Saturday, June 28, 2008

In Praise of Elton John's Drummer

If you grew up listening to radio pop-rock during the '70s, you may be aware of a distinctive drum sound that has never reappeared.

I don't know exactly how to describe the sound. The simple explanation might be that the kick drum and snare drums are gated, have their volume boosted across all frequencies, and then are sent through an effects processor which adds a short plate reverb. Michael B. Tretow -- who produced some early ABBA singles which used this technique -- described it as sounding like a turkey being thrown against the wall.

Yes it does, a bit.

You'd hear this drum sound on any highly-produced pop-rock song which wasn't yet experimenting with disco: ABBA, Electric Light Orchestra, Supertramp, Harry Nilsson...and the "classic" Elton John line-up.

During my "breakfast walk" this morning I choose -- at random -- to listen to Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" double LP. Besides being perfect in almost every way -- the exception being "Jamaican Jerk-Off," which makes me scream every time -- this "thumpy drum" sound appears in most of the can hear it in "Benny and the Jets" and "I've Seen That Movie Too," though it would be used at its most extreme in "Better Off Dead" on his subsequent "Captain Fantastic Album."

While luxuriating in this distinctive sound I found myself paying attention to the elaborate rhythms of Elton John's band at the time. Considering that the songs were nominally based around piano, there's a surprising amount of rhythmic interplay between ALL the instruments, with Nigel Olsson's drums being particularly tricky. Again, I don't know which "drumming terms" to use, but I suppose the right word is "fills." Olsson's fills are perfect. He'd never hit a drum unless it accented the rhythm that the other instruments were playing at the time.

So here's to a drum sound that I haven't heard again since...

...though now that I think about it, you can hear a similar effect in "The W.A.N.D." by Flaming Lips, which must be one of the greatest songs ever, and is always an intricate thrill to dance to:

Given what I understand to be a Flaming Lips tendency to pay "homage" to their '70s influences, I suppose this make sense.


Jennifer said...

I know what you're talking about, and I totally agree. I'm a huge fan of Nigel Olsson, and there's no one that plays as well as him (in my opinion of course). Those beats are amazing... the power and thump of that kick drum are amazing. The rhythm on the ride cymbals. Awesome.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

What can I say, Jennifer? You got good taste!