Chances are in coming days when you’re reading about percussionist Alan Myers, who died Monday after a battle with brain cancer, the words “human metronome” will be used. Myers’ drumming for punk band Devo came to define the band’s off-kilter sound.
Musician Ralph Carney, who was friends with Myers, announced the death of the Devo drummer on his Facebook page: “Alan Myers passed yesterday from cancer. he was Devo’s best drummer and one of the first people to teach me about jazz. i cry...”
To call Myers a human metronome, though, is to suggest a drummer focused on keeping a steady, consistent beat. Myers could do that and more, but his internal metronome contained secret compartments, switches that could drive odd time signatures, weird breakbeats, perfectly timed chaotic bursts.
Like one of his admitted inspirations, John “Drumbo” French of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, Myers understood rhythm so well that he worked as much silence and absence into his sound as he did crazy fills.
Myers was Devo’s third drummer, joining in 1976 before the band released its Brian Eno-produced debut, “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!” and remained in the band until the mid-'80s. He played on all the Akron, Ohio-born, Los Angeles-based Devo’s most mind-bending material, including the deconstructed version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” that first propelled them onto the national stage, “Whip It” and “Girl U Want.”
Isolate Myers’ playing on “Satisfaction” and wonder on his focus: the circular time signature and the way it upends the entire notion of the original. On the tripped-out “Swelling Itching Brain,” Myers goes virtually invisible, driving a minimalist, one-drum-at-a-time rhythm, sparse but effective.
Which isn’t to say that Myers couldn’t keep a groove. On the contrary, his rhythms were incredibly steady and true, as evidenced by the shocking drum performance below of “Gut Feeling” in 1977. Watch him hit with a neatness and restraint through the song, then watch him explode in the final minute. That’s a drummer at work there, friends.
Drummer Josh Freese, who has performed with Devo on their recent tours and recordings, tweeted about Myers’ influence: “RIP Alan Myers. 1 of my all time favs. An underrated/brilliant drummer. Such an honor playing his parts w/Devo. Godspeed Human Metronome.”
And Gerald Casale, Devo co-founder, also remarked on Myers’ passing (and couldn’t help implying that others in Devo were responsible for his departure): “RE: Alan Myers. I begged him not to quit Devo. He could not tolerate being replaced by the Fairlight and autocratic machine music. I agreed."
Casale followed that tweet with a few others: "In praise of Alan Myers, the most incredible drummer I had the privilege to play with for 10 years. Losing him was like losing an arm. RIP!!"
He concluded: “Alan, you were the best - a human metronome and then some. A once in a lifetime find thanks to Bob Mothersbaugh. U were born to drum Devo!”
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit