07 April 2013

Drummige (Belated Footnote Edition)

Back about 12 years or so ago, I had a job in publishing, and for a while I was working alongside a guy who had previously been the original drummer for an alt-rock band of the early '90s. The band had been one of those up-and-coming hopefuls whose career never quite panned out, but got a lot of buzz in their early days because Chicago was then being hyped as "the next Seattle."1  Like a number of drummers I've known over the years, he was intrigued by some of the stuff I listened to – especially of the jungle and breakcore variety – because the pronounced percussive element naturally grabbed his interest. This lead us to talking about his instrument of choice, the nature of recording said instrument, and the various rhythmic fads that had that had come and gone on the years. At one point we started talking about the brief fashionability of electronic drumkits back in the 1980s – how they appeared the music world as a whole, were briefly everywhere, and then began to disappear a few years later. "Yeah, everyone bought a kit. Even Def Leppard's drummer had them for a while," he said, grinning and rolling his eyes. "And it seemed like, with certain makes, no matter how you hit 'em, they always had that same shallow sound." He punched the air to illustrate,"'Doof!'"

Relatedly, I only recently got around the checking out the Onion AV Club's "Hatesong" series, beginning with Robyn Hitchcock's dismantling of Christopher Cross's "Arthur’s Theme." Naturally, the most popular installment of the series was with Steve Albini, who in the course of addressing Cher's "Believe," discusses how fads catch on and sweep the music industry:

"So [as a producer] I'm kind of sensitive to that stuff happening in recordings, and it happens a lot with recordings when there’s a technological advance, like in the '80s, when drum machines became really prominent in production. A lot of albums were made where, even if it was a band that had a drummer, the drummer didn’t appear on the record, because the drum machine was just so much more reliable in the mind of the producer or the engineer or whatever. You had all these bands whose drummer was just surreptitiously or even openly replaced by a drum machine. That sort of standardized the production aesthetic for a few years there. Everybody from Pat Benatar to Martha And The Muffins to Frankie Goes To Hollywood — there was a period when their drummers weren’t allowed to appear on records. Even hard-rock bands. I don't want to name any examples, because I'll probably be wrong in the specifics, but in the hair-metal era, you'd hear a lot of heavily produced synthetic drum sounds.

"Those things are kind of grating if you're aware of the area behind the curtain in Oz, and you see this happen. Whoever has that done to their record, you just know that they are marking that record for obsolescence. They're gluing the record's feet to the floor of a certain era and making it so it will eventually be considered stupid."

The irony of course being that Albini's first band, Big Black, sported a Three Johns-ish line-up of three guitarists and a drum machine, the album credits including the attribution "...And Roland just being Roland." I recall some time around 1986 a friend of mine telling me about an interview he’d read in some fanzine where Albini had said he preferred having a beatbox because most drummers he’d met or auditioned where "guys who just like hitting things."2

Back in the late 1990s, when the post-rave "electronica" trend was at it's peak, I remember seeing a bumpersticker turn up on a few vehicles, declaring: "DRUM AIN'T MACHINES GOT NO SOUL." An arguable assertion, and I guessed that the vehicle in question were probably driven by a musician. Drum machines (the 808, the digital "clap trap," et al.) had of course been a staple of 80s hip hop, a holdover from its electro-funk days that finally yielded to sampled breakbeats in the latter years of the decade. Certain beats -- from "It's a New Day" or "Funky Drummer" -- were sampled repeatedly, threaded uncountable number of tracks during those years. Perhaps one of my favorite oft-sampled breakbeat tracks from the era was the Five Stairsteps' "Don't Change Your Love," as produced by Curtis Mayfield; which sported a drum track that was absurdly frontal in the mix during the tune's opening seconds, and remarkably industrial in its almost robotic heaviness and consistency...

Changes are you know that beat, that you've heard it. Jeezus, that sound.

I believe that in one of my contributions to the "drummige" throwdown back around the new year, I lobbed in one of my lifelong gripes about the music of the '80s; about how -- in some respects -- it was a rhythmically dismal decade as far as mainstream trends were concerned. Felt like it at time, and I have no nostalgia for much of the music of that time whatsoever. My main complaint was the post-disco tendency toward simplifying the beat -- stripping the funk back to a cold, stark (sometimes almost oppressively severe) metronomic minimum. But this was also augmented by the craze for Simmons-style electronic drums, which -- no matter how loudly they were mixed in any given tune -- always sounded a bit anemic and inhumanly uninflected to my ear. And was happy to see them fall from favor, as they were bound to.3

But at the time, they had the status that any such technological novelty or gadget receives -- being adopted and widely bandied about the sound of Now, if not (the pretense goes) the sound of The Future. Which is the irony undergirding Albini's remark about "gluing the record's feet to the floor of a certain era."4  A lot of musicians hated synthesizers and drum machines. Musicians unions hated them most of all. The argument being that studios were using them as cost-cutting measures, using synths and drum machines in such a way that it was putting some session musicians out of work. In one respect, one could argue that they effectively were the sound of the time -- a sort of musical equivalent of the post-Fordist economy.

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1.  That didn’t quite pan out, either.
2.  Ironic too because a hallmark of many of the records Albini recorded early in his production career was a very distinct drum sound – quite heavy and prominently placed in the mix. Dunno if this was his choice or he was simply enabling the musicians' aesthetic preference, if there was some predilection for that sort of sound among a certain type of post-pigfuck, grunge-era American alt outfits. You can hear it to some degree on In Utero, but I remember it being a bit overdone on the first Jesus Lizard EP.
3.  I also thought they looked kinda retarded, as well.
4.  For instance, the Simmons electronic drumkit was widely adopted by veteran pop-jazz outifts at the time (e.g., your Herb Alberts and Ramsey Lewises) as one of many ways they sought to update their act and sound more "contemporary."

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