Kick It: A Social History Of The Drum Kit

David A. Orthmann BY

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Kick It: A Social History Of The Drum Kit
Matt Brennan
371 Pages
ISBN: #978-0-19-068387-0
Oxford University Press

Matt Brennan's Kick It: A Social History Of The Drum Kit is a complex, meticulously researched piece of work that spans several centuries. In the course of over three hundred pages, Brennan explores the evolution of the design and construction of drum kits and their influence on various kinds of music. He unpacks drummer stereotypes—"unintelligent, noisy, illiterate, uncreative, broke and replaceable" —and pits them against overwhelming evidence that "the drum kit is a real instrument, drummers are real musicians, and drumming is a real art form."

Brennan covers a great deal of ground without sacrificing coherence or giving any of his subjects the short shift. He has a flair for weaving ostensibly disparate topics into a single chapter. The author's affection for the drums, the people who play them and who produce them, infuses an abundance of ideas and makes a virtual avalanche of details easier to process. Illuminating stories about drummers, instrument manufacturers and sales personnel go hand in hand with interpretations of styles of players ranging from Baby Dodds to Tony Allen. Brennan makes it clear that "It is not simply musicians who work to create musical worlds, but also instrument makers. Indeed...game-changing transformations in musical performance are often facilitated by technological tweaks to instruments."

A sample of the book's subjects includes the development of recording techniques in relation to the drums from the 1920s to the present; changes in the definition of musical literacy as they apply to drummers; the lineage of male drummers as entertainers and showmen; ways in which drummers are financially compensated, which includes an analysis of copyright law; the roles drummers play as laborers in live performance situations and in the studio, as well as the degrees of creativity and assertiveness these roles entail; the manner in which women drummers have been belittled, undervalued and written out of the history of the instrument; and the rise and impact of drum machines, samplers, and digital audio workstations. Most of these subjects recur and are integrated into related areas of interest. This is one of the ways Brennan manages to keep a book loaded with information from becoming a difficult read.

Among other things, the book chronicles the impact of the drum kit on a large swath of popular music. Brennan captures the essence of significant styles of jazz, pop and rock without playing favorites or bogging down the narrative. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the sounds of pop music and the drums gained traction despite being widely denounced as mindless, uncivilized noise. In mounting a defense of the Euro-classical tradition, journalists and music scholars didn't hesitate to utilize racist stereotypes in attempts to cast any African-influenced music (which invariably included drums) as inferior, unworthy of serious consideration, and even dangerous. Ragtime, a precursor to jazz in which the drum kit played a prominent role, was likened to a disease that would "eventually stagnate the brain cells and wreck the nervous system."

Brennan does an admirable job of connecting the evolution of the instrument to a world in a continuous state of musical, social, economic and technological flux. Utilizing a combination of "the official records of patent offices, trade expos, manufacturer catalogues, and company archives" as well as oral histories, he heeds competing accounts and entertains multiple points of view in coming to the conclusion that there is no single way to explain the invention and ever changing development of the drum set. He contends that advances in the instrument were influenced by several overlapping factors: They were a response to specific musical needs; a product of a number of musical cultures from around the world; a result of specific labor issues; a consequence of global trade; and an outcome of mass production and promotion.

In the years before the drum kit became standardized, drummers devised their own ways of simultaneously playing the bass drum, snare drum and cymbal. Near the advent of the 20th century, in a practice known as "double drumming," drummers used a stick on the bass drum and a cymbal mounted on the bass drum, and rapidly moved to a snare drum that was balanced in a lopsided manner on a chair. (An illustration of the set-up is helpful in grasping this technique.) The bass drum petal, snare drum stand, and cymbal stand were gradually created to make this configuration of instruments easier to play, and the hi-hat followed. When the existing drum pedals were too unwieldy to handle the fast tempos of ragtime, drummer/entrepreneur William Ludwig invented a more efficient pedal, and eventually patented and developed the means of mass-producing it.

Throughout the 20th century there was a great deal of interaction between drummers and the manufacturers of drums and cymbals regarding product utility and design. (This practice continues to the present day.) During the 1930s, Gene Krupa persuaded Slingerland's sales manager Sam Rowland to "design tom-toms of different sizes that were tunable on both the top and bottom heads, replacing the old concept of the bottom head being attached with tacks in the style of Chinese drums." A decade later, when bebop jazz drummers wanted larger cymbals to delineate the timekeeping pulse that the genre demanded, Zildjian accommodated them by creating cymbals ranging from 18" to 24" in diameter.

Ultimately, the strength of Kick It lies in Brennan's refusal to allow the reader to settle in, get comfortable and gravitate to passages in which he/she already possesses a certain amount of knowledge. He presupposes an open mind and a healthy curiosity for those who enter these pages. Every theme gets its due, but there's always another one, anxiously waiting in the wings for its turn. There's also an abundance of material not covered in the context of this review that will interest many drummers and fans of jazz and popular music. Brennan's desire to leave no stone unturned makes for an exhilarating journey.

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