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Hail to the Bricklayer Drummers!

Charlie Watts Courtesy of Getty Images

What is a bricklayer drummer?

It’s probably easier to first describe who is NOT one – Neil Peart, John Bonham, Barry Barlow, Bill Bruford, Keith Moon, Carter Beauford, Ginger Baker, Clem Burke, Omar Hakim, Mitch Mitchell, and Stewart Copeland, to name a few. These are top drummers who work “progressively.” Grounded in roots found in jazz, progressives tend to play big (sometimes giant) multi-piece drum kits. Their work stands out in the music mix in which they appear, stunning us with their wizardry. They change time signatures easier then we change lanes on the highway. They astonish us with death-defying riffs. They add to the very shape of a song, compelling us to focus on their playing because it’s so entertaining to hear. We love them.

Related: “The Louvin Brothers Rewrite Musical History Again”

A bricklayer drummer does the near opposite. These drummers create a solid bed of bricks for the rest of a band to dance upon. Their playing is subtle, almost unnoticeable, never getting in the way of a tune. The bricklayer’s outstanding contribution to the art of music is knowing just what to add and when. Their work disappears within the music and is rarely a feature or focus within a recorded track. Bricklaying drummers have their beauty in simplicity, and for that, they can be easily dismissed.

Bricklayers tend to play simple 3 or 4-piece drum kits. Their playing relies on beat instinct, something that can’t be taught. Their time-keeping is impeccable, steady as a rock. This is grounded in emotion and feel, thus making an ability to play like this a talent itself. It is an exclusive drumming style found only in Rock & Roll.

Here are the top 10 Bricklaying Drummers of rock:

10. Bill Berry – R.E.M.

Known as a melodic drummer, Berry reveals his bricklayer roots through his ability to play hard foundations (“Finest Work Song,” “Wake-Up Bomb”) while exercising his subtler abilities to help move a softer song along (“Near Wild Heaven,” “World Leader Pretend”). An interesting pattern in his playing developed throughout the band’s history: Berry would play a simpler style outside of the songs he wrote for R.E.M. thus, instinctively, adjusting his style to let the music of the band come to the fore.

9. David Robinson – The Cars

Being part of the proto-punk movement in the early ’70s with Jonathan Richmond and the Modern Lovers, Robinson eventually became the backbone for those great singles by the Cars. His drumming challenge was to constantly find a way in between the swirling of keyboardist Greg Hawkes’ rhythmic arsenal- not an easy trick. Robinson returned the keyboardist’s lob by adding his own brand of electronic syn-drum sounds reveled in their first released song, “Let The Good Times Roll.” Robinson’s fashion sense led to his serving as the cover art curator for the band, bringing in Alberto Vargas prints for us to lather over.

8. Dave Clark – Dave Clark Five

Just listen to the DC 5 do the classic Maurice Williams tune, “Stay,” and you will hear the masonry of Dave Clark. Known for a 4-beat riff on both his tight-sounding snare and floor tom-tom, his influence has been noted by greats Max Weinberg, Jim Keltner, and Peter Criss. As this was Clark’s band, he produced all of their records (and wrote the original songs), and we can hear his drums featured up in the mix at various points (i.e. “Bits and Pieces”) ……perhaps the first time in history a bricklayer was veering off into Progressive Land.

7. Martin Chambers – The Pretenders

As soon as radio listeners of the early 80’s heard Chambers’ distinctive 6-bar drum solo opening, they knew the Pretenders’ “Middle of the Road” was coming. The admitted “glue” of the band, this wouldn’t be the first time that his playing took a leadership role of knitting a song together, as witnessed in his drumming on “Message of Love.” For this tune, writer Chrissie Hynde handed him just two chords for the song’s verse sequence. The whole song would fall apart if not for Chambers’ construction-site start/stop beat, making those two chords feel like four. Now in his 40th year with the band, his playing continues to be exceptional on the Pretenders 2020’s Hate for Sale album.

6. Bun E. Carlos – Cheap Trick

For such a loud and ballsy band, Carlos (birth name Brad Carlson) is the perfect subtle foundation for guitarist Rick Nielsen and bassist Tom Petersson to play off. A quintessential bricklayer, his playing is designed to never be in the way, but always be there. The ambidextrous Carlos has said his personal growth as a drummer started when he listened to tapes of himself and came to realize he was “interfering” in the band’s performance. The best example of his “holding back” while still clobbering the beat can be heard onAuf Wiedersehen” from their Heaven Tonight album.

5. Larry Mullen, Jr. – U2

With all the sonic opportunities that guitarist The Edge has handed Mullen, he never played along to that level of ambience (who could? ……it might have killed him!). Rather, he chose to produce solid beats to avail The Edge and Bono more room to hang sounds on the U2 clothesline. This is not to say Mullen made it simple, as revealed on “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Bullet the Blue Sky.” Both of these tricky beats are rooted in military marches. No doubt influenced by his young teenage years with the Post Office Workers Band of Dublin, Ireland. Later, when U2 expanded to drum machines in the 2000s, Mullen let the digital loops do the hard work and he simply laid his plain vanilla playing on top. Perfect bricks!

4. Pete Thomas – Elvis Costello and the Attractions

The most underrated of the bricklayers, Thomas spent a career keeping Costello on target with great musical control. His playing could be considered shy of original riffs and breaks, but no one will argue that his foundation building is consistently present. He is every recording producer’s dream drummer, as he must have saved Costello millions in studio fees by getting the drum track right every time – the first time. Thomas is one of the only drummers who insists on having to understand the lyrics before playing a new song, as those artful subtitles come out in his selection of playing. Check out Thomas’s playing via YouTube with a supergroup of Costello, Springsteen, Steve Van Zandt, Dave Grohl, and Flea (on bass), at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s induction of The Clash in 2003. Pure bricklaying!

3. Max Weinberg – The E Street Band

Mighty Max is a machine. In concert, he could go on for 10 minutes with a simple Bo Diddley beat while Springsteen riffs over “Not Fade Away.” This would stagger most drummers, but on-signal from the keys of Roy Bittan, Max creates another orbit for the band and launches them into “She’s The One” with even more punch. In 2017, I had the honor to stand next to Max on stage while he played with his Jukebox band. That is where I realized how tight his snare-to-bass drum ratio is. The man never lets in any room for error. His accuracy is how he guarantees a great sound contribution. Metronomes would be jealous.

2. Ringo Starr – The Beatles

Ringo is the Godfather of bricklaying drummers. Solid, out of the way, but always delivering great accessories to those iconic tunes. His inventive sound of open, “sloppy” high-hat beats are a hallmark in recording history (this famous “swooshing” sound can be heard throughout the Beatles’ first five albums, then he finally closed his high-hat beginning with the Rubber Soul album in late ‘65.) There are only a handful of Beatles’ tracks where his drumming is prominent, (i.e. “Day in the Life”) and he has openly regretted his over-playing on their 1966 single, “Rain.” His best bricklaying afternoon was his machine-like work on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, where during the long 18 reiterations of John Lennon’s exit riff, he never repeated himself a single time!

Related: “Ringo at 80: He Passed the Audition”

1. Charlie Watts- Rolling Stones

Is there anyone who symbolizes the bricklayer player more than Charlie Watts? He gets the top spot partly due to his abilities to play proper jazz, even though he’s rarely showed off those chops in his years with the Stones. Over six decades, he’s kept it pure and simple. A minimalist supreme, his musical influence over Jagger and Richards provides a dynamic structure to the band. Watts’ beat dexterity can be witnessed in his range of styles from “Sympathy for the Devil,” to funk (“Hot Stuff”) to the country-punk of “Far Away Eyes.” In the years when he linked up to Bill Wyman’s bass, it was said they were the best rhythm section in the world.

Honorable Mention for Bricklayers: Don Henley (Eagles), Simon Kirke (Bad Company), Kenny Jones (Faces), Topper Headon (The Clash), Chris Frantz (Talking Heads) Brian McGee (Simple Minds), Jim Keltner (session drummer supreme), & Mick Fleetwood (you know who he played with).

-Steven Valvano

Photo: Charlie Watts, 1973 (Getty Images)

 

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53 comments on “Hail to the Bricklayer Drummers!

  1. Drummers that know what it’s like to be in a band are so important. Great list.

    • Steven M Valvano

      Many thanks for the comment…I have sat behind the band too long not to! – SV

  2. Loyd Jones

    Where I’d Dino Danelli of the Rascals?

  3. No Phil Rudd? Great to see the often-overlooked Bun E. Carlos.

  4. Peter Fey

    I’m so glad you rank Pete Thomas highly. I remember the first time I saw the Attractions (1979). I was amazed to see him singing along (off-mic) word-for-word. He still does! He and Ringo are my personal favorites because they are so enmeshed in the overall sound of their respective records. They drive them and compliment them and never call undue attention to themselves with gratuitous fills or breaks.

    • Steven M Valvano

      Met him in a Atlantic City lobby once… the guy loves to laugh! – SV

  5. I thought I’d see Terry Williams from Rockpile

    • Steven M Valvano

      Yes thanks, he crossed my mind, but if I am not mistaken, he did a stint with Dire Straits and showed too much “progressiveness” and moved away from bricks… well, that’s my take anyway!- SV

  6. Murray Clarke

    I would offer:
    Steve Porcaro, Simon Phillips

  7. It’s Jonathan Richman — not Richmond.

    • Steven M Valvano

      Thank you…no disrespect to the man or the portion of London to which the spelling came from! -SV

  8. This was fun to read. Of course there were many you could have included like Jim Gordon or Hal Blaine.

  9. When I was a kid Martin Chambers brother lived across the road from us. Martin would visit most Sundays/

  10. Roy Dwyer

    I always appreciate Steve’s love for music and especially the drummers! I was a wanna be drummer growing up and that is one regret I have of having never taken lessons and giving it a try. Having seen some of the most accomplished bands in rock n roll ever and the simplicity of these drummers is something I really enjoy and admire.
    Steve brings a fresh and unique perspective in how I look at musicians in general. Simplicity is not over-rated!

  11. David Robinson

    Thank you Steven! FYI It’s spelled Jonathan Richman. Otherwise, nice job!

    • Steven M Valvano

      I guess I had too much London on my mind, thanks for the correction – SV

  12. Kevin Clark

    Not being super into music, I found this article to be extremely informative. I didn’t realize there was so varied types of drumming and how it impacted the entire band. I’ll definitely listen to music differently now.

  13. John Thomasson

    Big omission is Clem Burke from Blondie.

    • Steven M Valvano

      John, he is on my list, but I consider him a “progressive”…much more involvement in his playing-SV

  14. Pete Mahomey

    Very informative!

  15. Paul Yandoli

    Where’s Levon Helm???!!! Serious omission.

    • Steven M Valvano

      I’ll agree….I didn’t think toward that musical direction, but anyone who could keep up with Danko should be on this list!! Thanks. – SV

    • Greg Sutton

      My thoughts exactly—no Levon Helm? Tsk, tsk, tsk.

  16. Eoghan Lyng

    Fab piece!

  17. Chris Evans

    Great article about the unsung heroes, Steve! I was also thinking about Joey Kramer from Aerosmith, who doesn’t get mentioned much, but drummers know how solid he is.

    • Steven M Valvano

      Thank you Chris…. Joey is NOT a bricklayer, (in my humble) just a great great heavy drummer….love his beat in Love In Elevator- SV

  18. Danny Menzies

    Country drummers are not considered in this but if you play drums in country music, you had to earn it throug patience and discipline. You had to play with finesse, keep the band on time, and bricklay to. You also had to hear, there’s no drums in country music. And then show them where it fits

  19. Mick Avory of the Kinks?

    • Steven M Valvano

      yes, he’s a Brick man, but I shied away because some of their early stuff was not Mick, but a session drummer….thanks to Producer Shel Talmy! – SV

  20. Ringo has NEVER regretted his playing on Rain. Quite the contrary, he considers it his best, and changed his drumming style after.

    • Steven M Valvano

      Not to argue, I HEARD him say it in interviews…. but you know what years of talking can do to the memory!…thanks for the comments, in any case. -SV

  21. Jonathan Gregg

    I heard Dave Clark used session drummers. I also dispute the Ringo assertion about Rain; it was not overplaying, and neither was She Said She Said.

    • Joe Cogan

      Ringo has always been proud of his playing on Rain. I’ve never heard him suggest that he was overplaying on it.

  22. Pete Rivard

    I submit that The Band’s Levon Helm deserves consideration. Or is his tasteful drumming too subtle for bricklayer status?

  23. What about Phil Collins from early genesis….lamb lies down and everything prior to it???

    • Steven M Valvano

      Just my perceptions, but he is quite a busy player and leans toward the progressive side…..indeed, the band were part of the progressive movement at first when Gabe was in front of the band. Thanks, -SV

  24. Leven helm…of course.

  25. Joseph Christopher

    Would you consider doing a piece on Graeme Edge ?

  26. Al Jackson- Booker T and the MGs
    Stan Lynch- Tom Petty

  27. Joe Cogan

    I find it amusing that John Bonham is the aecond drummer listed as “not a bricklayer”: before he joined Zep, he was a bricklayer by trade!

  28. I have to give big nods to Levon Helm and especially Frank Beard. The subtle cowbell and maracas gives his sound a shot of Hot Pepper Sauce…

  29. Tom Kaempfer

    I see that no one has mentioned Russel Kunkel from the Section. Please consider his 50 years of studio and touring with big time artists. And his new (old) band. The Immediate Family. They’re still rocking !

    • Tom Kaempfer

      His new project includes Danny Kortchmar, Waddy Wachtel, Leland Sklar and the new guy, Steve Postell. If you like straight ahead R&R give them a listen. Veterans plying their Trade.

  30. This list is 100% invalid without Phil Rudd of AC/DC. Short of Mr. Watts, arguably the best “bricklayer” of all time. Come on.

  31. Robert Kern

    Keith Moon, Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker and Butch Trucks.

  32. Edward Naylon

    Great skin players. I like you divided it into a definitive style. I throw Buddy Miles, Mike Schreive, Burnard Purdie, Kieth Moon in perhaps another mix, but great stixmen.

  33. Michael McNeely

    Phil Rudd is too heavy a drummer to be considered a bricklayer. Greame Edge , yes. And Dino Danelli. I would also say Steve Boone of the Loving Spoonful and John Barbata of Jefferson Starship and the Turtles.

  34. Michael McNeely

    Bill Kreutzman also

  35. Vernard Atkins

    Buddy Miles not on this list? He’s the ultimate bricklayer!

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