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Here Come the Drums

Matt Brennan's social history of the drumkit is a reminder of the work and technology in music-making, and a robust defence of the most frequently mocked of musicians.

When my anthology on UK music-writing was published in 2019, a musician friend gleefully picked out one near-throwaway fact: that as late as the early 1970s, prospective Melody Maker writers had to prove they could read sheet music. By the ’80s this rule seemed not merely dead but absurd, swept away in the year-zero punk-rock auto-da-fe. With the trade now a laissez-faire self-taught adjunct of the New Journalism, the only expertise it required was the size of one’s record collection. Between then and today, critical wrangling (even the good stuff) has gradually become little but culture-war cosplay soap-opera — and if it was exciting once upon a time it’s tired now, and worse. My friend half-joked on Facebook about bringing back intellectual (meaning musical) quality by re-enforcing a must-read-music rule. Whose interests should music-writing serve, and what better stories can it start telling us?

Late in Matt Brennan’s book we arrive at Stephen Patrick Morrissey, and how Smiths drummer Mike Joyce took him to court. This is not a new story of course — but placed as it is it’s unexpectedly turned almost inside-out, clarified by all we’ve been told about an omnipresent yet under-discussed technology. The court case was about money, Joyce demanding unpaid earnings via a more equitable share of the band’s profits. In the singer’s evidence as to why no such thing was deserved, he dismissed his rhythm section as session musicians, ‘as readily replaceable as the parts in a lawnmower.’ Every chapter so far opens a similarly unkind joke — ‘What do you call a drummer with half a brain?’ ‘Gifted!’ — with the book structured to unravel the social history behind such flippant bigotries. On the way we learn a lot about how lazily we conceptualise creativity — and how easy it is for just recompense to be twitched away from the contributors who aren’t as good at interviews. Even a British judge half-understood this unfairness: branding the Oscar Wilde of Davyhulme ‘devious, truculent and unreliable,’ he awarded to Joyce.

Another anecdote is bleaker. In 1969 in Cincinatti, Clyde Stubblefield created the legendary ‘Funky Drummer’ groove for James Brown. Brown’s musicians were only paid one session salary, and owned none of their work: Brown was composer-curator and all further moneys accrued to him. The drummer was grumpy that day and didn’t even want to be in the studio, yet when hiphop began using samples as its building blocks, the ‘Funky Drummer’ breakbeat became the ‘most sampled drum break of all time’, no one really knowing how often it’s been deployed. Big legal battles about copyright followed — but when they were settled, none of the royalties ever came Stubblefield’s way, even if creative credit did begin to trickle in.

A professional drummer as well an academic sociologist, Brennan has a good ear for technical specifics, and can (for example) adeptly describe what exactly Tony Sbarbero of the Original Dixyland Jass Band was doing on record back in 1917, to produce his effects and to push this music through to a new, wide, different public. This helps us hear the music itself in new ways, but also the technological and the aesthetic elements Brennan is painstakingly reconstructing, and how they coalesce into broader shifts. So while it seems like an unpromisingly niche topic — the emergence of the modern drumkit, physical and electronic, on-stage and in the studio — this is as much an index of how limited our horizons often are in music-writing. In biographies, and in the kind of genre-microhistory that abruptly begins at rap or punk or rock or jazz, the granular detail, the practical how of a song’s choices (and why it worked) is regularly tidied away unnoticed. This approach by contrast goes back at least to 1623 and the establishment in Constantinople of the Armenian cymbal-maker Zildjian, the old surviving instrument manufacturer still trading. In its deceptively unflamboyant cross-disciplinary way, it synthesises several kinds of history with understated polemic. Its big ambition, which it largely realises, is to set out how much our ideas about music have changed even since the 1990s, let alone the 1890s.

Of course it’s also a story of vivid personalities, and how different genres put new gadgets to different uses, some entirely unexpected, as fashions twist and turn and dance-steps shift and change. And it’s a story of manufacturers, marketing and image-making — of the stars of the day made the faces of this or that gleaming development (which they had sometimes pushed for), and the gleam then stamped with whatever the star has come to mean. The meanings shimmer with paradoxical crosscurrents of myth and symbol — body/mind, artist/worker, noise/beauty, how the sophisticate is drawn to the brute and so on, as high culture adapts in reaction against low culture. All these differences accrete into a tangled politics evolving in many directions over time.

The book begins with two intensely political vectors. One is the arrival in the US of millions of kidnapped West Africans as slaves, of the ruthless forbidding (as ‘dangerous weapons’) of the many ceremonial and other musics that arrived with them, and how some of these did in fact survive and adapt and flourish. The second may seem less overtly grim: because classical composers enjoyed spicing their works with exotic sounds and beats, military percussion devices and colouring from beyond Europe’s boundaries began to creep into the hushed chamber spaces of composition (there were even pianos briefly built with a ‘Turkish stop’, so-called, that added bells and drum-type thumps to imitate an imagined Janissary procession).

Serious music scholarship in the 19th-century tended to foreground pitch over beat as the site of intellectual content — in part because classical notation renders melody and harmony more comprehensible than the intricacies of rhythm (which are better transmitted by ear than by paper). As early as the 1890s, ragtime’s ‘ragged time’ (syncopation) was being wishfully policed as a passing pop fad. When the term ‘danceband’ emerged around the 1920s, professional drummers (who also played in theatre or cinema pits) routinely offered as part of their personalised skillset the ability to bring a needed heat to new music too quickly composed and under-rehearsed, via adlibbed fills that could never be pre-written. This skill was known as ‘faking’, a mark of the moral esteem it was held in (despite being as essential to the industrial production of well received music as stave-reading). Meanwhile the notion of the ‘groove’ — rhythm as an ever-changing same that gets people dancing — didn’t arrive in academic musicology until the 1960s, by which time jazz was making a high modernist art of improvisation.

The drum is often just such a paradoxical link between cultural extremes. Buddy Rich began his long jazz career as a circus-style child prodigy, ‘Traps the Drum Wonder’. Drumming as wild and crazy muppet-style spectacle has heroes in mid-century swing, like Gene Krupa and Rich, and all the panoply of prog and metal dudes that followed Ginger Baker, where the romantic conception of individual creativity blurs into a hyper-flashy stunt-music mastery. Yet solo virtuosity also boasts as militantly activist a figure as Max Roach, who refused to accept timekeeping in its stratified role, unfurling a multi-level dexterity at once melodic and architectural.

Because if all music is intellectual activity, this must include drumming in all its incarnations. And alongside the high-end filigree, there’s a disciplined tradition of professional groovemaking that’s an act of self-abnegation within a collective project — no less creative, but very much about framing and amplifying others. Brennan goes to some lengths to rescue Ringo Starr from the snickering condescension of posterity (‘not even the best drummer in the Beatles’), painting him as a droll and self-deprecating yet meticulous timekeeper committed to intelligently unshowy colour-invention across a striking range of songs. (And again, this helps the reader re-listen to familiar songs with renewed ears.)

Rhythm is today practically — because digitally — central to the studio-fashioning of almost all aural work, for many purposes. The far edges of drummer-cyborg virtuoso practice (for example in extreme metal) include internalising a programmer’s pre-quilted patterns, which no human has yet played live, and learning to play them. We’re a long way from the cheerful pragmatic grift of the street-pedlar one-man-band. If punk disruption and anti-technique were the big lessons of the 60s and 70s — rock as untutored, unfettered self-expression, semiotic id-pol fan-fic as Aesop fables about cultural-political importance — well, habits are also fetters.

Let’s go back to where I came in: what do we want and need from writing about music? Fifty years ago, a quasi-radical squint at the world we suffered in could piggyback on listening recommendations — on the assumption, not always unjustified, that these were arcane glimpses of a better world. Except now we can listen before we read, and the same technologies that are strangling music as an earning proposition have hugely damaged long-standing print-media models. ‘Importance’ stops being important when click-bait and the alg can easily head them off at the pass. There was a time when reviews had to supply their own context, and when doing this tidily and effectively was part of the brief. Now that Wikipedia lets us google context for ourselves, that brief must include fierce and swift refusal of all the bad critical facts and over-cited generalisations that googling will supply and reinforce. We have to begin digging, patiently and slantwise, against the grain of all the many amassed disciplinary segregations.

With its precise focus on a specific material development — now and then right down to the choices being made bar-by-bar, on paper or in real-time — this book does just that, building up a history that impels you to rethink and rehear organised sound you’ve known all your life. It forces questions about who contributes and who matters, and about where the virtual stage begins and ends. What about the people who design the advertorial for the kit being used in the work you’re reacting to? What about the underpaid people in the factories that assembled it?

Yet for all this expanded inclusion (or perhaps because of it), the book also offers the most compactly expressed materialist description of (for example) the transition from the jazz that drove pop early in the 20th century to the rock that afterwards took this role, and the rap that came after that. And it’s cogent precisely because it isn’t yet more belated hill-dying over the moralised squabbles and delights of someone’s teenage years, the anxious overamping of the stakes of the ‘intuitive taste-value shortcuts I learnt long ago.’

The emotional-intellectual energies of music are bound up in its sheer physicality, as bashed out with wood on skin or metal, with vigour or with deliberately controlled finesse. Music is a material snapshot of the forces present in our psychic world: music as it flows, the ways we like it to flow, how its sounds and effects soothe or surprise us, what we learn about ourselves from the flavours of these shocks and conjunctions. Some of what’s material just means money: who owns what, who gets paid for what, the sedimentations of belief that underpin this, the institutions and laws and machineries that channel such beliefs; the quasi-class divides within the professions that cluster round them. Maybe drummers aren’t quite the wretched of the earth — but it’s highly useful to take a peek from their upside-down angle at our unexamined hegemonies.

Materialism is who contributes and how, who owns what and why, what creativity is, and where in a performance it takes place — where the music is in the music, and how a useful history can engage with this. Above all, materialism is about limits and about potential: what can’t be done and what unexpectedly can. The ground we walk on is at once solid and reshapable, and the tiny nuts-and-bolts of this reshaping maybe tell us more about how this world changes than rotted leftover idealism can. With the very notion of the ‘critical’ under culture-war fire, we need better practical maps to a deeper past, and better map-reading also. This ought to be second nature — yet somehow we’ve collectively found cool-kid excuses to put off the work for too long, or to outsource it. When coding is often the primary unacknowledged legislator, ‘knowing how to read the jargon’ seems a more urgent requirement than ever.