Book Review: Kick It (A Social History Of The Drum Kit) by Matt Brennan

What’s your favourite drummer joke? One attributed to legendary London saxophonist/club owner Ronnie Scott particularly sticks in the memory:

‘Dad, I want to be a drummer when I grow up.’

‘Well, make your mind up, son. You can’t do both.’

Though Matt Brennan’s excellent new book ‘Kick It: A Social History Of The Drum Kit’ commences with a raft of such jibes, it does so only to make a point and might even put pay to them forever. The book puts skin-spankers right at the forefront of modern music and is surely the best PR job for the profession yet to emerge.

Though ostensibly an ‘academic’ work, ‘Kick It’ is anything but stodgy or overly-analytical – rather, it’s an enjoyable, fast-paced, truly internationalist voyage through the evolution of the drum kit and status/profession of the drummer, from slave ships to the modern-day, multi-tasking, technology-savvy ‘beat-maker’, via Congo Square, the swing/bebop revolutions of the 1930s/1940s and advent of the studio player in the 1960s.

‘Kick It’ unflinchingly outlines how racial and cultural stereotypes initially hampered the status of the percussionist in modern industrial societies, but also brilliantly describes the vital role of the multi-faceted, ambidextrous drummer in vaudeville, minstrel and music-hall traditions (drummers were called upon to supply everything from rainfall to thundercracks during live performance).

Accordingly, Brennan also shows how drummers’ demands accelerated technological developments both in kit/cymbal construction and recording techniques, and also how German, Turkish and British manufacturers were arguably just as important as the American companies.

Earl Palmer

Brennan outlines the careers and styles of such legends as Gene Krupa (who put the tom-tom on the map), Kenny Clarke (who brought the ride cymbal and kick drum into play) and Earl Palmer, who served as a link between ‘jazz’ and ‘pop’ players, ‘swinging’ his rock grooves on records by Fats Domino and Chuck Berry even as pianists and guitarists were moving towards ‘straight eights’. Brennan also looks at the issue of sexism in the percussion industry, with particular focus on the tragic career of gifted drummer Karen Carpenter.

Later Brennan makes fascinating parallels in the careers and playing styles of first Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts, then, in a moving section, Keith Moon and John Bonham (the latter two dying at the depressingly young age of 32 – Brennan fascinatingly explores how both may have suffered from feelings of inferiority and insecurity, not helped by the attitudes of their bandmates).

‘Kick It’ moves intriguingly into the 1980s, looking at the careers of Billy Cobham, Bill Bruford, Phil Collins, Neil Peart and Steve Gadd, exploring how recording techniques and drum machines revolutionised percussion sounds, and finally comes right up to the present to investigate how sampling and programming have given drummers a whole new lease of life in the streaming era.

A tremendous achievement – both a history lesson and exciting story to boot – ‘Kick It’ had this drummer newly inspired, rushing to his kit with some gusto and not a little pride. Players will find a host of fascinating photos and stories – the book may also have you questioning everything you ever assumed about the traditional kit – while the general music fan will find an intriguing, fast-paced history of modern music.

Don’t let ‘em ever tell you you’re ‘just’ a drummer…

‘Kick It’ is published by the Oxford University Press.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Kick It (A Social History Of The Drum Kit) by Matt Brennan

  1. For Cobham fans I highly recommend his 1973 release Spectrum. Miles’ influence is evident in the spontaneous creation approach to the production and performance of the musicians. I wore this album out, and played it at high volume for full effect. Tommy Bolin’s contribution on guitar deserve special mention, as Cobham’s jet propulsion style of drumming pushes him forward.

    Drummers are often underappreciated, but I’m always aware of their important contribution and some are so dynamic–Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and Mitch Mitchell immediately come to mind– they can’t be ignored.

    Liked by 1 person

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