Buddy Rich helps invent the concept of the celebrity drummer
Buddy Rich was a drumming child prodigy who become a global star. Born in Brooklyn in 1917, his vaudevillian performer parents picked up his talents with spoons as a toddler; aged four, he was playing Broadway; by 11, he was a big band leader. From the 1950s, he wowed TV audiences too, playing with crossed arms, doing one-handed drum rolls, and having drum battles with the similarly gifted Gene Krupa. All this from someone with no musical training, and who barely practised. Add a temperamental personality to the mix and the concept of the rebellious genius on the risers was born.
John Lennon badmouths Ringo (allegedly)
The evidence for Lennon’s infamous statement “Ringo isn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles” is murky, but the idea of Richard Starkey’s playing being substandard persists. It’s anything but. A left-handed man using a right-handed kit, Starr couldn’t do conventional drum rolls, so his style became all about unshowy, sophisticated fills. They’re full of variety too, from Ticket to Ride to Rain, A Day in the Life to Come Together. Similarly subtle players thrived in the 60s, keeping time tightly but majestically, such as the Stones’ Charlie Watts (try Under My Thumb), Stax Records’ linchpin Al Jackson Jr, and the prolific Earl Palmer.
Moe Tucker stands up
The Velvet Underground’s Maureen Tucker wasn’t just unusual on account of her gender. Standing up in front of a simplified kit – cymbals and hi-hats were too fussy – she used mallets instead of sticks, her playing all brutish and loud. At some early gigs, she even used metal garbage cans after her drumkit was stolen. Other stand-up drummers included Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers’ Tommy Larkins, who played a vintage cocktail kit, and Victor DeLorenzo of the Violent Femmes. Back-to-basics drummers came back in the late 90s, too, thanks to the earthy banging of the White Stripes’ Meg White.
Keith Moon draws the high-water mark for drummer bad behaviour
Driving a car into a pool on his birthday; a penchant for blowing up toilets and destroying his drums – Keith Moon ticked all the mad drummer boxes. On US show The Smothers’ Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967, he even blew up his bass drum with cherrybombs, permanently damaging Pete Townshend’s hearing. Also a talented, flamboyant instrumentalist, his stylistic contemporaries included Cream’s Ginger Baker (who used two bass drums) and Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham (who used four sticks). Other notable drummer bad behaviour in subsequent years include the Police’s Stewart Copeland writing “Fuck/Off/You/Cunt” on his drumskins, so he could hit them hard while he feuded with Sting.
Karen Carpenter becomes pop’s first drumming frontwoman
Karen Carpenter considered herself a drummer first and foremost, not a singer; in early TV performances, she’s always singing behind her kit. As the Carpenters became increasingly famous, she was encouraged to leave the snares and toms behind, though, and let her 5ft 4in frame stand tall behind the microphone. Many singing drummers have made the same journey, from Levon Helm to Don Henley, Phil Collins to Sheila E, but Carpenter always missed her first love. On The Carpenters’ Very First Television Special, in the US in 1976, she makes this clear, running around the stage playing different-sized kits, her technical ability loud and proud.
Tony Allen and Fela Kuti popularise Afrobeat
Fela Kuti first met Tony Allen in 1964, auditioning the drummer at his house. He immediately loved his style, which blended traditional Nigerian rhythms with the bebop of American drummer Art Blakey, plus funk and R&B. Fela combined this energetic percussion with chanting and singing to create a new genre, admitting later that “without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat”. Allen has also collaborated with many other musicians, including Damon Albarn, with whom he’s been in two supergroups (The Good, the Bad & the Queen; Rocket Juice & the Moon). Impressively, it’s said he can play four time signatures with his different limbs at the same time.
Klaus Dinger creates motorik
After leaving an early incarnation of Kraftwerk with his friend Michael Rother, and forming a new band called Neu!, drummer Klaus Dinger honed a new kind of rhythm. Dinger called it the “endlose gerade” (“endless straight”), but the rest of the world would call it “motorik” – a rhythm that mimicked the propulsive energy of the machine. Hallogallo, the opening track on Neu’s debut album, is motorik’s foundation stone, while fellow Krautrock band Can’s Jaki Liebezeit also mastered his own metronomic beat. Stereolab revived motorik elegantly in the 90s, while Wilco and LCD Soundsystem have also used it to dazzling effect.
The Roland TR-808 is released
Before PaiA Electronics’ Programmable Drum Set was released in 1975, drum machines were ruled by presets, limiting musicians’ rhythmic experiments. The Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer, which was programmable, was not highly thought of on release, as it didn’t feature digital sounds and didn’t replicate real sounds properly. Its relative cheapness gave it an accessible afterlife, though, and the weirdness of its tones conjured up eerie, stark, futuristic soundscapes. Techno and house blossomed as a result (808 State named themselves after the kit), and it even provided the backbeat for hits such as Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing and Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody. Original models go for £2,000-plus.
A 17-year-old drum solo accidentally reinvigorates hip-hop
Washington DC funk band the Winstons sold a million copies of Color Him Father in 1969, but that song’s B-side, Amen, Brother, had the far longer shelf life. Its funky four-bar kick-to-snare-drum solo featured on Ultimate Breaks & Beats, a series produced to provide samples for hip-hop and electronic artists. The “Amen break” was sampled soon after on NWA’s Straight Outta Compton and Mantronix’s King of the Beats; later, it would be the rhythmic cornerstone of hardcore and drum’n’bass. More recently, it’s featured on Amy Winehouse’s You Know I’m No Good and, oddly enough, the Futurama theme tune.
Dave Grohl reveals his secret talents
Few people expected Nirvana’s geeky drummer Dave Grohl to become a thrusting rock singer-songwriter after Kurt Cobain’s death – he’d only written a B-side, Marigold, for their 1993 single Heart-Shaped Box. But Foo Fighters have now spent 20 years selling out stadiums (their eighth album, Sonic Highways, is released next month), with him in chief composer mode. Other drummers from huge rock bands also have songwriting talents, among them REM’s Bill Berry, who wrote their best-known ballad, Everybody Hurts, as well as 1983 fan favourite Perfect Circle. More recently, Radiohead’s Philip Selway revealed a voice to rival his bandmate’s Thom Yorke when he went solo in 2010. His second album, Weatherhouse, is out on 7 October on Bella Union.