On paper – Kick It: A Social History of the Drum Kit by Matt Brennan


Kick It: A Social History of the Drum Kit
by Matt Brennan
Oxford University Press 2020 (371 Pages, ISBN: #978-0-19-068387-0)

Reviewed by John Earls

Matt Brennan starts his magnificent social history of the drum kit by citing one of the many frequently made ‘jokes’ about drummers based on the stereotype of them being unintelligent (in fact all chapters start with ‘jokes’ concerning drummer stereotypes). He then demonstrates how the supposed stupidity of drummers is rooted in the history of racial stereotypes (primitive-savage drummer) and goes on to explain how the drum kit is “not only a product of musical ingenuity at the turn of the [twentieth] century, but also an outcome of massive historical changes in human migration, trade and engineering, beginning with the forced migration of the transatlantic slave trade”.

This is an ‘academic’ book (Brennan is Reader in Popular Music at the University of Glasgow) and the book is rigorous and detailed in its research and analysis. But it’s an incredibly rich story that Brennan makes sure never gets dry in the telling. It’s a riveting account of the importance of drums and drummers in music’s history (and future), deftly done through a largely chronological narrative cleverly structured in chapters focused on six ‘drummer’ themes: clever, noisy, studious, creative, working and indispensable.

We see the development of so-called ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ music with drums and drummers confined to an inferior status both between and within musical genres, and are then taken on a journey through the development of jazz, rock, and hip hop that challenges and upends many perceptions and myths.

The book also covers the role of drums and percussion in classical music which has its own ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ story. The French composer Hector Berlioz, for example, published a guide for composers that divided percussion into two categories: a first order of instruments with recognisable pitch (e.g. timpani, bells, glockenspiel) and a lower order of “noises designed for special effect” (e.g. bass drum, snare drum, cymbals) which, as Brennan points out, would form the core components of the drum kit.

Of course, composers would later write works for dedicated percussion ensembles including Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation, John Cage’s Quartet for Percussion, and Steve Reich’s milestone piece Drumming.

The role of jazz is central to this story, including the evolution of styles, development of equipment, and status of drummers. Gene Krupa, the ‘King of Swing’ and ‘World’s Highest Paid Drummer’ as a 1939 Slingerland catalogue has it, is identified as playing a key role in all these aspects.

Many jazz greats are also woven into the narrative, with Max Roach and Kenny Clarke rightfully explored.

The chapter on ‘Working Drummers’ is particularly good, capturing drumming as a “distinct form of musical labour” and showing not only how the economic and cultural value assigned to a drummer’s work has changed over time, but “how the seat behind the drum kit became a gendered workplace”. Brennan examines the tragic story of Karen Carpenter and suggests that it can be used as a kind of parable to illuminate a bigger picture of the sexist social conditions faced by women drummers. The same ‘social history’ approach helps explain why nineteenth-century American drum manufacturers tended to be overwhelmingly white.

The book is also good on the raw deal that drummers often get in respect of musical authorship using Clyde Stubblefield, who played in James Brown’s band, and his role in Funky Drummer as a case study.

Two ‘star’ drummers often perceived in the ‘wild animals of rock’ mythology are John Bonham (Led Zeppelin) and Keith Moon (The Who) and Brennan writes brilliantly about their styles and roles in their respective bands, but also movingly about issues concerning lack of self-esteem.

By contrast, the role of modest rock drummer is exemplified by Charlie Watts (The Rolling Stones) who whilst undoubtedly extremely knowledgeable and skilful at his craft is more interested in praising the artistry of others – “there are a million kids who can play like me”.

Brennan neatly challenges this in a nice piece about the Stones Sympathy for the Devil and its opening groove and shows how comments by Stones’ frontman Mick Jagger reveal how “Jagger’s ignorance comes across on several levels”. (By the way, Mike Edison’s Sympathy for the Drummer – Why Charlie Watts Matters is another excellent book, but it’s a rollicking read of a very different type).

The final chapter explores the relationship between drums, drummers, technology and the rise of the machines. It’s a fascinating take on the “back and forth influence between acoustic kit drummers and beatmakers” such as J Dilla. Incidentally, the relationship between drummers and technology is not just about electronic devices. One of the best examples explored earlier in the book is the ingenuity of drummers and equipment manufacturers in respect of the bass drum pedal.

This is a wonderful book and Brennan has done a great service to drummers and all lovers of music. As he says himself “we are all drummers now.”

John Earls is Director of Research at Unite the Union (and a former drummer). He tweets at @john_earls

For more information and to purchase, visit the Oxford University Press website

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