I come not to praise my friend Kyle Smith but to bury him.
Kyle argues that the late Neil Peart might be considered the greatest drummer in the history of rock music, and adds: “though some would go with Keith Moon.”
Ye gods — where to begin with this?
Neil Peart and Keith Moon could hardly be said to have played the same instrument. Peart was a virtuoso and a technician whose reputation was based on flashy displays of skill, whereas Moon was from the primal-scream school of drumming, his peers being bangers such as John Bonham and Jerry Allison, not nerds like Neil Peart, whose relevant points of comparison are other prog-rock dorks like Bill Bruford.
Keith Moon could have been in the Ramones; Neil Peart . . . could not.
Give the prog-rock dorks their due, of course: Unlike the founders of punk rock or the Beatles in their earliest days, they were (and are) good at playing their instruments. A million years ago, I spent an afternoon with one of the bassists from one of the iterations of Yes, who confessed that he got his job mainly because he was free to start touring and could sight-read well enough to hit the road more or less immediately. (He did a funny pantomime of himself flipping the pages of his sheet music while playing “Roundabout.”) He also did a very impressive bass version of Chet Atkins’s “Yankee Doodle Dixie,” playing the melody from “Yankee Doodle” in one register and “Dixie” as counterpoint, which is a pretty neat trick on the bass.
There’s a third kind of drummer, of course: the stay-the-hell-out-of-the-way drummer, invaluable players such as Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts, and Frank Beard, who did a pretty good imitation of a drum machine on Eliminator, when ZZ Top was at the height of its commercial success.
But the most interesting kind to me are the ones who straddle the line between Keith Moon’s raging id and Neil Peart’s disciplined superego, drummers such as Lars Ulrich and African Force-era Ginger Baker.
Musical ambition can be a dangerous thing for a rock musician: The Sex Pistols couldn’t play their instruments to save their lives, but they were a great band; prog-rock, on the other hand, is full of virtuosos making music that doesn’t go anywhere. With the exception of the occasional guitar prodigy such as Steve Vai and a few examples of what we might call High Metal, the thing about rock is that great musicians rarely make great music. Imagine trying to put sheet music in front of Chuck Berry and asking him to go on tour. Rush had a couple of great songs thanks to the Canadian modesty that kept them from going the full King Crimson.
If there’s anything more dangerous for rock music than musical ambition, it is literary ambition. And while Kyle may get excited about those Ayn Rand-derived statement songs Rush recorded, the less said about Neil Peart’s career as a lyricist
There is unrest in the forest
There is trouble with the trees . . .
the better. They aren’t handing out any Nobel prizes in literature for “She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah . . . yeah, yeah,” but that’s not what rock is there for.
A bop bop aloom op a lop bop boom.