Messy Vs. Neat Backbeats

there are many ways to beat the drum.

The death of Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell left me thinking about drummers in general.

When I first heard Mitchell, I was struck by the busy quality of his drumming, the way that his beat was all aflutter on cymbal titters, rolling tom fills, and stuttering bass drum kicks. It was a tidal-wave sound, the unsteadying feel of an earthquake, full of propulsion but always verging on chaos and disruption. It was drumming as a dance with entropy, and it fit perfectly with Hendrix’s guitar playing, which was casual and messy, loose and almost laconic even as it exploded with volcanic intensity. The band’s groove barely held together, which was what made them fascinating and, paradoxically, well, to quote Hendrix himself “groovy, baby.”

R.I.P. Mitch Mitchell

Thinking about and appreciating Mitchell’s messy drumming made me get all structuralist about percussion. I began to sort drummers into two categories, a la the raw and the cooked. In this case, the binary was the messy and the neat.

On the one hand, there are drummers who celebrate the mess, who brilliantly barely keep the beat together in a flurry of percussion. I’m thinking of Mitchell, Keith Moon, and, in a whole different idiom, the jazz drummer Connie Kay, whose soft brushstrokes defined the Modern Jazz Quartet’s style and who lent such a central backdrop to albums such as Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. It sounds like I’m putting down these drummers, but the making a mess of the groove is actually incredibly hard to accomplish — that is, to make the beat both messy and alluring all at once is no easy feat. To transform the backbeat into a beautiful mess, yet keep the groove intact may be the highest percussive achievement of all.

On the other hand, there are the neat drummers, who slice and dice the groove up into terse sections, who use silence and space as percussive elements. Here I am thinking of drummers such as Levon Helm, John Bonham, Ginger Baker, and, in the soul realm, Al Jackson Jr., with his famous delayed backbeat. These drummers reduce and refine, slim down and locate just the right access point to insert the beat. They leave you hanging on, dropping you into the silence at the heart of sound. We might call them minimalists, except they are really more accurately described as maximalists: they maximize the contribution of each percussive sound toward the song as a whole.

Messy drummers and neat drummers: I think pop music would be so much less satisfying without both approaches behind the kit.

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