Five decades of punk rock history viewed from behind the drum kit.
Here’s something I discovered over the last couple of years: Tell somebody you’re putting together a book about music and their response is usually something like, “Cool! I love music.” Tell them it’s a book revolving around punk drummers and the response is more like, “Damn. I hate math.”
It’s anybody’s guess exactly why this is. Maybe it’s all that pesky counting and metronomic timekeeping? The way drummers’ limbs flail around like maniacal octopi? Or the sheer physicality—the tensed muscles, gritted teeth and those scary bulging eyes?
I’ve been playing drums since my teens, so I have a few theories. Over the years I’ve endured my share of drummer jokes, critical comments, and general dismissiveness about my instrument. Punk fans generally understand the vital role of that sweaty blur at the back of the stage better than other genres, freely praising a drummer’s chops, but that’s often where the level of understanding ends. In this way, drummers are sometimes treated more like technicians than musicians; outsiders in their own band.
It’s cool, you get used to it. I even occasionally join in on the fun, if only as a self-defense mechanism. But those responses did help me clarify the intent of my new book, Forbidden Beat: Perspectives on Punk Drumming: This isn’t just a book for drummers. It’s a book about five decades of punk rock history as viewed from behind the drum kit.
In my opinion, it’s very rare to find a truly great punk rock band without a great drummer. Sure, there are some notable exceptions, but for every punk band pushing the envelope with programmed beats, there are thousands more who favor the classic guitar/bass/drums set up. Those are the bands I was focused on.
Thankfully, the many talented contributors understood what I was trying to accomplish. Forbidden Beat opens with a foreword by legendary Circle Jerks drummer, Lucky Lehrer, who sets the stage perfectly: “You cannot love punk music without loving punk drummers. Punk’s early drummers were pistons, providing a pulse that drove the music.”
The collection also includes essays from respected music writers like John Robb, author of Punk Rock: An Oral History and founder of the music website Louder Than War.
“Much has been written about the music style, politics, and attitude of late-seventies bands, but interestingly little gets said about the drumming. The machine gun guitars and guttural vocals are endlessly detailed, but this was also an era when there were many great drummers creating their own beat narrative,” Robb writes in his essay about ‘70s/‘80s British punk bands like the Slits, the Sex Pistols, the Stranglers and the Clash.
The book opens with Nada Surf drummer Ira Elliot’s deep dive on garage rock and proto-punk bands like the Sonics, MC5, the Stooges and the New York Dolls. It includes his hilarious memories of playing in the Fuzztones as an opening act for the Damned in the ‘80s—when he first discovered ‘gobbing’ (the practice of spitting on bands invented by Damned drummer, Rat Scabies). “Sitting tucked behind the other four, I was farthest away and hardest to hit. One of the small, unspoken benefits of being a drummer, really. Harder to hit with spit.”
Scabies is probably name-checked more than any other drummer throughout the collection, so I gave him the final word. In the interview, he recounts his earliest drumming inspirations, including Gene Krupa, Sandy Nelson and Tommy Ramone. He also lends his experience to any young drummer looking to start a punk band: “The only advice I ever give anyone is to make sure you do it with people you like. You can always teach somebody to play, but you can’t teach them to be fun, or have ideas, or think laterally.”
Between that opening essay and closing interview, the book explores the world of punk rock with personal insights from many musicians, including Tré Cool of Green Day (“I knew exactly what I wanted to do in life. There was never any ‘Cover your bases. Learn a trade.’ Fuck that. Just play drums.”); Joey Cape of Lagwagon (“Praising Derrick Plourde as a punk drummer is selling him short. His drumming and influences were diverse.”); Phanie Diaz of Fea (“I learned from watching the drummers from every band we toured with. Style, tricks, equipment preference.”), and Urian Hackney of Rough Francis (“I spent many days locked in my darkened room with a hand me down Discman and those practice pads, trying my best to keep up with Minor Threat’s drummer, Jeff Nelson.”).
In addition, other music writers weighed in with in-depth essays about specific drummers, including Jim Ruland on Bill Stevenson from Descendents/Black Flag; Ian Winwood on Brooks Wackerman from Bad Religion, and Matt Diehl on the D-Beat/Discharge. Mindy Abovitz of Tom Tom Magazine says the pivotal moment for her was seeing Tobi Vail play drums with Bikini Kill: “Drums are loud, angry things that you have to hit in order to make them sing. Your legs are spread open when you play, and your arms go flailing about…Tobi’s drumming went against everything I was taught and I loved it.”
I felt like I had been on a journey once the book in my hands. It was incredible to have so many amazing people providing perspectives on punk rock and the important role of drummers in making it happen. And when it comes to opinions about punk music, there’s probably nobody as highly regarded as bassist Mike Watt. Our free-ranging interview about his rhythmic partner in crime from the Minutemen/fIREHOSE, George Hurley, touches on many subjects and influences—but his conclusion really brought it all home for me.
“One thing the (punk) movement did—and it helped out bass players, too: you’re not the stupidest guy in the band, you’re not a guy who hangs out with musicians. You are a musician,” Watt said. “The drummer is not the expendable guy, he’s the fucking heart in the center of the rock and roll universe.”
Amen, Watt. I couldn’t agree more.