After the Ramones played Britain in 1976 a lot of bands upped their game in terms of speed. with the Ramones it was the shock of the new, at first, I didn’t really understand how they made that sound, it was more like a chemical process than music to my untrained ears.
Today those early records by the band seem quite sedate and tuneful, as a live band the Ramones got faster and faster but it’s a common misconception that punk bands were really fast, that was to come later.
But first a music lesson, feel free to skip the next couple of paragraphs
Music is measured in beats per minute (BPM). It’s self-explanatory even to those ignorant people who decided to skip this chapter. The more BPM the faster the music is. Our heart beat is somewhere around 80 bpm when resting. Early house music was 120 BMP, it got faster 140 and upwards. House music was a studio creation, there’s no limit to how fast machines can play, but people are different.
Although playing faster takes its toll on all musicians it’s the drummer who suffers most. Virtually all pop/rock is in 4/4 time so 4 beats in a bar that’s why the Ramones shouted 1234! Before each and every song. The simplest drum beat could have the bass drum on beats 1 and 3 and the snare on beats 2 and 4. Think of ‘Billie Jean’ by Michael Jackson and there’s a simple generic drum beat.
But then things get trickier.
The drummer’s right hand will usually be on the Hi Hat or ride cymbal and that’s going to play a bit more, usually 8 beats in a bar. This makes a difference, ‘Billie Jean’ grooves along nicely with 8 beats on the high hat, if there were just 4 it would plod although the actual song is still the same speed.
When drummer Rob Harper stepped in to cover the Anarchy Tour for The Clash he had no reference points for previous performances, so he asked Mick Jones how fast the high hat went in White Riot. Jones with the false confidence of guitarists the world over told him it was 8. Because of this Harper killed himself on stage every night trying to play and impossible drum part. As we now know its 4 hi Hat beats per bar-easy peasy.
Apart from ‘White Riot’ the Clash didn’t play particularly fast, The Sex Pistols were even more pedestrian, Buzzcocks could break into a slightly challenging pace at times but still just about manageable and the Dammed although more than nifty at times got by on bluster and noise that disguised the fact that the drumming might not be 100% accurate.
It was only going to take a slight shift in gear to derail amateur drummers like myself playing along to records at home and that came with the advent of the new pop bands. New pop was jerky and frantic, it worked on the premise, especially live’ that a song became better the faster it was played. Where the punks had had largely new self-taught players the next wave of musicians had been biding their time, many of them had been playing for a few years and a lot of them were really really good.
Terry Chambers from XTC was one such drummer, despite a history of metal/glam rock he soon developed a quirky/jerky style that relied on blistering precision and speed. The B side to ‘Statue of Liberty’, ‘Hold on to the Night’ was to prove impossibly fast for me to keep up with at around 190BPM (and that wasn’t even XTC’s fastest song) Let’s compare that with ‘Billie Jean’ around 120PM and the Ramones Blitzkrieg Bop at 180 BPM, ‘White Riot’ is around 200 BPM which is virtually impossible with a fast hi Hat.
Another incredibly skilled player was Pete Thomas of Elvis Costello Attractions. Thomas had a history with country rock, but you wouldn’t think it to see his whippet thin figure blasting through live renditions of songs from the ‘This Year’s Model’ LP. Stuart Copland was pushing some pretty nifty tempos with The Police. It wasn’t just the tempo alone, players like Chambers and Thomas drove and controlled the music, it was a 100% performance when they played; and drummers would never be so skinny again.
There’s been faster music played but speed can be deceptive. Take ‘Ace of Spades’ by Motorhead, it sounds like a juggernaut but the drumming’s quite relaxed due to Philthy Phil playing 4 to the bar rather than eight with his right hand. Modern metal playing can be a full body workout, legs as well as feet but times have changed, kids aged four can play like John Bonham now (except they can’t of course).
I came to realise I’m not a really fast drummer, never will be and that going to be fine until the guitarist decides it’s a great idea to play a song really fast (it’s easier for guitarists they have un upstroke and a downstroke, all they have to do is strum away like George Formby) and I’m forced to relive the late 70’s trying to keep up with Terry Chambers on vinyl.
Here is the living proof, you’ll have to wait for the last number ‘Red’ which is cruising along at over 200 BPM !