Drummers - fit and they know it

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Scientists have found that drummers have the stamina of athletes. Trouble is, their lifestyles are rather different. Keith Moon, anyone?

At Blondie's triumphant Latitude Festival set last Sunday, most eyes were on Debbie Harry. Hammering away at the back, though, their drummer, Clem Burke, was not only driving the band through one of rock's more rhythmically exotic back catalogues; he was also helping the cause of international science.

It turns out that he has spent the past eight years having his physiology while drumming monitored by the universities of Chichester and Gloucestershire, who care more about his heart's bpm (a high 150 when playing) than that of "Heart of Glass". The Clem Burke Project, dedicated to "the dissemination of information leading to increased enjoyment, health and well-being of all participants involved in drumming", will be unveiled on Monday.

"When you consider the implications of touring on top of the performance requirements for high profile drummers," Chichester University's Dr Marcus Smith explains, with a straight face, "it is clear that their fitness levels need to be outstanding." Those who witnessed the lifestyles of The Who's Keith Moon and Led Zeppelin's John Bonham in their riotous pomp will greet this news with surprise. Those who carried their coffins when both were just 32 may laugh a bit less.

The attrition rate of rock's most muscular instrumentalists was famously satirised in This Is Spinal Tap, on their fourth drummer after incidents including "a bizarre gardening accident" and spontaneous human combustion. But real life has not been much kinder. Def Leppard's Rick Allen had his left arm lopped off in a car crash in 1984, showing extraordinary fortitude by learning to play an electronic drum-kit one-armed and continuing for the band's greatest successes. Rock's two most notorious drummers, Moon and Bonham, were already dead from lifestyles that would cause Dr Smith's monitoring equipment to melt from the strain.

Moon was the template for self-destructive rock drummers, seemingly intent on a sort of humorous but sometimes unpleasant carnage. His bass drum was rigged with explosives and smoke bombs, permanently damaging Pete Townshend's ears. He drove his Lincoln into a pool, bashed out two front teeth in a drunken fall on his 21st birthday, and tipped TVs out of hotel windows. He carried a briefcase to gigs, the singer-songwriter Roy Harper recalled, like a "drug salesman's kit" of uppers and downers. In 1971, he was injected with morphine before going on stage to counteract the brandy and barbiturates.

It was a largely amusing life lived unrelentingly, expressed in every beat of The Who's violently joyful records. But one look at the photo of him out on the town on 7 September 1976, with the bloated pallor and overstretched skin of a corpse, shortly before being found dead of a prescription-drugs overdose at home, makes you wonder.

Bonham modelled himself partly on Moon, and in many ways bears out Smith's thesis. The son of a carpenter, at 16 he was carrying hods round building sites, and he retained enormous strength and an ox-like constitution through most of Led Zeppelin's career. He was able to keep something in reserve even when giving the band its unprecedented, walloping beat, and gave the others a rest during his live solo set-piece "Moby Dick".

But Smith's line about "the implications of touring on top of the performance requirements" could have been written about Bonham. He loved playing but loathed leaving home, so drank and later injected heroin, until one pre-tour binge finished him on 24 September 1980.

It should be borne in mind just what peculiar people many drummers are. The Beatles' Ringo Starr, the Stones' Charlie Watts and The Kinks' Mick Avory held the beat on masses of 1960s hits with minimal fuss, as if in a separate universe from the riotous fans. All had their demons later, but such Zen calmness would please Smith and his batteries of monitors. The ability to be a band's reliable motor without worrying about the egos around them has kept these veterans alive.

Deeper creativity than just holding down a beat has rarely been a good idea in rock. The windy jazz time-signatures and science-fiction lyrics of Rush's drummer-auteur Neil Peart live on in many people's nightmares. But then, there are the examples of Art Blakey, who led ground-breaking jazz bands into his seventies, and Tony Allen, the originator of Afro-beat in the 1970s, whose subtle physicality and calm rhythmic innovations are a universe away from Bonham and Moon.

Similarly, Roni Size's follow-up project to his Mercury-winning drum'n'bass album New Forms, 1999's Breakbeat Era, saw Toby Pascoe replicate the music's skittering, digitally generated beats live, a remarkable feat of athleticism. Even Razorlight's Andy Burrows, whose recent solo album The Colour of My Dreams was better-liked than his band's latest, may find such creative concentration helps his health.

The ability to take technology on, when synth-drums were supposed to make drummers redundant, wins Phil Collins some respect. His use of the compressed, "gated" drum effect on "In the Air Tonight" was a defining moment of 1980s hubris. Collins wanted a "huge" sound and got it, on a record whose inhumanly huge beat would go on to wreck most of the decade's music.

Perhaps rock's greatest drumming polymath was The Band's Levon Helm. One of two fine drummers (alongside Richard Manuel) in the largely Canadian band that created Americana in the late 1960s, his thuddy "tom-tom" sound, dry and warm, was the base of this new, rootsy sound. He also helped out on mandolin, rhythm guitar and bass, inspired many songs with his stories of medicine shows and moonshine, and wrote several himself. He was a raw-voiced white Southern soul singer, and acclaimed actor as Loretta Lynn's dad in Coal Miner's Daughter (1980). Though he was silenced by cancer until last year's Grammy-winning Dirt Farmer, and went through the usual excesses, the old "rock drummer" jokes fall flat faced with Helm. Whatever he's got, you suspect science doesn't have a name for it yet.

One successor, though, does treat drumming with scientific respect. Glenn Kotche joined the US band Wilco for their three most recent, experimental and best albums, beginning with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002). He's constantly adding to his instrument, jury-rigging hub-caps, scrap metal, orchestral instruments and home-made contraptions on to a weird monster unrecognisable from Starr's kit. You can imagine him being the first into the drumming lab the Gloucestershire professors plan. But on stage his job is the same as Bonham's.

Exactly what good the Clem Burke Project will do is hard to see. Smith compares Burke's annual Blondie workload of 100 90-minute gigs to that of professional footballers. But as anyone who has been on a rock tour knows, there's little resemblance to modern athletes' strictly monitored lifestyles. Little sleep or food, compensated for by large amounts of drink, until the tour finishes and band-members collapse, mentally and physically shattered, is the norm even today. Drummers such as Gary Powell, the ex-Libertine and Dirty Pretty Thing whose muscular fitness fanaticism sets him apart from his band-mates, are rare.

The University of Gloucestershire will, I suspect, find several of the drummers it intends to profile to have the upper-body strength of a gorilla and the internal organs of a 90-year-old tramp. And slapping health-risk warnings on that tempting drum-kit in the window won't put off the next Moon.


Tony Allen - Fela Kuti
When Fela Kuti decided to blend James Brown with jazz, high life and Nigerian polyrhythms for his Africa 70 band, Allen put it into practice, creating Afro-beat. Now helping Damon Albarn with The Good, the Bad & the Queen.

Ginger Baker - Cream
Though, typically for a drummer, he was never confused by the public with God, as his Cream guitarist Eric Clapton was, his notorious 13-minute solo on "Toad" suggests Baker sometimes made the mistake himself. Made the drum a rock lead instrument. Thanks.

Keith Moon - The Who
His off-stage excesses eventually defined him, but Moon was also the great showman among drummers and the irreplaceable source of The Who's violent energy, as they found when they tried with The Faces' Kenny Jones and then split in despair.

John Bonham - Led Zeppelin
The sheer hardness of Bonham's drumming, achieved through strength and sticks he called "trees", allied with delicate, swinging feel, gave Led Zeppelin the edge over their rivals. His work on "When the Levee Breaks" is a hip-hop text.

Gary Powell - Dirty Pretty Things
While his singers in The Libertines, Pete Doherty and Carl Barât, whose Dirty Pretty Things he now drums for, have had a series of health and chemically addled misadventures, the muscular Powell can be seen back-stage swinging from the ceiling. The indestructible rock of current British indie.

Patrick Hallahan - My Morning Jacket
My Morning Jacket's third drummer (the previous two leaving before Spinal Tap-style "gardening accidents" occurred to cut short their careers) was on board for this band's current ascent towards major US stardom. His thundering beat has been a crucial factor.

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The party's over: Paul Higgins and Stella Gonet in 'Hope' at the Royal Court

Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special

Broadcaster unveils Christmas schedule

Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital