BOOK REVIEW: “Born To Drum” by Tony Barrell

Born To Drum photo BornToDrum_cover_zpshxmbviwv.jpg Subtitled The Truth About the World’s Greatest Drummers–from John Bonham and Keith Moon to Sheila E. and Dave Grohl Tony Barrell’s Born To Drum (Dey St.) is a fairly detailed book about the power and strengths, along with the risks and myths, of being a drummer, focusing on popular bands but also within groups that may not be as huge as The Beatles but carry an influence that is strong among the genres they call their own.

As far as the myths, it’s that all drums are wacky, crazy, insane: bring up a word that has to do with the maniacal and next to it is a drummer’s picture and a list of musicians who carry that honor with pride. While drummers can be a bit crazy, most are not anywhere close to being that. In fact, many of them are very intelligent and if you put faith in recent articles, they’ll tell you the drummer is easily one of the most intelligent members of any group, and not just because they have to keep a rhythm or count math equations continuously. Barrell focuses on what makes these people become musicians and why they’re drawn in something that most people consider nothing but noise. It’s the stereotype that drums lack any sense of music when it is very much a part of what music is. He interviews a wide range of drummers from a wide range of music, so you’ll get to read on the inner makings of Phil Collins, Clyde Stubblefield, Mick Fleetwood, Nick Mason, Chad Smith, Clem Burke, Joey Kramer, Karen Carpenter, Mindy Abovitz, Debbie Petersen, Moe Tucker, ?uestlove, Terry Bozzio, Billy Cobham, Nicko McBrain, and the list goes on and on and on. Most of the information comes directly from interviews Barrell did with these drummers, touching on the rise and fall of being the backbone of all bands, but also getting into what some do when they’re not in the studio, on tour, or doing the promotional duties in hyping up what they do to make the money.

The book is not about the exploits of any specific musicians, the swagger of backstage adventures or the after effects of ones death, although occasionally those things are hinted it. It looks at these musicians as humans first, drummers second, so while it is very much a job to all of them, some of them do it because they love it, need it, or just find an attraction to making music or being the cacophony timekeepers on the stage that most people tend to ignore but without them, the rhythms would not be what is needed in all of music.

If you are someone who is a drummer or perhaps listens to music where the emphasis is the drums, you’re really going to love Born To Drum. If there is any one complaint, it’s that Barrell sometimes ends each chapter in almost a sing-songy writing style but in order for everything to tie in together, he has to let the reader know the direction of the book’s path so one can travel from one part of the book to another. It’s more a personal preference of mine than anything and most of you may not even notice it. Nonetheless, just as music is a means of travel, Born To Drum can be another map into where you’ll want to go next, whether it’s finding new music to listen to or redefining your skills as the leader of the traps. There are a lot of other drummers I wish were a part of this book (Brian Chippendale or Eric Akre, anyone?) but it’s a solid read from start to finish.

(The book can be ordered via below as a hardcover, paperback, and for Kindle.)

VIDEO: Eric Akre “Drums: Lesson One”

Diddly Squat was the first time I became aware of drummer Eric Akre, as they were just that punk band across the bridge from me. I knew of them, as the radio/TV production class I was in had a number of people who went to their shows on a regular basis. Then he and bassist Nate Mendel came into the station and passed out copies of their very first record, a 4-song 7″ EP. The radio station’s format was hard rock and heavy metal, and back then, playing “extreme” music like Exodus, Mercyful Fate, and Metallica was considered extreme. Only a select few in the class could play punk and hardcore, and you had to do so by making a request to the upper management/teacher of the station. Diddly Squat were local. Since the other stations in the area were mainstream and there were no other alternatives (the local community college did not have a radio course), Diddly Squat became the exception to the rule. Unfortunately, since some of their songs were either with “offensive vulgarities”, political, or both, I think the only song that anyone could play was called “No Questions”. The other kids in the class had their demo, but whether or not these songs were cleaned up at any point, I don’t know.

Point is, it was a very brief meeting but these two guys looked extremely happy as if to say “look, this is our record!” One of the members in the band died, leading to the end of the band. In time, Akre and Mendel moved to Seattle and would eventually join a band from D.C. who had moved to “the other Washington”, who called themselves Christ On A Crutch. I was there to witness the last Christ On A Crutch concert at the Hoedown Center in Richland, Washington, and everyone in that crowd were happy to not only see the homecoming of their Diddly Squat alumni, but there was hope that both of them would continue to create music in their own way. Akre almost seemed to play with every other band in Seattle for the first half of the 90’s, to where i would say jokingly he was “the drummer to the stars”. Mendel reached an all time high when he became a member of Sunny Day Real Estate, and I will always remember when he returned to the Hoedown Center with SDRES, about a year before they released their debut album. It was one of the best shows I ever went to as it felt like nothing could get better. Mendel left SDRE, and it seems he had been in contact with a guy from the D.C. area who had come to the Tri-Cities before with some silly band named Scream. Mendel’s story would take off when he became a member of the Foo Fighters.

What I loved about their playing was how tight they were, it wasn’t just being fast or loud for the sake of being that. Whatever Akre played in, it sounded great to me. What I liked was that to my ears, it sounded like he listened to a wide range of music, but I had never come across an interview where he spoke of his musical tastes and influences. However, after watching this video, hearing him speak about why he created the video and touching on the types of bands and music he has played for 25+ years, it brought to mind some of the things his sister Carrie spoke about when I interviewed her in 1991. Carrie Akre was the vocalist for Hammerbox and Goodness, and in the first Hammerbox show I saw (I attended three), Eric sat in on the drums during their encore. In my interview, I asked her about some of the music she listened to, and she talked about how some of it came from her parents, a bit of it came from what was on the radio, and also discoveries she had made on her own. It was a nice blend of country, pop rock, soul, and gospel, some of it heard on the family’s 8-track tape collection. She would eventually branch off and make her own musical discoveries, and Eric would do his own thing but still having the commonality of their 8-track tape roots and being siblings. Carrie’s comments brought forth the possibility that some of this had to have been influences for Eric too, and when the power of the radio would often become ones first introduction to a wealth of music, everything fell into place.

As you can see, this is “Lesson One”, the first video he has created and posted on his YouTube page. That will hopefully be a sign that this will be the first of many, and that will be very welcome for fans of drums and percussion, or those who have been familiar with his works. As for his works, I did a quick search at Discogs to see what lurks, and the page doesn’t even begin to skim the surface of what he has played on. Even if you’re unfamiliar with him or his work, the tips and information he shares may help other musicians who have wanted to embrace the drums but aren’t quite sure where to begin. Everyone has a starting point and perhaps this video by Akre will be yours.