The all singing, all action drummer formerly of This Heat celebrates other percussionists who take to the mic
Drums and voices are constant links between music and ordinary physicality, bringing the listener’s everyday experience of tone and touch into the creative act, and giving sound dimension in relation to the body. And yet in conventional terms, one inhabits the penthouse and the other supports from the foundation. So when a musician does both, it’s rare, primal and anti-hierarchical. Here are some drummers who sing. Mostly they do one or the other – but the truly crazy do both at the same time.
“What’d I Say”
Speaking of crazy, here’s Chris Curtis with The Searchers at the NME Poll Winners event in 1964. I remember seeing this on TV very clearly – there was something threatening about the way he inhabited his body. Later I’d recognise the same energy in Keith Moon and Wilko Johnson. Pharmaceutical. It's a cover of a Ray Charles song, heavy on the neo-showbiz moves of the Northern Song crew, and it really shouldn’t be that big a deal, but somehow it still scares the life out of me.
Ringo Starr always played the right thing with The Beatles – the simplest part has a distinctive feel, especially the hi-hat, and the love for the music is consistent throughout, always keeping the song in the moment. I saw their first Christmas show at Finsbury Astoria in North London in 1963, and although they were inaudible throughout a high point for me was Ringo singing “Boys” – I was intrigued by the microphone stand (drummers, singing, microphone stands). “Act Naturally” seemed even better with its strange, double take lyrics and George Harrison’s post Chet Atkins thang. There’s also great footage online of The Beatles live with Ringo singing and drumming “I Wanna Be Your Man” from 1964.
Tony Williams Lifetime
“There Comes A Time”
Tony Williams made great strides for the drums. He was still just 18 when he was on Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch!, and embarked upon a phenomenal adventure with Miles Davis’s second great quintet over a clutch of beautiful albums. Afterwards, what to do, where to go? He got more electric, putting guitar and organ at the centre, sheets of dissonance, which became the template for a series of his Lifetime bands. Larry Young, John McLaughlin and Jack Bruce were in the band that tore me to shreds at the Country Club in North London in 1970 or so; here’s a later version of the band with several percussionists and Tony singing. People either like his voice or not, I just love it.
The Electric Flag were a US group: Chicago blues, Stax soul, tape collage, free improvisation. Their album A Long Time Comin’ (they always seemed to have problem with the letter G) is one of the great overlooked records of the late 1960s. Mike Bloomfield was the ostensible leader but all the players seemed to bring their thing to the party, none more than drummer/vocalist Buddy Miles, later to join Jimi Hendrix’s Band Of Gypsys.
“I'm A Believer”
The Monkees’ Micky Dolenz always looked like he’d just got the drum kit from a mail order catalogue. Like Ringo he’s left-handed but sets it up in a style that approximates a mirror image of a right hand kit. He couldn’t play when he first joined the group but supposedly learned quick enough to tour within a couple of months. “I’m A Believer” is one their finest, and this is a clip from their TV show.
Ce Soir On Danse TV programme
Robert Wyatt brought voice and drums together centre stage – sometimes live there’d be a drama going on between voice, microphone and the strict imperative of the beat, especially around Soft Machine’s Volume 2 and “Moon In June” period. The first album remains my favourite, so playful and unknowing, and recently almost Glitter Band-style clips have appeared from the Kevin Ayers time. It was an amazing drum kit Robert used, with timbales as toms. Later Mitch Mitchell gave him a beautiful maple shell Ludwig. Great Mike Ratledge solo, too. Cool.
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is keystone; Levon Helm keeps it mostly simple but with a gorgeous sense of emotional sweep, building the song from verse to verse, playing into the chorus, falling back to momentary silence, like a cinematic fade to black; and that’s just the drumming. His voice is like a cracked angel, too many cigarettes giving an enticing rough edge, making you believe his brother was put in his grave by a Union soldier just the other day. Check the kit, straightforward and to the point, and I love that ancient snare. You can find some wise words from Levon Helm on singing while drumming here, from a drumming video in 1992.
“Close To You”
The Carpenters’ version of “Close To You”, with Karen playing drums, feels so much weirder than other versions of this song. There’s some footage of her playing drums like a wind up toy – so much pressure to please and entertain – but on this Bacharach and David tune it all seems to work, even the flute.
Christian Vander and his longterm project Magma – subject of a brilliant Wire feature by Keith Moliné – explore the weird shadow/mirror world where language and music melt and separate like sexy amoebae. His Kobaian language I always interpreted as extended, intelligent drum speak, the stuff drummers sing to each other to describe a part (and a great way to internalise a groove), like the voice is another instrument, all working towards emotional and physical overload. Or else it's one hundred words for ‘angel of light’ and no word for vacuum cleaner. Oh well. You either get it or you don’t; me, I get it big time, and think the music is so far out it’s absurd. Not sure if it’s about the voice, the drums or the tunes, but pretty sure it’s all of it, at the same time, to maximum effect, which in turn means an incredible grip on dynamics and how they make the music breathe.
Herbie Hancock/Wayne Shorter/Dave Holland/Brian Blade
At Newport Jazz Festival
Brian Blade is mostly known as a drummer, a very emotional player who maintains a close engagement with the musical material. Here’s a set with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Dave Holland, total musicians who take no prisoners. Brian gives them a run for their money. Great side-on shot of Brian – the total body thing is not standard technique, and his playing is all the better for it. Blade also played with Daniel Lanois on “Burning Spear” in 2015, some sort of electronic thing that feels totally OUT. Only recently did I realise that Brian also does a singer thing too, and I love how wide his musicality goes. Not to my taste but so what?
Ramsay Lewis Trio
Earth, Wind And Fire’s Maurice White died recently, and on this clip of The Ramsey Lewis Trio he drums and plays kalimba too. This trio is really, really weird: the wild vocal commentary that runs throughout the piece is on pretty much everything they did, plus the fade is so heavy handed the whole thing becomes clearly a construct, a replica of the thing it’s trying to be. And funky with it. A friend told me Earth, Wind And Fire were members of the Magic Circle so they could levitate onstage to give the show a tad more zest. Personally I don’t believe it.
Late Show With David Letterman TV programme
It’s all geared to being a TV performance, so the music is pretty garish and athletic, but she means it, man. I seriously don’t know how she plays in those heels, reminds me of Alphonse Mouzon’s platform shoes.
I got to know Tatsuya Yoshida on my first visit to Japan and we seemed to hit it off from the start. Since then I’ve seen him in various projects, and he and I have played a few gigs where we both do our solo show and then make time to play together, which is always big fun.
“The Metal East”
Part of the fun of compiling this list has been discovering some people I’d never heard before: here’s Brian Chippendale from Lightning Bolt, very American, but not in a Levon Helm way.
Charles Hayward performs at the This Is Not This Heat event at London’s Cafe Oto on 12–13 February. Subscribers to The Wire can read Mike Barnes's This Heat Primer in The Wire 384.