From Keith Moon to John Bonham, they have a reputation for wild behaviour. But, as new film Whiplash suggests, there’s a reason drummers are different
There is a story recounted in Whiplash, the electrifying new film about a young jazz drummer, concerning the night that Jo Jones, the drummer for the Count Basie Orchestra, was jamming on a nightclub stage with a 16-year-old Charlie Parker.
When Parker lost the beat, so the story goes, Jones was so incensed that he threw a cymbal at him, causing catcalls and laughter at the young sax player’s expense. A humiliated Parker fled the club, vowing, “I’ll be back”.
And, of course, he was. The moral is that it took a true perfectionist to push the young tyro to the heights of genius – but, more particularly, it took a drummer. Without Jo Jones, “Bird” would have been just another sax player.
Whiplash tells the story of a 19-year-old student struggling to earn the drum seat in the jazz orchestra at a music school, and his relationship with his brutal disciplinarian of a teacher. It is the teacher – a man with all the sensitivity of a US Marines drill sergeant – who tells the drummer the story of Jo Jones and Charlie Parker, adding his own variation on the theme by hurling a chair across the room at his young charge.
Whiplash plays on the trope of drumming as the refuge, and the testing ground, of the obsessive, driven loner; the young drummer – “I want to be great” – is prepared to sacrifice family, girlfriend and personal happiness to achieve perfection. It would spoil things to reveal whether or not his quest is vindicated.
His hero is Buddy Rich, by general consensus not only one of the greatest drummers in the history of jazz, but also the most ill-tempered. Rich had a reputation for splenetic temper tantrums, one of which was once captured by a member of his band on a widely circulated tape.
“What kind of playing do you think this is? What kind of miscues do you call this? What f—-in’ band do you think you’re playing on, mother—-ers! You wanna f— with me on the bandstand?” And so on.
According to one of his musicians, Rich, who held a black belt in karate and once threatened to fire a band member for growing a beard, would only lose his temper “anytime he saw his wife… anytime he ran out of reefer and anytime we had guests on the bus”.
(In his defence, another sideman maintained that “Rich had a soft heart underneath it all”. His favourite song was Bein’ Green, made famous by Kermit the Frog.)
The intemperate Rich once made the mistake of calling Dusty Springfield, with whom, improbably, he was sharing a bill, “a f—-ing broad”. Springfield slapped him in the face, sending his toupee flying. The members of Rich’s band presented her with a large box tied with a bow. Inside was a pair of boxing gloves.
Rich stands as a kind of archetype of the drummer’s volatile nature, but one doesn’t have to look far to find other examples – no further, in fact, than the Rolling Stone readers’ poll of the greatest drummers of all time.
At number one is Led Zeppelin‘s John Bonham, who died at the age of 32 after drinking 40 shots of vodka in 12 hours.
Number two is Keith Moon, who, when not behind his drum kit, relaxed by consuming horse tranquillisers, dressing up in Nazi uniform and throwing sticks of dynamite into the lavatories of hotel rooms.
Moon frankly acknowledged that when it came to social skills he was “unable to communicate other than at a superficial level”.
Well, what drummer can? Or, at least, so the stereotype has it. In rock, the drummer is the antisocial loner who only got the job because he had a van to carry the gear; who sits seething with resentment at the back of the stage while the singer and lead guitarist bask in the spotlight, and is occasionally tossed the morsel of a protracted drum solo – at which point most of the audience feel the urgent need to head for the bar.
There are few jokes about lead guitarists or alto sax players. You could write a book of drummer jokes. What do you call someone who hangs around with musicians? A drummer. What does a drummer use for contraception? His personality. Boom, boom.
The standing joke about the drummer’s unreliability and alarming propensity for self-harm was played on in the film Spinal Tap – a group that had gone through countless drummers, all of whom were said to have died in strange circumstances, including spontaneous human combustion, “choking on vomit” (not their own, somebody else’s), and a “bizarre gardening accident” – a joke that appeared disconcertingly prophetic when Jeff Porcaro, the drummer for the American band Toto, keeled over and died in his garden, reportedly from an allergic reaction to the pesticide that he was spraying.
The coroner’s report subsequently found that Porcaro had actually died of a heart attack due to hardened arteries caused by chronic cocaine use – a demise that hardly gives lie to the myth.
So drummers, then, are different. But why?
Brad Henderson is a university professor, sometime drummer and author of Drums: A Novel (sample: “I was knocking out the downbeat with my right foot. I was hitting the 2/4 upbeat on my hi-hat and snare. My right hand was ‘cachink, ca-chink, ca-chinking’ a jazz ride pattern on the big cymbal. And I was happy.”), who recently taught a course in the psychology of drummers at the University of California, Davis.
Henderson’s course took a distinctly scientific approach to the subject, attempting to define the psychology of the drummer through a combination of neuroscience – “We didn’t really get too far there,” he admits – personality theory and psychobiography.
The results were inconclusive. “Some are extroverts, some are introverts; some are very intellectual, some not.”
More revealing was an impromptu experiment that Henderson devised himself, involving his girlfriend’s two sons, one of whom plays drums, the other keyboards. Henderson invited the class to ask them questions about anything other than music, and then guess which one was the drummer. Ninety per cent were able to identify the drummer based solely on the way he talked and his body language.
“Intuitively they just picked up something and saw somebody who ‘looked like a drummer’. It was pretty uncanny. What I see in the kid who’s the drummer, and in most drummers, is that they’re individualistic,” Henderson goes on.
“They pride themselves on being more of a maverick than a follower. They have a way of posturing that gives them a look of being a little remote, a little checked out of reality, and also a nervousness that causes them to fiddle a lot. They need to pound on something.”
An interesting experiment conducted by the neuroscientist David Eagleman in 2010 on time perception in drummers, and reported in The New Yorker, vividly illustrates this. For the experiment, the musician Brian Eno, a friend of Eagleman, gathered a group of drummers in his London home, where Eagleman took EEG readings to measure brain activity while the drummers took a series of tests to measure their timing.
Eagleman compared the results to a non-drumming control group. When asked to keep a steady beat, the controls wavered by an average of 35 milliseconds; the best drummer was off by less than 10. Drummers, Eagleman concluded, really do have different brains from the rest of us.
Eno tells a story about working in the studio with the U2 drummer Larry Mullen, when Mullen was playing drums over a recording of the band and a click-track – a computer-generated beat meant to keep all the over-dubbed parts in synch. Mullen protested that the clicktrack was slightly off, and that he couldn’t play to it. After some discussion, and to humour Mullen, Eno adjusted the click to his satisfaction.
It was only later that Eno checked the original track again and realised Mullen was right: the click was off by six milliseconds.
“Establishing the beat is a drug for drummers,” Brad Henderson says. “And just like any other addict there is a restless, irritable discontent until they find their drug. If I could just sit around and play drums all the time I would, because the rest of life just doesn’t feel as good to me. And I think that’s true of most drummers. So when they get out in reality and try to deal with people, they fumble, or they do things to get attention that aren’t appropriate.”
Keith Moon, he adds, “would be the extreme example”.
Dave Mattacks, the erstwhile drummer for Fairport Convention, has two favourite jokes about drummers. “One is ‘So many drummers, so little time’, because there are so many drummers who can’t hold a groove to save their lives. The other one is, ‘What’s the difference between a drummer and a drum-machine? With a drum-machine you only have to punch the information in once.'”
Mattacks’s first job was playing in a dance band on the television programme Come Dancing; since then, he has played on records by Joan Armatrading, Brian Eno, Paul McCartney and scores of others, including Fairport Convention. He now lives in the US, where he works as a studio musician and occasionally teaches at the Berklee College of Music.
He balks at the description “drummer”.
“I’ve always thought of myself as a musician whose first instrument is the drums.” He also plays bass and piano – the first instrument he learnt to play. He took up drums at age 13. “I made the mistake of thinking it was easier…”
Mattacks says the cliché of the drummer as the “tattooed f—wit at the back, with the social skills of a collapsing greenhouse”, is well wide of the mark. “There are always going to be the Keith Moons and Tommy Lees of this world, but the kind of people I hang out with, not too many are like that.”
Technically speaking, Mattacks says, the advances in drumming over the past 50 years have been astonishing.
“The key people that have taken it to the next level, going from Elvin Jones through to Paul Motian – all these unbelievably great players – have left an enormous legacy,” he says. “The combination of technical skills and reading-skills required nowadays if you have serious aspirations to be a drummer is quite breathtaking.”
Here, of course, lies a key difference between rock and jazz drumming: the ability to read music. The young drummer in Whiplash is seen grappling with musical scores that, to the uninitiated, look harder than Chinese algebra. In most rock music, as Mattacks acknowledges, “it’s more a case of ‘it goes like this…’ ”
Mattacks laments what he describes as the “increasingly sports-like” tendency creeping into the craft. “There’s a whole generation of youngsters who think you have to play as fast and loud as possible, at incredible speeds, and in incredibly complicated patterns. It’s grandstanding at the expense of subordinating what you do to the greater good of the music. It’s crazy.”
The drummers that he most admires know when to play “really, really slow, and really, really quiet”. And they don’t show off. Mattacks himself says he has never played a drum solo in his life but cites Ringo Starr’s solo on The End, from the Abbey Road album, as the summit of the form. It lasts for just 16 seconds.
“Sheer perfection,” Mattacks says.
Thanks to Mick Brown of The Telegraph Newspaper for this article