As I walked into York Street Studios one day to play on a session, I met a drummer on his way out. “I’ve just heard the best drum track ever,” he said to me.
“Amazing!” I said. “Who was it?”
“It was me,” said he. “I just recorded it.”
To his credit, it was a pretty good track – a really good track. But the best? Ever?
So, it got me thinking. What makes a good drum track? What makes a drum track memorable? Recognisable? Musical? Is it the sheer technical brilliance of the playing or is it the restraint shown? Is it the power and excitement of double kick drums at 236 bpm or the solid, hypnotic nature of the brushed ballad played at a tempo where you can comfortably brew a cup of Earl Grey between the quarter notes?
There are the obvious.
You can’t hear Steve Gadd’s quasi-military, rudiments-based opening few bars of solo drums and not know it’s Paul Simon’s ‘50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’.
That cowbell, that simple pattern, that ringy, beautiful overtone in the snare drum – it could only be Charlie Watts kicking off ‘Honky Tonk Woman’.
Everytime I put Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue on, and I’ve worn out about 30 copies, I wait excitedly for the joyful relief that comes when Jimmy Cobb switches from brushes to sticks and drops so perfectly into the relaxed swing of ‘So What’.
What about closer to home? The re-amped, reimagined, glorious, over-the-top sound of Ricky Ball’s thunderous snare drum, created in a moment of audio wizardry by the one and only Ian Morris, is the defining sound of Dave McArtney’s Hello Sailor classic,‘Gutter Black’.
I’ve always thought drums were best when playing a supportive role. Helping a song achieve its peaks and lulls. Driving things along like a locomotive when required or shutting up when someone has something musically or lyrically important to say.
We’re an odd bunch, drummers. In researching this article, most I spoke to had no idea whether they had ever recorded anything memorable – most talked of drum tracks that worked behind good songs. The way it should be.
I’ve recorded thousands of tracks for hundreds of people and, like most drummers, could only think of a handful that I was truly proud of. “The least wince inducing,” was how one drummer described his favourite recorded pieces!
Anyway, everyone will have a different idea of a “Top Ten” list of New Zealand drum tracks – and that’s a good thing! I’d be reluctant to call this a Top Ten – more a list of ten songs that for me, somehow defines what makes a great recorded drum track.
So, here it is, in no particular order.
1. How to pick three things and play them perfectly
‘Helensville’ – SJD – Chris O’Connor
A straight(ish) simple feel, a triplet fill and a straight 1/16th fill. Just keep doing that – over and over and over and over until it becomes some sort of drumming mantra and you can’t imagine life without those two alternating fills. Genius!
2. Turning ‘50 Ways’ into an indie anthem
‘Crazy, Yes. Dumb, No’ – The Mint Chicks – Paul Roper
A fast single stroke roll and a cool beat – not as simple as it sounds (try playing it one day!). A tip of the hat to hours practising rudiments on a practice pad. It’s great because it’s an idea – a pattern. It nails the energy of the song and is instantly recognisable.
3. How not to mess up a beautiful song
‘Me at the Museum, You at the Winter Gardens’ – Tiny Ruins – Alex Freer
The perfect drum track because you almost don’t hear it. When someone writes one of the most beautiful songs ever, the last thing you need is for an instrument to distract your ear from the song. There’s a point where the drums appear in the landscape – subtle, fluttery brushes. There is an almost imperceptible sense of momentum and urgency to take you to another place … and then it’s gone. Beautiful. Mastery of restraint.
4. I’m a musician, not a drummer
‘The Taxidermist’ – Victoria Girling-Butcher – Jol Mulholland
A few years ago, I co-produced an album for Victoria with Jol Mulholland. My studio is directly beneath Jol’s studio as part of The Lab, so I knew he occasionally played drums – usually as I was recording acoustic guitar parts downstairs. Initially recorded as a demo, this song was always going to be on the album but we kind of thought I might get around to replacing Jol’s drums. Luckily, I never did. A perfect case of hearing the perfect part and figuring out how to play it. A win for musical brains over drumming brains!
5. Some people got it, some people don’t
‘You Can Dance’ – Collision – Colin Henry
The “thing”. The indefinable mysterious “thing” that makes it all feel good. Funk. Some people got it – some people don’t. Colin had truck loads of it.
6. Loose but tight
‘Killer Clown’ – Superette – Greta Anderson
Ian Morris once said to me, “If you think the snare drum is so far ‘back’ that the whole song is going to fall over, it probably isn’t quite far back enough.” The loose but tight thing. This is it in a nutshell. Back, lazy, rolling, surging drums seem to propel this song in beautiful waves. Perfect in its imperfection.
7. A drummer, an actor, a comedian
‘Guitar Boogie’ – The Quin Tikis – Gary Wallace
They didn’t call them showbands for nothing. The art of making something hard looks easy – Jo Jones had it. Gary Wallace, aka Gary Wahrlich, has got it! Showmanship! You kind of forget how good the feel is on this song because you’re on the floor laughing.
8. If you can recall the seventies
‘Transition’ – Dr Tree – Frank Gibson Jr
Back in the seventies, I listened to a lot of fusion – jazz and rock musicians meeting in some unlikely collision of virtuosity and indulgence. I soon worked out that whilst sat behind a drum kit, I had trouble counting past four and that time signatures involving prime numbers had no place in my musical future. There was just no way I was ever going to make it in the mathematically challenging world of fusion. I liked those players though, more chops than a butcher’s shop. New Zealand had its own bona-fide star drummer who could more than hold his own in any musical situation you could toss his way. This is Frank showing Billy Cobham just how it’s done. Master!
9. Can you play it kind of dumb?
‘Beatnik’ – The Clean – Hamish Kilgour
“It needs to be kind of dumb,” a producer said to me one day. I knew what he meant … maybe not dumb. Naive perhaps. I love this track for its clever dumbness. Relentless hi-hats propel the song but he occasionally drops the odd beat or two because it fits the riff better. The impression is given that anybody could sit behind a kit and make a good fist of it. I recently recorded a song where I tried to ape Hamish’s feel on this – never even got close.
10. It’s my list, so there
‘Sick Of This Shit’ – Greg Fleming and the Working Poor – Wayne Bell
Okay, it’s my list so I’m allowed one of my own tracks! The thing I like about this track is that I played nothing that I set out to play. Total spontaneity. Everything about this track is kind of messed up – the sound, the playing – even the kit falls to pieces half way through. One take and we got it – or got something that says, “I’m sick of this shit!” I’ve probably recorded more technically correct tracks from a drummer’s point of view, but this one makes me smile. And it can’t be all bad if you’re smiling, right?
So, that’s my list – there’s a thousand others I could include. So many hours spent down a YouTube wormhole listening to so many incredible drummers who call these islands at the bottom of the world home. It’s pretty hard to get a good track going without a great drum take to build it on, so, non-drumming musicians; you’re pretty damn lucky! So many great drummers out there to choose from!