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The best rock 'n' roll drummer of all time

title or description
Who else?

One of the things I like about rock 'n' roll is that it lends itself to fans making statements like "Winged Eel Fingerling is the best guitarist to ever play with Captain Beefheart." (Yes, those are real musicians.)

A student poked his head into my office yesterday to announce that a website had named Axl Rose the best rock singer ever. I couldn't resist. I told him Roger Daltrey might have something to say about it, and Freddie Mercury would too (and I'm not even a Queen fan). I didn't think to mention Paul Rodgers or, staying in the Axl Rose School of Shriek, Ian Gillan.

From there, the conversation veered to best front men, who are not always good singers. Of course, I nominated Mick. I can't remember who else was part of that conversation, largely because in my mind it's Jagger and then everybody else.

Whenever I have conversations about topics like this—and I work with people who love to talk about music—I'm reminded about the time I asked a friend, who was an accomplished professional drummer, who he thought the best drummer in rock was. Without hesitating, he replied, "Mitch Mitchell."

Mitchell, God rest his soul, had the unenviable task of drumming behind Jimi Hendrix, and when you listen to Hendrix, you listen to Hendrix — the bass player and drummer are afterthoughts. But the next time you've got Jimi playing on your public saxophone, listen to Mitchell. The guy had serious, serious chops. I can't help but get a little sad here, being reminded again that Hendrix, Mitchell and Billy Cox (the original Jimi Hendrix Experience) all are dead.

... over the past year or so I've been listening to a lot of The Who while working up a sweat on my treadmill. Specifically, I listen to tracks from Quadrophenia, which is hands down The Who's masterpiece and, in my book, one of the 10 best classic rock albums ever. I have felt that way since the album came out in 1973. It still sounds as fresh and vital as it did back then. The story told by the lyrics has not aged a day, and some of the lyrics are even more pertinent today than they were back then—for instance, the class distinctions of the Bell Boy, who is "always running at someone's bleedin' heel"; the singer in "The Dirty Jobs"; or the singer in "Helpless Dancer":

When a man is running from his boss
Who holds a gun that fires cost
And people die from being old
Or left alone because they're cold ...

And when your soul tells you to hide
Your very right to die's denied
And in the battle on the streets
You fight computers and receipts
And when a man is trying to change
It only causes further pain
You realize that all along
Something in us going wrong

Over the past year, I have come to realize that Quadrophenia is Keith Moon's record. I'll say it again: Quadrophenia is Keith Moon's record. Sure, Townshend and Daltrey are at the center of the album and blah blah woof woof, but once you start listening to Moon, you realize: This. Is. Keith. Moon's. Album.

Moon combined explosive power with mad hand speed. He delivered with the speed of a Gatling gun. He was so fast his beats couldn't be counted, he was all over his tom-toms, and I have no idea how his cymbals didn't shatter. But the remarkable thing about Moon was that while he may have played hundreds of beats in just one song, not a single one of them was out of time. He and the late John Entwistle made up the best rhythm section in rock.

That's tough for me to write, because for decades I said the same thing about Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. Some would argue on behalf of John Paul Jones and John Bonham, and there's a case to be made for the overlooked elegance of Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman. And let's not forget Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr—who claims that because he played for the best band in the world, he was the best drummer in the world. On second thought, let's forget about Paul and Ringo.

The more I listen to Moon, the more I realize how far ahead of his peers he was (Mitchell being the lone exception). Bonham was a tub thumper: He played with massive power, but his hand speed didn't impress. Baker's drumming always was more melodic and disciplined than other drummers of the time, but I think Moon could have played everything Baker played, while I don't think Baker or Bonham could play what Moon did. Mitchell, maybe. It's a tough choice between the two of them.

There were some very good drummers from that era who don't get any respect at all today. Mentioning Ian Paice of Deep Purple provokes "Smoke on the Water" snickers, but listen to his work on "Highway Star" from Made in Japan and then get back to me. Clive Bunker of Jethro Tull gets no props. Aynsley Dunbar is hugely, hugely underrated. Jim Capaldi of Traffic deserves a nod. Jim Gordon's career is overshadowed by his dark personal tragedy, but his name was everywhere back then.

After all the LPs have been slipped back into their album sleeves, though, Keith Moon is at the top of the stack. As his band once sang, "Rock is dead they say. Long live rock."


( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 1st, 2013 01:58 am (UTC)
Axl Rose as best rock singer ever? Could we please have their definitions of "best," "rock" and "singer?"

(PS on the drummers: I've started getting more into Rush than I ever had been -- and Neil Peart is also superb.)
Feb. 1st, 2013 02:35 am (UTC)
My favorite Rush story is about the time their singer got pissed because someone referred to him as "Geddy Lee Roth."
Feb. 1st, 2013 02:32 am (UTC)
Feb. 1st, 2013 02:44 am (UTC)
Tool? Dani, you closet metalhead!

Feb. 1st, 2013 02:48 am (UTC)
Ask Chris about the time I spontaneously head-banged when "46 and 2" came on the radio.
Feb. 1st, 2013 03:00 am (UTC)
I am somewhere between flabbergasted and speechless.
Feb. 1st, 2013 04:02 am (UTC)
I still have no words for what I witnessed.
Feb. 1st, 2013 08:37 pm (UTC)
Then I hope you were the only witness.
Feb. 1st, 2013 02:37 am (UTC)
Totally agree -- it's Moon.

But let's not forget Terry Bozzio, Carl Palmer, and my second favorite, Bill Bruford.
Feb. 1st, 2013 02:44 am (UTC)
Bozzio played some with Jeff Beck, didn't he?

I'm in the dark on Bruford, though.
Feb. 1st, 2013 04:35 am (UTC)
Bozzio and Bruford
Bozzio played with Zappa. Ferocious. Here he is playing with the twin guitars of Zappa and Adrian Belew.


As for Bruford, he played for Yes on their first 6 albums (through the triple album Yessongs), leaving in '73 to go play for King Crimson -- he was part of the power trio with Wetton and Fripp that produced one of my favorite albums, Red. From there he played for Genesis when Phil Collins stepped out in front after Gabriel quit the band. Then there was the obligatory solo album (with the great song Hell's Bells) before forming the band UK. And then it was back to the reformed King Crimson in '80.

Here's a video with the new band with both Fripp and Aidrian Belew on guitars. Tony Levin plays an incredible bass. I don't know how these guys don't step all over one another playing this stuff.


Feb. 1st, 2013 08:42 pm (UTC)
Re: Bozzio and Bruford
They may as well have had a drum machine there, the way Zappa was playing. My goodness.
Feb. 1st, 2013 05:10 am (UTC)
I'll always go with Charlie Watts. Aside from the fact that he had to lay the bed that the rest of the Stones had to lay on--and who can herd those cats, really?--he has proven his worth to me time and again when he's shuffled up on my iTunes while I've suffered on the elliptical. Just when I think I'm about to die, up shuffles Charlie. Sure, the rest of the Stones are there, and you know I love 'em almost as much as my own children, but in those terrible instances, Charlie's beat keeps me alive and going.
Feb. 2nd, 2013 12:11 am (UTC)
Charlie knows he's fourth fiddle to Mick, Keef and Ronnie Wood, so he plays that way: steady and dependable, with just occasional flashes of his jazz chops. For me, though, while he provides a firm beat to keep pace with on the treadmill, he doesn't fire me up.
Feb. 1st, 2013 02:38 pm (UTC)
Here's a list of the supposedly top 100 rock drummers "of all time." This leaves out all of the great jazz drummers -- like Buddy Rich.


Like most things in life, once you get to the top 10 of any category things can get subjective. I'm still going with Moon though. He lived his life just like he played his drums.

Edited at 2013-02-01 08:05 pm (UTC)
Feb. 2nd, 2013 12:24 am (UTC)
That list lost all credibility with me when I saw it didn't include Vinnie Colaiuta *and* Billy Cobham.

And if you're wondering why I'm putting so much stock in Colaiuta, there's this:

Feb. 1st, 2013 05:32 pm (UTC)
Best Vocalist
Where do put Jim Morrison, Elvis, James Brown, Robert Plant, Marvin Gaye, Ronnie James Dio, et al.? What of Dylan, Fogerty, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder? I don't know if there is an objective criteria. A lot of it is "in the ear of the beholder." But Freddie Mercury is way up the list -- probably # 1. Listen to his power and range in "Under Pressure" from 1986:


And, all along he's got 200,00 people enthralled -- actually having them all be quiet at times. Amazing.

In the studio version of the song he puts Bowie to shame. And on "Somebody to Love" he's pitch perfect.

Edited at 2013-02-01 08:07 pm (UTC)
Feb. 1st, 2013 08:43 pm (UTC)
Re: Best Vocalist
Can't overlook Tom Waits, Captain Beefheart or Howlin' Wolf, either.
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )

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