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Monday, December 17, 2012

Rock Gods Spotlight #3: Drums

If you've seen the recent TV ad for the Volkswagen Jetta, with the driver doing his best air drum performance to Rush's "Fly By Night" before realizing he has an audience, you've basically seen what I look like on any given day in my car.  When I turn up my stereo, my feet start stomping on my invisible bass drum and my steering wheel takes a pounding, all in the name of Rock.  Playing the drums is my missed calling, perhaps along with writing, so until the day comes when I have the time and resources to dedicate to fulfilling my dream, my car is my drumkit.

I'm certain that growing up in the 80's had a lot to do with the musical tastes I have today, especially considering my love for the drums and the ridiculous drum solos from some of the most iconic songs of that decade.  Before diving into my favorite drummers, I have to mention 3 songs with some of my favorite drum parts that nearly everybody knows, that are essential pieces of Pop Culture.  First is the infamous intro to Van Halen's "Hot For Teacher", which features Alex Van Halen transitioning from what sounds like 6 bass drums to a lightning fast exchange between snare and cymbal leading into Eddie's genius finger-tapping opening.  As if that intro alone wasn't enough to make you go out and by a kit, next up is the sequence from "In The Air Tonight" by Phil Collins that nearly everyone has played air drums to at some point in their lifetime.  The song, a bit of an urban legend, is a slow and haunting Pop classic that's suddenly flipped on its head with a thunderous breakdown capable of shaking the fillings in your teeth with the right set of headphones.  The third, which was accompanied by one of the coolest videos of the decade, is the drum intro from Dire Straits' "Money For Nothing", which is like a drum solo spread out into several small bits, all coming together just in time for one of Mark Knopfler's tastiest guitar licks.

When it comes to naming the best drummers in Rock, John "Bonzo" Bonham is pretty much at the top of everyone's list, and I do think he is among the absolute greatest, but on my list the top spot belongs to Neil Peart.  I mentioned Rush's "Fly By Night" earlier, which is certainly not the most impressive piece Peart has done but there is nothing unimpressive about anything he does on the drums.  Their 1991 album "Roll The Bones" was the first album I owned from the Rush catalog, but I was definitely familiar with some of their classic tracks like "Limelight", "Spirit of Radio", and of course "Tom Sawyer".  I own nearly all of their albums since RTB as well as "Chronicles" which is a fairly comprehensive collection of their pre-90's material.  Much like singer Geddy Lee's bass playing, I think Peart's strengths are highlighted more on the band's instrumental tracks, but there are several tracks on every album that show what a powerhouse he is, technically, creatively, even lyrically.  On their latest album "Clockwork Angels", Neil plays with a new level of power and ferocity, not that his playing isn't powerful already, but it seems that in his downtime he may have recently enjoyed some heavy Rock that got him fired up when it came time to record.  His drum solo is the highlight of any Rush show, and when the lights go dim after the instrumental piece that leads to it, he has the attention of everyone in attendance, a sea of faces covered in awe.  I've only seen Rush live once, on their 1994 Counterparts tour, but I have seen and heard a few of their live releases over the years and it really just keeps getting better, tighter and more impressive.  I've seen articles and videos of people downplaying Peart's status for how old he is or saying that today's drummers are better simply because they're louder or faster, but it's no mistake that his name is near the very top of every single "best drummer" list published, along with Mr. Bonham.

Moving right along to "Bonzo", also known as John Henry Bonham of Led Zeppelin, who could make the most simple drum kit sound like the massive kit Peart uses today.  For most of Rock's most highly-esteemed drummers, their status was achieved over a number of decades; Bonham did it in just 12 years.  Discovered in July 1968 by Jimmy Page while forming his post-Yardbirds band, Bonham helped build one of the most highly respected catalogs of music in history, until his tragic and untimely death in 1980 at the age of 32.
Known for speed, power, fast feet and his distinctive sound, he earned a long list of accolades naming him the greatest and most influential Rock drummer of all time, not only in his time but even in polls taken as recently as 2011.  Some of today's most popular drummers like Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Chickenfoot) and Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, Nirvana), along with legends like Roger Taylor (Queen) and Charlie Watts (Rolling Stones) recognize him as the best of all time.  Taylor, responsible for a number of classic anthems himself, said the following about Bohnam, "The greatest Rock 'N' Roll drummer of all time was John Bonham who did things that nobody had ever even thought possible before with the drum kit. And also the greatest sound out of his drums - they sounded enormous, and just one bass drum. So fast on it that he did more with one bass drum than most people could do with three, if they could manage them. And he had technique to burn and fantastic power and tremendous feel for Rock 'N' Roll."  Bonhan's legacy lives on, not only in the music of Led Zeppelin's catalog, but also through his son Jason, also a drummer, who performed the most important show of his career in 2007 at London's O2 arena with his dad's bandmates, now available as "Celebration Day".

Two of Seattle's biggest bands are still going strong and sounding better than ever thanks to one man, drummer Matt Cameron.  Cameron was already with Soundgarden when Pearl Jam was just getting started, and he helped them out by playing on the demos that were sent to Eddie Vedder to enlist him as their singer.  In 1997, tensions within the band caused Soundgarden to stop, leaving Cameron conveniently available when Eddie Vedder asked him to tour for their "Yield" album when their drummer Jack Irons had to bow out.  Matt accepted, and quickly went to work learning 80 songs in two weeks, eventually joining Pearl Jam as a permanent member, bringing the evolution of the band full circle.  Matt Cameron's contributions to Pearl Jam were instantly recognized in their albums and live performances, and guitarist Mike McCready credits him for "making Pearl Jam a way better band".  In 2010, singer Chris Cornell announced the end of Soundgarden's hiatus, and Cameron began sharing his time between the two projects.  Speaking as a fan of both bands, especially after hearing how strong their latest album "King Animal" is, I hope Cameron can continue supporting both because losing him now to go back to Soundgarden full time could be devastating for Pearl Jam.  I never fully appreciated his playing until he joined Pearl Jam, but listening back to the Temple of the Dog album and Soundgarden's catalog, especially their latest, has me puzzled as to why it took so long to realize that Matt Cameron is up there with the very best.

Tommy Lee is just as well-known for his personal life as he is for being the drummer in Motley Crue, and I think his power and style is frequently overlooked because of it.  He has jammed with the A-list of Rock, and collaborated with a number of musicians including Nine Inch Nails and Rob Zombie, and bassist Stu Hamm, and thanks to his tabloid lifestyle he is among the most notorious figures in Rock history.  I find a lot of interesting aspects of his playing like fills and breakdowns he incorporates into his solo music and Motley Crue, and on songs like "Wild Side" and "Primal Scream" there is a power coming from his drums that I don't always hear, even from drummers of today's heaviest bands.  I love his use of the bass drum, and I think his style of playing makes for a very clean Rock sound which comes through in every one of his collaborations.  If you want to hear Tommy at his most powerful, check out the title song from Stu Hamm's "The Urge", which features huge bass drum sound and some of the sharpest cymbal work and timing he's done.  I find it very fitting that he played with the all-star lineup at the VH1 Rock Honors show for Kiss playing "God of Thunder", because that's what I think his unofficial nickname should be.

Dave Grohl already turned up in this Rock Gods Spotlight series for his role as Frontman in the Foo Fighters, but as I mentioned in that post he was already killing it on drums before we saw him on the mic.  I can't really decide which role he excels at, just that he's able to put a lot more of himself into his music as a Frontman.  Behind the kit, especially after years of being a Frontman, he seems more at ease than ever, even jubilant at times while playing even the loudest and hardest music.  His upcoming documentary "Sound City" features new music he wrote and recorded with Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic, and Paul McCartney, and he's in the process of recording an album with Queens of the Stone Age, their second to feature Dave on drums.  As I mentioned in the Frontman spotlight, Grohl was praised by Kurt Cobain, mostly for his timing and power and I'd have to agree.  I think Dave has achieved the best of both worlds, playing drums when opportunities arise but also getting to be the man out front, using his words and vocals, not just his power behind a kit, to make music.

There are many drummers out there who all deserve their accolades, but those are just my favorites, the ones I don't feel get enough credit or attention for their contributions to Rock and their "Rock God" qualities.  I have to give honorable mention to Rick Allen, who overcame the ultimate obstacle for a drummer when he lost his arm in a car accident and came back sounding as if nothing had ever happened, with the help of a few extra foot pedals and very quick feet.  I'm also thoroughly impressed with Steven Adler who made his mark on the Rock world as the original drummer for Guns 'N' Roses, and overcame addiction to return to music with his latest project "Adler".  Who are your favorite drummers and do you think they are "Rock God" material?  Stay tuned for Rock Gods Spotlight #4: Axeman (Lead Guitarist)!

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