Born to Drum


This is an entertaining book in which the author demystifies drummers, aiming to separate myths from truths in order to reach “some profound or thought-provoking conclusions” about his favourite breed of instrumentalist. He does this by unpicking a handful of stereotypes (drummers are all mad, all working-class, all have tattoos), situations (recording studio, live performance) and surprises (many drummers are women, and some do other stuff besides drumming). Barrell writes with childlike wonder, his naiveté tempered with serious reassurances that drummers are not all insane or destined to descend to the depths of substance abuse. Despite the book’s promising subtitle, there is no real attempt to account for what might qualify someone as one of “the world’s greatest drummers”, neither is there a discussion of what counts as “greatness”, which mostly Barrell seems to equate to notoriety, celebrity and fame. However, the book is a successful homage to a category of musicians with whom the writer is clearly and unashamedly impressed.

It becomes apparent early on that his interest lies almost entirely in rock drumming, implied in the cover art – a cartoonishly busted human skull with drumsticks inserted dramatically through the middle. Due to the focus on energetic rock, there is an over-emphasis of the relevance of the work of Marcus Smith and Steve Draper, that (to repeated media attention and fanfare) analysed performances by punk and rock drummers, making bizarre and over-reaching claims about the physical benefits of drumming for sport and music education. Barrell intends, he tells us, to explore the culture, psychology and history of drumming. He does so in idiosyncratic fashion, skirting these fields with a bold indifference to recent and ongoing studies that explore them with rigour and vitality. Notable absences include the work of Matt Brennan, Anne Danielsen, Matt Dean, Mark Doffman, Mandy Smith and [clears throat] this reviewer. Barrell’s sources are, instead, a laudable number of interviews with “name” drummers, and a comprehensive list of drummer biopics, biographies and autobiographies

As a drummer, I tend to play down my instrumental abilities, since the pianists, guitarists, singers, double bassists etc with whom I work are almost always far more dexterous, better able to read sheet music, and have a more discerning ear for harmony than many a drummer is likely to need. So it was rather nice to read this book that places drummers and drumming on a pedestal. Born to Drum is charming, if a little anti-climactic. It is a fun read, during which Barrell excitedly propels readers along in his inquisitive prodding of the drummers’ universe, and it is his enthusiasm and alacrity that carry this book and the reader to the author’s conclusion that drummers are peculiarly fascinating people pursuing a particular percussive passion.

Buy Born to Drum, by Tony Barrell, here.



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