Folk Rock Drummers

Believe it or not, there was a time when folk rock, just like Dylan going electric, was a bit daring. There are several shades to the debate, the argument of the ultra-purists is something along the lines that any accompaniment of a folk song is diluting its purity, folk songs should be sung unaccompanied preferably by people with only a rudimentary grasp of pitch and timing. The next line of defence was that songs should only be accompanied by acoustic instruments. Actually in some respects this has actually contributed to the appeal of folk music in recent years where folk has been an accessible form of music due to its lack of showbiz trappings and the ability to perform it without the need for amplification and everything that goes with that, this has been part of its enduring appeal.By 1970 however Fairport Convention had recorded and released their Liege and Leif album which would be both radical and influential. Fairport had been a perfectly competent rock band who moved into folk, initially facilitated by Sandy Denny who had the folk history but actually was wanting to break out of that and left as soon as the band really committed to folk. The other new recruit was late fiddler Dave Swarbrick who was the Clapton/Howe/Blackmore of the fiddle scene.

The bass, albeit in stand-up form, had been creeping into acoustic music for years starting with groups like the original Seekers so folk fans were already to accept a bit of ‘bottom end’. As usual the defining moment of ‘rock’ was really the use of a full drum kit. Ironically of course the drum is one of the oldest folk instruments and cuts across many cultures although, apart from the Irish bodhoran it’s not a major instrument across the British isles. Alun Eden in Mr Fox subverted the roll of the drum in his band’s music by playing mainly rolls across the toms giving the band a particularly folk feel.

The main point of folk rock however was to do just that, rock up folk, and that was largely the drummer’s job. There was no history, no antecedents, so the drummers, without exception, had to make it up as they went along.

So here is the roll call of the mighty few.

Dave Mattacks

Mattacks seemed to appear out of nowhere. He was in fact a big band drummer who had the chops and the ability to play at a very high level indeed. He replaced Martin Lamble who had been killed in a tragic car accident as Fairport returned from a gig. Lamble himself had a nice flowing style and had he lived it would have been interesting to see how the band would have developed. The recruitment of Mattacks just goes to show there was, as yet, no job description for a folk rock drummer. It didn’t take long for Mattacks to slow down a bit and settle into the role of time keeper but for Liege and Leif he was playing at big band level, at times threatening to pull the band apart with the aggressive syncopation of his playing. The album gave him, along with Guitarist Richard Thompson as well as Swarbrick a serious opportunity to ‘rock out’ on tracks such as ‘Tam Linn’ but probably the most condensed example of his paying is the traditional jigs and reels set where he switches effortlessly between time signatures and still manages to squeeze in some awesome fills. We’ve all heard this sort of thing a million times these days but seldom done to this standard.

It’s not available on YouTube for some copyright reasons but here is Mattacks playing with a lot of attack in what looks like a well lubricated performance from 1971

Despite having the biggest claim on being the first folk rock drummer Mattacks has always played this part of his career down, pointing out, quite rightly that he’s played with an awful lot of people in an awful lot of different styles and that Fairport were just one of many.

Gerry Donahue

Conway crops up in second position really by virtue of the chronology. He played on Steeleye Span’s first record on a couple of tracks where they considered they needed some proper drums. Conway had had a more typical career prior to folk doing the usual range of blues and rock bands and, of course as regular readers will know, was in Eclection with George Kanjus and Trevor Lucas. The Lucas connection paid off when he was asked to join Fotheringay with Denny and Lucas.

Like Mattacks , Conway was in regular demand as a session drummer usually with fellow Island Artists, throughout the 70’s and for a while was drummer with Cat Stevens. Being a large fish in a small pool he has always been in demand wherever folk and drums collide and these days, almost inevitably he is now the regular drummer with Fairport Convention.

Here he is with Fotheringay 

Nigel Pegrum

When Steeleye Span decided they didn’t want to call on the occasional services of Mattacks and Donahue they recruited their own drummer. Pegrum had been in Spice which begat the terrible Uriah Heep and then in Gnilderod which begat the terrible Pork Dukes and were subject of an earlier blog. Again he had no folk history and was rather a meat and potatoes type player lacking the subtleties of his predecessors. To be fair, by the time he joined the whole band were getting a bit into the stodgy rock vibe and as well as drums Pegrum brought in skills on woodwinds. When the band fell apart Pegrum disappeared from view choosing to concentrate on recording and producing rather than playing. During his tenure with the band Steeleye were the heaviest and commercially the most popular of all the folk rockers. So Pegrum is the only folk drummer who got to wear satin trousers on Top of The Pops.

Timi Donald

To quote someone wittier than myself ‘if you asked Timi Donald to play a fill he would carry on playing with one hand while giving you the bird with the other’. Donald was basic, simple and dragged the beat a little but it worked. Like Mattacks and Donahue he was part of the Island Records session crew. He had previously played with Scottish band Blue who’s ‘Little Jodie’ was a bit of a favourite of mine for a while. Donald played with Richard Thompson on some of his earliest and best records, his rather turgid sparse beats enhancing the dryness of Thompson’s own songs.

There seems to have been a copyright purge on YouTube so check out Richard Thompson’s Henry the Human Fly for a great example of Donald’s work

Roger Swallow

Swallow scrapes into the list by virtue of the fact that he was the drummer for an early incarnation of the Albion Band which didn’t last very long. And that’s about all I know about him as typing his name into a search engine is a risky business try it at your peril.

Alun Eden

Drummer with Mr Fox where, unlike all the other folk rock drummers, he created a style that was quite separate from rock drumming. On the other hand of course it’s usually the rock input from the drummer that creates folk rock and without this Mr Fox was inevitably more folk. Eden then went on to play with Trees who were a more orthodox folk type band. So bearing in mind we had a Mr Fox binge last week here is the psych folk of Trees


And that was it. Mattacks was a towering presence for a decade or so because he was a talented and versatile player who was prepared to work hard and play with a lot of other folk influenced artists such as Joan Armatrading. In fact by the mid 70’s he had left Fairport (to be replaced by ex Grease Band drummer Bruce Rowlands) and Fotheringay had also ended leaving Conwayto pursue a more orthodox career in sessions. In fact between them they played on some of the very best records of the 70’s from John Cale to Eno, from Cat Stevens to Joan Armatrading. Today both of them are still involved in playing (Unlike all the others above) which is a testament to their skills endurance and ability.

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1 Response to Folk Rock Drummers

  1. Pingback: Side Project #1 // Arran McNamara / Tracking Session #2 – Miki Laneous Sound Blog

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