The beat is what catches you in time. Thrown by each new outburst of sound, you fly and tumble until you are caught by the beatmaker, your trapeze partner. Predictability is essential, but so is personality. We want to be aware of someone’s judgment and expression in the delivery of the beat.
I’m no drummer, but I do create drum parts for songs using a synthesizer. Often I record several passes through a song flailing away on drum and cymbal sounds on my keyboard, making every percussive gesture that might turn out to be appropriate. Then I go back and edit much of it out, trying to pare down to just what is needed (hopefully keeping a few nice surprises). This sculptural process promotes reflection on the essential forms and purposes of beat in a rock song. It also heightens my appreciation for the judgment of good drummers who in the heat of playing know what not to play.
Drum parts that are very busy, like Keith Moon’s in The Who, can take the drums away from the beatmaking role. Parts that are very pared-down, on the other hand, risk sounding like a drum machine. Rick Marotta’s wonderful drum part in Steely Dan’s “Time Out of Mind” is scarcely distinguishable in its notes from a simple drum program. What makes it compelling is that it is full of Marotta’s personality and nothing like a drum machine. It is pure essence of beat, and rocks like crazy in that way (for the extremely other way of drum-rocking, consider Moon on “My Generation”).
In fact, Steely Dan (Walter Becker and Donald Fagen) turned to drum machines for their reunion works of the 2000s, but in 1972-1980 they got great performances from the likes of Steve Gadd, Jim Gordon, Jeff Porcaro, and Bernard Purdie as well as Marotta. The 1980 album Gaucho was transitional in this respect: Becker and Fagen began extensively rearranging recorded drum sounds, slicing and dicing the contributions of their ace drummers enroute to their final mix. In “Time Out of Mind,” though, we basically hear one golden take by Marotta.
The great hook is not in any of the early fills that more obviously announce the presence of a human drummer. It comes after the song is well launched, at a point in the second section of the first verse when it strikes you that there should have been another one or two fills but there weren’t. That’s when you realize the beat is unstoppable, sovereign and essential, mattering more than anything else Marotta could conceivably add to it. It’s scarcely more than the boom-chick-boom-chick of bass drum and snare (accompanied by barely audible eighth notes on a closed hi-hat), but it’s awesomely crisp. The cleanness of the part makes the event of the beat, the underlying form of flying and being caught (notice how your hands want to grab on each snare hit), gloriously apparent.
. Ken Micaleff, “The Drummers of Steely Dan,” Modern Drummer, Nov. 1992.