Stream Of The Week: The Art of Drumming

The thing is… we know, right?

We’ve heard all the jokes. We know the contempt in which you pretend to or actually do hold us. We’ve seen you sit down at our instrument with the genuine question of, “How difficult can this possibly be?” running through your heads, only for you to find out for yourselves when you try play it. We’ve heard the one about the guy who hangs out with musicians, and the one about the second best drummer in The Beatles. Sometimes there’s real vitriol in it, and it takes us aback. We don’t talk about, say, guitarists or keyboardists in the same dismissive terms. We don’t pull on a bass guitar and assume that within three minutes we’ll sound like Jack Bruce. But perhaps that’s the point. We don’t need to.

But we know. We know that the truism that “a band is only as good as its drummer” is on the nose, because we’ve all seen it first hand. Many of us have replaced an inferior drummer and transformed its sound within the first thirty seconds of the first rehearsal. We’re the heartbeat, and we know it. We carry the beat and create the groove. We’re the gatekeepers to the things that can make people feel something unearthly when they listen to a song. You can’t do that. Not without us, you can’t, unless you use a machine. And we can smell your insecurity. We see that tiny sting cross your faces when the phrase “penis substitute” gets thrown into a conversation. See that smirk on our faces? That’s a reflection of the projecting that you’re doing. And the good musicians… they’re not taking umbrage at me saying all of this. They’re nodding, internally. They know, too.

Coming across The Art of Drumming, a four-part documentary series first shown in 2017 on Sky Arts, was one of my most pleasant televisual surprises of the last couple of years. Narrator Steve White, a session man who earned his chops with The Style Council and subsequently Paul Weller (and whose brother Alan played with Oasis for many years), is an articulate voice and immaculately turned out, in tailored suits and waistcoats. The series, like the best percussionists, balances feel with technique. It gets under the skin of what it means to be a drummer, of the emotional pull of an instrument that sometimes feel as though from deep in the pits of our psyches. It captures and reflects back to us the childish glee that we take from slotting into a groove and holding it down.

At the same time, though, The Art of Drumming is considerably more than just a four-part thinkpiece. Bit by bit, it unravels a story, from showman jazz men such as Gene Krupa, who understood their intrinsic worth as being a billion times more than it would be were they mere metronomes, through the British drummers of the 1960s, who simply had to make it up as they went along, to the diverse cast of characters who make up the community today. The production values are exceptionally high, and the cast of interviewees – which includes but is far from limited to Ginger “Beware of Mister” Baker, Deep Purple’s Ian Paice, Black Sabbath’s Bill Ward, Mike Portnoy of Faith No More, Chad Smith of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and literally legendary and sadly recently deceased session man Hal Blaine – simply couldn’t have been of a higher calibre unless the show’s producers had somehow found a way to bring Keith Moon, John Bonham, Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson back from the dead.

I’m going to level with you, reader. Despite what you might think, I don’t talk about the drums very much. I’ve been told that when I do, my eyes light up immediately but that within about three minutes I’m almost completely insufferable on the subject. I have enough self-awareness to be at least vaguely aware of this so I simply don’t bother. But certain views and opinions were so strikingly similar to crackpot theories that I’d kept to myself that seeing them mentioned made me feel as though I’d come home. Mike Portnoy’s lightning bolt moment came with seeing Keith Moon play and immediately thinking, “Yes, that! THAT is what I want to do!” was an epiphany so similar to my own that I might have scripted his words. Portnoy also understood The Who’s inverted dynamic as a band, in a rhythm section that provided the flamboyance and flair whilst the voice and the guitar were the anchors. John Bonham was recognised for his understanding of space, that what you don’t play is as important as you do. Ringo Starr, the left-handed drummer playing a right-handed kit, was lauded as the pioneer that he clearly and obviously was rather than dismissed with lazy and ignorant snark, as he so often is by people who don’t understand music but think they do.

So yeah, we know. But in the interests of complete honesty, yes, it does also sting a little to be held up and ridiculed as musical neanderthals when it’s as institutionalised as it can often seem, despite the extent to which it’s manifestly untrue. Drummers have been trolled since long before trolling became a phenomenon on the internet. It’s nice to be taken seriously, for once. It’s nice to be shown a little respect. It’s nice to know that the value of our contribution is understood. And we can hold all of that be true even though we know in our heart of hearts that those who choose to do so are only really demonstrating their own ignorance when they talk in such a way. We know. When you start running your fingers up and down that fretboard in the oh-so-masturbatory way, we know.

The Art of Drumming is available to stream on NowTV. (At the moment, NowTV is currently available on a 7 day trial with no contract – presumably you can sign up, watch this mad whatever else takes your fancy, and then cancel it.)