It’s been a while since I’ve posted a “best of” list, so I thought I’d tackle one on a subject that I’ve been pondering lately—drummers. So here is my list of the greatest drummers in rock history. For a long time I’ve been firmly resolved regarding the top three on my list. Deciding on the other two was tricky, and my mind could change about them.
As for my criteria, I believe a good drummer, like any member of a band, should serve the songs. For my money, the drummers listed below did/do this better than anyone else. Of course, this is a vague criterion and perhaps it is best understood as a limiting condition for other criteria, such as technical excellence, versatility, and innovation. A drummer’s success in terms of these other criteria will always be relative to the degree to which he avoids drawing too much attention to his part in the song. Some drummers, such as Neil Peart and Keith Moon, are extremely creative or technically excellent, but they often distract this listener, upstaging the song itself. That’s one reason why these guys don’t make my list.
Before I present the list, here are some honorable mentions: Pete Thomas (The Attractions), Dave Grohl (Nirvana), Nathan Followill (Kings of Leon), Max Weinberg (The E Street Band), Stewart Copeland (The Police), Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Charlie Watts (Rolling Stones).
Okay, here we go, counting down backwards:
5. Larry Mullen, Jr. (U2) — Everybody loves Larry Mullen, Jr., the loveable, soft-spoken foundation of Ireland’s greatest band. He founded U2 and has always been their most talented musician. While Bono’s voice is the band’s sonic signature, their sound is crucially defined by Mullen’s drumming style. He’s able to match Bono and the Edge in terms of emotional intensity, and that’s saying a lot. Notable performances: “Bad,” “Exit,” “I Threw a Brick Through a Window.”
4. Roger Taylor (Queen) — Here is a terribly underrated drummer in a terribly underrated band. Taylor was a stylistic chameleon, capable of playing any style and playing it well—from heavy metal to delicate piano-based chamber music, he always sounds like he’s in his musical element. Notable performances: “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Its Late,” “Somebody to Love.”
3. John Bonham (Led Zeppelin) — Many rock historians regard Bonham as the greatest rock drummer ever, and this is echoed by some superb drummers (including Charlie Watts, Dave Grohl, and Chad Smith). So Bonham is far from underrated and was so good it would be hard to overrate him. Surely he has no equal in terms of sheer power. But he could be deceivingly and entrancingly unorthodox with his drum patterns. And like everyone else in this list, his versatility was immense, though it is perhaps not as noticeable as it would have been if his band explored more musical genres. Notable performances: “Black Dog,” “When the Levee Breaks,” “Fool in the Rain.”
2. Levon Helm (The Band) — Journalist Jon Carroll once said Helm was the only drummer that can make you cry. Helm had (and, at over 70, still has) an incredible knack for creating a skip and hop groove that adds tremendous energy to songs. In many of the Band’s classics the real magic comes from Helm’s drumming, but he still somehow manages to be invisible. If you own any of The Band’s CDs, listen to one of them focusing on Helm’s drum tracks throughout, and you’ll see what I mean. The irony is that Helm was not the Band’s only drummer. He shared drumming duties with Richard Manuel, but only when Helm’s musical services as a guitarist or mandolin player were called for. Notable performances: “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek.”
1. Topper Headon (The Clash) — Every member of the Clash acknowledged that Headon was the band’s best musician. And every producer who worked with them was amazed at the guy’s talent. Listen to any song by the Clash on which he played (Headon didn’t join the band until after their first UK album, and the creative lift he provided was immense), and you’ll see how every choice he made was the right one. He provided the firm spine their songs so badly needed and also adapted readily to the constant stylistic changes that the musical expeditions of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones required (punk, classic rock, progressive rock, reggae, ska, funk, and world music). Headon not only adapted but made their explorations in every genre sound natural and authentic. Notable performances: “I Fought the Law,” “Julie’s in the Drug Squad,” and “Lost In the Supermarket.”