Banging on about drums! Ava Rave talks to Jet Black

In the run up to rehearsals for the band’s upcoming Ruby anniversary tour, Ava Rave took the opportunity to quiz Jet about his musical life and career on the drum stool.

Ava: This time I’d like to talk to you about drums, drumming and you.  In fact, your entire lifetime involvement with drums, if that’s at all possible. Where exactly did it all start? You were saying you had previously played other instruments?

Jet:  That’s right. The piano was first. The biggest regret of my life was that it all ended so early on. Not at the time of course, but much later. For a start, my parents were completely non-musical, that didn’t exactly help. Well, Mum professed to be musical but her appreciation was extremely limited.  

Dad on the other hand, was totally non-musical. Probably tone deaf. In fact I don’t think he even understood what music was!  

When the band was first attracting the attention of the critics back in the seventies, they were describing us as ‘Punks’ – a completely misguided nomenclature in my opinion and one which has never left us – he actually asked me one day, “Jet, is this actually music that you do?  They said in the papers, that your performances were completely depraved and rubbish, or something like that?”

I had to laugh, he was a teacher, and he didn’t know what music was!

But anyway, the upshot of this, was that my attempts to ‘practice’ at home were deeply depressing days. There was no joie de vivre about it. My recollections, are that it was as though I was in a prison and being forced to sew mailbags, it was that exciting. I was unaware in my infant world, (maybe 5/6 at the time), that education works best when it has an element of encouragement and enthusiasm about it, which I can never recall experiencing at home.

So my musical career got off to an extremely bad start.

So where did the piano come from? Had your parents gone out and bought one for you, that would surely have been rather embarrassing?  

No, no, no, it may seem odd that such an un-musical family had a piano, but in those days most people did. It was more-or-less regarded as an essential piece of furniture, though most families didn’t actually buy one, it was usually just an inherited thing that came down through the generations. Remember, there was no telly then, or at least it was in it’s infancy. In a way, the piano was the telly of the age, the ‘entertainment centre’ in a lot of homes.

I can remember feeling so depressed by the whole process of practice and learning. I’m absolutely certain now, that if we had been a musical family, the story of my life would have been entirely different. In fact it was pretty much a musical vacuum. But then that’s the way life is.

So the piano career ended almost before it got started, it must have lasted a mere few months, perhaps a little over a year at most.

Oh dear, so what was next?

Violin. The way that came about was pure chance. I had never considered the idea. I probably barely knew what a fiddle was. I have related this story before so I’ll try not to repeat myself but I suppose I’ll have to cover the essentials again.

At the time, I had been sent to what in those days was called an ‘open-air-school’, it was a Catholic convent school run by nuns, which was on the coast at Broadstairs in Kent. The building is still there and it’s still a school but with a different name, and the nuns left years ago.

I was in the area just a little while back so I couldn’t resist the temptation to drop by and have a look. There was, is, a railway line that runs down one side of the property and I recall as kids, we would stand up against the boundary railings daily, to watch the ‘Golden Arrow’ racing past. It was then the locomotive icon of the age but I don’t think I actually knew where it came from or went to.

Anyway that’s another story. It was full board, live-in. This was all because of what at the time was a chronic asthmatic condition. I was only there about 18 months. Current thinking then, was that asthmatics needed fresh air, well on that they weren’t wrong.

One day in class, we were asked if anyone would like to learn the violin. Don’t quite know why but I put my hand up and that was the start of a new career which was to last a bit longer than the piano one.

I took to it very quickly and was soon regarded as the best in the school, by a long way. It was fun.

In retrospect, I now realise that it was all due to the musical environment/camaraderie.  I went from strength to strength right up to the day when I left the school and returned to my troubled domestic environment. It was a fractious marriage.

Back home, to his credit, Dad did find me a violin teacher and I continued my work….for a little while. As before though, the whole experience descended into a mire of cheerless despondency. There was just no joy in it, none at all. Dad even sent me to the shed at the bottom of the garden, because he couldn’t stand the ‘noise’. There was just no point anymore. So a second promising career ended right there.

How long was it before you found a new interest in music, because it obviously happened at some point?

Well I recently worked that out. When I left Broadstairs, I was around 11, so I reckon my interest in music was beginning to blossom again by around 14/15. It wasn’t a sudden realisation, it grew slowly. You must remember, there was practically no music in our house. When Dad came home from work each day, he would immediately turn-off the radio saying “turn that row off”!! It was as though music was the ‘forbidden fruit’ in our house.

I was influenced very largely by the circle of friends I had cultivated by then. They were all very musically talented and played instruments very well for their age, and a couple of them were outstanding. We went on to form a school band.

Well, actually, I know I have said that before but it wasn’t strictly speaking a ‘school’ band in that I was the odd one out, and had never been to the school the others went to. They were Grammar School kids whilst I had seen very little school at all due to my asthmatic condition.

In those days, they used to say “some kids just ‘grow’ out of asthma”. I don’t know if they still say that. But it was more-or-less true in my case. At least it went from being a major problem to a minor handicap. Although I suppose I should acknowledge the part played by the improving medicines for the condition, which were becoming increasingly effective by my late teens. Whereas when I was born, I don’t think there was any medicine at all which was considered ‘safe’ for children.

But now – I suppose, with the benefit of hindsight – I believe it may also have been wholly or partly due to my eventual escape from the appalling domestic environment. I think to-day asthma is thought to have, or can have, a nervous element to it.

My parents’ marriage saw more-or-less constant friction and I was deeply disturbed by that, but I didn’t realise that at the time. I suppose I just thought that was the way life was, awful. On reflection now, I was certainly a nervous wreck throughout my childhood years. If only I knew then, what I now know. Now there’s a cliché.

I used to bite my fingernails down to the bone. I never knew why, I just couldn’t stop. That also fell from habit when I eventually freed myself from home. But that’s a whole different story.

My pals all played music together at school. I was just in the right place at the right time. I got to know a few of the guys who I just happened to live near.

We managed to gain access to the local youth hall for practice, although at first, I believe I was just a spectator. I was now desperate to belong to this exciting new world. It was suddenly like Broadstairs again. I was experiencing a renewed and burning desire to learn. What a difference enthusiasm makes.

I was by then beginning to think about drums but financially it was completely out of the question. However, I found I could get hold of a clarinet with minimal funds. So I tried that. I had by then acquired a little knowledge of music.

We would go on to visit all the local pubs that featured music and concert halls and saw all the big names of the day. It wasn’t long – after seeing professional bands right up close – that I was drawn even closer to drums. It fascinated me. I wanted to be a drummer, I thought I could do it, I just had a feeling for it.

I would write off to all the drum manufacturers to get all the drum catalogues and gaze at them for hours on end. It all seemed to be so hopeless, I could never understand how anyone could possibly afford to buy the stuff. I had never had any money and had no understanding of matters financial.

So there must have come a day when you decided to buy drums, so where did the money come from in the end, and how did that come about?

Well again, this is another story I’ve done before, at least in part, but in the period after I had given up on the violin, and started drumming, I had found this new group of friends I just talked about, and eventually found myself in a room with them, and trying to play a clarinet.

One day, the band were doing a piece – I can’t remember what – and the drummer was getting it all wrong. We stopped and started, I don’t know how many times.  Suddenly, in frustration, I just got up and went over to the drums and said, “Do it like this”, whilst sitting behind the kit and playing.

I guess I must have made some sort of an impression because everyone’s lower jaw dropped and from there on I was pestered daily about taking up the drums.

Well it was still an impossibility, but there was some light at the end of the tunnel.

I eventually became an apprentice carpenter/joiner/cabinet maker.  For the first time I was starting to have money, although precious little.

How long were you playing the clarinet and how good did you get?

Can’t say for sure but again, months rather than years and I never got very good, I was trying to teach myself and it was not easy.

But then comes the drum ‘incident’ and my mind was now concentrated even more in a percussion direction. I reached a point one day when I thought I might have enough money to approach the drummer and make an offer to buy his kit.  

The strange thing about it, now I think back, was that he was OK about selling and giving-up on the drums, he just wanted the dosh.  Had this small episode not happened, we may well not have been sitting here discussing all this! I find that really fascinating. A tiny historical event, has shaped an entire lifetime.

But that particular day, it was still a no-go. I just didn’t have enough and he wasn’t going to give them away. Actually, the kit was a pile of crap, I mean real crap. But it was at least a start, everything has to start somewhere.

Anyway, I think I got Mum to lend me a bit of cash in the end and came the day when I made another offer and it was accepted, reluctantly. I’ve no recollection of how much was involved. That was far too long ago!

So all of a sudden I was a drummer.

So what was the first thing you did?

Well the kit was so bad and it was very antiquated, I decided to take the whole thing to pieces and clean it up and painted the drums to make them look more presentable and tightened the nuts and bolts etc. But it was still a bit of an embarrassment to be seen near them.

However, as my apprenticeship progressed, my pittance of a wage slowly grew and I was able to buy drums, one at a time. Back then it seemed like years had elapsed between each purchase, but I suppose in reality it was probably months, once again. Eventually, I had what could properly be described as a drum kit and I was never to play the clarinet again.

We had got to hear about an organisation called ‘The Semi-Professional Musicians Fellowship’. This was an organisation dedicated to gigs and the sub-professional musician. It was a source of semi-pro work.  Eventually some of us were drawn to it and started doing gigs for the small fees of the day. This was amazing, getting paid for banging drums!!!  Wow!!!

So now you’re a working drummer.

Well, yes, in a small way, after work. The ‘proper’ job as they say. It started slowly, and it was all very down market. Cockney weddings, pub gigs, birthdays and celebrations of all sorts. This was mostly all over the east side of London.

My recollection of those days, is that there were a lot more bands in pubs back then, than I am aware of to-day. I have no statistical basis for saying that but it seemed like every pub had something going on. Well anyway, I became really keen about a life in music. But I realised that I needed to be pretty good to do that. And that was the trouble, it seemed to me that everyone in the world was better than me.

But you must have been pretty good to be getting those gigs.

I suppose so, and I had drummer friends who told me I was very good and should become a professional, but I was a perfectionist. I wasn’t satisfied with anything until I got it right. Perfectionism can be a real handicap. Sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees.

What do you mean by that?
It’s that very often, you are spending so much time looking at the detail, that you can lose track of the overall picture. When in fact, the overall picture is very often the only thing that most people are aware of.

So you’re now a working semi-pro, how long did that last?

On and off, but mostly on, right up to the end of my apprenticeship which ended on 4th August 1959. But then even further until I eventually gave it up completely and that break from drumming lasted about a decade during which I didn’t touch a drumstick.

This of course was the decade before I decided one day that I wanted to form a band, and that story – as you know – was covered in our previous interview.

I believe that piece has now been incorporated into the band biography which can be seen on the website, being more historical than anecdotal. I’d like now to come on to Jazz. I have often read that you were once a Jazz drummer, and yet you haven’t even mentioned the word. Were you ever in fact a Jazz drummer?

Well now, I guess the correct answer to that is, sort of, yes and no.

That surely needs some explaining?

Yes, and I think this might take awhile.

I don’t think I ever actually claimed to be a jazz drummer or put myself out as one, and I don’t think I ever worked or played in a band that was billed as a ‘jazz’ band. But, it can’t be denied that there have been times when I have played jazz numbers and attempted to play them as a real jazz player would.

At some time or other, every drummer is likely to encounter a moment when he is presented with the prospect of playing a kind of music completely new to him. But whilst playing pure jazz was not completely new to me, I would say in the general scheme of things, it was pretty unusual.

To put it into percentage terms, across the expanse of my drum playing lifetime – if it were ever possible to work out such a thing – the amount of time I have spent playing jazz, or attempting to, would probably amount to a minute fraction of 1%.

So going back to my point, within those terms of reference, I would say it’s a pretty resounding ‘no’. However, the, “sort of yes”, part of it, is much more complicated.

Firstly, you need to understand that when I was growing up, Rock ‘n’ Roll hadn’t been invented, and I’ve said that many times, but it’s true.

One of the essential elements of that genre, when it arrived, was/is, the beat. It was known at first, as the ‘Square Beat’. The phrase has largely gone out of fashion now, but back in the sixties, rockers were often referred to as ‘squares’. Although you don’t hear that expression these days you can still catch glimpses of it in old sixties movies.

Anyway, for the benefit of those who may not know, prior to rock ‘n’ roll, everything (almost), was largely swing beat based. Swing of course was/is, just one branch of jazz.

Can I stop you before we go any further, perhaps I should ask you to expand on that for anyone who doesn’t know, what exactly is jazz?

If I had to put it into a word or two, perhaps it might be ‘improvisation’ and ‘spontaneous’, or without premeditation. Or in other words, they change the song around within the confines of the chord structure. And perhaps it’s that the jazzman feels an endless compulsion to find a new way of playing the same old song.

Of course there is another and less gracious explanation preferred by many. It’s where you take a great song and turn it into a lousy one!

Jazz itself has fractured over the decades like most music does, and I don’t know how many variants there now are, but a few are: New Orleans, traditional, Dixieland, bebop, swing, modern, jazz rock, jazz funk, etc., etc.

But to return to the point – about swing – inevitably there are variations on that, but, for the benefit of anyone who may not really understand what I’m talking about, this simplistic schematic might do the job:
Swing (round) beat goes:

da di da – da di da
da di da – da di da.

Rock (square) beat goes:

da da da da – da da da da
da da da da – da da da da.

So from that, you should be able to see that the two have a very different feel.

Post Rock ‘n’ Roll then, things were beginning to change from the swing (or round) beat, to the square beat.

Now, there are exceptions to every rule, especially in music, but throughout a large chunk of pop history, the swing beat was what we might today call the ‘default’ position in popular composition. If a new song wasn’t actually written in swing, then it very likely would be played in swing when it reached bands up and down the country. Just why is more difficult to explain, but I’ll have a go.

Popular music was closely tied to dance, and of course it still is. But, crucially, in pre-rock days, dancing – as a rule – was what we now call ‘ballroom dancing’ and it was actually quite regimented, until the day – whenever it was – when people decided to chuck the rule book out of the window. Or perhaps ‘relaxed’ might be a better choice of words.  

By-and-large, the music of ballroom dancing was derived from the wellspring of jazz genres sub-divided under the general classification known as swing music to which I referred earlier. And that extended way back – I know not how far – but maybe even to the beginnings of jazz itself. But anyway, a long time, it’s fundamental structure being the ‘round’ beat.

Alongside that, there was also a considerable ‘Latin’ sector, which encompassed dances like the samba, rumba, mambo, cha cha and tango etc., all of which collectively, had their own musical conventions.

Almost that entire musical edifice – in Britain at least – was borne upon the shoulders of just one man, in the person of the late – and some would say great – Edmundo Ros. This ‘Latin’, of Trinidadian origins – almost completely cornered the UK market within the genre. In fact he more-or-less was the genre.

His predominant decade was the fifties but then also on into the sixties when his West End nightclubs were the talk of the town. Regularly featured on radio, he achieved in excess of some 800 recordings.

His withdrawal from regular performance in the mid seventies saw a rapid decline of the entire Latin phenomenon in the UK. By then, the fashion seemed to have run it’s course anyway and it’s now pretty hard to find outside of ‘ballroom’, itself now being of minor magnitude compared to it’s heyday. He lived on in semi-retirement in Spain until his death in 2011.

To give you an idea of the immensity of his Latin influence, it’s probably true to say that a professional drummer couldn’t expect to secure employment anywhere, without the ability to play all the uniquely Latin rhythms made famous by him and his orchestra and for a long time after his eventual decline. He was the yardstick by which all Latin standards were judged. He was to ‘Latin’, what his contemporary Agatha Christie was to the whodunit.

There was a certain allure to the Latin scene.  Whereas ballroom was notable for it’s glamourous pomposity, Latin was the complete opposite, colourful, exotic and risqué if not downright sexy, for it’s time at least. It wasn’t just about music though, it was as much a cultural spectacle shining brightly within what at the time was a very drab Britain, certainly during the fifties.

I’ve heard of Edmundo Ros but I couldn’t name any of his songs or music. Can you give me an example?

Yes, perhaps his best known number was ‘The Coffee Song’, I don’t think he actually wrote it but he certainly recorded it.

Now that was a very big song in it’s day and it was done by everyone from Sinatra downwards. If you Google it, I’m sure you will find it on the net.

Very well known too was his signature  tune ‘Cuban Love Song’.  The list is endless, ‘The Girl From Ipenema’, The One Note Samba’, etc., etc.

So anyway, to get back to my theme, much later, when the penny dropped that there was a new music on the horizon, ‘jive’ made its appearance into popular dance, designed to cater for what many may have thought would be a passing phase, in rock ‘n’ roll. But for the most part, it was a swing bedrock which formed the foundation of dancing prowess.

Now that type of dancing, could be both formal, at up-market events or more relaxed and informal in bars and clubs etc. People didn’t just wriggle about as they so often do today, they were expected to move around the floor in an orderly fashion. It had all been conducted very much like the rules of the road are nowadays.

The essential point then, is that that type of dancing, and the music you danced to, HAD STRICT RULES. It had to, otherwise the dancers were very likely to become wrong footed mid-step. And the reason for that was because the moves – or ‘steps’ – which defined each type of dance were actually choreographed. The music ‘fitted’ the moves. You could buy books with ‘step’ charts for each type of dance, ‘quickstep’, ‘foxtrot’ etc., and you still can, although I believe DVD is the preferred format these days.

That is why people would have to ‘learn’ to dance before venturing onto the dance floor in the old days. A nice little industry that was too. Nowadays of course, in most informal situations, when you step onto a dance floor, all you have to do is ‘move’ and no-one cares.

But in those earlier times, especially at formal events, you were pretty much obliged to stick to the rules of the dance floor or you were ostracised by those of a snooty disposition.

Not – you might think – that it ought to matter, but events of the ballroom back then were heavily steeped in the haughty traditions of the era, the likes of which the kids today wouldn’t give a toss about.

The funny thing to me, about dancing in those days, is that it was often treated as though it was a serious matter. Whereas it just wasn’t. It was supposed to be recreational and many people were so po-faced about the whole thing.

Now I can see that dancing would be important to a professional, but to everyone else, it was just a bit of fun or originally I suppose, it was an excuse to socialise with someone you didn’t actually know.

But this dance floor etiquette didn’t usually extend to the sleazy club or bar, where people without formal dancing skills would just, more-or-less, shuffle around and no-one complained. They would in all probability be concentrating their thoughts on movement, but  just not of the dancing variety! Though it would still be the same type of music.

By a wonderful coincidence, I have an anecdotal and very recent tale which nicely illustrates these dance issues, and the way music and dance were so inextricably linked, and apparently in some places, they still are. It pertains to the now popular ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ programme. Younger readers of this interview may not know that ‘Strictly’, had a predecessor called ‘Come Dancing’ many, many, years ago.

I’m pleased to observe that today’s ‘Strictly’, has moved on somewhat since the ‘Come Dancing’ of old, and it probably wouldn’t be as popular if it hadn’t. It was much more strict than ‘Strictly’. Today, some of the rhythms have changed, possibly a reflection on the demise of the aforementioned Latin wizard, the presentation is more informal and they do at least make an attempt at jocularity, which is refreshing if nothing else.

But the most evocative element of the former, resides within the judging domain of today. They just don’t seem to get it. Having accepted their appointment as judge, on a programme which invites celebrities to participate – some of whom, have no dancing skills whatsoever – they then blow a gasket when those same celebrities perform their best. Which isn’t, and cannot be, very good. Doh!  I’ll give ‘em a ‘3′ and move on.

So to get back to my point, one week on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, they played Golden Brown.  Now, those reading this who understand music, will probably know that GB has an unusual time signature. It’s a mixture of 3/4 and 4/4 time. As far as I am aware, there is no ballroom dance that accommodates that compound of time signatures. It breaks the rules!

People of the ballroom community, trying to dance to that kind of timing, would, if not actually fall over, certainly be put out by it, and probably by enough to lose them the competition in the pedantic  world of ballroom. At least on those all important ‘competition’ days. And for that very reason, Golden Brown was re-written by whoever does the arrangements on that show, with the offending beats written out of the song! Golden Brown is too outrageous for ballroom! Ha ha!

Musicians would have spotted that straight away, but lesser mortals may not have. If anyone has a recording of that show, dig it out and you should be able to see what I mean.

It can also be viewed at the following link on You Tube, at least it can today, as we are discussing this.

Rock ‘n’ roll on the other hand, had no such rules when it made it’s sensational debut.

Suddenly, the kids weren’t dancing to recognised rules anymore. They appeared to be going crazy! Which is why parents, civic leaders and particularly churchmen actually tried to ban it. The ‘establishment’ felt threatened by this and must have thought civilisation was in peril.

Funnily enough, exactly the same thing happened when Punk arrived.  The same outrage all over again. The establishment saw revolution in the air! The ‘Pogo’ appeared to be confrontational, well, actually it is. But it’s always the same thing in the end, kids having fun and rebelling against the strictures of the previous generation. No doubt, sooner or later, the same thing will happen again, and perhaps we will all be outraged! And so it goes.

This dance thing, has continued to evolve right up to the present day, when now, you only have to move a toe and it’s called ‘dancing’. How things have changed! Of course formal dancing hasn’t  gone away, thanks – at least if you’re pleased about it – to the  aforementioned ‘Strictly’.

So what all this boils down to, and the point I’m actually trying to make here, is that the music I was playing, in those pre-rock ‘n’ roll days, was pretty much all swing derived and therefore sort of ‘jazzy’ by nature. Not because I was a jazz drummer, or in a jazz band, but because practically all the songs of the day were of that idiom. It was a sort of unspoken ‘norm’ within music.

I was never – except perhaps in a handful of situations – trying to play jazz, I was trying to interpret the drums for each song, in the most sympathetic way in each case, given each song’s inherent characteristics. I still do that to-day, and you wouldn’t say The Stranglers are a jazz band.


So, in the sense that practically all popular music was swing based, I suppose I could be said to have been a jazz drummer. But quite wrongly in my opinion. But I’m in complete sympathy with the point of view.

In the beginning I did like jazz, and some of it I still do. It was more interesting than pure ‘pop’ music. After all, there was some appalling rubbish being put out on record, purely for profit, and that’s fair enough. There are, and should be, different horses for different courses.

But many musicians of almost every hue were reviled by pure pop, and preferred something more intelligent. But then it started to get too intelligent for my liking and I really fell out of love with it when it started to evolve up it’s own arse. Eventually the melody simply vanished into a pointless miasma of complexity.  Extremely clever without doubt, but a lot of it, I just can’t listen to. It’s as though ‘melody’ has somehow become taboo. I do still have a soft spot for the swing big band though and music being music, there will always be exceptions.

There were huge differences between the real jazz players – who would look down their noses at ‘pop’ music, simply because it pandered to popular taste – and their pop counterparts with their nice songs you could sing along to, what a terrible crime. You could write a book just about that. But personally, I don’t care, or even want to know how clever a musician is, I just want to hear toons and I’ve said that before, many times. Though I must admit that that’s just my personal preference.  Horses for courses again.

So an analyst of my career might describe me as a jazz drummer, but ask a serious jazzman and you’d get laughed out the door. In my opinion, it would be like describing Chopin as an ‘Elton John’. Same instrument, different planet.

But nevertheless, having said all that, I do undoubtably make some jazzy moves. One interpretation of that, would be that I have some bad habits. But there is another interpretation. That those moves are a legacy of my earliest beginnings.  

No one taught me to bang drums in any particular way. Or taught me full stop, and so I was influenced by a different set of criteria to most drummers today, who in my opinion, tend to emerge from their respective drum clinics all nicely homogenized. But of course today’s newbies have to get their experience when and where they can.

Having spent what was a number of years playing swing based music, it was always going to be imprinted somewhere in my cerebral rhythm box.

Phew! I think I get the picture, very interesting. Can you define more specifically, what exactly – if it is true – is so different about your playing?

Mmmmmmmmm. Well again, it is a bit more complicated than you might think, but if I’m honest, probably no. Perhaps the best I can do is to explore some of the issues for you, and see where that takes us. What you’re talking about here is ‘style’ and that really is complicated.

A typical rock drummer, will bang very hard, and, all the time. What I sometimes call a ‘banger’, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but to generalise, it’s not the way I would normally approach it.

And there are other ways?  

Well, there are many. Firstly, I see my job as being to interpret the drum part of a song so that it will compliment the music, not dominate it, and that’s the crucial point. A song very often, needs room to breathe.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, perhaps like Duchess and Genetix to name a couple that come to mind, in which the drums are unrelenting and right in your face. They really cry-out for drums to match the dynamics of the piece. In less dramatic circumstances, I tend to take a more minimalist approach.

On the other hand, some drummers will interpret their respective roles, as being to create as much rhythm as possible and demonstrate what an amazing performer they are. A very different philosophy.

So by and large, my approach is much more minimalist. Now minimalism, isn’t ordinarily compatible with drumming. Most drummers find it difficult to resist their compulsion to whack the stuff in front of them. As a result of that, many start from a ‘busy drums’ position, whereas I start from a – ‘what does this song need’ – position, which can range from nothing at all, to very busy. I wouldn’t just bash all the way through the number if I didn’t think the song really needed it. For me, and most of the time, the ‘song’ comes first. There has to be a sensitive relationship between the song and the drums.Buddy Rich

At the other extreme, take for example, the late Buddy Rich, very probably the greatest drummer of all time. I suppose you could say Buddy Rich’s philosophy might have been, ‘use your skills, all of them’. He was after all so very capable behind the kit, and he did want everyone to know it.

Few came anywhere near his ability. Not only could he do almost anything, you could pretty much say he invented drumming. He codified it. He worked out every pattern which it’s possible to play on a drum kit and isolated them so each one could be perfected. These are known to-day as the ‘The Rudiments’ and are to drumming, what scales are to a pianist.

He was just amazing to watch because he was like a precision machine. But I must qualify that. I’m talking about technical ability. But there was a massive downside. His one fault, was that he had little comprehension of simplicity or subtlety.

His ‘big band’ was a Buddy Rich showcase, but to me, it sounded like the music had been designed to fit around a drum part, rather than a drum part designed to compliment great music.

Now, for sure, if you just want to marvel at a drummer’s ability, that would be the band for you, no doubt about that, but, when I listen to the Buddy Rich band, which I do from time to time, what I hear, is like ‘musicus interruptus’, the band would have to stop every 5 seconds so Buddy could knock one out. A drum break that is, and if you tired of that, what you were left with was the music, and that for me was the big problem.

I find the music difficult to listen to. I suppose to be generous, you could say the drumming is so phenomenal, and busy, they had to more or less cut-and-paste the music to fit around the drums. I suppose a lot of drummers would applaud that but I’d rather hear a great tune.

No doubt there are millions who saw The Buddy Rich band and loved them, and once again, that’s perfectly fine. Horses/courses etc. But for me, it was just another jazz band, but with one major difference, that amazing drummer. He I’m pretty sure, could only see himself. Whereas Basie on the other hand, did the Big Band, much, much, better, even if the drummer was only ‘terrific’ by comparison.

No, for my money, you went to see The Buddy Rich band to see Buddy Rich. The music was completely irrelevant.

Nevertheless, if he was playing in a town near me, I would be going. On the one hand, to experience what one man behind a drum kit can achieve, whilst on the other, to observe what happens when percussion becomes more important than the song.

At the same time though, I cannot deny the reality, that he would have to have some sort of musical backcloth to illuminate his personal brilliance. You wouldn’t surely, want to watch, say, two hours of just Buddy Rich banging drums, would you? Could you? I couldn’t and I’m a drummer myself. I think my absolute limit might be around 30 minutes. But then perhaps some would, so for them at least, the whole thing would be perfectly valid. And he did after all spend many years touring for which there was clearly a demand.

But anyway, I’m simply making a very difficult attempt at illustrating the broad differences between different drumming styles.

Buddy was credited once with saying;

“Ringo Starr was adequate. No more than that”, and I find that very telling.

Well, Buddy may have been arrogant and he could afford to be, he was after all, a God in his own world, but Ringo was the perfect drummer for the Beatles. He knew how to play in sympathy with the song. Buddy Rich, great though he undoubtably was, never did, outside of his strictly jazz environment.

If he had been in the Beatles, they would probably be unknown today. You would never have heard the songs! Minimalism in my estimation, is a vital element.

So to return to your question, what is so different about my playing. It’s very difficult to put it into a few words. Probably loads, but most people would consider the detail so minute as to be unimportant, but the single most obvious difference is perhaps my minimalism.

I don’t do the typical ‘rock’ performance, but then I wouldn’t describe The Stranglers as a typical rock band either. Far from it, there are too many shades of colour, moods, time signatures, complex arrangements, tempo changes and different styles.

It’s perhaps obvious, that all drummers, of whatever hue, will make certain moves that will be common to all drummers. It’s like we all use commas and full stops, but the words are different. Banging drums is the principal raison d’être of drummers and so there has to be some common ground, but that principle is common to all musicians not just the drumming variety.

The choice of a drummer’s drumming philosophy, is an expression of his personal vision of what the drums are actually there for. What makes that even more complicated, is that that vision itself, can be altered by the nature of the music. In other words, you might play the drums one way, in one band, and completely differently in another. Then again, some would, and some wouldn’t.

We also need to take account of the massive spectrum which comprises music in all it’s forms. Not only are there an incalculable number of types of music, but there are an incalculable number of bands and performers, each of whom may choose to interpret each piece in their own unique way. The permutations are endless. To go back to an earlier point once again, different horses for different courses.

I would guess that most people miss the minutiae of drumming altogether, and that is perfectly fine with me. I consider the song to be far more important. My contribution is just that, a contribution, designed hopefully, to deliver some level of structural muscle to what is already there.

The detail is only valid within it’s context. I always find it daft when they separate the first and second in a race with a difference of say, .002 of a second, it’s so minuscule that to me it’s the same thing. I’d give ‘em both the prize, they made the same effort, or as near as makes no damn difference. But then I’m no sports fan. They’ll never put me in charge of the Olympics! But nevertheless that detail is all important because without it, in that example, you might find yourself with a fight on your hands!

So how could I complain if the audience is unaware of drumming detail. As I was alluding to earlier on, why would the audience need to look at the detail, if they were enjoying the overall picture?

But then some people for sure, are interested in the minutiae, and a lot of them are drummers. So I’ll press on.

Second, I do pianoforte, from the Italian, meaning soft & loud.  Or at any rate, I try to. Completely alien to most modern rock drummers, which may be a consequence of music not only having become electric but very loud too. This for me is also a legacy issue. There was actually more scope for ‘pianoforte’ in the earlier era of acoustic performance, but old habits die hard.

But I think pianoforte is an element that contributes towards a band’s character. Bash, bash, bash, all the way through is not always appropriate, but where it is, I would, and do do that, but, I like to go with the flow. I’ll bring in a crescendo where I feel the need to create a change of mood. But bash, bash, bash, all the way through has it’s place, I suppose you could call it headbanger heaven. But on the whole I believe drumming should have some expression, and that should not just be the preserve of the soloist.

So all this drumming minutiae is just a part of a larger jigsaw which when completed, forms that “overall picture”, which is the essence of a band’s unique character and appeal.

One of the delights of music, is it’s infinite variability. If all bands did the same, all bands would sound the same.

Third, when I’m working on something new, my starting point is, how do I do what no-one else would do? Now that can be a pretty difficult question to answer. Often that starting point is what might appear apathetic, in my case. It’s a good place to start because most would start off with the flamboyant approach. The ‘look how clever I am’ approach. But there is usually no retreat from that position. When you’re doing practically nothing in the first place, you can move forward and often you find something new.

Fourth, one of the enduring features of The Stranglers over the years, has been the two hundred miles-an-hour song, as I call them. I for one, am beginning to struggle a bit with some of these Formula One numbers, at least when they’re lined up in a row. That of course, was always going to be an inevitable problem. We don’t age in reverse.

An unavoidable consequence of this quest for speed, is that there will always be a limit to the performance that is possible at high speed.

Speed has consequences. It’s not like playing country music for example, you could do that all night long because it’s all so leisurely and benign.  

One of the inescapable issues, is the diminution of power when you’re in top gear. When you reach a certain speed, there just isn’t enough time available between notes, to actually raise the sticks high enough, to offer enough space for you to bring the stick down again with enough force, to create a massive whack!  Even less to do it continuously!

It’s just a matter of straightforward  physics. The faster you go, the lighter the touch will be.  

There is lots of fast stuff in jazz, and that resulting ‘light’ touch, which automatically accompanies speed – because of the physics of the thing – is akin to some of my own work. It produces an effect that emulates one of the characteristics of the jazz drummer, and is another reason why some people describe my work as ‘jazz like’.

This is not a ‘norm’ amongst rock bands. Fast, is not your typical rock attribute. The typical ROCK canon is power chords and power drums, the faster you go, the less power you have. It’s a simple equation.

Fifth, your average rock kit is a little different to your average jazz kit. Jazz tends to be played on what are lighter more acoustically resonant drums, though not exclusively, and they are often tuned quite high compared to a rock kit. The skin is stretched tighter.

A rock kit is usually more robust and tuned lower, with slacker skins producing a lower tone. And key, always amplified.

Part of this difference is to do with the minutiae of each different genre and technique. In jazz, there is a lot of ‘bounce’ activity. That is to say, for those who don’t know, very often, when a drummer hits his drum, he is not always hitting every note.  
What I mean by that, is that when you bring a stick down on to the drumhead, that is what you would call a drumbeat, or a hit. The next note may – and also may not be – a hit, but a ‘bounce’.  In other words, you bring the stick down and bang the drum, while at the same time, bouncing off the skin for a second ‘bounced’ note. This technique has to be tightly controlled to work but it enables greater speed when mastered, in which case no difference in the two types of note can be detected. Clever stuff.

This is used a lot particularly in jazz, and the technique enables a player to obtain a much faster speed than with single hits. It also crucially, enables the other hand to be somewhere else at the  precise moment of the ‘bounce’. This simple – yet not easily mastered technique – is one reason why drummers doing stuff at incredible speed, are able to do so.

The well known ‘Drum Roll’ is in fact a demonstration of that very technique, where only half the notes are being played, the other half are bounces. Actually, to refine the explanation even further, that applies at lower speeds, but when a higher speed is reached, all the notes suddenly become bounces. This is actually known as the Long Roll, an important distinction as there are other rolls, loads of them.

So, rock drummers often, but not exclusively, use rock kits in which the drumheads are tuned lower and deeper, a looser skin.  It is more difficult to get a bounce off this type of drumhead and that is why rock technique tends to be different. Slower, with massive power drum hits.

The thing to remember about this subject, is that there is no rule about it, a band can get together and play anything they want, which is what bands do. This is why music has such popular appeal, there is something for everyone. Old nags and race tracks!

Consequently, there are loads of different techniques, and loads of different bands. BUT, as a general rule, tighter drum heads on acoustic kits are used in jazz, and looser deeper drums in rock.  My kit – for what it’s worth – is somewhere between the two.

I hope that isn’t too much detail for the non-drummer to wade through, but I’m not sure how to cover the subject without some mention of the technicalities, and even then, it’s really difficult to put it into words which will do it justice. It is such a complex topic, I could probably go on for weeks!

And I thought drumming was just 1-2-3-4, and away you go!

You’re not the only one!

OK, can I come on now to something completely different?

Please do.

This next one emanates from my contact with people. I often get asked, “Does Jet do drum lessons?” Do you, would you?

Wasn’t it Sean Connery who said, “never say never”? If Sean is the canny Scot that people say he is, then perhaps I shouldn’t say never. So I won’t. But if you are thinking about forming a queue, you can forget it, I just don’t have the time right now. Then there is the assumption that I might actually be a good teacher. Being able to do something, doesn’t necessarily equate with teaching ability. For one thing, I don’t have the patience I used to have, but then again it can be a bit of a busman’s holiday if you don’t find time to escape from the day job! Sorry, night job!

But on the other hand, I might wake up one day and feel like doing a bit of tuition. You’ll have to wait and see.

If a drum company offered  you the drum kit of your dreams, sky’s the limit, what would it be?


Will you ever permanently retire from The Stranglers, or will you always want to keep a hand in, at least in recording your parts?

Well, I wouldn’t say I actually have a plan, but I suppose, now that you mention it, I will always want to do whatever it is I am able to do, so no change there.

It seems to me that after having created the thing in the first place, with all the grief and expense that that involved, then enduring the travails of the forty-year journey, it would not be in my nature to suddenly abandon it now, just because of my advancing years. Nor would it make much sense. The day will come when I am simply unable to do the job, that for me will be soon enough. Apart from that, there are no retirement activities I can think of which appeal to me.

Now I wouldn’t want to imply that the journey was all pain and torment. Although it was certainly packed with every kind of emotion you could think of, most of the memories are truly wonderful and the stuff of which dreams are made.  

However, people not in music, often have a fanciful notion of what it is really like for those of us who are. It’s not just about writing and playing songs, it is a business, and it has to be. If it weren’t, we would have disappeared decades ago. Everything costs money, and that has to come from somewhere.

So when people come away from a gig with the idea that it was great, they are right. That, for us, is the best bit. At least when we are able to pull a good one out of the bag. But then, the gig is always the best bit.

All the rest of it, from the planning, the travel, the hotels, the airports, to the motorways, up and down, up and down. Then the food, the unsuitable venues, the photo shoots, the troublesome equipment, and let’s not forget the tax man. Then there are the critics, doing their best at cultural assassination. Then there are the health issues, and all the bugs that find their way into the tour without fail.

I remember a few years ago, my doctor saying, he couldn’t think of a worse job from a health point of view, than touring around the world spending most evenings in a room with thousands of people and breathing in all their germs! He was so right, that just isn’t the stuff of a healthy lifestyle, but it just comes with the territory.

Then after all that, we get to see all those smiling faces once again and it’s all forgotten until the next morning. And despite all the pain, we would all do it again if we had the opportunity.

So, will I retire? When I have to.

Is there a Stranglers song in the archives that has not been recorded, that you wish was?

I do have a file which contains maybe 30/40 songs which have never been recorded. These date right back to the beginning when we were just writing and rehearsing all day. No-one, but no-one, within the band has ever suggested we should ‘go back’ to those songs. They are history. There has always been an eagerness to move forward and since we have never been short of new ideas, the question hasn’t actually arisen.

As for wishing we had recorded some of them, that thought has never arisen either, can’t now remember how they go, so wouldn’t be able to choose one anyway without some research. The whole subject just isn’t on anyone’s radar. But never say never!

To change direction again, I’ve heard people say you do amazing brushwork. Would you like to say a few words about brushes and brushwork, if that is the correct terminology?

There you go again, you know I don’t do words by the “few”!  Anyway, brushes are a bit of a rarity these days, it’s a legacy of an earlier age, but if in fact I am any good at it, it would have to be because I did a great deal of it in the past.

Are you saying that drummers don’t actually use brushes any more?

No, not quite, but it’s a bit like the way that the acoustic guitar has taken a back seat to the electric variety, but they will never go away. Same with brushes, still there, still valid but only a mere shadow of their former self.

Why would that be then? I can see why the electric guitar is more prominent than the acoustic guitar, but surely brushes are just brushes?

Well that’s true, but brushes, like the acoustic guitar, both have their place, it’s just that that place, has become smaller over the years. As acoustic guitars had to take a backseat to electric ones, so brushes had to take second place to sticks.  It’s mostly about volume and sounds.

I don’t use brushes very often but when I do, it’s all part of the mood of the song. And a refreshing one too. But there are all sorts of problems that come into play when you want to use brushes in this day and age. Perhaps first of these is the ability to use them in the first place.

Whilst you don’t actually forget how to, you can get very rusty if you stop using brushes for any length of time. Hitting a drum with the bristles of a brush is very different to banging with a stick. It’s a whole different technique.

The Stranglers ploughed through a couple of decades before I ever reached out for my trusty old brushes. (And they are very old). There just wasn’t any need for them when we were doing that aggressive stuff which was so typical of our early years. Later, when we had time to reflect and change the mood, then the opportunity presented itself.

Brushes work best where they started, in an acoustic environment. Perhaps the first and obvious thing about it, is that for the gentler touch of a brush to be heard – at it’s best – you need the more resonant jazz type of drum I described earlier.

Most ‘rock’ drums, or more specifically rock ‘drumheads’, often have a completely smooth surface and are very tough but they were designed to be pounded with sticks, not stroked with a brush. Using them for brushwork will result in near silence as there is no friction on most of them to create the necessary sound.

Originally, drumheads were made from lambskin and they worked extremely well with brushes because the naturally rough surface provided the right amount of resistance to the ‘swish’ of the brush, making for a crisp and distinctive sound. They were also surprisingly tough given the punishment they received.
But there was one big drawback with lambskin, it was susceptible to atmospheric changes, and in a big way.

You would tune your drums to the required tension at the start of the evening, then, as the venue filled-up, the temperature and humidity of the room/venue would change. This would cause the drumheads, which remember were actual ‘skins’, (which is why they were, and very often still are called skins), to slacken-off dramatically and go out of tune. This was because of the naturally hygroscopic properties of skin. The more humidity, the slacker they became.

Of course this also happens with guitar strings but in that case the problem is usually taken care of backstage by the guitar tech and the guitarist simply changes guitar at the end of the song. It’s much more complicated with drums.

But this issue may have been the original catalyst that drove the search for a man-made alternative to the traditional drumhead, but that is purely surmise. No doubt there was a cost dimension to it as well.

Lambskin heads required considerable preparation by the retailer. He had to cut them to size, then soak them for a long period so as to expand them and soften them up, then fit them to the drum hoop, and then allow them to dry out again over a period of time so as to cause them to shrink back to a tight fit around the drum hoop, before finally fitting the hoop to the drum. I have no idea what the economics of it were, but with all that preparation, you can imagine there must have been some cost implications.

And so new ‘plastic’ drumheads began to appear in the late fifties. They were a big success. Initially noted for their strength and durability, they also came straight out of the box and onto the drum. As they still do to-day. At a stroke, they also ended the ‘tuning’ problem forever. By comparison, the atmospheric effect on modern drumheads is imperceptible.

When they began making these plastic drumheads, they emulated the rough ‘feel’ of the originals fairly well by coating the surface with a ‘rough’ layer imitating the texture of lambskin. However, this artificial layer was never as good as the real thing, as so often is the case, and it also wore away quite quickly. They aren’t much different to-day.

All this was going on at about the same time as the ‘square’ revolution I’ve talked about, which meant brushes were starting to become sidelined because they weren’t fitting-in with the rockier aspect of the new music. The swings and roundabouts of perpetual change.

Had the plastic drumhead appeared a little earlier, it may well have provoked a lot of protest.  But appearing just when it did, brushes were themselves rapidly falling out of favour, and so a likely rebellion simply self-dissipated.

So brushes were going out of fashion pretty quickly then?

There’s no way I could possibly put a figure on it but yes, more or less, there must have been a steady decline. I think we would have to talk to a retailer to get any idea of the scale of the thing, but brushes once again, just weren’t rock ‘n’ roll.

Whereas in earlier times, ALL drummers without exception, would use both stick and brush regularly, today, I’ve met many excellent young drummers who have never even touched a pair of brushes. This reflects the profound changes which have transpired within my lifetime.

I must say I can’t actually remember for certain, seeing brushes in use, either at gigs or on the telly. I suppose I’ll be looking out for that detail in the future now I’m more informed. Can I ask you to move on to the “problems” you mentioned a few minutes ago?  What exactly are the problems with using brushes?

Music has evolved the way it has, by an entirely natural chain of events. It just moves forward by the relentless mechanics of the creative process. Brushes and brush technique, just doesn’t fit very well within the sphere of contemporary music. Not because anyone says so, but simply because people don’t choose to go that route.

If there are reasons, then I would guess that it may be because it has all become much more dynamic than the mellow tones of the parlour orchestra of yesteryear, were brushes were king.

Modern recording, broadcasting, sound processing and amplification equipment and techniques, have brought us brighter, sharper, and frankly more exciting music.
Very often in pre-electric days, brushes were used simply to keep the volume down, and very often, no other reason at all! I guess there is probably a sector out there somewhere where this still applies.

But to return to the problems. If you want to use brushes, say, in the recording studio, and because the song calls for that kind of approach, you would have to think ahead to what difficulties would arise if you wanted to play the number out on the road. Out there on a grinding tour, is where you would have to face the issue.

As I’ve explained, if you want to use brushes live, to have any hope of putting in a credible performance, you really need a jazz type set of drums. Which I described earlier. There is your first problem.

Most of us touring bands, are sort of ‘rock’ by nature, and set-up for that kind of performance. You just can’t play brushes very well on rock drums. So what do you do?  Two kits is the answer, but that is impractical simply in terms of time and space, and if it’s for only one or two numbers, it’s all the more ridiculous.

So, you have some choices;

1) Play with a jazz snare drum throughout the show, so you can play brushes. That still leaves the tom-toms unplayable. And the bulk of the show with the wrong type of snare drum for ‘rock’.

2) Stick with your rock type kit, and change snare drum to do the brush number or numbers.  That means a pause and also leaves the tom-tom problem.

3) Stop the show and rebuild the drum section with suitable drums!

All the options are compromises, so in every one, something is sacrificed.

Then there is a monitoring issue. All musicians have an on-stage monitor so they can hear what they are playing. You can’t hear what is coming out of the PA, it’s too far in front of you. So your monitors are set-up for the louder hits of drum sticks. If you start to work with the much softer sound of brushes, the whole monitor sound needs to be re-calibrated to enable you to hear what you’re playing.

Then another option would be to abandon the brushes and play the number with sticks. That of course, would always be possible, but at the cost of changing the nature of the song. So it’s all a bit of a minefield. That I would guess, is why many just don’t bother.

So far, when we have faced these problems, we have gone with the snare drum switch, and also tried using the ‘wrong’ snare throughout. It’s not ideal and it’s all very frustrating.

But on a lighter note, you will know we do acoustic tours occasionally and in that situation I am able to use a more appropriate set-up which makes for a very enjoyable alternative to the regular Stranglers’ outing.

Is it appropriate for me to mention that there actually are now two kits on stage, at least there was on that last tour?

That’s true enough.

So is there more to be said about that? Is this the future?

Well of course that was for different reasons and this does bring us right up to date. It’s no secret that I’m seriously knocking-on now, and we’ve had to find a way forward in view of current circumstances.

I had a bad year in 2008 when I contracted pneumonia, no secret about that either. It damn near finished me off. The doctors actually gasped when I walked out of the hospital after my two month recovery. They confided afterwards, that they didn’t think I would make it, and I have them to thank for that recovery.

But despite a return to health, I believe there has been some permanent damage. I can’t put my finger on any precise detail, but it’s all about the way you feel. The obvious manifestation of that is an awareness of fatigue.

Now I don’t want to sit at home watching TV all day, and last year the audiences seemed pleased to see me, and that was mutual. So I have to face the reality that I cannot do everything I used to do and there’s no point in trying to hide from that.

So are you saying that this is going to continue?

I’ve never been very good with the ol’ crystal ball, but as far as I can see into the future, maybe. The only thing I’m sure about is, if I can do it, I will, and if I can’t, I won’t. Otherwise, it’s TV time for me!

How would you see the next decade shaping up then?

That’s impossible to say. Really impossible. You will be aware that the music business has undergone a revolution in the past decade, and I don’t think anyone as yet has any real idea how it will look next year, never mind next decade.

The biggest aspect of this industry upheaval, has been the near collapse of the record business and that has affected everyone.

Many bands have abandoned records altogether now, because they not only, cannot make any money from them, but they can’t even get their money back from making them. You only have to sell a couple and the whole world gets a free copy. So this just isn’t sustainable.

We have always been blessed with wonderful gig attendances and so we have managed to keep ourselves solvent. Others are not so lucky.

But y’know, when I look ahead into the future, I see exactly the same as I saw way back in 1974, which is uncertainty. So I suppose you could say nothing’s changed.  Or perhaps we should say what we said back at the beginning………………..something better change………………..I think this where I came in!

Thanks to Jet and Ava for that in depth and very informative read on all things drums. Thanks to Ava for the use of her photos too.