The Big Bang
Once upon a time, giants thundered across the land: Moon, Bonham, Baker, Palmer. These sweaty and indifferently groomed young men gave the world that curious and hard-to-love artifact of rock, the drum solo.
Won’t somebody please hold up a flaming lighter?
For a couple of decades--from, say, 1967, the release of the first Vanilla Fudge album with Carmine Appice on skins, to the break-up of the Police, when drummer Stewart Copeland and Sting could at last no longer stand the sight of each other--the drum solo was a reliable part of arena rock’s audio furniture.
And I was there. Nazareth. Black Sabbath. Pink Floyd. Yes. Emerson Lake and Palmer. Blue Oyster Cult. Aerosmith. Queen. The Who. Jethro Tull. I’m one of those few survivors who saw Led Zeppelin in concert--how quaint that sounds now--and heard John Bonham play the furious and fundamental “Moby Dick,” with its phase-shifted tympani, tom-toms played barehanded like Indian tabla, machine-gun triplets and cymbals hissing like lava pouring into the sea.
It’s been 25 years since Bonham’s tragically cliched drummer’s death--choking on his own vomit during an alcoholic blackout--and while he is sorely missed, the same can’t be said of the drum solo per se. Somewhere along the way, the drum solo became a rock-and-roll punch line of the “More cowbell!” variety. Among the top concert draws of 2005, the Rolling Stones didn’t break stride to give Charlie Watts--an exceptional jazz drummer when not propping up Mick and the lads--a 20-minute showcase; neither did U2 step aside for an intimate moment with drummer Larry Mullen Jr., because if they did, well, just think of the crush at the snack bar.
The passing of rock drum solos was so unlamented that I might have missed it but for a new DVD by Neil Peart called “Anatomy of a Drum Solo.” Peart is the drummer/percussionist for the arena rock institution Rush and is widely considered the greatest living rock drummer. By my calculation, Peart is also the most prolific drum soloist ever. In its astounding 31-year history with its original lineup, Rush has spent more time on the road than the Roman army, and there was always, always a drum solo in the show. At least there was the five times I saw them.So I called Neil Peart to ask: What happened to the drum solo?
“Rock drummers killed the solo themselves,” Peart tells me when we meet at a coffee shop in Santa Monica. “It got to be so predictable and manipulative. They cheapened it by making it a clap-along or a boring ramble.”
Oh yeah. Few things in music are so grating as a long, thrashing drum solo by some sweaty dude working his way around the trap kit (Tommy Lee, are you listening?). The trouble is, it was always so. One of the sacred texts of solo drumming is Ron Bushy’s notoriously flatulent 2 1/2-minute tumble on Iron Butterfly’s 1968 monster hit “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”
“Even as a kid I hated that song,” says Peart. “It was the anti-drum solo. There was no technique, no musicality, no dynamics at all.”
If you owned this album, that’s not incense you’re smelling, it’s shame.
Peart’s larger point is that the rock drum solo, which emerged out of an honorable tradition of showmanship set by big band players such as Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, rapidly descended into musical cynicism. Partly at fault was the economics of the arena itself. When rock bands started selling out 10,000-seat coliseums in one town after another, any sense of intimacy--or rock’s rebellion--was swallowed by the vacancy of the venue itself. The drum solo became part of a repertoire of arena-rock tricks to pull huge and disconnected audiences into the show.
“Asking the audience to clap along can be part of a really sincere desire to include the audience in the music or the performance,” says Peart, “or it can be just like pressing a button. It can be a beautiful thing or an ugly thing.”
So what started out as a virtuoso exploration of an instrument’s solo potential became, almost immediately, rock’s 7th-inning stretch.
The other big problem with drum solos? The audience. It became clear to me after watching Peart’s explanatory DVD that civilians--which is to say non-drummers--don’t really understand what they’re hearing. In one section of Peart’s “Der Trommler” solo, he keeps waltz time, 3/4 rhythm (PA-tah-tah, PA-tah-tah) with his feet, while playing lightning-fast 6/8 and 7/8 drum fills across his other drums. In terms of physical coordination, this is something like playing badminton with two rackets while typing with your feet. But if you hadn’t been enlightened, you might think it just sounds like billiard balls in a dryer.
Peart amiably disagrees, wincing at the suggestion that the audience somehow just doesn’t get it. “Drumming shouldn’t be something you need an education to appreciate.” After all, he says, “You can’t blame the audience for everything.”