never have felt right if Narcizo had allowed Hersh’s guitar to carry him; no good rock music works that way). It would have been a challenge for anyone, but these guys were just kids, really: 19 or 20 years old. What they achieved is remarkable.

I’ve said before, I think, that I feel the standard of the average US drummer compared with the average drummer from the UK is higher, which (just hypothesising here) you could put down to the disciplines of marching-band snare drumming on one hand and jazz drumming on the other. In the UK, you have to go much further out of your way to learn these skills, so many don’t.

I’m not sure whether David Narcizo ever studied jazz, but I’d bet dollars to doughnuts he played snare drum in the school band, as 16th-note march-time feels make up about 50% of the drum parts on the band’s early records. My favourites are early single Fish, Reel (from Chains Changed), a Tanya Donelly song in which Narcizo switches between heavy tom patterns in the verses and his trademark snare march in the choruses (making both sound light and agile and funky through the addition of a stomping kick drum); and the rather gonzo Garoux des Larmes, from The Fat Skier.

Garoux des Larmes has probably the most intricate patterns of all Narcizo’s marching parts. The sticking is constant 16th notes, but the pattern is played over snare and toms rather than just snare drum (as it is on Fish and the chorus of Reel). Maybe highly trained drummers would consider this no big deal, but how you play intricate 16th-note patterns for several minutes at a time, with power, precision, steady tempo and a good feel, without ever getting your arms in a tangle, is completely beyond me. There’s a live audience video from 1987 that gives a good idea of what’s involved in playing this stuff. If you’re really familiar with the record, you’ll note the extra hi-hat work that Narcizo throws in here.

The band reached something of a crossroads on 1989’s Hunkpapa. Mania is an absolute career highlight, and for that alone the album is essential, but Hunkpapa had fewer marches and a heavier two-and-four sound overall; the band was evidently changing. The Real Ramona, the only record the band made with Abong on bass, was magnificent, and when Narcizo plays that huge opening fill on Counting Backwards at the start of The Real Ramona, it’s an amazing moment, but it’s also the moment that signals the end of the band’s phase one; the frantic march-time rhythms never did return. Red Heaven, University and Limbo saw Hersh turn up the guitars, and while Narcizo still played unmatched grip, he’d turned into a backbeat drummer, as the music demanded he should. All the records they made between their debut and Limbo have great moments (University‘s my pick of the Bernard Georges era), but Throwing Muses’ early music, thirty years on, remains immediately identitfiable, absolutely inimitable and still astonishing, and David Narcizo deserves just as much credit for that as Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly.

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Throwing Muses mk I: l-r David Narcizo, Tanya Donelly, Kristin Hersh, Leslie Langston

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.