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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Why the drummer is the only unsackable member of the band

A few years back a musician friend said something that changed the way I think about rock bands. Traditionally we tend to accept that leadership of the band is in the hands of the member who writes the songs, usually the singer. What this musician said was "the drummer is the one who knows where the beat is". This made me think. It's not a matter of being the best drummer, whatever that is. It's a matter of finding the pulse of the band, the temperature at which this particular bunch of musicians functions best.

That's why there was never any chance of Led Zeppelin keeping going after John Bonham died. He was the one who dictated how the rest of them played. That's why the Who without Keith Moon were almost embarrassing. That's why the Ramones were never the same after Tommy Ramone stopped playing the drums. That's why nobody but Levon Helm could ever have been the drummer of the Band. These people weren't just good players. They decided how the band should walk. The other musicians may have complained about it but in the end they had to get in step.

The new documentary Hello Quo provides the perfect demonstration of this truth. The line-up that made their classic rock shuffles, which they admit were based on the Doors "Roadhouse Blues", was Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt on guitars, Alan Lancaster on bass and John Coghlan on drums. Lancaster left in 1985 and Coghlan in 1981. "They wanted to replace me with a drum machine," he recalls, probably inaccurately.

Quo soldiered on without Coghlan (and no group embodied the verb more perfectly) but as Lancaster points out, the albums were just no good anymore. They brought in other drummers, who were probably more technically adept, and they even had hits, but old time fans knew that something was missing. Lancaster started a new life in Australia and got some startling new teeth. Coghlan took his hangdog expression into a variety of bands. Until recently.

The last five minutes of Hello Quo are its best. The four original members are reunited on a Shepperton sound stage. They embrace as awkwardly as any other bunch of Brits in their sixties. You get the impression Rossi is the difficult one and Parfitt is the diplomat. Then they take up their instruments and play "In My Chair", one of those slow, loping shuffles which made their name in the early seventies. Suddenly Status Quo is back in the room. The swing has returned. It's not just another bunch of musicians doing their best to replicate a sound that the original four stumbled upon in 1970 but the sound itself. It's a sound that all rock bands think they can make, which is where all rock bands are wrong. When you hear the real thing you know how wrong they are. Here it is again, as if by magic, forty years later. Actually, it is by magic. How else do you describe the way a band just happens to lock together?

You can hear the original "In My Chair" here.