Essence of Beat: Steely Dan, “Time Out Of Mind” (1980)

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”).

Rick Marotta

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.[1]

“Time Out Of Mind”

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.

[1]. Ken Micaleff, “The Drummers of Steely Dan,” Modern Drummer, Nov. 1992.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
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5 Responses to Essence of Beat: Steely Dan, “Time Out Of Mind” (1980)

  1. Matt says:

    For the best of both worlds — ultimate pared-down beatkeeping and explosive chaos — how about Max Weinberg on “Born In The USA”?

  2. Richard says:

    Love it. Another example of pared-down drumming awesomeness that comes to mind is Al Jackson’s drumming on many of Al Green’s more well-known songs. Jackson was the drummer at Stax (Booker T & The MGs, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave), but Al Green recorded for the Hi label, and they used a different studio and had their own personnel. The differences between Al Jackson, Stax drummer and Al Jackson, Hi drummer are more than a little pronounced. At Stax, he’s throwing in fills at key changes and most other obvious fill points (OFPs). I think it works because Stax tunes are built like muscle cars with standard transmissions. Sometimes they’re just cruisin’ (“Green Onions”). Other times they start off slow out of the garage and through the neighborhood until they get out to the highway where they take off (“Try A Little Tenderness”). Jackson’s drum fills are effectively hitting the clutch and shifting the song to the next gear. Al Green’s Hi recordings, on the other hand, are more like Cadillacs with power windows. Sometimes they don’t go any faster than 35 MPH, but that’s okay, because the leather seats and air conditioning are more than enough reason to take her out for a spin. With Green, Jackson ignores all OFPs and sets the cruise control. These songs are upholstered juggernauts, plush and unstoppable. Every single time you think he’s going to do a fill, he doesn’t, as if to say that fills and frills are not the point of the songs. Green sings about devotion. Jackson’s drumming echos his message by never straying from the straight and narrow. The end result is something dependable, yet sexy.

  3. Peter Bojsen says:

    Thanks to a non-drummer for appreciating this! It’s rare that anyone besides drummers notices the finer details as you did here.
    I use to say that the one thing to bring to a deserted island (if only one thing was allowed) would be the drumtrack from Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” but this track would qualify too.
    And I agree very much: the simplicity is the key to this groove. Note also how the rhythm evolves slightly by adding the snaredrum “ghostnotes” on ‘3 and’ (= beat before 4) in the outro. In my opinion it substitutes a potential beat in the bassdrum that, if actually played, would make a vulgar impression. By playing a ghostnote on the snare, the drummer sort of “sets up” his backbeat without losing the continuity of the song.
    A very fine piece of art!
    BTW: do you know that there’s another fine drummer called Steve Smith?

  4. Steve Smith says:

    I’m proud of the achievements of Steve Smiths in many walks of life.

  5. JT says:

    You are a wonderful writer! You have captured the essence of this tune with your words! Leave it to a keyboard player (?) to “get it.”

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