Like all of the best love affairs, to this day I still remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when it began. I was thirteen years old and, on a summer’s evening, had decided to eschew the great outdoors in favour of a glass of chocolate milk, some cheese and biscuits, and the BBC’s seminal – and apparently now too expensive to repeat or release on DVD, for reasons relating to rights issues – series, The Rock & Roll Years. The subject of that evening’s show – which was a superb weekly juxtapositioning of music and news stories from a specific year – was 1965, and it was getting on towards the end of the programme when I was shaken from my slumber.
I’d always wanted to play a musical instrument, but my formative attempts it had been unanimous in their failure. I had a go at the guitar, but my hands were too small to comfortably fit around the fretboard of an acoustic. My dad played the trumpet, and played it well. On the misguided assumption that genetics might serve me well with this instrument I had a go at that, but such was the paucity of my lungs that I couldn’t manage any more than a faintly obscene “pffffffrrrrt” noise, and this was before anybody even attempted to explain the complexities of playing actual notes on the damned thing. Perhaps music, I rationalised to myself, was – like drawing, which remains my achilles heel to an extent that is embarrassing to this very day – just something other, more talented, more confident, better people than me did.
But then, and for no more than thirty seconds, he appeared. Keith Moon, on the drums, performing My Generation with The Who live. Moon was at the time nineteen years old, a crackling bubble of energy, playing a drum kit in the manner of somebody who had been instructed to make said kit sound as if it were being pushed down a flight of stairs, only in time with his accompanying instruments. Furthermore, he was the star of the show. Try as you might to divert your eyes away to the others, they kept being drawn back to the flailing arms and twirling sticks at the back. At that precise moment, I shot bolt upright. “That… THAT… is what I want to do,” I thought to myself. I was hooked immediately.
It was a few months before I had the opportunity to do anything about it, though. But then one warm evening after school, my mother asked me to cycle to a supermarket in the nearest town to buy some groceries that she had run out of. Shopping purchased, I was just about to leave the store when I was drawn towards a noticeboard with cards selling various second hand goods. At the bottom of the board was a card advertising a second drum kit, available for the bargain price of £50. I looked one way, then the other. My heart raced, and unpinned the card and tucked it into my inside pocket. Upon getting home, I presented the card to my parents. My question for them came in two parts. Firstly, would I be allowed to buy it? Secondly, and just as importantly, I had £40 in a post office account – would they “lend” (trans. “give”) me the other £10 required to complete said purchase?
To my not inconsiderable surprise, the answer to both of these questions was in the affirmative, and so it was that, a couple of days later, my dad and I found ourselves in the living room of a house in Hatfield, me with eyes like saucers and jaw slackened, looking at a four piece, silver, Premier jazz drum kit from the late 1960s. It was, for the first but not not last time in my life, love at first site. I loved the Meccano-like systems of screws, bolts and wires that held it together. I loved the smell of the wood on the insides of the shells. I loved slightly squeaking feeling that I got from bringing my foot down on the bass drum pedal. And so, after a brief intermission during which I frogmarched into an office room in the back of the house to listen to The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Billy Cobham – “a real drummer,” as the seller told me whilst rolling what may or may not have been the sort of herbal cigarette of which many a jazz musician would have heartily approved – whilst my dad waited in the living room, began the longest-lasting love affair of my life.
Bands came and went, along with gigs – occasionally to audiences that ran into the hundreds, but more often than not played in front of crowds of only the loyalest of friends and no-one else – and, on a couple of occasions, trips to curiously cave-like and other-worldly environment that makes up a recording studio. I learnt a lot during those years – that it is always advisable to take a spare of every conceivable thing to a live show, that women really don’t make passes at eighteen year-old drummers who still look as if they might be fourteen, that being a showman onstage is considerably easier when you’re drunk than when you’re sober – but playing the drums, for me, was and remains much more than a matter of being in a band or playing music, and this remains the case to this very day.
To enter into the world of drums and drumming is to enter a sub-culture, and like all good fetishes this one has its own little nooks and crannies that seem almost bizarrely alien to the outside world. Some people indulge themselves through the pornography that is flicking through old manufacturers’ catalogues. Others obsess over the acquisition and renovation of vintage kits from the past. Others still – including, I must confess, myself – end up losing themselves in the hand-hammered versus machine-hammered world of cymbals, in which a mere glimpse of a rare vintage model can inspire a small bead of drool to form in the corner of the mouth. But, perhaps more importantly than anything else, drummers have a camaraderie borne of being outsiders that other musicians, so far as I could ever ascertain, really don’t have. After all, which other musicians find themselves the butt of a whole genre of jokes? We stick together, because it’s very seldom that anybody else sticks up for us.
Over the years, however, I’ve come to understand that ridicule is often little more than a cover for grudging admiration. Drummers speak a different language to most other musicians. We talk of rudiments which include flam drags, paradiddles and triplets. Our sheet music is written differently to that of other musicians. We play musical notes in only the loosest possible sense. Not only do we we play with our hands and our feet, but we may play a traditional or matched grip, with our heels up or heels down. We may play ghost notes, we may not. We speak a secret languange that many people, including many of those who would consider themselves to be music fans, simply don’t understand.
More than anything else, though, the drummer is the heartbeat of whichever band he or she may be a member of. As this blog so eloquently explains, a decent drummer does immeasurably more than just “keep a beat” – we dictate the terms under which other musicians in a band play. A great drummer – or even a good one – isn’t determined by the level of their technical ability. All the bells and whistles in the world count for little if a drummer hasn’t got a feel for the music that they’re playing. One of the most famous drumming tropes of all time, that Ringo Starr was somehow incompetent, is based on this. Starr, a left-hander plaing a right-handed kit, was The Beatles’ punctuation in a manner that few other drummers have managed for their bands, before or since. His playing, particularly from Rubber Soul on, is the provision of the commas upon which the sugar of Paul McCartney and the tartness of John Lennon are given the space to flourish.
Three decades on, dear reader, I am in semi-retirement. From where I sit right now, I can see two drum kits, one acoustic and one electronic, both of which are gathering dust. Life and a keen awareness of how annoying my racket is likely to be for my neighbours has had a tendency to get in the way of playing too much these days, but my reticence towards getting rid of these kits betrays something about me as a middle-aged male. The drums are a link to my adolesence, to the days when my hair was brown rather than greying, to a time when the weights that sat upon my shoulders were different to those that sit there today. To get rid of them would feel like an admission of defeat, a confession to myself that I’m “too old” for that sort of thing. And that feels like an admission that I’m not quite prepared to make, just yet. For now, this particular flame continues to burn inside me, even if it might be a little dimmer than it was two decades ago.
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