The drummer

Jaki Liebezeit, via

Having written blog posts on the guitar solo and the bassline, I had been planning a follow-up on drum beats. The need to do so now has been triggered by the sad news of the death last month of the greatest of all drummers – sorry, but I will brook no argument here – Jaki Liebezeit.

Liebezeit was the drummer with CAN, the experimental German band of the 1960s and 70s, who used their background in free music, jazz and avante garde classical (particularly Stockhausen) to reinvent rock music from the inside out. Central to this the role of the drummer. Instead of being at the back of the mix, providing the rhythm that supported the rest of the music, with CAN the drums took the lead. Track after track begins with a mesmeric drum pattern, rocksteady beats played out with extraordinary polyrhythmic precision as bass, guitar, keyboards came in, with the wandering, free-form vocals of Damo Suzuki on top.

It was sometimes called machine-like, but no machine ever sounded like Liebezeit’s drumming. You could imagine a machine being programmed to copy what he had invented (and his beats have been much sampled in recent times), but that’s not the same thing. He did not recreate a mechanical world – he invented one.

Nor was it soulless mechanical stuff. Liebezeit could swing with the best of them, do funky, delicate, and even – when called upon – routine. Freed from pre-conceieved ideas, he only had the best ideas. Listen to ‘Mushroom‘, ‘Oh Yeah‘, ‘Moonshake‘ or ‘Pinch‘, and you will see.

Drumming is primordial music. It was by striking beats that we established our own rhythm over the natural state of things. Drumming changes time to our time; it symbolizes our would-be mastery over the world in which we find ourselves. It accompanies us to war, it leads us to dance, it mimics our hearts. It satisfies the basic urge that we have to hit things. It is a channel equally for rage and joy. When all else is lost we will still be able to drum, and so make ourselves heard.

As with guitars and bass beforehand, here’s a list of ten favourite drum parts of mine. Not a top ten (though they are in rough order, for amusement’s sake), but an interesting ten. One drummer per track, playing something characteristic of their best work – and no surprises who ends up as number one.

10. The Bad Plus, ‘Pound for Pound’, drummer Dave King

The Bad Plus are an American jazz trio with a rock following. I find them clever but not especially engrossing, apart from this one hypnotic track, which is all about the drum pattern – heavy snare followed by a falling away of beats, over which a sentimental piano melody plays. As the tune progresses you can never forget the drum pattern, and it is all that remains as the other instruments fade away. Immaculately recorded, and quite entrancing.

9. Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘Manic Depression’, drummer Mitch Mitchell

The smartest thing producer Chas Chandler ever did, after discovering Jimi Hendrix, was to team him up with Mitch Mitchell, whose talent bloomed outrageously under the inspiration of the guitarist’s wild imagination. This furious piece from Are You Experienced has explosive (yet perfectly controlled) drumming of a kind never before heard in a pop song.

8. Soft Machine, ‘We Did It Again’, drummer Robert Wyatt

Robert Wyatt revered all of the great jazz drummers, but at heart he was a disciple of Mitch Miller. Though there are plenty of examples of intricate and expressive work among the Soft Machine’s work and beyond, before the accident that left him wheelchair-bound, for me this exuberant explosion of drumming as the band laugh at us by playing the same meaningless line over and over again (‘We did it again’) sums up what joy he found seated at a drum kit.

7. Medeski Martin and Wood, ‘Bonjour Beze’, drummer Billy Martin

I could have selected nine out of these ten tracks from the American post-jazz trio Medeski, Martin and Wood, so outstanding is the work of Billy Martin. Funky, jazzy, wildly creative, leading and supporting the music at every point, a master of musical invention. This track just happens to be my favourite of the moment.

6. Buddy Holly, ‘Peggy Sue’, drummer Jerry Allison

It would have been entirely possible for ‘Peggy Sue’ to have had a quiet cymbal-led beat, pattering away in the backround to match the urgency and pace in Buddy Holly’s song. Instead Jerry Allison came up with a driving accompaniment through paradiddles (two single strokes followed by a double stroke, alternating the lead between left and right, performed at speed). An inspired idea, perfectly gracing the perfect song.

5. Bob Dylan, ‘Mozambique’, drummer Howard Wyeth

Well, of course, I wasn’t going to leave Bob Dylan out of this, but just listen to Howard Wyeth’s extraordinary drumming on ‘Mozambique’. Instead of just playing with the song, he plays with great creativity all around it, hitting off-beats against off-beats, never losing the beat yet seemingly never once quite playing it where you might expect it to be played. An intoxicating listen.

4. The Beatles, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, drummer Ringo Starr

Contrary to what John Lennon might have said, Ringo Starr was definitely the best drummer in The Beatles. Not in the same league technically as most of the other drummers on this list, but no one hit a bigger or better beat when it mattered. Had I not restricted myself to one track per drummer, then ‘Old Brown Shoe’ could have come into consideration, but the drumming on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is from another world. Yes, they played around with the drum sound in the studio, but he had to hit it in the first place.

3. The Velvet Underground, ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’, drummer Moe Tucker

Moe Tucker took the jazz out of drumming and brought it back to basics – hitting the skins loudly, keeping elementary time. She played standing up, rarely used cymbals, and provided the ideal unvarnished accompaniment for the Velvets, whether soft or loud. Here they are very loud, the tune struggling against the feedback, and Tucker putting out a pounding rhythm that may or may not be in step with the rest of the music, but frankly who cares?

2. John Coltrane’ ‘Pursuance’, drummer Elvin Jones

OK, technically speaking, Elvin Jones should be number one – and all the other numbers. Free-flowing, graceful, polyrhythmic, endlessly inventive, the most imaginative and responsive of musicians, whatever the instrument, Jones was the greatest of post-war jazz drummers. Really I should pick the whole of A Love Supreme to showcase his contribution to jazz’s finest 33 minutes, but ‘Pursuance’ is the track that starts with a drum solo, so it gets the nod.

1. CAN, ‘Vitamin C’, drummer Jaki Liebezeit

Nothing better illustrates Jaki Liebezeit’s greatness than this, my favourite CAN track. The underlying beat is simplicity itself, 4/4 time. Yet Liebezeit draws out such ingenious patterns from it, overturning all ideas about how a pop song should be structured and what our ears might want to follow. A model example of the drum-led song, and a testament to a man who was the heartbeat of modern music.


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3 thoughts on “The drummer

  1. Great piece Luke. Agree about the genius of Tomorrow Never Knows, but My favourite Ringo performance is Ticket To Ride. Especially remastered on the latest version of 1. Every time I play it, I realise at the end I listened only to Ringo, left channel.

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