crap drummers

many years ago i heard someone say 'a band's only as good as its drummer'. i used to trot this one out occasionally too; as a bass player i have a vested interest i suppose, but as a maxim it's not a bad one. imagine led zep without john bonham, coltrane without elvin jones, the sex pistols without paul cook, the corrs without

but here is my own rogue's gallery of crap drummers; players with successful bands who are, er, crap. in my humble opinion.

1. nick mason - pink floyd

this may be a bit unfair - after all, mr mason (who seems like a rather nice chap for an overfed rock star type) is quite dismissive of his own abilities and would probably rather be flying helicopters or driving very fast cars than plodding away at 90 bpm behind one of david gilmour's endless solos. but if there is a drummer more deserving of the adjective 'plodding' i've yet to hear them. my good mate chris always maintained that nick's finest moment was the 'funky' bit on floyd's 'echoes'. listening to this recently i realised that nick had actually overdubbed two drum parts on this. a good indicator of a crap drummer is the presence of additional drummers ether on stage or on album credits. even as early as 'the wall' there are three other drummers credited.

2. ed cassidy - spirit

this is a band i rather love and in a way it's hard to imagine them without ed's ham fisted interventions, but here we go. and again, ed is a great bloke with a great hairstyle so this is again, slightly snarky. before spirit, ed was apparently a jazz drummer and played with people like gerry mulligan and roland kirk. presumably this was as part of a pickup band at jam sessions or whatever. i can't imagine he got many return gigs. ed's role in spirit seems to have been more about keeping his stepson randy california on the rails, so he probably spent the time he should have been practicing talking randy down from acid trips or finding him twinkies at 3am. there's a partcularly hilarious and strangely moving moment on a spirit live record where after a protracted drum solo of such awfulness that it's sort of hard to believe, randy says 'let's hear it for the greatest drummer in the world - ed cassidy!'. irony was not one of randy's strong points, so bless him.

3.graeme edge - the moody blues

someone once asked john lennon if ringo starr was the best drummer in the world. lennon's reply was that he wasn't even the best drummer in the beatles. arf. but that didn't stop him from being a major influence on nick mason or especially graeme edge, whose leaden playing is so devoid of imagination that it takes ringo's contribution to 'strawberry fields forever' as its sole template. admittedly the moodies were never the most energetic or innovative combo, but even so mr edge's contributions are marked by such a lack of drive it's hard to believe he was actually conscious at the time he made them. mr edge has been augmented by a second drummer during recent live appearances. even so, his drumming is much better than his poetry.

4. larry mullen - u2

remember, u2 are larry's band. and in some ways his stiff, unresponsive one dimensional skinbashing is perfect for the biggest band in the world. so it's maybe beyond criticism. but still - after god knows how many years you think that there might be some improvement - some subtlety perhaps, an acknowledgement that maybe that merely ripping off stephen morris' work wth joy division or any other post punk drummer might be a bit of a dead end. but no. it's a dead cert that any rhythmic nterest you might be lucky enough to hear on a u2 record or gig comes from a sampler and not from larry. but that's's his band.

floating to the top

one of the fabulous things about t'internet is that it allows us to express our views about anything at any time. like what i'm doing now. brilliant!

many years ago when i used to read the NME and it wasn't in colour and it were all fields round here etc i used to be fascinated by the letters page. this used to be full of things like 'i've just read your review of the new crispy ambulance single and you are clearly a moron. not only that, you are a deaf moron who wouldn't know good music if it crawled up your arse' etc. this would then be followed by some clever insult from the letters editor probably involving the correspondent's arse. and so on.

this seemed to me even then to be confusing subjective opinion with some kind of objective truth. the fact that nearly always the combatants in such debates went for the man and not the ball proved that really there was nothing to talk about. person a liked it and person b didn't. only one of them was being paid to put their speed fuelled ramblings into print, while the other had to pay for records and gig tickets and could probably only afford cheap whizz.

a while ago i wrote reviews on a regular basis and on occasion was subjected to the occasional rant from an aggrieved punter. it used to hurt a bit because i always thought i tried to be reasonable and back up my opinions in some way and didn't really want to be one of those arsehole critics confusing their opinions with fact. but i think it just goes with the territory. critics are generally arseholes, and i was one of them.

never mind.

but there still is this notion that some music is just intrinsically 'good'. browse through youtube's clips of classic rock types (anyone from little feat to steve winwood to richard thompson to camel) and at some point you'll see a comment along the lines of 'this is proper music. britney spears can't even play an instrument'. this conflation of technical skill with 'good' music is the closest you'll get to a coherent argument, however flimsy it is, and it's considered as the trump card by its proponents.

there are records that do seem to transcend criticism. it's a brave soul who'll dismiss 'nevermind', 'kind of blue', 'ok computer', 'astral weeks' or 'revolver'. it's fun to do it, but it's a pointless exercise for the most part. they have the weight of received opinion in their favour accumulated through god knows how many mojo articles and 100 best album lists (btw, i only own one of those records. check out my individuality!)

but does that mean they're intrinsically good? 'kind of blue' is only just over 50 years old. it's not quite the mona lisa or henry v or beowulf. surely time is the best judge of what's good. whatever that means - but i'm taking it to mean stuff that has some kind of widespread resonance, a crowd-sourced acceptance of 'quality'.

and there are two examples that spring to mind. recently radio 4 ran a series called 'soul music', which concentrated on telling the stories of much loved pieces. one of the oldest was this...

now there's a lot of choral music not unlike this. but somehow the miserere has stuck in people's imaginations (starting with mozart, who risked excommunication in copying it down). that it's survived for over 400 years must say something.

similarly, this was recently (to my surprise) voted the nations' favourite aria by radio 3 listeners...

now i generally don't like or understand opera, but i heard this version and immediately fell in love with it. i wasn't aware of it's popularity at all - though i do listen to a fair amount of classical music (early music in particular) i just avoid stuff that has singing on it. so mine was a completely unmediated response. i knew nothing about it, it just resonated with me. and i'm not the only one, obviously.

death to the metronome

fellini's orchestra rehearsal is probably the best entirely fictional film about music and musicians i've seen. an orchestra, opressed by their despotic conductor and corrupt union mafiosi, revolt and install a giant metronome in the conductor's place. until they decide that the metronome is too oppressive as well. meanwhile someone appears to be demolishing the oratory in which they're rehearsing. in the aftermath of their revolution, the conductor gives a rousing speech - 'we are musicians. let us follow the notes on the page'. quietly, the orchestra put away their spraycans and guns, take up their instruments from the debris and play, only to be immediately harangued by their conductor once more. 'gentlemen, from the beginning...' are the last words we hear.

the political allegory is obvious and kind of depressing, but fellini's love of music and musicians shines through. the orchestra members talk about their instruments, their neuroses, their drinking. some are passionate, some disinterested, some screwed up. it's funny, sharp and sometimes really moving.

the orchestra is a peculiar thing. i've never been in one and am unlikely to be. the closest i got was being part of a motley band of amateurs playing alvin curran's 'maritime rites' on the millenium bridge a couple of years back.

not quite the LSO then. that clip was one of the graphic score bits where we were required to improvise more or less freely, but we did have to play proper notes as well. the best bit for me was the rehearsal, where our first task was to play either a c or a c sharp. there were probably around 120 of us. it was a glorious bloody noise, and the communal aspect of it was quite powerful. there was a sense (however peculiar the results) of a common goal.

but to watch a proper orchestra in rehearsal (as i've often done in my job) is something else. when the musicians aren't playing, they're reading the guardian or checking their phones or joking with each other, there's not much of a sense of engagement with what they're doing (fellini pulls a similar trick in his film where a group of violinists huddle around a radio when they're not playing to listen to a football match). this seems a strange way to make music and reinforces the notion of the orchestra as a bunch of skilled workers doing the composer and conductor's bidding. smaller ensembles are a different animal, particularly those without a conductor, it's hard to imagine one of the smith quartet checking their facebook status during a lengthy rest.

outside of the top-down hierarchy of the orchestra, it's a mish-mash of troubled democracies, benign dictatorships and god know what else. the big bands in jazz probably come closest to the orchestra model, and the dictatorship can be less than benign...