50years of hard rock drum­ming

We go back to 1968 to look at the legacy of the world’s most in­flu­en­tial rock drum­mers, their in­flu­ences, play­ing style and sound

Rhythm - - CONTENTS - Words: ge­off ni­cholls / the rhythm team photos: getty

Noth­ing ex­ists in iso­la­tion or ap­pears out of thin air and this is true of the Bri­tish drum­mers who changed rock to hard rock, lead­ing even­tu­ally to heavy metal. Bill Ward, John Bon­ham and Ian Paice, with their bands Black Sab­bath, Led Zep­pelin and Deep Pur­ple gave birth to per­haps the most wide­spread, con­sis­tently pop­u­lar and ever-evolv­ing mu­si­cal phe­nom­e­non, now pass­ing its half cen­tury with no sign of a slow-down.

These three were pre­ceded by three more bands and their equally in­flu­en­tial drum­mers who laid the foun­da­tions: The Who with Keith Moon, Cream with Gin­ger Baker and the Jimi Hen­drix Ex­pe­ri­ence with Mitch Mitchell. By 1968 these three were al­ready well es­tab­lished, al­though hav­ing only been fa­mous for a few years. Things moved rapidly in the ’60s.

These drum­mers were un­doubt­edly among the most orig­i­nal drum­mers the UK has ever pro­duced. On their heels, UK drum­ming took off and spread out to all man­ner of sub-sets – progrock, clas­si­cal-rock, folk-rock, jazz-rock – be­com­ing ever more so­phis­ti­cated un­til com­ing a crop­per a decade later when punk tem­po­rar­ily took the wind from their sails.

So how come these guys were so in­spired and what lay be­hind their as­cent?


It’s hard to imag­ine, but there was a time when rock did not ex­ist! The first drum­mers in­volved in rock’n’roll had thus to de­vise a new lan­guage. From the 1930s there had been hints as to what was com­ing, in the form of rhythm and blues or ‘race’ (ie: black) mu­sic, jump-jive and boo­gie-woo­gie, western swing, gospel, coun­try and folk, even big band swing. Amer­ica is a vast melt­ing pot of mul­ti­ple races all bring­ing their mu­si­cal tra­di­tions to the party. Nu­mer­ous threads wove to­gether as ra­dio, records and even­tu­ally tele­vi­sion has­tened the evo­lu­tion of a na­tional mu­si­cal move­ment to cap­ti­vate the world.

Drum­mers in­creas­ingly em­pha­sised the two and four off-beat as the mu­sic got louder, and with the ad­vent of electric bass guitar started to cre­ate new syn­co­pated pat­terns for the bass drum. By the 1940s/1950s the drum­mers of New Or­leans, such as Earl Palmer and Charles Connor; Chicago blues drum­mers like El­gin Evans, Odie Payne and Sam Lay; boo­gie-woo­gie shuf­fle masters like Chris Colum­bus; pop drum­mers like Elvis’s D J Fon­tana and Buddy Holly’s Jerry Al­li­son, had planted the seeds of a new drum­ming vo­cab­u­lary.

These are the drum­mers that the UK’s first rock­ers grew up lis­ten­ing to. They may not have known the names back then, but they de­voured the records of Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Lit­tle Richard, Muddy Wa­ters, Howlin’ Wolf and many, many more.

By the mid- to late-1960s you could add Mo­town’s Benny Ben­jamin and Stax’s Al Jack­son Jr, and even­tu­ally James Brown’s funky drum­mers into the stew.


The first wave of UK rock drum­mers in­cluded some sur­pris­ingly bom­bas­tic play­ers who never achieved in­ter­na­tional fame, but none­the­less opened the eyes of those who im­me­di­ately fol­lowed.

Bobby Wood­man (aka Bob­bie Clarke) with Vince Tay­lor’s Play­boys played dou­ble bass drums

the first wave of uk rock drum­mers in­cluded some sur­pris­ingly bom­bas­tic play­ers who never achieved fame but opened the eyes of those who fol­lowed

back in the late 1950s. (Check out his ex­tended dou­ble kick solo be­tween 4’50” and 8’: www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9xdI9aE1_A ).

Pre-Bea­tles, Carlo Lit­tle (Scream­ing Lord Sutch) and Frank Far­ley (the Pi­rates) had rep­u­ta­tions as fe­ro­ciously hard hit­ters at a time when pop and beat mu­sic were still mostly tame. It’s a cruel busi­ness and there were oth­ers around who never made it big. So a shout out to Viv Prince and Skip Alan (www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRr­lGCswhxM; www.youtube.com/watch?v=F1CwnKl-0F0) – both of The Pretty Things – who were as flam­boy­ant as Keith Moon. Com­bine those two and you see where Moon and Mitch Mitchell were com­ing from. Moon took a les­son or two from Carlo Lit­tle and it was Moon who com­pletely shook up steady, com­fort­able beat drum­ming when he ap­peared on na­tional TV with The Who in 1965.


At the same time that Bri­tish drum­mers were try­ing to cop the lat­est Amer­i­can rock beats, they were in­trigued by what seemed the more tech­ni­cal as­pects of jazz. Much of this was not of di­rectly ob­vi­ous use in rock’n’roll – in­deed it had to be played down. The early rock ses­sion drum­mers like Clem Cat­tini (Johnny Kidd, ‘Shakin’ All Over’, 1960) and Bobby Gra­ham (the Kinks’ ‘You Re­ally Got Me’, 1964) be­gan to re­place the big band ses­sion guys like Ron­nie Ver­rell and Andy White by virtue of their youth­ful abil­ity to keep it sim­ple and revel in the beauty of rock. They didn’t feel they were ‘slum­ming it’ like some of the jazzers who saw rock as a pass­ing fad to be en­dured un­til san­ity re­sumed.

None­the­less, many old-school play­ers were ad­mired. Jazz drum­mer Eric De­laney, fol­low­ing the lead of Louie Bell­son in the USA, was the UK’s first dou­ble kick player (and di­rectly in­flu­enced pupil Bobby Wood­man). He was the UK’s most fa­mous show drum­mer, ap­pear­ing on three Royal Com­mand Per­for­mances fronting his own act. Eric oc­cu­pied a unique spot, a highly trained multi-per­cus­sion­ist with a won­der­fully re­bel­lious, rock’n’roll at­ti­tude.

The class of 1968 were aware of Eric and ev­ery drum­mer grow­ing up in the 1960s would also catch ATV’s Sun­day Night At The Lon­don Pal­la­dium just to get an ear­ful of the ex­pert pit drum­mers, in­clud­ing Kenny Clare and Ron­nie Stephen­son. In 1966 Clare and Stephen­son jointly re­leased

Drum Spec­tac­u­lar, an al­bum of unashamedly brash big band drum­ming fire­works (check out www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJfreLflMsU – Kenny Clare and Ron­nie Stephen­son ‘Drum Spec­tac­u­lar’). It re­mains an in­spi­ra­tional re­source to­day. And its re­lease co­in­cided with Buddy Rich’s first al­bum by his brand new orches­tra ( Swingin’

New Big Band, 1966), soon fol­lowed up by his first tour of the UK, which was truly mind-blow­ing. Buddy ob­vi­ously set a stan­dard of vir­tu­os­ity still to be matched.

In the small group jazz world the Amer­i­can Joe Morello was mas­sively suc­cess­ful via the Dave Brubeck Quar­tet, uni­ver­sally adored for his un­ri­valled fi­nesse and gor­geous fat sound. Too so­phis­ti­cated to be an easy cop, most drum­mers still fol­lowed in the decades-old tra­di­tion of Gene Krupa, par­tic­u­larly when it came to the nightly drum solo fea­ture. Lean­ing heav­ily on Krupa’s most fa­mous out­ing on ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’, this orig­i­nal crowd-pleas­ing tom fest could be adapted to thrill in a rock’n’roll con­text. Sandy Nel­son made a ca­reer out of it with a string of world-wide drum solo hits, notably ‘Teen Beat’ (1959) and ‘Let There Be Drums’ (1961).

Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, our own two Shad­ows drum­mers, Tony Mee­han and Brian Ben­nett wowed ev­ery UK drum­mer with their so­los (‘See You In My Drums’, 1961; and ‘Lit­tle B’, 1962), pre­cisely ex­e­cuted, mu­si­cal and clever.


So the stage was nicely set when to ev­ery­one’s ut­ter dis­be­lief the UK be­came the cen­tre of the pop mu­sic world. Once the Bea­tles and the Stones broke the beat-group mould af­ter 1963/4 the UK mu­sic scene ex­ploded. The Who came in 1964, Cream in 1966 and Jimi Hen­drix im­me­di­ately af­ter.

These three bands took the new al­bum-rock to dra­matic heights with sen­sa­tional lev­els of in­ven­tion and power. But in pass­ing, it should be re­mem­bered that the mid-’60s was a uniquely fer­tile time when many other bands ex­tended pop and beat by ex­plor­ing heav­ier ground: groups like the Kinks with Mick Avory, the Small Faces with Ken­ney Jones and The Move with Bev Be­van. Mean­while, the Bri­tish Blues Boom was al­ready un­der­way with the Yard­birds and Jim McCarty (from 1963) and John May­all’s Blues­break­ers (from 1965), fea­tur­ing sev­eral in­creas­ingly flu­ent and pow­er­ful UK drum­mers: Colin Allen, Keef Hart­ley, Ayns­ley Dun­bar and Jon Hise­man.


Just as the early 1960s saw fledg­ling rock­ers gain greater ac­cess to US pop records, so UK jazz was also ben­e­fit­ing from in­creased ac­cess to the US gi­ants of small group jazz drum­ming. The Ron­nie Scott gen­er­a­tion was now prov­ing it­self able (in the face of grudg­ing prej­u­dice) to live with the ac­knowl­edged Amer­i­can masters. Out of this scene emerged Peter ‘Gin­ger’ Baker, the en­fant­ter­ri­ble of the mod­ern jazz pack.

Baker found him­self slap in the mid­dle of a

it’s sig­nif­i­cant that bon­ham, ward, paice and mitchell all adopted the big band set-up of buddy rich: one-up, two-down, with a large bass drum and high tun­ing

tri­umvi­rate of su­per­star UK drum­mers, flanked by Keith Moon and Mitch Mitchell. Keith was and re­mains the most un­ortho­dox rock drum­mer ever. And like no other band, The Who was from the start a per­for­mance-art riot, an event, with Town­shend’s left-field lyri­cal and mu­si­cal themes de­mand­ing spe­cial at­ten­tion. But Keith, de­spite his charisma and ex­plo­sive tal­ent, was ob­vi­ously cuckoo. There had to be a more tech­ni­cally solid fig­ure­head for drum­mers. Thus it fell to Gin­ger Baker to raise the stan­dard, to show what was pos­si­ble.

Baker was as wild in the pub­lic’s mind as Moon – con­firm­ing the facile view of drum­mers as the mad one in the band. Yet there was never any doubt he was a se­ri­ous mu­si­cian. So al­though Moon made more head­lines, for­ever the cham­pion for mad-cap drum­mers, Baker was the tech­ni­cal role model. Cream im­pro­vised as a jazz group – they just hap­pened to be fronted by a bril­liant electric gui­tarist play­ing blues-rock through Mar­shall stacks. Thus Cream ini­ti­ated a golden era when ‘se­ri­ous’ mu­sic of sub­stance be­came hugely pop­u­lar.

John Bon­ham heard Gin­ger’s power, con­sis­tency and great time but de­vel­oped his own style. A big fac­tor in Baker’s solo, ‘Toad’, was the amaz­ing in­crease in power achieved by in­cor­po­rat­ing lin­ear kick, tom and snare com­bi­na­tions to cre­ate rolling bar­rages of tribal in­ten­sity. Bon­ham built on this with his out­sized toms and that un­sur­passed right foot. “Like a rab­bit,” re­marked a be­mused Jimi Hen­drix.

To this day Bon­ham is the sin­gle drum­mer whose name comes up in Rhythm in­ter­views more of­ten than all oth­ers put to­gether. As a re­sult, Bill Ward – who ad­mits to be­ing in awe of Bon­ham when play­ing the emerg­ing Birm­ing­ham scene in the 1960s – gets some­what over­looked. Sab­bath of course have had other drum­mers since Bill’s orig­i­nal ten­ure, which partly ob­scures his legacy. But Ward’s early play­ing was ev­ery bit as pow­er­ful and sig­nif­i­cant as Bon­ham’s.

Al­though Ward, Bon­ham, Mitchell and Paice are for­ever as­so­ci­ated with hard rock, they all pos­sess an in­her­ent sub­tle swing. Ward and Paice are big band devo­tees, Buddy Rich fans. Paice em­ployed a top kit jazzy pen­chant for light­ning fast snare rolls. Mitch Mitchell was placed in a sink-or-swim sit­u­a­tion with Hen­drix, a setting where he was much freer to im­pro­vise and play as though in a small jazz trio – lighter and more mu­si­cally and rhyth­mi­cally mer­cu­rial than Cream’s un­stop­pable steam­roller vibe, as a direct con­se­quence of Hen­drix’s more frac­tured, free-form and psy­che­delic ex­plo­rations. Mitch has been lauded for his Elvin Jones-in­spired cir­cu­lar ex­cur­sions.

And there is plenty of ev­i­dence that Bon­ham also ap­pre­ci­ated the great jazz drum­mers. He adapted hand-drum­ming licks from Joe Morello and even quoted Max Roach fig­ures.

It’s sig­nif­i­cant that Bon­ham, Ward, Paice and Mitchell all adopted the big band set-up of Buddy Rich also: one-up, two-down, with a large bass drum and rel­a­tively high tun­ing. In fact Bill Ward even bought a Slinger­land Buddy Rich out­fit (see Bill’s own ex­pla­na­tion on page 36). Baker (no Buddy Rich fan), hav­ing seen what Duke Elling­ton’s Sam Wood­yard did with his dou­ble-kick out­fit went a dif­fer­ent route.

Bill Ward’s more bru­tal ap­proach was ne­ces­si­tated by the band he was in. De­spite grow­ing up with a jazz feel, he was some­how able to de­velop an in­sanely en­er­getic and fan­tas­ti­cally loud style while re­main­ing clean and in con­trol – truly the blue­print for HM drum­mers (see: www.youtube.com/ watch?v=K3b6SGoN6dA, Black Sab­bath ‘War Pigs’ Live Paris 1970). Black Sab­bath goes down in his­tory as the band that hatched the only iden­ti­fi­able rock style to orig­i­nate pri­mar­ily in the UK.


Hard Rock was just one path that the UK’s ever more adept drum­mers pur­sued. For a decade af­ter 1968 Carl Palmer, Brian Dav­i­son, Jon Hise­man, Mike Giles, Bill Bru­ford, Phil Collins, Cozy Pow­ell, Clive Bunker and nu­mer­ous oth­ers brought power and in­ven­tion to in­fi­nite vari­a­tions on rock. There­after, punk called a halt as a new gen­er­a­tion shunned the fancy drum­ming that had wan­dered so far from the direct ex­cite­ment of early rock.

Hard Rock and HM, though, never lost its power, it sim­ply mo­tored on through­out, spend­ing decades in the crit­i­cal wilder­ness but loved by kids through­out the world.

With the Jimi Hen­drix Ex­pe­ri­ence, Mitch Mitchell was free to im­pro­vise and play as though in a small jazz trio

Bill Ward de­vel­oped an in­sanely en­er­getic and fan­tas­ti­cally loud style while re­main­ing clean and in con­trol

Cream ini­ti­ated a golden era when ‘se­ri­ous’ mu­sic of sub­stance be­came pop­u­lar

Though a hard rock drum­mer, Deep Pur­ple’s Ian Paice posesses an in­her­ent swing to his play­ing

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