Lest we forget our Paice’s, Powell’s, Kirke’s & others…
I love John Bonham – it’s clearly evident elsewhere on this BLOG what a major influence he has played in my development as a drummer for over 20 years. However, by focussing so much attention on the icon that is, John Bonham, it has made me equally guilty of not focussing my deserved attention to other classic British Rock drummers of the same period, who also played a major part in my early development – as well as the thousands of other drummers like me who grew up in the 1970s.
I’ve been neglectful and it’s time to redress the balance.
First of all, this is not about getting into a Bonham versus Paice et al argument; it’s about reminding ourselves that there were actually some other great British drummers who rose to the top of their respective games at the same time as John Bonham. Guilty as I am of falling under the spell of the cult of Bonhamality (and why wouldn’t you?), I hope this will serve as my recompense to the often-overlooked British Classic Rock drummers, equally deserving of the same accolades.
Celebrity Rock Band Death Match
In the superstar Rock band fan camp, there have always been two separate factions who either prefer Led Zeppelin to Deep Purple and vice-versa. Those who prefer Deep Purple always say that they had the keyboard player, whilst the Zeppelin camp extort the values of Jimmy Page and the great wall of supernatural mystery that engulfed the Led Zeppelin Behemoth. Not dismissing the genius of Ritchie Blackmore, it would seem that with a strong keyboard player like Jon Lord in his band, it was harder for him to earn the same attention as Page had in Zeppelin. Furthermore, Deep Purple suffered a lot of line-up changes and public displays of instability, whereas Zeppelin managed to successfully hide their turmoil behind the impenetrable fortress that was, Peter Grant’s management.
Throughout their careers, both bands had drug problems between various members, culminating with the post-Purple death of Tommy Bolin and of course, John Bonham 4 years later. In the 30+ years since Bonham left us, there has been an almost canonisation of the man, having been cut down at a time when he was clearly struggling with the demons of addiction. Ian Paice on the other hand, was part of the camp in his band who preferred a quiet drink as opposed to serious narcotics, subsequently surviving the excess of the 1970s.
Because Bonham died at a point in drumming history when we were on the cusp of an advance in both acoustic and electronic drum development, we can only speculate about how Bonham would have developed as a player. Thus, he is stuck at a point in history, frozen onto a timeline that stopped in 1980, at a particularly low psychological ebb in his life. I like to think that he would have gone on to beat his addictions, taken time out from the industry, coming back later to wow us all and take his place as a living legend next to his contemporaries.
But it wasn’t to be.
Fastest hands/feet – It doesn’t really matter, but…
Technique. It’s what we all strive to better ourselves at – whatever instrument we play. A handful have it in natural abundance, whilst the rest of us really have to work at it. John Bonham and Ian Paice were both naturally gifted players with many similarities, both primarily drawing from early American R&B music to develop their styles. Paice actually may have had a slight advantage over Bonham, having been the product of a musical father with a background in Jazz & Big Band. This is particularly evident in Paice’s Snare work, heavily borrowing from the fiery chops of Buddy Rich, which in my opinion certainly gave him an edge in speed over many of his contemporaries. I think it’s fair to say that in terms of technique displayed on a recording, Deep Purple’s ‘Burn’ pretty much tops anything on a Zeppelin, Rainbow, Free or Cream cut (even up against Bonham’s mammoth fill on ‘Achilles Last Stand’). Paice had an equally fast foot to Bonham, but took it a stage further with the occasional use of twin Bass drums when necessary (Bonham of course was banned from using a second kick early on!)
Despite Paice’s extra bit of Nitrous Oxide in his tank, this on the whole, is irrelevant compared to the musical contributions Paice and Bonham made to their respective band’s work. Certainly, musicality is the No.1 attribute I hear when I’m listening to cuts laid down by drummers like Paice, Bonham, Baker, Mitch Mitchell, Simon Kirke, Brian Downey, Bill Ward, Cozy Powell or Roger Taylor. These guys had a unique swing to their playing, which always, always came before their use of technique. Their combination of feel and technique certainly set the precedent for fledgling drummers like myself to aspire to – as I still do today. Even if we pragmatically establish that Paice had a technique that got him around a drum kit quicker than most of the other guys, it takes nothing away whatsoever, from the collective musicality on offer from these players.
About Drum Solos…
Rewind back to the late 70s when Rock bands were on the way out in terms of the current musical fashions, if you had to pick ‘The King’ of the modern drum solo, the crown would undoubtedly be handed to Neil Peart, or ‘the professor’ as he was referred to. At the time, although I thought Peart’s solo from ‘All The World’s a Stage’ was from another dimension, it just didn’t excite me as much as Paice’s showpiece on ‘The Mule’ from the ‘Made In Japan’ album. Even Bonham’s ‘Moby Dick’ lost my attention, simply due to its length and the extended vamps. Paice seemed to say everything that needed to be said in under 8 minutes with all guns blazing. It was like he detonated a cluster bomb of fireworks and then got out as rapidly as he came in!
Further drum solo disappointment came in 1982 when I saw Cozy Powell with Whitesnake on their ‘Saints & Sinners’ tour. Having been knocked out by Powell’s playing on Rainbow’s live album, I was expecting a drum solo of Paice like proportions. However, Powell’s use of lights, pyrotechnics and backing tracks (‘1812 Overture’ & ‘633 Squadron’) in favour of technical display, left my immature and juvenile thirst for a chop-fest, unquenched. Of course, the 99% of non-drummers in the audience totally got Powell’s sheer entertainment value, something I was too stupid to realise at the time! Still, his playing within the Whitesnake song framework was as spellbinding as his work with Rainbow, rendering any disappointment with drum solos worthless.
Cozy Powell had actually played a blinding stroke in the name of not boring the masses. He knew everything possible in drum technique had already been done to death in the drum solos of his contemporaries, so Cozy went for theatricality and blew the audience away without losing their attention. It took me a few years to realise this, and I’m glad I finally got to meet Cozy to tell him how much he meant to young guns like myself back in the day, before he was tragically taken from us. Outside of the Rock genre, Cozy had a great contemporary loose 70s feel, making him a first call for pre-production with Micky Most’s RAK records pop acts.
Cozy was also known for using two Bass drums at a time before the need for 200+ BPM was ever considered. This meant that instead of the indecipherable math-metal Bass drum special effects we hear today, Cozy actually managed to use twin kicks in a purely musical manner. Speed was never the issue, complimenting the musical environment always being paramount. At the time I met him, the Bass drum technique of guys like Virgil Donati was at the cutting-edge of technical drumming and we were all sucked into it. The gentle Louis Bellson inspired musical double-Bass licks of Powell, Peart, Cobham, Van Halen & Baker were deemed as prehistoric, as we all pushed ourselves into speed oblivion against our metronomes.
At the time of writing this, I’ve had to revisit Powell’s work in the course of learning some Rainbow songs for a band set. By modern standards, there’s nothing challenging speed-wise; but trying to recreate the feel of two Bass drums played organically, without feeling quantized or too loose, is the real headache. It’s forced me to rethink my approach and has pushed me deeper into learning the styles of the players from the era of music I love the most; which brings me back to my original point…
Standing In The Shadows Of The Greats
Whilst John Bonham is undoubtedly at the top of many a drummer poll list, it is unfair to allow his stature to completely overshadow the achievements and skills of his contemporaries. The likes of Paice, Bonham, Powell, Kirke, Ward, Downey, Baker and Taylor all knew each other on various different levels, all borrowing each others ideas. Then there’s the overspill from British Prog Rock players, like Phil Collins, Bill Bruford, Mel Pritchard, Barriemore Barlow etc, who all cross-pollenated the 1970s Rock drumming revolution, inspiring me to want to be as great as them.
If John Bonham was alive today, I’m sure he’d be overwhelmed by the love still shown for him, especially considering that on the eve of his death, he’d gloomily expressed to Robert Plant how he thought everyone else was a better drummer than him. But equally, I doubt he’d want to take all of the limelight for himself, happier sharing his place in the British Rock drummer’s hall of fame with his contemporaries; players who defined a style of drumming that combined individual technique, flair, feel and musicality, leaving us with a blueprint easily trounced by modern technique, yet impossible to better or replace, despite our advanced drumming evolution.
It seems that technical prowess fuelled by speed is the final frontier for the future generations of drummers. But when we’ve played the fastest note groupings possible, achieved warp speed and still keep trying to find ways to reinvent the drumming wheel, just remember; there’s no shame in travelling backwards to a time when an individuals musical contribution counted for more than clinical precision and note execution. Also take heed, that whilst John Bonham will always remain a constant as an icon, there are other remarkable fruits on the same tree, equally deserving to be tasted and extolled, some of them still alive to tell their tales.