When it comes to musical debates there are only a few categories that ever really get brought up.
Arguments around particularly brilliant (or not) songs or albums are ubiquitous, and countdowns on the greatest guitarists, drummers and even bands are regular features of magazines and television. One dynamic that is rarely discussed is the rhythm section; the bass and drum combination.
A vocalist can give a band a personality as well as the more obvious powers of speech, while guitarists can offer limbs ended with pointed fingers, balled fists or the softest of touches. The drummer and the bassist provide the spine, and while that’s mainly just useful for standing up straight, a really limber one will let you thrust in all directions, and musicians have a reputation to uphold.
Leaving the laboured metaphors aside, this is some praise for the great under-appreciated rhythm sections in some bands that I like, and a brief explanation of why. Miles Davis often spoke of the important parts of a piece of music not being in what you played, but in what you didn’t. Likewise, if something is described as being “like clockwork” then it has ridges as well as grooves. The two interlock to keep things moving. Timing is everything.
Now we all know of some truly great rhythm pairings – Entwhistle and Moon, Redding and Mitchell, Bonham and John-Paul Jones, Reni and Mani, etc. The point is, these guys get all the credit they deserve. This is meant to be a bit of praise for some of the people that don’t. It isn’t in praise of one individual or the other, it’s the couples that made it so much more than the sum of their parts.
As ever, a couple of caveats. I’ve stuck to popular(ish) music, or at least music aimed at the popular market. I’m only too aware that I’m not aware of incredible jazz musicians and Ethiopian folk musicians, if that makes sense. This isn’t a definitive list, or even an attempt at one, it’s just – if I’m honest – a few rhythm sections that I thought don’t get enough credit while driving back from work in the car. The research runs that deep.
Apologies if it goes a bit music theory-ish, it’s not meant to be aimed at chin scratching muso knobheads, but it is written by one.
Oh, and one final thing, put the bass up on your computer before listening.
Matt Tong and Gordon Moakes
Bloc Party have been one of the most intriguing guitar bands that Britain has produced in the last decade, because of their willingness to accept failure as a potential cost to endeavour. After releasing a truly magnificent debut in the shape of The Silent Alarm, they tried out a variety of different musical suits, some of which fitted and others which didn’t, but at least avoided the Emperor’s New Clothes-syndrome of some of their contemporaries. Key to all of this was lead singer Kele Okereke’s increasing disillusionment with “indie”, and the fact that in Russell Lissack they had possibly the most innovative UK guitarist since Jonny Greenwood.
What most people fail to pick up on is the fact that the real heroes in the band, the two that separate them from every other indie-rock band with ambition, are drummer Matt Tong and bassist Gordon Moakes.
Need further proof? Listen to a single like Two More Years.
The immediacy of the music is all through the drums, which are the most prominent parts of the song’s mix. Then note when they change pace, when the bass comes in and the constant beat of the drums, which seems at odds with the sentiment of the lyrics, flourishes and actually expresses something and sighs. In any other hands this would have been indie slush, but it gets guts from the rhythm section.
Another great example is in Helicopter, which is seemingly all about the two guitar parts.
The drums and bass parts stay syncopated and nimble, repelling the angry riffs, and Moakes’ descending bass-line in the chorus makes the whole thing work.
Bill Berry and Mike Mills
If Stan Lee was writing about a rhythm section… It seems strange to suggest that any part of REM were under-rated, but they are a perfect example of musicians being so much more than a sum of their parts.
Berry was a good drummer, but he wasn’t a virtuoso. However, the band never recovered when he left. In Mike Mills he had the perfect musical ally; a multi-instrumentalist who understood allowing music to breath and pause.
None of REM’s big hits feature memorable bass parts or drum fills, but listen to some of their most acclaimed work and you’ll realise who it was that did the leg-work in carrying the music that Michael Stipe and Peter Buck gilded. On It’s the End of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) there is very little in the verses but the almost rock-a-billy drums and Mills’ meandering bass.
In Man On the Moon it is the bass part that leads the entire song, and the drums are subtle, putting the emphasis of the verses on beats one, two and four, almost like a polka.
Jenny Lee-Lindberg and Stella Mozgowa
There aren’t many high profile female drummers, but Warpaint have one of the most nuanced in Stell Mozgowa. The band’s ethereal, Cocteau Twins-esque mystery is anchored by a drummer that can switch time signatures on a whim, and offer a more subtle (specifically feminine?) power that defines so much of their work. Put it another way, if they had an incredible male drummer, they would never sound so nuanced. She plays drum parts that can only be described, in your best Old Grey Whistle Test voice, as grooves.
Alongside her is Jenny-Lee Lindberg, who understands that if you are going to have arboreal guitar parts growing from beneath your feet, you need to keep both a steady footing and give over plenty of space for the branches.
?uestlove and Leonard Hubbard
Although The Roots have found an entirely new level of professionalism and dedication in recent years, both live and on record, their classic rhythm section featured the Leonard Hubbard, who left in 2007, as well as ?uestlove. The band had always managed to mix political, eloquent statements with music that was for the hips as much as the head, and arguably never more so than on 2002s Phrenology.
You can tell someone is adding something genuinely special when you know what they’re playing, but can’t figure out quite how. On a track like The Seed there is the most rudimentary of drum parts, keeping a straight 4/4 beat. The bass part hops from one foot to the other, without ever wandering too far from the straight and narrow. So what makes it hold such a swagger? The bass and the drums may be simple, but they react to each other so perfectly that they appear to be one instrument.
Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas
Three words. Pump it Up.
Ok, a bit more proof is needed. Like this…