The Greatest Drummers-Part II

Alex Van Halen- Van Halen (cont’d) 

Van Halen’s self-titled debut album was released in early 1978. Van Halen II was released a year later.

78-79 were transition years for music. But other albums that were released in those years were Boston’s Don’t Look Back, REO Speedwagon’s You Can Tune a Piano, But You Can’t Tuna Fish, and Styx’s Pieces of Eight. While many musicians were moving on from the self-important sound of the 70’s, there were still others that were trapped within it.

If you listen Van Halen (the album) today, it’s hard to believe it was released in the 70s. While other artists were developing the sound that would become characteristic of the 80s during that time, Van Halen were packed up and ready to go. Which is why it’s unfortunate that their first two albums aren’t universally recognized for being critical turning points in music.

While Eddie Van Halen gets credit for creating that distinctive Van Halen sound, and David Lee Roth is (usually) recognized for laying down most of the groundwork for what would become “hair-metal”, Alex Van Halen gets overlooked.

But listen to Dance the Night Away. Hell, even shit off the 1984 album is undervalued. The synths steal the show for Jump and I’ll Wait, but pay attention to the drumming. If John Bonham is king of the bass drum, then Alex Van Halen is king of hitting the snare.

But there’s something about his style that I can’t put my finger on. I don’t know if it’s the production value or what, but I can sum up Van Halen’s drumming with one word: raw. Unlike the other drummers of the time (to include Bonham) that sounded polished and well-rehearsed…it sounds like Alex recorded his drumming in one take. This is especially apparent on I’ll Wait, where it appears he mistimed hitting the crash at one point. A lesser band would have edited that portion out, but not Van Halen.

This provides a sound of unpredictability. Which, even when the 80s started turning towards a polished and synthetic sound, Van Halen managed to maintain a degree of rawness with their music. This, in turn, allowed them to distinguish themselves in the 80s while everyone else became more concerned with sex, drugs, and alcohol.

In fact, few bands in the 80s can even be considered MUSICIANSHIP-oriented. The decade wasn’t as talent-rich as the one before it. Yet Van Halen remained above that in an era when it was no longer about the music. Which is why I believe they’re right there with Led Zeppelin, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, and others.

Matt Frenette- Loverboy

Like Billy Squier, no one’s going to argue that Loverboy is the greatest band of all time. That’s okay. They don’t have to be. They may not be as talented as some of the other bands before or after them, but that’s still saying a lot. The sum was greater than their parts, and they went farther than most bands ever will.

That being said, Mike Reno (not to be confused with Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles) was (is) a fucking incredible lead singer. Don’t believe me? Go an listen to Whenever There’s a Night. If that song doesn’t pump you up then you need to go see a doctor.

But Loverboy possesses something that they don’t teach the kids these days…showmanship.

“The hell!?” you say.

Watch the music video to When It’s Over, and tell me that it’s not one of the greatest gems in music video history:

That’s 1982 mother fuckers! At least the fifth best year for music!

But I want you to pay close attention to drummer Matt Frenette. Most people have never even heard of this guy. But when he’s drumming, he seems to stand out from his fellow band members. Clearly he’s “in the zone” behind the kit. Drumming does to him what most things don’t do to other people.

In short, it looks like he’s having an orgasm. Which is exactly how I feel when I play the drums.

Carl Palmer- Asia and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer

When we think of the ridiculousness of the 1970s…Emerson, Lake, and Palmer usually comes to mind. When the 80’s rolled around, people had enough of that shit and bands disintegrated and reformed. One such band was Asia, but nobody was fooled. This supergroup still seemed like a relic from a by-gone era…a time of overindulgence.

Carl Palmer had the misfortune of being in both bands. Because of his luck of being at the wrong places at the wrong time, he’s usually not credited for being one of the greatest drummers ever

I’m usually not a fan of drum solos, but this one gets me pretty hard:

Asia would ultimately become a standard 80’s band. But make no mistake: Carl Palmer CARRIED that group on his back.

Evidence for this is none other than their most famous song, Heat of the Moment. While that’s a pretty standard (yet classic) opening guitar riff, Palmer utterly kicks you in the balls when the drums start going. And he keeps the song afloat with through the otherwise mediocre Steve Howe guitar solo, with him playing a seemingly needless triplet-filled banger throughout the rest of the song.

If Asia had any lesser drummer, there’s no way that Heat of the Moment would be the classic song it is today. And indeed, Asia would have likely been an otherwise forgettable band.

Topper Headon/Terry Chimes- The Clash

The three frontmen for The Clash (Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, and Paul Simonon) usually get all the attention. But as of recently, Topper Headon has been getting some love for contributing to that classic sound. London Calling is definitely one of the greatest albums of all time, and Headon’s work should absolutely be respected.

But in my opinion, their self-titled first album might be the greatest ever. It certainly inspired me to become a drummer (Terry Chimes contributed to the album, which is why he gets credit here). It’s a textbook example of classic punk drumming.

Just listen:

The Greatest Drummers-Part I

A band is only as good as its drummer.

I believe that.

Not that I’m an expert, but I know my way around a drum kit. At least it’s the one instrument that I’m proficient at. Mind you, if I were to play with a band or asked to perform with other musicians, I’d probably choke. But I know how to bang it out (if you know what I mean).

I am a student of the craft. And as a student, I have many opinions about my fellow percussionists. Remember Frasier and Niles Crane? Remember their snobbishness about wine (among other things)? That’s the way I am about drummers.

I don’t try to be that way. I know that every drummer that I hear is very much better than I am, or ever will be. Yet a drummer can make or break a band for me. That’s all that I’m saying.

And when I’m practicing myself, there are a number of artists that I attempt to emulate. Some of them are widely appreciated. Some of them aren’t.

John Bonham is, of course, the gold standard. I don’t believe that non-drummers truly understand his contributions to music. In philosophical terms, he did to drumming what Rene Descartes or Plato did to philosophy. You may not be a fan of his, but one way or another….you have to reckon with him.

Of course, to drummers, this goes without saying.

Now, in my personal view, I don’t believe that Bonham’s style was as aggressive or sophisticated…even among his contemporaries. But it was polished. It was bold. And it greatly contributed to that Led Zeppelin sound that we all know and love. And every drummer since has strived to mimic that sound.

When you hear a Bonham groove, you instantly know that it’s HIS sound.

And to me, that’s what makes a GREAT drummer. Drum solos or technical ability is fine. I find those things cool to watch. But it’s not like I think to myself: “Man, I really want to listen to that 18 minute drum solo!”. Few people think that. So it’s not about how WELL you play…it’s about contributing to the music.

Does your sound add TO the music? That is the question.

And even though I fail to match up to the greatness of these musicians, the following drummers have inspired me the most. Some of them you’ll recognize, some of them you won’t.

Bobby Chouinard- Billy Squier 

When we think about the great successor to John Bonham, for some reason, most people think Dave Grohl. I don’t know why. Probably because that’s the only drummer that people can name. No doubt that Grohl derived inspiration from Bonham. But I just don’t hear it.

And the truth is, there isn’t a successor. Few have ever come close to emulating that sound.

But ONE came close.

Most don’t put Billy Squier in the same league as Led Zeppelin, The Who, and other great MUSICIANSHIP bands. But who cares? When I think of John Bonham, one thing comes to mind: the bass drum. The man could make it sound like rolling thunder. I get chills just thinking about it. Mix that in with the Bonham-groove, you have a difficult time trying to re-create the sound. But Bobby Chouinard nearly did it.

Don’t believe me? Listen to Lonely is the Night. Again!

But Chouinard did more than just re-create Bonham. If you ask me, he was more instrumental in creating that Billy Squier sound than Billy Squier. His drumming wasn’t anything INSANE, but it was bold. It was clean. It was loud. And it fucking rocked.

Mitch Mitchell- The Jimi Hendrix Experience

I don’t think that Mitchell gets disrespected in any way.

But because Jimi Hendrix is such an icon, it’s easy to overlook the incredible technique of his drummer.

When I think of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, I think of three musicians that were pretty much doing three different things for each song…yet, somehow, it all came out beautifully in the end.

It’s incredible to listen to.

But Mitchell’s frantic jazz style was what really drove the Experience. You get worn out just listening to it. And truth be told, I can’t emulate it at all.

Alex Van Halen- Van Halen

Okay, so this is another drummer that I don’t think is disrespected necessarily. But between the shenanigans of the various lead singers and Eddie Van Halen, Alex sort of gets lost in the shuffle.

When some think of Van Halen, they think of Eddie’s stupid grin. But he has good reason to smile: he’s a fucking incredible guitarist. I often bitch about musicians and their lame or unnecessary solos. And you might want to punch Eddie in the face, but the man knows how to shred. Which is why between Alex and Eddie Van Halen, the band is one of the more underrated MUSICIANSHIP bands…along with Led Zeppelin, The Who, Jimi Hendrix Experience, etc. (Even though Van Halen is FAR from being underrated).

Rush is considered a MUSICIANSHIP band. I’m not gonna lie, the three members are probably the best musicians at their respective positions. But they suck, or they have an uneven catalog at best.

How is that possible?

In short, they fell victim to the self-indulgence that became characteristic of the 1970s (more about this in Part II). During that time, those three talented guys had no business being in the same room together. Music sometimes suffers from an over-indulgence of ability. And as a result, we get Rush. 

So what does this have to do with Alex Van Halen?

Great question. And hopefully I’ll be able to answer it in Part II.

I promise you that I’m going somewhere with this, by the way.