Q: What do you call a guy that hangs out with a bunch of musicians? A: A drummer. Guitarists love this joke, but the secret truth is that a band is only as good as its drummer. Look at all of the truly great bands, from the Beatles (I will fight anyone who says Ringo sucks), the Stones, the Who and Zeppelin to U2, the Police, Green Day and Dave Matthews Band. They all had/have great drummers. REM had a great drummer, and when he left the band, they went into a tailspin. Coincidence? I think not.
Below you will find the songs that cause me to break out the air drums wherever I am, even if it’s behind the wheel of an automobile (you’ve been warned, residents of Columbus, Ohio). They’re not exactly the most difficult drum tracks ever put to tape; they’re just songs that made me wish I could play drums better than, say, Lenny Kravitz.
“Rain,” The Beatles (Past Masters, Volume II)
Ringo said it himself: there are all of his other performances in his career, and then there is “Rain.” To listen to “Rain” is to listen to the future. Watch on Youtube.
“Stockholm Syndrome,” Muse (Absolution)
I am on a campaign to get Rush to cover this song, and I will not stop until my demands are met. Of course, Neil Peart could probably play this with one hand. Watch on Youtube.
“Double Agent,” Rush (Counterparts)
While we’re at it, I’d love to hear Muse cover this song. Peart has put flashier drum tracks to tape, but what I love about “Double Agent” is its unusual time signature and the back-and-forth from crash cymbal to splash cymbal during the verses. Watch on Youtube.
“D’Yer Ma’ker,” Led Zeppelin (Houses of
If you were ever unsure of what made “Jer’maker” such a popular song, I’ll settle it for you right here: Bonzo’s fills. My personal favorite comes at the end of the last bridge, where he does a big snare run and then, when you least expect it, he pounds his hi-hat, stalls for a beat, then hits his snare and goes back into the song. Sweeeeet.
“Territorial Pissings,” Nirvana (Nevermind)
I once heard Kurt and Krist say that if they had their choice of any drummer in history, living or dead, they’d take Dave Grohl over anyone, even Bonzo. That’s probably because, while Bonzo could certainly hit the skins as hard as Grohl, he couldn’t play anywhere near this fast. Watch on Youtube.
“Angel of Death,” Slayer (Reign in Blood)
While we’re talking about Nirvana, Kurt Cobain chose Andy Wallace to engineer Nevermind based on his work on this song and album. Combine that with the fact that Public Enemy found this song both hard enough and funky enough to sample for the fabtabulous It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and you have a song with one hell of an awesomeness problem. Watch on Youtube.
“One World (Not Three),” The Police (Ghost
in the Machine)
I actually had “Demolition Man” in this spot, but while I was writing it up, “One World” started playing, and I realized I was about to make a fatal mistake. Stewart Copeland is off da hook on this one. Watch on Youtube.
“Happy Jack,” The Who (A
Quick One (Happy Jack))
Keith Moon’s drumming is like watching “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” You just never know what he’s going to do next, and you get the sense that Keith doesn’t know, either. Watch on Youtube.
“Up on the Catwalk,” Simple Minds (Sparkle
in the Rain)
Steve Lillywhite Production #1. Arguably the simplest of the drums riffs included in this list, that doesn’t make it any less cool. The eight-count is just a teaser, and when that first double-snare drops, just try not drumming along. I will be there, I will be there, I will be there, indeed.
“Block Rockin’ Beats,” Chemical Brothers (Dig
Your Own Hole)
Not a fucking word about the fact that these drums are completely synthetic. This song won a Grammy for its badass drumosity, okay? If I had a band, and we just lost our drummer, the first call I’d place would be to the Chemical Brothers. And the thing is, I bet they’d be up for the job. Watch on Youtube.
“Drive In, Drive Out,” Dave Matthews Band
Steve Lillywhite Production #2. Carter Beauford is an octopus. You’ll hear him hit a drum and think, “How the hell did he have a free hand to do that?” Don’t be fooled by the song’s Rush-like, descending chord progression in the finale: when Carter is finally allowed to let loose, the song doesn’t descend. It explodes into outer space. Watch on Youtube.
“Pledge Pin,” Robert Plant (Pictures at
Don’t think of it as Led Zeppelin Moment #2 as much as Phil Collins Moment #1. Collins’ work with Genesis was fine but generally confined to within the limitations of what made for acceptable pop music. However, when he’s backing up Plant, Phil lets his jam flag fly, and it’s a glorious thing. “In the Air Tonight” and “I Don’t Care Anymore” had their moments, but for my money, this is his finest hour behind the drums.
“The Bleeding Heart Show,” New Pornographers
This is one where patience is a virtue. Kurt Dahle barely lifts a finger for the first three minutes, but when the bridge hits…well, even then he’s just biding his time for the massive hey-la-hey-la finale. Once the hey-la’s arrive, you’d be wise to just get the hell out of the way. Watch on Youtube.
“The Last Polka,” Ben Folds Five (Ben
You can blame me for the breakup of Ben Folds Five, and it was because I looked over at my buddy Tim while watching the band in concert in 1997 and said, “You know, Ben Folds is never going to break up this band. He has the best drummer and the best bass player he could possibly ask for. Why would he want to play with anyone else?” My bad. Watch on Youtube.
“Like a Song,” U2 (War)
Steve Lillywhite Production #3. Had to finish the list with this one, given the thunderous drum outro that the song boasts. Again, it’s not particularly hard to play, but damn, it sounds cool when the right people are behind the boards. I bet dollars to donuts that few things give Larry Mullen Jr. greater pleasure than the ending to this song.