Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Victim of Love v Squonk

So I recently took Don Henley to task for being a pedestrian drummer. DT astutely pointed out that a perfect illustration of Henley's flaws as a drummer can be found in "Victim of Love," off their Hotel California LP.

The song starts off well—very, very well, in fact—with some snaky, funky, dirty guitar, accentuated by Henley hitting the crash cymbal and bass and snare drums. It's good. It works. But then, at 0:21, Henley does a small roll to introduce the first verse and it''s okay. It's a bit tasteful, a bit restrained, where the guitar intro had been nasty. But it's okay.

And then we're into the verse and it all just plods. Where the song is supposed to stalk menacingly or stomp furiously, it lumbers lugubriously. And it's not just the guitar that the drums let down, it's the lyrics, which are (unfortunately) also nasty, even bitter. But the drums, meanwhile, are just...kinda bored. They're collecting a paycheck. Henley drops in fills here and there but they're all so sparse. They're clearly attempting to be funky...but they're not. No, they're not. They're going for Soulful. They achieve Empty.

Check out the guitar solo, starting at 2:40. Now, that's nasty while still being tasteful. And it spurs the drums to...just kinda trod down the stairs slowly, despondently, when the solo's over. "Hm? Solo's done? Time for the chorus again? Oh...oh...oh...okay."

It's not just easy but instructive to compare and contrast with some of the other drummers of the time were doing, and we don't even need to bring up John Bonham, despite the fact that Henley himself compared the Eagles to Led Zeppelin (and, indeed, in terms of commercial success, they were absolutely peers).

Take a look at Steely Dan, very much peers of the Eagles, in many ways, down to the fact that the bands mentioned each other in lyrics; after Steely Dan included the lyric, "Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening," in their song "Everything You Did," the Eagles returned the favor with the slightly more obscure (but pointed) line, "they stab it with their steely knives, but they just can't kill the beast," in "Hotel California."

So check out the title track to their Aja album, released the year after Hotel California. Note how restrained and tasteful Steve Gadd's drums are at the beginning. Frankly, in a different context, they wouldn't be out of place for a Holiday Inn lounge out by the airport. After a bit the vocals enter, and then after two minutes, the vocals are more or less done. At the 3:10 mark, the guitar solo starts, and other than some nice cymbal accents, Gadd's still laying back, for the most part, commenting on the proceedings, but biding his time. Until 4:40, and the sax solo, when it's time to let loose, which he does with a series of fills so full of complex asskickery that professional drummers isolate them and burst into spontaneous applause as they listen to them over and over all by themselves.

If Henley had dropped just one fill anything like that into "Victim of Love," it would have elevated the song substantially. He's never possessed that kind of technique, of course—few have—but if even if he'd just gone for something in that 'hood, just made some sort of an effort, it'd have made all the difference.

Now, honestly, even though the bands were peers, it's a little unfair to compare Henley or, really, almost anyone to Steve Gadd, given that he may be the single greatest drummer of his generation, a master of rock, jazz and pop, inventive, tasteful and with the technique of a dozen great drummers. What's more, "Aja" is jazzy where "Victim of Love" is not even remotely. So something kickin' but more straightforward might have been called for.

So let's compare Don Henley, instead, to another drummer/vocalist, one who understands restraint (so much so that a few years later he'd begin to use drum machines more extensively than just about anyone outside of hip-hop) and who recorded a song with almost exactly the same tempo just a few months earlier. I speak, obviously, of none other than Phil Collins.

As with Henley, Collins goes, at least initially, for a minimalist approach, his fills being sparing (by his standards)—even his intro roll isn't dissimilar to Henley's verse intro.

But speaking of John Bonham, Collins has called this his Bonham song, his attempt at a Bonzo-like feel, ala (presumably) "Kashmir." He doesn't quite get there, both because stylistically, they were just too different, but also because the song's a light year away, harmonically and in terms of mood. Maybe most of all, the production doesn't give his drums anything like the heft Jimmy Page was able to give Bonham's—there's a reason the drums on "When the Levee Breaks" is one of the most sampled ever, as it's the perfect match of drummer and production. Still, you can see where Collins was coming from. And if it's not Bonzo—and it ain't—his playing's certainly quite a bit heavier than he was just a year earlier, on something like "Here Comes the Supernatural Anaesthetist."

But more to the point, listen to the way he allows the entire thing to build. His fills at 0:32 and 0:56 aren't far from something Henley might do. But at 1:16 and 1:27, his toms play off the vocals in a way Henley virtually never imagined, and at 1:30 he's got the kind of simple yet thunderous roll around the kit that the song calls for—and, unlike Henley, Collins hears the call and answers it. And from then on, he just keeps going, with fills that are by his standards (Collins was remarkably fluent in complex time signatures, and was able to imbue compound times with a swing that even some other perhaps more technically advanced drummers couldn't begin to approach) simple yet insistent. One thing they are not is "bored."

"Squonk" is far from the best drumming Phil Collins would ever do, but he's clearly not afraid to drive the band and the song. Don Henley on "Victim of Love," on the other hand, sits back and calmly watches the proceedings with a lofty reserve. Which is one of the main reasons the Eagles could never have been The Great American Rock Band they so dearly wished to be. To be truly great in rock and roll, you have to take chances. Always playing it safe just ain't gonna cut it.

Most of all, there has never been a great rock and roll band without a great drummer. Which means the Eagles were never, ever going to be that which they most desperately wanted to be. They were going to be popular and rich (the 3rd and 2nd things they most wanted), but great was always destined to remain just beyond their reach.

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