When British rock drumming ruled the world: it was 50 years ago today...

Denmark, Sep 7, 1968: John Bonham during The New Yardbirds' first ever live appearance, just one month before they officially became Led Zeppelin

Denmark, Sep 7, 1968: John Bonham during The New Yardbirds' first ever live appearance, just one month before they officially became Led Zeppelin (Image credit: Jorgen Angel/Redferns)

Nothing exists in isolation or appears out of thin air and this is true of the British drummers who changed rock to hard rock, leading eventually to heavy metal. 

Bill Ward, John Bonham and Ian Paice, with their bands Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple gave birth to perhaps the most widespread, consistently popular and ever-evolving musical phenomenon, now passing its half century with no sign of a slow-down. These three were preceded by three more bands and their equally influential drummers who laid the foundations: The Who with Keith Moon, Cream with Ginger Baker and the Jimi Hendrix Experience with Mitch Mitchell. 

By 1968 these three were already well established, although having only been famous for a few years. Things moved rapidly in the ’60s. These drummers were undoubtedly among the most original drummers the UK has ever produced. On their heels, UK drumming took off and spread out to all manner of sub-sets - prog-rock, classical-rock, folk-rock, jazz-rock - becoming ever more sophisticated until coming a cropper a decade later when punk temporarily took the wind from their sails. So how come these guys were so inspired and what lay behind their ascent?   

A Time Before Rock

It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when rock did not exist! The first drummers involved in rock’n’roll had thus to devise a new language. From the 1930s there had been hints as to what was coming, in the form of rhythm and blues or ‘race’ (ie: black) music, jump-jive and boogie-woogie, western swing, gospel, country and folk, even big band swing. America is a vast melting pot of multiple races all bringing their musical traditions to the party. 

Numerous threads wove together as radio, records and eventually television hastened the evolution of a national musical movement to captivate the world. Drummers increasingly emphasised the two and four off-beat as the music got louder, and with the advent of electric bass guitar started to create new syncopated patterns for the bass drum. 

By the 1940s/1950s the drummers of New Orleans, such as Earl Palmer and Charles Connor; Chicago blues drummers like Elgin Evans, Odie Payne and Sam Lay; boogie-woogie shuffle masters like Chris Columbus; pop drummers like Elvis’s D J Fontana and Buddy Holly’s Jerry Allison, had planted the seeds of a new drumming vocabulary.  

These are the drummers that the UK’s first rockers grew up listening to. They may not have known the names back then, but they devoured the records of Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and many, many more.  By the mid- to late-1960s you could add Motown’s Benny Benjamin and Stax’s Al Jackson Jr, and eventually James Brown’s funky drummers into the stew.    

Hold on, it’s coming

The first wave of UK rock drummers included some surprisingly bombastic players who never achieved international fame, but nonetheless opened the eyes of those who immediately followed. Bobby Woodman (aka Bobbie Clarke) with Vince Taylor’s Playboys played double bass drums back in the late 1950s. 

Pre-Beatles, Carlo Little (Screaming Lord Sutch) and Frank Farley (the Pirates) had reputations as ferociously hard hitters at a time when pop and beat music were still mostly tame. It’s a cruel business and there were others around who never made it big. So a shout out to Viv Prince and Skip Alan - both of The Pretty Things - who were as flamboyant as Keith Moon. Combine those two and you see where Moon and Mitch Mitchell were coming from. Moon took a lesson or two from Carlo Little and it was Moon who completely shook up steady, comfortable beat drumming when he appeared on national TV with The Who in 1965.  

Jazz in the UK

At the same time that British drummers were trying to cop the latest American rock beats, they were intrigued by what seemed the more technical aspects of jazz. Much of this was not of directly obvious use in rock’n’roll - indeed it had to be played down. The early rock session drummers like Clem Cattini (Johnny Kidd, ‘Shakin’ All Over’, 1960) and Bobby Graham (the Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’, 1964) began to replace the big band session guys like Ronnie Verrell and Andy White by virtue of their youthful ability to keep it simple and revel in the beauty of rock. 

They didn’t feel they were ‘slumming it’ like some of the jazzers who saw rock as a passing fad to be endured until sanity resumed. Nonetheless, many old-school players were admired. Jazz drummer Eric Delaney, following the lead of Louie Bellson in the USA, was the UK’s first double kick player (and directly influenced pupil Bobby Woodman). He was the UK’s most famous show drummer, appearing on three Royal Command Performances fronting his own act. 

Eric occupied a unique spot, a highly trained multi-percussionist with a wonderfully rebellious, rock’n’roll attitude.  The class of 1968 were aware of Eric and every drummer growing up in the 1960s would also catch ATV’s Sunday Night At The London Palladium just to get an earful of the expert pit drummers, including Kenny Clare and Ronnie Stephenson.  In 1966 Clare and Stephenson jointly released Drum Spectacular, an album of unashamedly brash big band drumming fireworks. 

It remains an inspirational resource today. And its release coincided with Buddy Rich’s first album by his brand new orchestra (Swingin’ New Big Band, 1966), soon followed up by his first tour of the UK, which was truly mind-blowing.  

Buddy obviously set a standard of virtuosity still to be matched. In the small group jazz world the American Joe Morello was massively successful via the Dave Brubeck Quartet, universally adored for his unrivalled finesse and gorgeous fat sound. Too sophisticated to be an easy cop, most drummers still followed in the decades-old tradition of Gene Krupa, particularly when it came to the nightly drum solo feature. 

Leaning heavily on Krupa’s most famous outing on ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’, this original crowd-pleasing tom fest could be adapted to thrill in a rock’n’roll context. Sandy Nelson made a career out of it with a string of world-wide drum solo hits, notably ‘Teen Beat’ (1959) and ‘Let There Be Drums’ (1961). 

Simultaneously, our own two Shadows drummers, Tony Meehan and Brian Bennett wowed every UK drummer with their solos (‘See You In My Drums’, 1961; and ‘Little B’, 1962), precisely executed, musical and clever. 

Blues and psychedelic rock  

So the stage was nicely set when to everyone’s utter disbelief the UK became the centre of the pop music world. Once the Beatles and the Stones broke the beat-group mould after 1963/4 the UK music scene exploded. The Who came in 1964, Cream in 1966 and Jimi Hendrix immediately after.  

These three bands took the new album-rock to dramatic heights with sensational levels of invention and power. But in passing, it should be remembered that the mid-’60s was a uniquely fertile time when many other bands extended pop and beat by exploring heavier ground: groups like the Kinks with Mick Avory, the Small Faces with Kenney Jones and The Move with Bev Bevan.

Meanwhile, the British Blues Boom was already underway with the Yardbirds and Jim McCarty (from 1963) and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (from 1965), featuring several increasingly fluent and powerful UK drummers: Colin Allen, Keef Hartley, Aynsley Dunbar and Jon Hiseman. 

More UK jazz

Just as the early 1960s saw fledgling rockers gain greater access to US pop records, so UK jazz  was also benefiting from increased access to the US giants of small group jazz drumming. 

The Ronnie Scott generation was now proving itself able (in the face of grudging prejudice) to live with the acknowledged American masters. Out of this scene emerged Peter ‘Ginger’ Baker, the enfant terrible of the modern jazz pack. Baker found himself slap in the middle of a triumvirate of superstar UK drummers, flanked by Keith Moon and Mitch Mitchell. Keith was and remains the most unorthodox rock drummer ever. 

And like no other band, The Who was from the start a performance-art riot, an event, with Townshend’s left-field lyrical and musical themes demanding special attention. But Keith, despite his charisma and explosive talent, was obviously cuckoo. There had to be a more technically solid figurehead for drummers. 

Thus it fell to Ginger Baker to raise the standard, to show what was possible.  Baker was as wild in the public’s mind as Moon - confirming the facile view of drummers as the mad one in the band. Yet there was never any doubt he was a serious musician. So although Moon made more headlines, forever the champion for mad-cap drummers, Baker was the technical role model.

Cream improvised as a jazz group - they just happened to be fronted by a brilliant electric guitarist playing blues-rock through Marshall stacks. Thus Cream initiated a golden era when ‘serious’ music of substance became hugely popular.  John Bonham heard Ginger’s power, consistency and great time but developed his own style. A big factor in Baker’s solo, ‘Toad’, was the amazing increase in power achieved by incorporating linear kick, tom and snare combinations to create rolling barrages of tribal intensity. Bonham built on this with his outsized toms and that unsurpassed right foot. “Like a rabbit,” remarked a bemused Jimi Hendrix.  

To this day Bonham is the single drummer whose name comes up in Rhythm interviews more often than all others put together. As a result, Bill Ward - who admits to being in awe of Bonham when playing the emerging Birmingham scene in the 1960s - gets somewhat overlooked. Sabbath of course have had other drummers since Bill’s original tenure, which partly obscures his legacy. But Ward’s early playing was every bit as powerful and significant  as Bonham’s. 

Although Ward, Bonham, Mitchell and Paice are forever associated with hard rock, they all possess an inherent subtle swing. Ward and Paice are big band devotees, Buddy Rich fans.

Paice employed a top kit jazzy penchant for lightning fast snare rolls. Mitch Mitchell was placed in a sink-or-swim situation with Hendrix, a setting where he was much freer to improvise and play as though in a small jazz trio - lighter and more musically and rhythmically mercurial than Cream’s unstoppable steamroller vibe, as a direct consequence of Hendrix’s more fractured, free-form and psychedelic explorations. Mitch has been lauded for his Elvin Jones-inspired circular excursions.     

And there is plenty of evidence that Bonham also appreciated the great jazz drummers. He adapted hand-drumming licks from Joe Morello and even quoted Max Roach figures. It’s significant that Bonham, Ward, Paice and Mitchell all adopted the big band set-up of Buddy Rich also: one-up, two-down, with a large bass drum and relatively high tuning. In fact Bill Ward even bought a Slingerland Buddy Rich outfit. 

Baker (no Buddy Rich fan), having seen what Duke Ellington’s Sam Woodyard did with his double-kick outfit went a different route. Bill Ward’s more brutal approach was necessitated by the band he was in. Despite growing up with a jazz feel, he was somehow able to develop an insanely energetic and fantastically loud style while remaining clean and in control - truly the blueprint for HM drummers.

Post script

Hard Rock was just one path that the UK’s ever more adept drummers pursued. For a decade after 1968 Carl Palmer, Brian Davison, Jon Hiseman, Mike Giles, Bill Bruford, Phil Collins, Cozy Powell, Clive Bunker and numerous others brought power and invention to infinite variations on rock. 

Thereafter, punk called a halt as a new generation shunned the fancy drumming that had wandered so far from the direct excitement of early rock.  Hard Rock and HM, though, never lost its power, it simply motored on throughout, spending decades in the critical wilderness but loved by kids throughout the world.