Sandy Nelson said Let There Be Drums. He was a drummer with one foot who managed to release a bunch of instrumental albums with his drums to the fore. If he could overcome a handicap, I can write about mine.
Actually, I’ve never heard a Sandy Nelson record, although I’ve heard Let There Be Drums as a cover by Gerry Conway on the The Bunch CD.. Nelson’s records probably are like Ventures albums, which I have heard. There are very few public examples of my drumming so most people wouldn’t know me as a drummer.
I think that’s where any comparisons end.
In the early 70s, I had no fantasies about playing drums. It was my friend, Bruce Faulkner, observing my growing record collection, devouring of rock magazines and the beginning of my rock writing, who looked at me curiously and asked, “Haven’t you ever wanted to play an instrument?”
I hadn’t thought about it and music didn’t run deep in the family. Eddie Duchin records for my dad, some piano played on her mother’s upright for my mom. Neither encouraged me. What I’d learned to that point started years ago with a transistor radio constantly tuned to the Top 30.
Bruce pressed harder. “What instrument have you always wanted to play?”
I hadn’t thought about that either, but he was a drummer so I responded, “Drums?’
Not long after, he arrived at my home with a cheap starter set he had cobbled together. We assembled it in my parents’ garage and I was startled when I hit the snare by how loud it was, how it clattered off the walls. Bruce advised I teach myself by drumming to records. He was an oddity in that he was a fanatic for both Gene Krupa and Ringo Starr and had taught himself swing by listening to Krupa and rock by listening to The Beatles.
I don’t remember to what I drummed along, probably The Rolling Stones and, more than likely, The Beatles.
A few weeks later, as I got more to grips with this drumming thing, Bruce came by again, this time with a set of Slingerland Radio Kings he’d scooped up for $1oo.00 by a noted jazz drummer who needed to pay his taxes. It already was about 30 years old when I got it and a collector’s item. The drummer was named Chuck and he never should have sold his Radio Kings. I still have the kit and Bruce likely kicks himself whenever he thinks that, for $100.00, he could have had the kit himself.
The Slingerlands more or less made me legit. I duly fell in with Bob Mercer, the editor of the Georgia Straight, where I worked. We were joined by fellow Straighters Dave Lester on guitar, Alex Varty on guitar and I suggested my neighbour, Jamie Baugh, join us on bass. None of us had a lot of performing experience but punk rock was happening and we were great punk sympathizers, though not punk ourselves.
As the Georgia Straight house band, we went out as The Explosions. Our first, brief gig was at a house party. It was my public debut and after we played, some guy asked me to give him pointers on drumming. I was both flattered and embarrassed. I had never performed before, this was my first band. What did I know? What could I teach him?
Early in 1978, we went into Ocean Sound, a garage in North Vancouver converted into a recording studio. Mercer had this one song he wanted to record, Wilson, Lucas And Bruce, about prison reform and which told a true story. At six minutes, it was too long to be a single, but, inspired by punk, we didn’t follow any rule. Besides, the guy engineering us didn’t seem to care. If this was how we wanted to spend money, ok. So, with no input from him, we made Wilson, Lucas And Bruce, backing it with another Mercer song, Everybody’s Crazy.
It didn’t sell – we knew bugger all about distribution – but it did achieve some notoriety. We played with Doug And The Slugs, Art Bergmann’s Schmorgs, DOA and many other locals in a variety of circumstances including a minimum security prison. Our best-remembered gig was opening for Talking Heads at the Commodore, September 7, 1978, the day Keith Moon died. We got an encore, a rarity for an opening band, but I didn’t think we were good. Probably I am too self-conscious about this. Talking Heads seemed to like us though. For our encore, we butchered The Who’s I Can’t Explain. Playing the part of Keith Moon, I froze and gave away the novice in me.
The next band was The Potatoes, three other friends of mine from North Van. Our first gig was opening for DOA for three days at the Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret. After opening night in February 1980 our lead guitarist/singer went AWOL. I took over the singing from behind the drums and we finished the remaining two nights. After that disaster, Karel Groenevelt, another North Van friend, became our singer. Like The Explosions, we did some recording that exists on tape only and played with a lot of bands as opening act in a variety of situations.
It was becoming obvious that I was taking over as singer. Karel would show up hours – hours – late for rehearsal. While we waited for him, I would sing from behind the kit. So, when The Potatoes mutated into Bruno Geruusi’s Medallion, I was put out front as vocalist and Bruce Faulkner came on board as drummer. The story of Bruno Gerussi’s Medallion and Little Games can be seen on other posts.
To keep my hand in as a would-be drummer, I joined Alan Twigg’s Close Quarters. Twigg also wrote for the Straight and put Close Quarters together with three of his friends and me. As an ersatz punk, I probably made life miserable for them, but we had a huge variety of cover songs and Twigg had a few originals that were good. We recorded two at Little Mountain, but Close Quarters were never designed to be more than a party band.
I’ll make this quick. In succeeding years, I drummed for Ben Patrick, Joyce Grennan (whose first album I partially produced), Ad Nauseum (all instrumental), Mutt (another story), Andrew Meissner’s Mothball, Vogen, Ralph (percussion mainly to accompany his poetry), on my unreleased solo LP (that, too, can be seen on an earlier post), one offs for , variously, Sunset Grill All Stars, Province No Stars, Gutter Press, jams at the press club, jams in my basement, and on my basement demos I call the Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes.
At some point, probably in the 80s, I interviewed B.B. King at the short-lived International Plaza in North Van. I’d seen him the night before and he was getting grief from his drummer. The drummer would show off, generally overplaying. B.B. would turn to him and scowl, clearly unhappy. This came up in our conversation and he said something I’ve always remembered.
“If you’re provin’,” he said, “You ain’t groovin.”
Which outlines the drummer’s dilemma. As a musician, you want attention and to express yourself. As a drummer, it’s your job to hold down the beat. If no one notices you, you’re doing your job.
It occurred to me that is why I tend to overlook Al Jackson Jr. in my list of favorite drummers. He was a cornerstone of Booker T And The MGs, backed both Otis Redding and Al Green. He was doing his job.
People tend to name Keith Moon, Ginger Baker or Mitch Michell. Curiously, these are British and notable stylists. Once, I asked a British singer what would be the first thing she’d do if she relocated to North America.
“I’d hire an American drummer.”
She went on to explain that American drummers grew up with rhythm and so play naturally.
That explains Levon Helm and the continued demand for Jim Keltner.
The question is, was I any good?
To tell the truth, I don’t know.
I had some attributes. My time was good, I played simply but hit hard. I learned to play a shuffle decently.I locked into the bass player and, as I developed into a singer, I would be sensitive to key lines or stresses to complement the vocals. I could establish and hold a groove, too. As a positive and a negative, I played behind the beat. Playing behind the beat is not a bad thing but it can be an issue. I heard a cassette of me accompanying two songwriters. There was nothing wrong with my playing but it seemed to hold back the songs, even had the affect of slowing them down. Something with a little more snap would have been better. Someone on the beat or possibly a little bit ahead would have made a big difference.
So, if you wanted a drummer who had a feel for rhythm and blues or country-rock or blues, I probably was OK. If you wanted rockabilly, jazz or anyone with finesse, forget it. I didn’t have a lot of technique but I had attitude. One of the guys I played with in three different situations told me I was the loudest drummer with whom he’d ever played. I took that as a compliment.
As well, once I knew a part, I always played it. Predictable, maybe, but dependable.
When I listen to tapes made in rehearsal or jamming in the basement, I’m dismayed by my lack of swing; the drumming seems mechanical. Then again, I might have mixed the drums too loud. The drum track might fit better if lower in the mix.
So, was I any good?
I’ve had 14 years since my stroke to think about it and still don’t know. I play my Jeffrey Dahmer tapes once in a while and am cheered by having a good meter. Most of what I did began with strumming a rhythm guitar, then another guitar and bass. As I played everything myself, it was gratifying that it all fit and overdubbing the drums was easy.
I can’t do this anymore. The stroke affects my right side, so the hand which would play the ride cymbal or tap the high hat is almost useless. The right leg won’t stay on the bass drum pedal and is weak. The left hand can bang the snare as loud as before and the left foot can operate the high hat, but fills are out of the question.
A few years ago, The Explosions reunited on the occasion of Jamie’s 50th birthday. To be on the safe side, Jamie arranged for a back up drummer as I could play but half the kit. The back up was ok but he didn’t have a feel for the songs. I was overjoyed that I hadn’t forgotten any of them or how they should be played. I still had attitude; I still was loud.
Let there be drums.