I’ve always been intrigued with music mythology. Hearing about some band’s ‘legendary bootleg’ from Brighton in ’72 – “man, they were never better than that night” – or “Paul McCartney said this was the best bassline he’d ever written” or that it has been X amount of days since The Grateful Dead played “Dark Star”. All of these are really just ways of expressing fondness for a piece/oeuvre of music, but in such a way that goes a bit beyond “I like this”. It’s the conjuring up of this statements and passing down through the ages that makes them so interesting to me. They all begin with a kernel of simple fondness and then grow as that fondness becomes contextualized within the rest of a band’s work. When delivered to me in those sentences, it just gets me beyond to excited to join up with that experience and join in the magic all those people are already in on.
As my way of propagating this practice, I’ve compiled a small list of songs that I think have outstanding rhythm section performances. And really, it’s one of the things that is easier to mythologize. A great guitar solo is pretty self-evident, as is an outstanding vocal performances. Riffs and basslines will grab you pretty hard and even a great drum performance will not escape keen ears, but the rhythm section? Basically bisecting the band and looking not just at individual instrumental performances, but looking at the core and pulse of a song as the group of lesser-touted instruments make it all work. “This song has a killer rhythm section” is one of those perfect little things to pass on:
1) The Who – The Real Me
Welcome to classic rock’s premier rhythm section. Musically, John Entwhistle and Keith Moon absolutely dominated The Who’s records, with Moon restless bashing and Entwhistle’s high fills. No more so than on “The Real Me”. The first real song to kick off the concept double album, they start fast and heavy and just go up from there. By the end, Keith is basically doing a constant drum solo while John Entwhistle is flying up and down his fretboard. Check out the second verse (starting at 1:30), which is just Moon and Entwhistle underneath Daltrey’s voice, and you get an idea of the sheer power of the duo. Constantly moving, constantly adding dribs and drabs in every conceivable second, you can see how The Who gained the “Maximum R&B” label early on in their career.
2) Radiohead – The National Anthem
And here, we have the exact opposite. Colin Greenwood sticks on that four-note bassline throughout the entire song with aplomb, with the rest of the world fizzing and popping and cracking and melting around it. It’s the one constant for the entire duration – almost mantra-like. Phil Selway meshes into it perfectly with his ride-heavy jazz-tinged drumming that is nevertheless a pretty straight-ahead 4/4 affair. The thrill of this two working with mechanical precision is the couple of times that Selway simply stops for a bar, creating mad hot space, before starting back up again. Pretty much their only trick in the bag for this song, for which they have to keep the sanity somewhat moored while a bass section goes ballistic around them. A bass player and a drummer just playing in the pocket can be a hell of a thing.
3) Elvis Costello & the Attractions – Lipstick Vogue
Starting off with a Pete Thomas beration of his toms and snare, Bruce Thomas (no relation) soon picks up the aggression with his burbling bassline.This is a punk rhythm section that is about as articulate you can get as Pete throws in jazzy little fills into his straight ahead 100-mile-an-hour beat and Bruce’s bassline paces up and down while occasionally rearing up and tossing back its head. The whole aggression of the song rides on the Thomases stepping on gas while Costello spits out his usual vitriol, and does less guitar-playing than usual, mostly stepping back while the rhythm section does all the talking.
4) Austra – Beat and the Pulse
It starts out oddly, with Dorian Wolf imitating a bass synth…with his bass, playing a sweet staccato line that runs through the entire song and gives it its momentum, articulating the chords nicely and letting everything build on top (the actual synths). Maya Postepski comes on top with a snare that cuts through every other sound in the song and a shuffling electronic beat that cuts in and out, providing another option for your ears to catch onto under the backbeat. The strange interpolation of musicians playing their instruments in the manner of instruments that synthesize being played by musicians just gives an indication of how impressive the musicianship actually is and that new ways of driving songs with a rhythm instrument in your hand are being found all the time.
5) Our Lady Peace – Starseed
Jeremy Taggart is probably my favourite drummer of all time. His fills are never egregious, but never unimpressive and his snare patterns would make fantastic riffs on their own. Through Chris Eacrett was replaced on subsequent OLP efforts by Duncan Coutts, they do share one defining similarlity – they like to get low. As such, the bass does a lot of lurking in the depths of this song while Taggart’s snare-and-hi-hat-heavy performance puts him front and center in the mix. Eacrett puts out wave after wave of resonance, where Taggart’s lively performance frames it and shapes it with snare pummelings, working together to create something just as much felt as heard.