A quote purportedly spoken by master sticksman Buddy Rich there, reprinted here for no other reason than that it’s great. Buddy is one of the legends, no doubt about it, but could he do what Tommy Ramone did, like Tommy Ramone did? Probably not, but what’s that got to do with this? It’s just a ham-fisted attempt to get across that it’s not the technical chops of the drummer that count, but a feel for the song.
Here we round up some choice drum breaks and some drummers who through skill, innovation or blind luck were responsible for some the most sublime percussive moments ever beaten out. Count it in…
If drum breaks were measured as cosmological phenomena, then this one from Craig ‘Butch' Atkinson would be The Big Bang. Once it occurred, the structure of what went before was irrevocably altered, and a million drummers air-drummed in unison. And speaking of Bangs, it was so good it moved Lester to pen an album review of a second album that didn’t even exist. The Count Five may never have gotten around to ‘Psychotic Reactions & Carburettor Dung’, but it didn’t matter. With one song - one stone classic - and a eulogy from one of the best music writers that ever put headphones to ears and ink to page, their legacy was sealed.
Just what is it with garage bands and drum breaks? It’s a thing of beauty when it’s done right, and Chip Damiani kept it simple on The Remains’ crowning glory. His cymbal leads the charge against Barry Tashian’s vocals, with syncopated beats reined in to let slammed punctuations fill the gaps. Nothing else The Remains recorded lived up to the promise of Don’t Look Back, and their lifespan was brief after Damiani left the band just before a support slot with The Beatles on their final tour.
This may well be the most referenced sequence of beats ever punched out. Hal Blaine’s “boom, boom boom, cha!” intro to The Ronettes classic has been lifted by drummers incalculable since its 1963 release. This one is so recognisable it doesn’t even need an audio accompaniment, so here’s one of its progeny.
Gregory Cylvester Coleman is responsible for what is probably the most influential break of them all, sampled from hip hop to eternity. Despite its ubiquity, Coleman never received a cent in royalties from its subsequent usage. But then isn’t it payment enough to know that in six seconds you altered the face of modern music? Not when you die in poverty. Those six seconds, though...transcendental, baby.
The drums on Go For Yourself are a thing of aural splendour, with Joseph ‘Ziggy’ Modeliste providing the constant funk soul flourishes between the organ stabs and guitars that strut alongside. The break sees Modeliste crackle and roll around the kit with Arthur Neville sporadically jabbing with organ chords, trying to find a gap in his syncopated soul workout.
Where do you start trying to pick one of David Lovering’s drum parts from Pixies’ catalogue? Back when Pixies started out David Lovering was - and probably still is - a Rush fan. Neil Peart’s style was rambunctious to say the least, and while showing a more judicious flair than Peart, Lovering was never afraid to throw in a fill when the need arose. Lovering, though, was a fiercely innovative drummer through five albums with Pixies (let’s just bypass the recent run of sub-par material). Check out his idiosyncratic stabs throughout Hey, or the final trampling vocal/drum duel of I’m Amazed. The fill in Levitate Me barely qualifies as such. It’s barely a second in length, simply a stutter on the snare and a thumped aside on the tom; a full stop to Frank Black's “Elevator lady” chant. In technical terms, a bass player could manage it, but as with so many of Lovering’s “where the fuck did that come from?” additions, it’s all about the placement.
Maybe not strictly a break but a moment of undeniable perfection nonetheless, borne from the kind of intuition that only comes from a unit so in tune with one another that they seem to have a sixth sense for each other’s movements. Listen to Britt Walford’s playing between 6:01 and 6:43, the sublime and understated build-up that sets the foundation for Brian MacMahan’s agonised scream of “I miss you”. Walford’s subtle nuances and irregular patterns rumble underneath the guitars and McMahon’s spoken intonations, ratcheting the tension before that crushing crescendo where all hell breaks loose and the guitars pick up the baton. Walford also added his deft touch to The Breeders’ debut album ‘Pod’ under the pseudonym Shannon Doughton, sympathetically accentuating that record’s sparse tone. On ‘Spiderland’ he was at his refined best, and thanks in no small part to Walford’s drumming, Good Morning, Captain remains one of the most crushing album denouements there is.
Keith Moon is the toughest drummer to pick one fill from. I mean, fuck, the guy was basically a human drum fill. Each Who album/single/EP contains a multitude of Moon moments that beggar belief – a separate list of Moon’s greatest hits would be long and fantastic – but throughout ‘Tommy’ he was at his unfettered best. ‘Tommy’ came at a golden period of the band’s career; that magical few years between The Who ‘Sell Out’ in ’67 and ‘Who’s Next’ in ’71 where they were one of the most exalted live acts in the business. That confidence spilled into their conceptual undertakings, and while ‘Tommy’ may not be the best recorded Who album in terms of sound, it’s certainly the one where the band’s instrumentalists were able to stretch out as a power trio par excellence like never before. This is a rumble tumble variation of Moon’s roll just a few seconds previous, here doubling up on the final few beats. It’s best experienced on ‘Live At Leeds’…
I'm the best Keith Moon-style drummer in the world
Well, look who it is. Hands up who likes false endings?
Stephen Drozd’s syncopated invention between 3:53 and 4:33 on The ‘Soft Bulletin’s The Spark That Bled is one of the most innovative and satisfyingly executed musical nuggets he’s ever come up with. And that’s saying something when you take into account Drozd’s output with the Flips. “And it seemed to cause a chain reaction” sings Wayne Coyne, and the chain reaction is ignited as each of Drozd’s patterns takes a slightly different twist on the last, endlessly inventive and effortlessly cool. Just listen to that last hesitant bass drum punch at 4:23 before the kinks in the pattern are ironed out to let Coyne usher the song towards its conclusion. Holy fuck, man, this is perfect.
Every drummer should be so lucky to have a technician like Steve Albini working their corner to ensure the drums sound as best they can. And on Shellac records, they do. But then, Albini should count himself lucky, because every guitarist should be so blessed as to have the backing of a drummer like Todd Trainer. Violence seems like it’s about to erupt when Shellac play, each song straining at the seams waiting to break loose from the trio’s locktight constructs. Eventually, they do, but not before the band decide it’s time, and that’s where the tension lies. Trainer is at the root of it, his methodical hard-hitting punches building the balustrades around which the bellows of Albini and Bob Weston expand and contract. Trainer’s resounding tom thump was the portent that preceded Albini’s “Him, just fuckin’ kill him” on Prayer To God, a focusing of attention before the most heartfelt entreaty to a higher power committed to tape.
I have seen video of myself drumming. I expected to look much more spectacular than I actually looked
It’s nigh impossible to pick one moment from so perfect an album as The Band’s second, and even more so to pick a drum run from a record helmed by Levon’s backbeat. Dylan’s one-time backing band were a sum of their parts like no other pack of players, and throughout this album multi-instrumentalist Levon Helm was at his sublime best as a percussionist. The Band’s ‘official’ drummer takes a back seat on Rag Mama Rag, though, and his vocal provides the anchoring layer as Richard Manuel’s erratic clatter provides the melodic counterpoint. There was always an air of the unexpected when Manuel - better known as the band’s piano player and singer - was behind the kit (that’s also him on Jemima Surrender), a sense of a man playing by feel as if hearing the song for the first time; even after a thousand listens it’s still tough to call where Manuel’s stick is about to fall.
Ah Reni, you soulful enigma. From the cymbal ping that leads the shuffle rhythm, to the sudden shift into double time, Reni proved once more on the Roses’ debut album that he was the best of his generation. Every track on that album is a drummers delight, and on ‘The Second Coming’ too for that matter. Why this particular little drum riff, you might ask? Just fucking listen to it. Reni made it all look easy. It wasn’t.
Topper Headon is an underrated drummer; not among drummers, though. The guy could play it all, which is why the Clash’s third album is rightly hailed as their best. Headon’s flair for any genre you care to cover, from jazz to reggae to rock, is accounted for throughout 'London Calling', and there’s no question they couldn’t have progressed from ‘Give ‘Em Enough Rope’ to this without Topper’s skill and musicianship. Check out that little spar with Strummer at 2:04. Sheer class.
Russell Simms gives a masterclass in what a rock drummer can do with just kick, snare and hats on this clinker from JSBX. Momentum shifts, lurches then stops altogether before the pronouncement of “Bellbottoms…UHH!” Then it all kicks off. Kick, snare and hats off to you, Mr Simms.
It may be cut together synthetically, but DJ Shadow’s mid-song breakdown is one of the most mind melting, original pieces of percussion to have graced the grooves of any record. The track opens with a vocal sample from an interview with drummer George Marsh, and a deep drum track comes in with I Feel a New Shadow by Jeremy Storc. As the song moves hypnotically forward, he cuts and loops and turns inside out that simple beat, continuing the transformations towards the songs conclusion.
Clyde Stubblefield breaks it down at Brown’s behest in this funk progenitor, which like the Amen break, practically defined the sound of hip hop in his wake. There’s not much to say, save for “Give the drummer some”, but Brown makes sure Stubblefield gets his dues.
This list is in no particular order of merit, except for this one, because Bob Bennett’s final trouncing of his kit on Psycho is the granddaddy of all drum breaks. The Sonics are the consummate garage band, and their 1965 debut 'Here Are Sonics' remains as heavy as anything any of the bands that followed in their throat-shredding wake could muster in their attempts to out-Sonic The Sonics. Bennett ushers the song in with a snare roll, then punctuates each verse with a kick/snare break. Three times during the song he repeats the pattern. And then, in a moment of inspired genius, Bennett decides to hammer the shit out of his cymbal bell toward the key change that lifts off the back of it. It’s as simple as drum breaks come, but simply unbeatable. Go on and try. He fucking dares you.