There is something primal and animalistic about the drums, yet there’s also a potency in their beauty and charisma. It is often said that the drums are the metaphorical heartbeat of music. The drum beat structures the rhythm of the whole organism. Rock music is almost unthinkable without the drums, just as it would hardly be rock music without having incorporated the electric guitar. The drums drive so much of rock’s sheer muscle, it’s passion, it’s volume. But despite this, it’s often, like it’s rhythmic partner in crime the bass guitar, been relegated to the status of a backup. The frontmen, after all, are generally the vocalist or vocalist-guitarist, with the electric guitar taking over the lead during a brief respite for the singer. The drums, however firm in their march, play a supporting role. They keep time and mark the beat, act as the driving force of the music, but rarely do they take centerstage.
The greatest rock drummers, however, were not content to play a secondary part. Drummers like The Who’s Keith Moon, Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, and Cream’s Ginger Baker roared their way to the front of the music, and became as much of a centerpiece as the vocals and guitar. They played with their whole personality, and allowed both the aggressiveness and the subtlety of the instrument to shine through. None of their respective bands would be the same with a lesser man behind the kit. Interestingly, as fiery was their playing always was, such was their personal lives as well, being some of the most intense, magnetic, dangerous, and sometimes tragic men in all of rock history.
1. By the age of three years old, Keith Moon already showed a strong affinity for music. He would sit beside a portable gramophone player and play Nat King Cole records for hours on end.
2. But it was rock and roll music that grabbed Keith Moon instantaneously. He talked his parents into buying “Rock Around the Clock” the moment the song burst upon the scene, and he spent his own pocket money for the first time on a record by Tommy Steele, “Singing the Blues.”
3. One of Keith Moon’s earliest drum heroes was jazz legend Gene Krupa. He was extremely influenced by the film Drum Crazy which was a biography of Krupa. Keith loved the way that Gene Krupa took an instrument that usually sat in the background and made it an integral piece of the foreground of the music. He wanted to bring all of the colorful personality of a frontman to the drums.
4. Keith Moon’s first serious gig as a musician came with a band called The Escorts, for whom his friend Gerry Evans was the drummer but was going on leave for a few weeks. At the time, Moon was taking lessons to hone his innate gifts with Screaming Lord Sutch’s drummer, Carlo Little, and this impressed The Escorts enough to allow Moon to fill in for Evans. Moon’s powerhouse, almost madman like drumming helped take the band in a whole new musical direction in which the drums played a far more prominent role.
5. John Bonham began studying drums at the very young age of five. He created a makeshift drum kit out of containers and coffee cans. His drumming was already heavily influenced by some jazz giants – Gene Krupa, as was Keith Moon, but also heavyweights Max Roach and Buddy Rich.
6. John Bonham left school in 1964. When he left school, he would spend time drumming for local bands and also spent time apprenticing for his dad as a carpenter.
7. Around the time that Led Zeppelin was forming, John Bonham received a number of offers to join other bands, including ones from Joe Cocker and Chris Farlowe. Ultimately, he decided to take Page and Plant’s offer to join Led Zeppelin because he enjoyed their style of music the most.
8. John Bonham made an appearance in the 1974 horror film Son of Dracula. In the film he played drums in Count Downe’s band – Downe was played by Harry Nilsson band. The soundtrack to the film included other star drummers like Keith Moon and Ringo Starr.
9. When Ginger Baker approached Eric Clapton about starting the band that was to become Cream, Baker wasn’t actually aware that Eric was already a well known guitarist. Rather, he had heard Eric play and was just very fond of his musicianship. He approached Clapton after a John Mayall gig and Clapton expressed strong interest in starting a band with Baker. Clapton recommended Jack Bruce for the bass duties, and although Baker wasn’t keen on the idea based on their past tumultuous relationship, he agreed to think it over.
10. According to Ginger Baker’s account, the band name Cream came out of the band’s first rehearsal together. While the band was jamming, some kids were listening and started dancing and having a great time to the music. The band recognized themselves that the music emanating from them was, indeed, kind of magical, and Clapton exclaimed, “Yeah, man, we’re the Cream!” And a legendary band name – and band – was born.
11. Ginger Baker, who had once hit Jack Bruce, made a promise that he would never hit Bruce again. However, when working with Cream, Baker found this promise often difficult to keep, as the tension between the two continued to be thick. Baker would often turn to significant quantities of alcohol to get himself through the sessions without beating up on Jack Bruce.
12. Keith Moon was the first rocker to employ the use of the double bass drum, but he was inspired to do so when hanging out one day with Ginger Baker. The two had gone to see the Duke Ellington playing in London with Sam Woodyard on the drums. Ellington’s drummers would always use double bass drums, and Baker and Moon were so impressed with Woodyard’s use of the kit that they would both soon follow suit.