January 25 – Green Kept Busy After Split From Enz

Happy 70th birthday to one of the drumming world’s anonymous greats – Malcolm Green. Green is mostly remembered for his time with Split Enz, but has done quite a bit more although, unfortunately for him, seems like he’s always been “one step ahead” (to borrow from one of the bigger hits he worked on) or perhaps behind in hitting it big.

Green’s British, but his most successful period was spent Down Under, in Australia. He began drumming professionally at age 16, and was in several British bands that did OK, but seemingly just after they’d peaked. Notably, The Honeycombs and The Love Affair, who had a #1 song there with “Everlasting Love” (later an American hit for Carl Carlton). It’s unclear when he was with them, but his name isn’t on the credits for that single.

Split Enz seemed to go through drummers something short of Spinal Tap’s rate but more frequently than most groups, and when they went looking again in 1976, the Finn brothers knew of Green and invited him. He moved to Australia and took the job and was the guy behind the kit for their growth years, in which they went from small-time Aussie successes to international stars. Particularly the 1980 True Colours album, with the single “I Got You.” The album was their first top 50 hit in the States and the UK, their first top 10 in Canada and their first chart-topper at home, both in Australia and New Zealand. He was given co-writing credits on one song on it, the instrumental “The Choral Sea”, but wanted more input. But Tim Finn had a problem with that, so after one more album (’81’s Waiata), he was fired unceremoniously.

After a seemingly half-hearted attempt to go solo, he bought a new house in a beautiful neighborhood of Sydney and built a studio in it – Green Sounds Music. It’s unusual in that it’s said to be entirely “wired to optimize utilizing different acoustic spaces”. Basically, you could play and record in any room! He then concentrated on producing artists in his home, though he did rejoin Split Enz briefly, for their 2005 induction into the Australian Music Hall of Fame and a few concerts the next year.

Green keeps a low profile these days. He seemingly is a spokesman for Roland drums, but he sold his studio to return to Britain in 2014.

So cheers to Malcolm. Not a Ringo Starr or Dave Grohl, but one of the many minor names that collectively are what keeps much of our music alive and kicking.

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December 26 – Lars Raises A Racket On The Courts And Stage

Happy birthday to someone who helped shape popular music’s sound, and how we get to hear it – Lars Ulrich. The founder of Metallica turns 59 today…and came fairly close to being celebrated on a Tennis Day blog (if such a thing exists) rather than a music one.

Ulrich was born in Denmark, to an athletic family. His dad and grandfather were both fairly successful pro tennis players, and little Lars took after them. He was good – very good in fact. He quickly became one of his country’s finest players as a teenager, so he was sent off to southern California to study the sport at an academy. However being a top 10 in Denmark didn’t equate to being tournament-winning good in the U.S., so he had to give up his hopes of becoming a Wimbledon champ.

The other thing which really shaped Lars’ life was his dad taking him to a Deep Purple concert in Europe when he was just 9. Apparently this got him thinking about being a musician right then and there, and by 12 he was given a drum kit and started practicing making a racket as well as hitting balls with one! As luck would have it, he eventually got to be the one to induct Deep Purple into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Ulrich continued to live in California and listen to Deep Purple and their semi-soundalike, Diamond Head and play drums. In 1981 he placed an ad in a local paper saying “Drummer looking for other metal musicians to jam with.” Among those who responded was guitarist James Hetfield, with whom he started Metallica.

Hard rock bands were a dime a dozen then in California, but Metallica stood out. They were a little louder, a little faster, a little more menacing sounding. As the Rock and Roll Hall (into which they were inducted in 2009) note, “thrash metal would’ve remained a roiling underground phenomenon had it not been for Metallica… which favored head-banging riffs, soaring vocals and jackhammer drumming (and who) bent the mainstream to their will.”

That they did, despite early lack of airplay, they built a large and loyal fanbase in the ’80s with albums like their 1983 debut Kill ‘Em All and Justice For All and blew up as one of the biggest bands around with their self-titled 1991 album. That one, with a slightly more commercial and at times less frantic sound, went diamond status in both the U.S. and Canada and spawned their first real radio smashes, “Enter Sandman” and “Nothing Else Matters.” Although the band has surprisingly put out only 10 studio albums through their 35 years of recording, each of them has hit platinum status at home and thanks to their energetic shows, they remain one of the biggest concert draws around. A new album is scheduled for early in 2023, which would be their first in seven years.

Ulrich is certainly a competent drummer, and he was noted for being unusual in the band’s early days by using a nine-piece kit, two more than many, which included a double bass. Modern Drummer rank him as the 42nd greatest drummer ever (for the record, they consider Buddy rich best, followed by John Bonham) saying he “helped to create the thrash style of drumming.” However, his impact on – some would say service to – the music biz is well beyond that.

Say “Lars Ulrich” and the non-fan is probably going to think “Napster.” Because Metallica was the band which spearheaded the legal movement against that website in 2000, and Ulrich was their official spokesman. For those too young to remember, Napster was a website which sprung up in the ’90s and allowed people to post and share music files (mp3s) for free. Millions of people began downloading hundreds of millions of songs for free. Most artists were outraged, seeing their record sales dwindling. The industry took Napster to court, suing for copyright infringement, with Ulrich being their public face and even a witness testifying to the U.S. Senate. Metallica won an out of court settlement with the website, thousands of users were booted offline with some of the more egregious users being sued themselves (including a number of relatively poor college students which didn’t play out very well for the musicians in the public media) and Napster went bankrupt in 2002. It has since rebooted as a legitimate, paying service with about two million users who pay for their tunes.

Ulrich says he’s proud of the stance they took but acknowledges they might have been flogging a dead horse. “We didn’t know enough about the grassroots thing… we were just too stuck in our controlling ways of wanting to control everything that had to do with Metallica.” Like many others, they didn’t understand the field was changing and a whole generation was quickly being groomed to expect to be entertained for free… and the internet was a perfect vehicle for that to happen. The most successful would be those who manage to use that new reality to their own advantage.

When not hitting the skins, Ulrich likes to listen to jazz (surprisingly) and his friend Noel Gallagher’s Oasis, and watch soccer.No word on if he still follows tennis though. He also has a fine art collection many galleries would be envious of.

December 19 – When The Guitarist Married The Drummer

It’s a happy day for Carlos Santana; today marking his 12th anniversary. He was married for the second time on this day in 2010 in Hawaii, which isn’t so unusual. What was more unusual was he married another star musician, Cindy Blackman. Although in terms of celebrity cachet, the groom definitely outweighed the bride…unless you were a big jazz fan.

Carlos was at the time 63 and needed no introduction. By then he’d already put out 21 studio albums (under the Santana band name and his solo ones), 11 of which had been top 10 hits and included the 15X platinum Supernatural. He was widely regarded as one of the best and most innovative rock guitarists and already enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which lauded his “fusion of jazz, rock and Latin influences, built…into a hugely successful and lasting reign in the world of rock.” His first wife, Deborah had divorced him in 2007 after a 34 year marriage, citing “irreconcilable differences.”

Blackman was 51 and by that time a very well-respected jazz musician, being a drummer instrumentally but also a band-leader and producer. She’d received accolades in several jazz outfits but had made a bit of a name for herself in the rock world working with Lenny Kravitz. Although she only appeared on one Kravitz album (his 5 which included “Fly Away”) she’d been his regular touring drummer since 1993. Happily for the couple, Santana thought to add her to his touring entourage for a lengthy 2010 tour.

She seemed ideally suited to him, both with her somewhat diverse musical range and her personal beliefs. Like Santana, she is a very “spiritual” person, though not necessarily tied into one particular religion. At various times she’s identified herself as Baptist, Bahai and Kabbalah Jewish. “I believe that music is so sacred that once you’re playing, you are doing the work of prayer, whether you are conscious of it or not,” she says.

They obviously hit it off quickly, and about five months into the tour, he proposed to her on stage at the Hollywood Casino in Illinois, right after she finished a drum solo. As the tour wound down, they went to Maui to marry, getting hitched on this day that year at the Ritz Carlton. Originally scheduled to be an all-outdoor ceremony, Santana shifted it indoors because “the weather was kind of iffy and no matter where we did it, the sun was shining.” They and their 180 guests including Herbie Hancock (who’d worked with both in the past) shifted outdoors to release doves in the rain, of which she said “rain represents mercy. It couldn’t have been more beautiful.”

Clearly they love each other, but perhaps they figure the best recipe for success in matrimony is not being too involved in the other’s work. Although they quickly held an auction of some of his guitars and her drums to raise money for the children’s charity the Milagro Foundation, which he had begun, Carlos got his old touring drummer Dennis Chambers to do his next tour, although she contributed to his 2014 album Corazon. Meanwhile she’s kept busy working on various jazz album’s like her 2012 Spectrum Road, a tribute to drummer Tony Williams, in which she put together a foursome including bassist Jack Bruce (of Cream fame.)

When it comes to her unusual stature in jazz as a female band-leader, she says “if you let somebody stop you because of their opinions, then the only thing you’re doing is hurting yourself.” A philosophy her husband, a trail-blazer in music if ever there was one, would be sure to embrace.

 

July 14 – The Great Records And Troubled Times Of Jim

Hey, it’s your 77th birthday Jim Gordon, so in rememberence of all the great music you’ve given us, I suppose it’s appropriate enough to say “happy birthday”.

It’s a safe bet to suggest Gordon is an unknown name to a good percentage of readers, but a safer bet to suggest you know a number of the great records he’s played on…until 1983. Jim could just kill it with the drums, and with…well, we won’t go there. Suffice to say for a long time he was probably the second most in-demand session drummer in the U.S., behind only his friend and mentor Hal Blaine.

Jim was born and raised in the L.A. area, and learned drums and piano at a young age. He was actually offered a scholarship to UCLA for music, but declined so he could drop out of school and concentrate on being a professional musician. Which might have been an iffy idea, but in his case, worked out very well. Soon after that happened, he signed on to be the drummer for the Everly Brothers on a tour of theirs. He learned more from Hal Blaine in the studio and became a member of the unofficial, but prestigious “Wrecking Crew.” He got a few choice gigs in the ’60s, including working with Blaine drumming on the Beach Boys Pet Sounds.

His big break however, was likely touring with Delaney And Bonnie in 1969. With them he met Eric Clapton, who of course knew everybody in rock, it seemed, and was putting together a new band – Derek & The Dominos. He invited Jim to be their drummer, and Gordon did indeed play on their famous Layla, and Other Assorted Love Songs album…and is credited with co-writing, with Clapton, the timeless hit from the album, “Layla.” While “Slowhand” came up with the lyrics and striking guitar bits that open the song, Gordon’s said to have created the counter-melody that runs through the song and comes to the forefront with the piano work (played by Jim) towards the end of the song. He certainly played it on the piano, but there is dispute over who really wrote it. Though officially credited to Gordon, many people swear they’d heard his then-girlfriend Rita Coolidge play that on piano long before Derek & the Dominos came around. Perhaps she gave him that hit. As we find out later, he also could give her a hefty “hit.”

The work with Clapton and Derek & the Dominos led to all kinds of calls for him to work with other artists. One review suggests it’s easier to list stars he didn’t play with in the ’70s than those he did. They may not be far off, especially when it comes to records made in California. He was, at the time, reliable and had a distinctive style. As Daily K-os puts it, “what distinguished Jim’s sound was not so much the notes he played but the spaces between those notes. There is always this distinct silence between one stroke and the next.” He got called in for Bread’s debut album, and Helen Reddy’s feminist anthem “I Am Woman” , and Seals & Crofts for their classic “Summer Breeze”.

Add in Nilsson (playing the drums and other odd percussion instruments on the quirky “Coconut” among other songs), Albert Hammond’s hit “It Never Rains in Southern California”, Jackson Browne, Randy Newman, Gordon Lightfoot…not to mention George Harrison’s fantastic All Things Must Pass. And another ex-Beatle, John Lennon on his “Power to the People.” Oh, and he played on a Yoko Ono record for good measure too. From Tom Waits to Tom Petty he was the “go-to” guy when L.A. Studios needed a drummer for top acts on short notice.

So, it might seem he was a great guy with a huge future. Sadly though, such wasn’t the case. His relationship with the lovely Miss Coolidge early in the ’70s? It ended very quickly one night in a hotel hallway. Rita thought he was preparing himself to propose. Instead he hammered her with a punch that “hit me so hard I was lifted off the floor and slammed against the wall on the other side of the hallway”. She was knocked unconscious. But no one said or did much about it, other than tour staff (they were touring together at the time) who worked as makeshift bodyguards to physically keep him apart from her.

Turns out he was schizophrenic. By 1978 (but probably earlier) he said he was hearing voices in his head which urged him to do things like avoid sleep, not eat, and quit playing drums. He listened. In 1983, they told him to kill his 72 year-old mother, so he obliged them, bludgeoning her with a hammer and stabbing her to death. He was found guilty of murder. The court refused his insanity plea, because while they agreed he probably was mentally ill, evidence suggests he was aware of what he was doing. He got sentenced to 16 year to life, and has been refused parole ten times so far because doctors deem him to be still schizophrenic and a danger to society. He remains in a prison hospital in California to this day.

April 26 – Taylor Tailored Drumming After Thompson & Thompson

What’s more coincidental than being a famous drummer with the same name as another famous drummer? Maybe having the same last name as two of your bandmates but not being related to either of them. Both apply to Duran Duran’s “quiet one”, Roger Taylor, whom we wish a happy 62nd birthday to today.

Roger was born near Birmingham, and like many other British lads of the ’60s, growing up he had two big loves -”football” (which is soccer to us North Americans) and rock music. His early ambition was to be a professional footballer for his favorite club, Aston Villa, but when that became increasingly unlikely, he turned his attention to music. He saved up his allowance for months to buy himself a drum kit at age 13, and then taught himself to play, practicing relentlessly, copying the drums on records he loved. “I had very good neighbors,” he joked in a recent interview. “I used to come home from school every day at 4:00 and practice until 6:00.”

One could imagine that with his name, he’d have been a big fan of the other Roger Taylor, Queen’s drummer. But he gives no indication of that being the case. Instead he said the main influences on him were Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, Paul Thompson, Roxy Music’s main drummer in the ’70s, and Tony Thompson of Chic. He also liked one more drummer. “Ringo was doing exactly what was required for the Beatles. I’ve always gone towards more song-oriented players.”

He joined a local punk band called Scents Organs in the late-’70s, but they didn’t last long. But it was long enough to get invited to join Duran Duran (along with unrelated Andy Taylor and John Taylor.) His influences worked out well since Duran Duran drew heavily on both Roxy Music and Chic for inspiration. Soon after beginning their career, they went to New York and met Thompson, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic. “They were like gods to us…they taught us so much about playing and production.”

As we know, Duran Duran took off quickly, becoming bigger than Roxy Music or Chic for several years in the early-’80s. Which Taylor enjoyed…for awhile. But soon, “we had people camping outside our front doors…it was very difficult to live a normal life.” So, after playing in front of hundreds of thousands of fans at Live Aid, on the same day their single “A View To A Kill” hit #1 in the U.S., he quit the band and “retired” to a 150 acre farm. But not before helping out a little on side-projects. Even the others were seeing “the fame and celebrity of Duran Duran kind of overtook the music,” he recalls, and they decided to take a break. He joined Nick Rhodes and Simon Le Bon of the group on the new band Arcadia, and also played drums on one song for the other spin-off band – Power Station with the two other Taylors. In so doing he was the only person to work with both.

After that, it was to the farm. The UK’s Sun dubbed him a “hermit” but he says “I needed to get some space. It sounds like a cliché, but I needed to get to know myself.” After a few years he did so, it seems, married and got back into music in a small way, joining a band called Freebase which had a European dance hit with their take on Sweet’s “Love is Like Oxygen.” He did a couple of tracks for Duran Duran and one TV appearance with them in ’94 and finally rejoined them again in 2001, staying with them since and no doubt enjoying their more relaxed work schedule.

As well as new technology. Surprisingly perhaps for a “new wave” band, Roger was pretty conventional when it came to his instruments. Back in the day he used a normal drum kit and they used to record his drumming in real time. “We even used to record our 12” dance mixes live…it the track was ten minutes long, you had to play the whole thing (in one take).” Now he mixes old with new, saying he uses a conventional Tama acoustic drum kit with a V-drum TD20 drum machine to his left, and adds in a sampler. Duran Duran put out their 15th studio album, Future Past, late last year.

January 2 – Forsey Was A Force In Hollywood Soundtracks

Happy 74th birthday to a man who was part of a number of the biggest hits of the late-’70s and ’80s, but most people likely haven’t heard of. You might not know Keith Forsey… but if you know songs like “Call Me”, “White Wedding,” “Don’t You Forget About Me” or “The Ghost In You,” you know his work. Forsey helped write, play or produce all those and a number more.

He was born and raised in London, and became a versatile drummer while quite young. He was in a number of bands in the ’60s and early-’70s in England, but none had any major commercial success. However, by the mid-’70s, he became a fan of disco and made friends with producer Giorgio Moroder and began playing drums and percussion on many of the Italian producer’s works, including ones by Boney M, Claudja Barry and Donna Summer. He did the drums on the massive-seller Bad Girls and co-wrote “Hot Stuff” from it. From there the duo moved on to do Blondie’s smash “Call Me” – yep, it was him on drums, not Blondie’s own drummer, Clem Burke. Around that time he began working with Billy Idol.

With Idol he collaborated with Steve Stevens to essentially create Idol’s unusual sound, a blend of Forsey’s love of disco and Stevens’ fondness for heavy metal. He tried his hand at producing with Idol’s first solo album, and found he was quite good at it. He returned to do Idol’s follow-up, Rebel Yell, and several other records of his since. After Rebel Yell, he produced and drummed on the Psychedelic Furs most-acclaimed record, Mirror Moves.

The success of “Call Me” from the movie American Gigolo seemed to catch Hollywood’s attention, and Forsey became an in-demand movie music guy, working on a number of hit soundtracks in a short period of time including Flashdance (he co-wrote the title track), Beverly Hills Cop (writing “The Heat is On”) for which he got a Grammy, along with several other people for Best Original Soundtrack, and The Breakfast Club. His notable contribution to that was writing and producing Simple Minds’ smash, “Don’t You Forget About Me.”

Forsey seems a rather private type, with few details about his life outside of music listed on his own website, and he has more or less dropped out of the limelight in the past decade. We hope he’s enjoying life whatever he’s upto these days.

December 31 – Don’t Call Allen ‘Disabled’

They say you make your own luck. And that life depends on if you see the glass being half-full or half-empty. A story to prove those cliches took place this day in 1984… when Def Leppard‘s Rick Allen nearly died. Yet, astoundingly he doesn’t look at it as being too terrible an event! Even though the drummer lost his left arm, he says “what I’ve experienced through losing my arm, I wouldn’t change. The human spirit is so strong.”

Allen was the drummer of increasingly-popular British band Def Leppard. He’d joined them when just 15, in 1978, right after they put out their debut EP, which got some love from the BBC thanks to DJ John Peel. Their original drummer, Tony Kenning quit, his primary contribution to the group ultimately being the one who suggested their unique spelling – originally they were going to be a dictionary-correct Deaf Leopard. Allen was in, and the band took off in every way, signing to Phonogram Records (and Mercury in North America) and quickly going on the road to open for AC/DC.

By 1984, they were on top of the world, it seemed. Their third album, Pyromania, had made them major stars, particularly in the U.S. where it would go on to sell past 10 million copies, going diamond. They were a hot touring act and set to work on their follow-up. This may be where the weird coincidences and unusual luck came into play. They began working with Meatloaf’s right-hand man, Jim Steinman that year, on what would eventually become Hysteria. But they didn’t like his approach and weren’t happy with the way the record was shaping up. They talked with Todd Rundgren but didn’t think he would be a good fit for the group either. Fast forward to New Year’s Eve.

Allen was out driving with his girlfriend, in his expensive Corvette near Sheffield, England. Although some reports describe it as a “highway”, photos and Allen himself referred to it as a “winding country road.” An Alfa Romeo sped past Allen, and then slowed. He told Forbes “For three or four miles, every time I tried to pass, he would speed up… I kind of lost my cool and put my foot down.” A bad move it turned out; a sudden curve came up he didn’t expect and “the roads were a bit slippery.” He lost control, the car veered off the road, went through a stone wall and flipped over.

It was a bad wreck. “As the car rolled, the seatbelt came undone and took my left arm. The arm stayed in the car, and I disappeared through the sunroof” being thrown into a field yards away. Luck intervened. “There was an off-duty cop and a nurse who didn’t know each other” passing by and they stopped and “helped fix me up” until an ambulance arrived. Allen was in a coma for nearly two weeks, during which time doctors re-attached his arm, but it was too far gone and had to be removed again due to infections. He woke up one-armed.

I felt defeated, self-conscious. But my family, friends and hundreds of letters from all over the planet put me in a different head space.” He says it made him thankful. “It deepened my faith. It was obvious there was an intervention. I shouldn’t have survived that.” But survive he did, and he was determined to go back to Def Leppard, even if down an arm. A custom drum kit was made for him, with preference given to his right side and four extra pedals to operate the hi-hat, snare, bass and tom drum he’d formerly played with his left. In August ’86, he was able to return to the stage with the band.

It turned out that might have actually helped the band’s fortunes too. In the downtime, they re-evaluated their record in progress and brought Mutt Lange in to produce it instead when they went back to the studio. The rest, as they say, is history, with Hysteria selling upwards of 18 million copies and making them briefly the biggest hard rock act in the world.

A band grows from some of the not so good times, like…my accident. I think that’s been really important to us,” he told Alice Cooper recently.

Does having one arm limit his ability? Apparently not. Readers of Music Radar recently voted him the “best rock drummer” out there.

So, good came from bad, but a good reminder for us all to take care out there tonight, on the roads and elsewhere. Running your car through a wall seldom pays dividends like it did for Rick. We wish you all a happy new year!

December 10 – Meg A Drummer Of A Different Stripe

Drawing a Grosse Point blank as to which Michigan rocker was born on this day 47 years back? Well pop a peppermint in your mouth and say “Happy Birthday” to Meg White of the White Stripes!

Meg was always the quiet one of the band – except when she was behind her drum kit. As NPR called her recently, “the 21st-Century’s loudest introvert.” One of the few things she did say in an interview once was “the more you talk, the less people listen”… which perhaps explains the fascination some fans have as to what was going on inside her head and how they hung on every single word of hers. She married Jack Gillis – in a twist, he took her last name rather than the reverse – in 1996 and had divorced him by 2000 but along the way they formed one of the most popular and stripped-down new garage rock bands of the century and the pair continued to work together amicably for years after the divorce. The band was especially liked in Canada (where Jack’s ancestors were from) after they did a tour that hit every province and territory of the land, including such off the wall places as a city bus in Winnipeg and a bowling alley in Saskatchewan.

The name “White Stripes”? well, obviously the couple’s surname played a role, but so too did Meg’s fondness for those peppermints that were stripy red and white treats! In the last decade, Meg’s kept a very low profile and seems to have left the music business altogether. Female drummers are a rare breed to begin with which didn’t always sit well with the music establishment and she was oft-criticized for her straight-forward, basic drum technique. Jack however said he never “thought I wish Neil Peart was in this band” and NPR suggest her quiet, steadiness meant a “timing of their dynamic, and the balance between the bonkers (err, that would be Jack) and the basic (ie, Meg) was what made the White Stripes stand out.” Her thumping technique hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed. Apparently Dave Grohl’s daughter picked Meg as her all-time favorite drummer – take that dad!

About all we know of Meg is she’s still OK, she married then divorced Patti Smith’s son Jackson Smith,  and is living in Detroit. Where, we hope she’s having a nice, quiet birthday.

November 30 – Jeff, The Thriller Behind The Wall Of Drums

Two of the biggest albums of all-time came out on this day, three years apart – Pink Floyd’s The Wall, in 1979, then Michael Jackson’s Thriller in 1982. Both were huge. Thriller spent an incredible 37 weeks at #1 in the U.S. where it was the biggest album of both 1983 and ’84. It’s 34X platinum in the States and has moved an estimated 70 million copies worldwide. The Wall can’t match that, but was no slouch, being the top album of 1980 here, selling to 23X platinum and over 30 million copies worldwide. It topped the charts for 15-straight weeks. Mind you, it wasn’t even Pink Floyd’s biggest hit, commercially. Dark Side of the Moon takes that crown. Both November 30 records were released on Columbia Records in North America. Besides that though, they seem to have little in common.

Thriller after all was an incredibly well-played effort to make an album of dance and R&B tunes but make them mainstream enough to crossover into the regular pop and rock market. The Wall was a monolithic double-album, an art rock piece that rang full of one man (Roger Waters) dystopian view of the world. Thriller had pop hit after pop hit, The Wall has only one tune the everyday, casual listener would know by heart. However, if you look deeper, there is one more surprising common element in both. Jeff Porcaro. Known mainly as a member of Toto, Jeff in fact was one of the most impactful musicians of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s…and would have probably continued to be that much longer had he not died sadly at age 38, in 1992. His death has widely been linked to a reaction to toxic pesticides he was spraying around his yard. No wonder no less a rock luminary than Eddie Van Halen called him “one of the best drummers in the world. The Groove Master.”

Porcaro played on a number of tracks from Thriller, including “Human Nature” that his brother Steve (also of Toto) co-wrote for Michael Jackson. His presence on the record may not be surprising. Porcaro was an L.A. man, and much of the record was being done there. Besides, Jackson was the singer and creator of the record, but not known for playing instruments himself, nor did he have a regular band behind him. He and producer Quincy Jones simply set out to find the best musicians around to make his songs come to life. The Wall is a bit more of a puzzler.

Unlike Jackson, Pink Floyd are British…and had a regular, full-time drummer in Nick Mason. They were making The Wall mainly in Europe, largely France. But they did visit California, thinking perhaps they’d involve the Beach Boys in the making of it, something which didn’t happen. However, it was likely during that visit they met Porcaro. Mason is a highly-regarded drummer. However, the song “Mother” is a challenge for drummers, with several time changes and unusual time signatures, like 9/8. Mason simply couldn’t get the hang of the song, and the band didn’t have weeks to wait for him to learn, so reinforcements were brought in to tackle it. Namely, Jeff.

It was a good call. If Hal Blaine was the session drummer of the ’60s out there, the crown had been passed on to Porcaro by the mid-’70s. He’d started his career as a teenager, drumming for Sonny & Cher on tour. He worked on the Seals & Crofts hit “Diamond Girl” in ’73; he became a de facto member of Steely Dan in 1974, working on their Pretzel Logic album…which wen t platinum. He’d work on their next album the following year, another platinum hit. By the bicentennial year, he’d be pounding the skins for platinum-selling hits by Leo Sayer, Jackson Browne and Boz Scaggs. And so it went. He worked on one more big album by Steely Dan (Gaucho) after he’d joined Toto by 1978. And besides Toto, a major hit machine in their own right, he drummed on albums which sold platinum or better annually from ’78 to ’86, then again from ’89-92, including five different 1991 albums!

By the time he passed away he’d been the drummer on over 30 albums that hit platinum status, from artists ranging from Warren Zevon and Jackson Browne to Lionel Richie and Michael Bolton. And let’s not forget Bruce Springsteen (Human Touch) or Eric Clapton (Behind the Sun). Of course, that was only the tip of the iceberg. He also played on well-respected but slightly lower-selling works from artists like Al Stewart, Paul McCartney and Aretha Franklin. The beat on Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” or Elton John’s “Empty Garden”? By now, you can probably guess who it was.

So when you pull out your copy of The Wall or rock out with “Beat It”, give a moment of thought to the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame guy who helped them become the icons they are.

November 24 – Beatles Fans Best Know Pete

Producer George Martin and keyboardist Billy Preston are sometimes referred to as “the Fifth Beatle.” For all their contributions to the Fab Four’s music, there’s really only one man who has a legitimate claim to be such…the “Best” claim if you will. Today we wish drummer Pete Best a happy 80th birthday. Best is a household name among serious fans of the Beatles, but largely unknown to the casual listener or non-fan, being the first drummer in the group, in the pre-Ringo days.

Pete was born Randolph Peter Scanland, and in India, with his father being a British serviceman there. Unfortunately, he died in WWII, and Pete’s mom soon met the improbably-named Johnny Best soon after. Best was also serving in India but was an entertainment promoter by trade, and soon they’d moved back to Liverpool, and bought a huge, 15-bedroom house on Hayman’s Green. There his mom set up a coffee house, which had live music at times. By about 1960, the Quarrymen (with John Lennon, Paul McCartney and later, George Harrison) played there at times, as did young Pete’s band, the Black Jacks. He was their drummer. On off days apparently the future-Beatles helped paint the old house. The Beatles got a chance to play a string of gigs in Hamburg, Germany in the second-half of ’60…but they lacked a regular drummer. So Paul offered the spot to Pete. At the time, the band thought Pete’s drumming was very powerful and would help propel the music…plus, they didn’t know any other drummers who wanted to temporarily move to West Germany. Best spoke some German, unlike the others, and decided the 15 pounds a week (about $400 in current terms) sounded good, so he shelved his plan to go to college to become a teacher and was off to the continent. He drummed for them in both Germany and back in Liverpool for the next two years, including some early demos they recorded early in ’62 and on the single “My Bonnie”, which some consider the very first Beatles single. It was actually put out as Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers; the Beatles being a backing band for Sheridan, a Brit singer who was quite popular in Germany.

Best was my most reports, an adequate drummer, but far from a very good one. But problems were deeper than that. John’s first wife, Cynthia Lennon remembered John liking Pete, but the other two not, and that Best usually didn’t hang out with the rest of the band off-stage. Their manager Brian Epstein apparently didn’t like that Best wouldn’t get a matching “mop-top” hairdo to the other three; one biographer states “Pete’s hair was really curly. It just wouldn’t work.” And that curly hair and drummer’s physique apparently made him very popular with the ladies’, which may have rubbed Paul (“the cute one”) the wrong way. But the final straw was probably the recording sessions in the summer of ’62, with George Martin beginning his tenure as the Beatles wizard of a producer. “I decided that the drums…the backbone of a good rock group, didn’t give the boys enough support,” Martin later said. He wanted him out, and would have been happy to use hired studio drummers and have the Fab Four be a Thrilling Three instead. John, Paul and George agreed and voted him out, but left the job of firing him upto Epstein, who said “I wasn’t sure of George…and wasn’t anxious to change the membership of the Beatles at a time they were developing their personalities.” Nonetheless, in August 1962 Best was fired. His final shows with the Beatles were August 15 of that year at Liverpool’s Cavern Club; he failed to show up the next day for a gig there leading to an odd bit of trivia. If you were among the small number of Liverpudlians who saw the Beatles play August 16, ’62, you got to see the only time ever the Beatles didn’t have Best, or of course Ringo, behind the kit. A local named Johnny Hutchison played that show, and two days later, Starr became an official member of the band. Continue reading “November 24 – Beatles Fans Best Know Pete”