I had just begun to break into the Los Angeles drumming scene in 1980, a year after Roger Linn introduced the LM-1 — the world’s first programmable drum machine to use sampled sounds. When compared to today’s crop of endlessly flexible drum machines and sequencers, Linn’s invention was ludicrous. For one thing, the unit was enormous, dominating an entire tabletop, and unwieldy to cart around. And even though its drum sounds trumped every type of rhythm box that had preceded it, the LM-1 was plagued with a stiff, mechanical feel, and fairly cheesy sounding cymbals. Drummers emitted a cautious sigh of relief.
But we were whistling in the graveyard. Producers — long weary of battling egocentric drummers over their studio performances — took a long, hard look at Linn’s machine and liked what they saw: a box that delivered simple beats at a mathematically perfect tempo with direct-to-disc sound quality. It didn’t require rehearsals or demand royalties. In short, it was perfect for their needs. And its successors — the LinnDrum and Linn 9000 — were better.
Look what happened next. A succession of dispensable ’80s new wave bands like Thompson Twins, Naked Eyes, and Bananarama adopted the drum machine as a key component of their sound, and the entire music world changed. Every type of recording session leapt onto the drum machine bandwagon, from soundtracks to albums to jingles. First-call session drummers who once filled their weekly calendars with high-profile record dates now competed for less lucrative demo sessions. And those of us who were only just breaking into the demo scene were suddenly scrambling for crumbs.
Indeed, it was a dark time for drumming, but the music business tends to be cyclical. The trend began to turn around in the late ’80s/early ’90s when a resurgence of metal and the emergence of post punk and grunge revived the value of live drummers. But even though listeners demanded more of a human feel from drum parts, the convention of disco-perfect tempos never faded away. Today the mighty click track is not just a staple of every recording session, but is also commonly used on stage.
Okay. This is a controversial opinion for the editor of a drumming magazine to put into print, but I’m not convinced the click track has enhanced the language of drumming. For one thing, it often tends to dumb down a drum part by forcing the player to concentrate more on the click than taking risks. In my book, risks are good. Imagine a producer stopping the tape every time Elvin Jones played over the bar line. You could lose an eye that way.
There are historically pivotal tracks that wouldn’t feel nearly as good if they had been recorded to a click. A perfect example — few songs have enjoyed such long legs as Iggy Pop’s hedonistic 1977 single “Lust For Life,” which car companies continue to license in order to convey speed and power in their commercials. Drummer Hunt Sales’ hard driving beat is recognizable within two seconds — a remarkable feat for a drum part. It’s as much of a hook as the chorus is.
But here’s the thing: Sales didn’t speed up. The entire band sped up together; creating an urgency that keeps you propped on the edge of your seat. The bandmembers didn’t resist the urge to rush. They embraced it and made it an element of the arrangement. Just as Bob Dylan did on “Hurricane,” Jimi Hendrix did on “Them Changes,” and Stewart Copeland did on countless tracks he recorded with The Police. Copeland’s comment?: “If I’ve sped up, get over it.”
But don’t get me wrong. It has always been important for drummers to have a solid sense of tempo, and never more than in today’s marketplace, where you’d better be able to play to a click or suffer the consequences. But if you’re in a band that allows some wiggle room within the groove, keep your ear open for that special moment when a little push can make the audience go over the edge. It really can happen.