Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Welcome to “You Rip, You Shred,” the ongoing series on my favorite drummers. For an explanation of the phrase “you rip, you shred,” please read the introduction in Part 1. As I mentioned in that post, this is not meant to be a “best drummers of all time” list, but a celebration of the ones who have made the greatest impact on me. Here are four more drummers who have influenced & inspired me in various ways.
Drummer: MARK BRZEZICKI
Best Known For: BIG COUNTRY, PETE TOWNSHEND
Although I’ve never been able to master his technique, no drummer over the last 35 years has had a bigger influence on me than Mark Brzezicki. I first became aware of him via his contributions to Pete Townshend’s early-‘80s solo albums, Empty Glass and All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, but it was his monumental work as a member of Big Country that’s made the biggest impact on me. I’ve previously discussed them in my Great Out Of The Gate and Thirty Year Thursday series so it should come as no surprise how much I love this band. Singer/guitarist/songwriter Stuart Adamson was the focal point but it was the rhythm section of Brzezicki and bassist Tony Butler (who once billed themselves as “Rhythm For Hire”) that elevated them above all of their contemporaries. Thanks to percussion-centric producer Steve Lillywhite, Brzezicki’s drumming is front & center throughout their first two albums (The Crossing and Steeltown). His style, which pairs precise military snare drum work with intricate cymbal & hi-hat accents and tom-tom-heavy patterns, is deceptively complex. I’ve met many casual fans who never paid attention to the drumming on Big Country songs until I pointed it out to them, but once they focused on it they knew exactly why I was so passionate. Songs like “In A Big Country” (especially the album version with the extended intro), “Fields Of Fire,” “Porrohman,” “Wonderland,” “Where The Rose Is Sown,” “Tall Ships Go,” “Look Away,” “The Seer,” “God’s Great Mistake,” “The President Slipped And Fell” and so many others showcase a drummer in the same league as the greats of progressive rock & jazz-fusion. Without resorting to showboating, he can embellish a 4/4 rhythm with impressive fills & syncopation while respecting the integrity of the song. He’s also worked in the studio & on stage with The Cult, Ultravox, Procol Harum, Fish, Simon Townshend (with whom he played in On The Air, whose only album was included in my One And Done series) and numerous other artists. His most recent project, ESP, is a wonderful modern prog-rock collective that just released its debut album, Invisible Din. I was fortunate to meet Mr. Brzezicki (whose name I have no trouble spelling) twice in the early ‘90s and he was gracious & friendly both times. Prevailing wisdom dictates that you should never meet your heroes, but this disproves that theory.
Drummer: PHIL COLLINS
Best Known For: GENESIS, BRAND X, SOLO
Another hero I had the privilege of meeting twice (albeit briefly) is Phil Collins, who made his name as the drummer & backing vocalist with Genesis before taking over lead vocals from Peter Gabriel in the mid-‘70s without ever relinquishing his drum throne. Before I could really wrap my head around their early sophisticated & challenging material, I was drawn in by the streamlined version of the band that released Duke, Abacab and Genesis (aka The ‘Mama’ Album). During this era he also embarked on a massively successful solo career, at times blurring the line between the band’s work & his own, although for us passionate fans the delineation was clear. Everyone knows the massive 10-note drum fill from “In The Air Tonight,” and his playing on Genesis hits like “Turn It On Again,” “No Reply At All,” “Illegal Alien” and “Land Of Confusion,” as well as his duet with Phillip Bailey, “Easy Lover,” was instantly identifiable. I played along with many of these songs throughout high school since I could mimic his drum parts, but he’s a legend in the drumming world because of early Genesis tracks like “Watcher Of The Skies,” “Firth Of Fifth,” “In The Cage,” “Robbery, Assault & Battery” and “Los Endos” (on tour the latter usually featured one of his jaw-dropping drum duets with Chester Thompson). He also did some incredible work with jazz-fusion outfit Brand X, played on Robert Plant’s first two solo albums and brought his individual sound to records by Peter Gabriel, Eric Clapton, John Martyn and countless others, not to mention his transatlantic dual appearances at Live Aid, including a performance with the briefly reunited Led Zeppelin. He’s simply one of the best and I learned so much about groove, syncopation & dynamics from him.
Drummer: LIBERTY DEVITTO
Best Known For: BILLY JOEL
I’ve made no secret of how much Billy Joel’s music has meant to me, most recently in posts about The Stranger and The Bridge. As I previously stated, I feel that Joel’s music is so revered in large part because of his core band, which appeared on the classic albums he released between 1976 & 1986. The longest-serving member of that group is drummer Liberty DeVitto, whose diverse influences & impressive musicality brought life to so many of Joel’s recordings, while his infectious energy on stage made him as much a focal point of Billy Joel concerts as Joel himself. Anyone with seats behind the stage would certainly agree. He could add just the right textures to low-key tracks like “Summer, Highland Falls,” “Just The Way You Are” & “Don’t Ask Me Why,” provide tension-and-release to ballads like “Honesty,” “An Innocent Man” & “This Night,” blast through rockers like “Prelude/Angry Young Man,” “Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway),” “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me,” “Pressure” & “Allentown” and show off his jazz chops for “Zanzibar” & “Big Man On Mulberry Street.” For one of Joel’s most beloved compositions, the epic “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant,” DeVitto effortlessly propels the song by blending all of these elements. Throughout high school, when I would spend hours playing along to my favorite songs, I learned so much from emulating DeVitto’s drumming. His approach was as integral as any other drummer to finding my own style. Instead of yearning for rock stardom, my ultimate goal was always to be “the Liberty DeVitto” in a great songwriter’s band. I never quite achieved that but I have played with some excellent writers, and each time I did my best to add a DeVitto-esque touch to every song. Joel severed ties with his longtime drummer more than a decade ago, and in spite of the good reviews his concerts receive, his music will never sound the same to me without DeVitto & his bandmates from the ‘70s & ‘80ss. He’s also been a successful studio musician for artists like Phoebe Snow, Karen Carpenter & Meat Loaf, and he’s currently playing with two other members of the classic Billy Joel Band lineup as The Lords Of 52nd Street. I’m glad I got to see him perform several times and that he’s still out there making people smile from behind the drumkit.
Drummer: KENNY ARONOFF
Best Known For: JOHN (COUGAR) MELLENCAMP, JOHN FOGERTY, HUNDREDS OF RECORDING SESSIONS
The first time I saw Kenny Aronoff performing was during John Cougar’s appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1982. He was the skinny bald guy drumming to “Hurts So Good” and “Ain’t Even Done With The Night,” two slabs of catchy pop/rock. I liked both songs and quickly bought Cougar’s soon-to-be chart-topping breakthrough album, American Fool, which included two other gems: “Hand To Hold On To” and “Jack & Diane.” The latter became Cougar’s signature song thanks in large part to Aronoff’s mid-song drum fill and the distinctive groove that followed. Over the course of eight more albums, Aronoff’s powerful drumming came to define the John (Cougar) Mellencamp sound, always pushing the songs forward with tight rhythms, subtle flourishes and a punchy snare drum crack that became his trademark. Without his drumming, “Pink Houses,” “Authority Song,” “Small Town,” “Lonely Old Night,” “Check It Out,” “Cherry Bomb,” “Love And Happiness,” Mellencamp’s version of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night” and so many others wouldn’t be the classics that they became. Aronoff grew more confident as Mellencamp’s career soared, and he quickly became an in-demand session drummer alongside his full-time gig. After he & Mellencamp parted ways, John Fogerty came calling and Aronoff has spent the next 20+ years beefing up Fogerty’s songs and bringing all of his Creedence Clearwater Revival classics to life. During this time he shaved his head, started wearing wrap-around shades and bulked up, resulting in his instantly recognizable muscular physique & chrome-dome appearance. Of the hundreds of other albums he’s appeared on, his work with Marshall Crenshaw, Alice Cooper and BoDeans made the biggest impact on me. He even briefly played with Smashing Pumpkins. If I had dedicated myself to being a full-time drummer, I would have been happy with a career like Kenny Aronoff has had. He’s also the gold standard for us bald drummers.
I realize these may not be the most obvious choices, with only one household name, but all four of these men have made huge musical contributions and deserve to be celebrated & revered. Next time I’ll discuss four more legendary drummers, three of whom made their marks in progressive rock.