Drummers - fit and they know it
Scientists have found that drummers have the stamina of athletes. Trouble is, their lifestyles are rather different. Keith Moon, anyone?
Friday 25 July 2008
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.
DRUMMERS WHO LEFT A MARK
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.
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