What Do You Know About…
by Will Romano
His recent autobiography tells a fascinating tale of rock ’n’ roll survival, navigating ups and downs and twists and turns with seminal British acts like Argent and the Kinks. As usual, constant work and artistic growth provide the fuel for a still-active career.
The veteran British drummer Bob Henrit may not have consciously sketched a career plan at age eighteen, but through hard work and determination he’s lasted for more than five decades in the relentlessly challenging music business. Chance, it would seem, had relatively little to do with his many musical successes. Perhaps under-credited for his contributions to the evolution of rock drumming, Henrit has perfected a precise, in-the-pocket style through endless gigging and recording, and his work appears on a not-insignificant number of classic-rock radio staples. He’s also won the admiration of many of his peers, including the Who’s Keith Moon, and can be heard on releases by a wide range of artists: Argent, Adam Faith (and the Roulettes), Unit 4 + 2, Roger Daltrey, Leo Sayer, Phoenix, and, most notably, the legendary brother-led British Invasion band the Kinks.
Of course, being in the right place at a precise time in history is advantageous, but was it by pure luck or design that the trailblazer’s greatest musical victories coincide with the rise in popularity of rock from the 1960s through the 1980s?
Henrit’s ability to survive the business is an inspiration to musicians of all walks, and the drummer’s recent autobiography, Banging On!, is practically a handbook for doing such. Henrit has further served the drumming and musical community at large by having owned and operated a retail drum store on Wardour Street in London’s West End. “The old adage used to be that you had to learn the rules before you could break them,” Henrit says. “We were breaking them without having any idea that there were rules.”
Bob Henrit was born in 1944 during the dying days of WWII, was raised in Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire, England, and spent much of the early and mid ’50s attending Catholic school and doing a bit of trainspotting. After graduating from the washboard to drums, he began to glimpse the first stirrings of what would become his life’s work. Yet, for someone who was shaping and molding what would be deemed classic rock, Henrit appeared to be working in the dark for most of the early ’60s.
“My generation, to a man, never knew that ‘Peggy Sue’ [Buddy Holly’s 1957 hit, driven by drummer Jerry Allison] was a paradiddle,” Henrit says. “We had no idea. Even if we knew what it was, we would have no idea how to play it. Then, suddenly, I realized that if I was going to make it in music, I needed to be better equipped than I was. I knew I had to read music, and I became a bit more self-aware.”
To meet these challenges, Henrit threw himself into a musical life, signing on for an endless string of sessions and live performances. Simply put, he worked his ass off, hoping it would pay dividends on more than one level. “In the beginning with [British vocalist] Adam Faith,” Henrit recalls, “we would do a radio broadcast and then go to the studio in the afternoon to do a record. Then, that evening, we would do a gig. It went on like that for years.”
The cycle continued with a group called Unit 4 + 2, whose breakthrough song, “Concrete and Clay,” soared to number one in the U.K. in early 1965, and into the top thirty in the U.S. in May of that year. “Those were the days when you had three hours to get the A-side and the B-side down,” Henrit says. “When ‘Concrete and Clay’ came out, it became more popular than sliced bread. We got five pounds, fifteen shillings, and sixpence. That’s not a lot of money. But if anybody had said to us, ‘Do you want a piece of the action or do you want forty dollars?’ we would have said, ‘Give us the forty dollars.’ You didn’t know if the record was going to be a hit or not.”
Although Henrit confesses he narrowly missed being the drummer for massive hits such as Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and “You Really Got Me” by his future employers the Kinks, in general his life and professional career were about to turn a corner. In 1968, Henrit and a longtime friend and collaborator, guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Russ Ballard, joined the Zombies (“She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No,” “Time of the Season”) as the group was transitioning into the band Argent. Led by keyboardist Rod Argent, the erstwhile Zombies sought to radically break with their musical past. In virtually no time at all, Argent’s music successfully mixed blues-based hard rock and full-blown progressive rock, as evidenced by such tracks as the FM hit “Hold Your Head Up,” the eight-minute-plus “Be Glad,” the harmony-luscious “Love,” the fusion-y “Music From the Spheres,” the high-wire cross-genre balancing act “Circus,” and Ballard’s U.K. top-twenty ditty, “God Gave Rock and Roll to You,” later covered by Kiss.
Through cleverness, flair, and stamina, Henrit met the myriad challenges of a rapidly evolving band, including dueling with and ceding sonic ground to the unmistakable siren blasts of Argent’s screaming organ. As the group became more adventurous, Henrit’s grooves became bolder, more precise, and texturally sophisticated. “Hold Your Head Up,” from 1972, which was a top-five hit on both sides of the Atlantic, contains Henrit’s infectious and slightly swung hi-hat pattern, jangling tambourine, kick drum thumping, and offbeat snare cracks.
“We went to Germany to get the band together, man,” Henrit explains. “That was like working down the mines—only more difficult. But we loved it. We used to play Aretha Franklin and Laura Nyro songs, because we had nine forty-five-minute spots to fill. The very first song we did was ‘Dimples’ [John Lee Hooker]. That sort of 2/4 way of doing it. Then we might go to 6/8, 12/8, and then 5/4, simply because we could. That’s where ‘Hold Your Head Up’ came from. Having gone through ‘Dimples,’ we went into [sings the drum pattern of ‘Hold Your Head Up’], with the moved-off beat. It worked.”
Album releases such as Nexus, the double live effort Encore, and the conceptual Circus are rife with counter-point vocal complexities, classically influenced and jazzy electric-piano lines, and snaky instrumental passages closely aligned with material that prolific fusion artists of the early and mid ’70s were producing. It was obvious that the road work logged by Henrit and Argent had paid off.
“Cozy Powell [Jeff Beck, Rainbow, Black Sabbath], who was my mate, was in Germany at the same time we were,” Henrit says. “I spoke to him and he said, ‘The thing about it is, if you can’t hack nine forty-five-minute spots a night, how on earth are you going to make a twelve-hour recording session?’ He was absolutely right. You’re not going to be able to sustain concentration. This was part of what we did, and it was our grounding.”
As the Age of Aquarius dawned, the very concepts of space and time seemed to lose their traditional meaning. This timelessness was reflected in the structure and tempo of popular musical composition. In skilled hands the music became not just hummable hooks strung together for possible commercial value but a living, breathing organism. “My generation was taught to play with the peaks and troughs,” Henrit explains, “which was made by slowing down when you get to the verse, and when you hit the chorus you move up a bpm or two. What we were getting away from was strict-tempo music. In the 1970s, songs sped up on purpose.”
Further pushing the boundaries of timekeeping and creativity, Henrit explored the nuance of drum solos, elevating his onstage activities to an art form. “You start the drum solo and the subconscious takes over,” he says. “It was about seeing where it would go next and where my subconscious could push the envelope.”
Henrit’s musical universe was expanding in size and dimension. While still a member of Argent, the drummer recorded with Leo Sayer at Roger Daltrey’s Barn Studio in England. Apparently the iconic Who vocalist liked what he’d been hearing and decided to put together a record himself. This could have been a potential drumming minefield, but Daltrey never put pressure on Henrit to mimic the Who’s wild-man drummer, Keith Moon. Instead, the experience expanded Henrit’s percussive palette and workspace.
“In this barn was Moony’s drumkit, a red Premier, that had two tom-toms and two floor toms,” Henrit says. “This was 1973 or so. I had two kick drums, an 18″ and a 22″, but I didn’t have two tom-toms. Moony inadvertently turned me on to that.”
Argent was effectively over by the late ’70s, but the ’80s found Henrit still busy, founding the Argent offshoot Phoenix, recording with former Fairport Convention singer Ian Matthews, joining the sophisticated London pop ensemble Charlie, gigging with Don McLean (“American Pie”), and, by 1984, holding the drum throne with the British rock royals the Kinks, replacing original drummer Mick Avory. (Argent bassist Jim Rodford had made a similar move several years earlier.)
As Henrit tells it, Kinks vocalist/guitarist Ray Davies had caught the drummer playing a gig at a jazz club and offered him the job. “We got to the end of the set, and this chap came over and it turned out it was Ray,” Henrit says. “He’d enjoyed the show and said to me, ‘Do you fancy doing some recording with us?’ Next thing I knew, I was at the band’s Konk studio, putting down lots and lots of tracks, probably for a month. After that I was supposed to be off on a tour with somebody. I said, ‘I’ve been offered this tour. Have you finished with me in the studio?’ But Ray said, ‘You can’t do a tour with anybody else—you’re in the Kinks.’ We went for a drink and the very next day I was learning the Kinks canon prior to going to America for a tour in mid-1984.”
Henrit had won the job, though on records like 1984’s Word of Mouth, 1986’s Think Visual, and 1989’s UK Jive he found himself sharing drum duties with Avory, whose contentious relationship with guitarist Dave Davies but amicable one with brother Ray resulted in a new part-time role. Henrit rolled with the situation, though, and can claim credit for having played on such memorable Kinks tracks as “Living on a Thin Line,” “Scattered,” “Lost and Found,” and the popular single “Do It Again.”
Unlike other major ’60s British groups like the Hollies, the Animals, the Dave Clark Five, and even (gasp!) the Beatles, the Kinks remained relatively intact and released new music on a consistent basis well into the ’90s. Through it all Henrit’s fat, steady backbeat provided the perfect complement to the Kinks’ late-period productions, which led to the band becoming even more popular in the States than it had been during its fertile British Invasion era. And the famously contrary group was still full of surprises.
“I did one day’s rehearsal, made copious notes, as you do, and came back the next day to discover that the songs were not the same as the day before,” Henrit recalls. “I said, ‘Ray, we didn’t do that ending yesterday.’ He said, ‘We don’t always play the same endings and beginnings.’ I suddenly realized that the Kinks was not a drunken man’s gig. Ray would play songs because they came into his head. If you were lucky, the first song on the list would be the first song played.
“That would happen with Don McLean as well,” Henrit continues. “Don would trust me enough to go into a Buddy Holly song or ‘Baby I Don’t Care’ or some other Elvis Presley song. He just assumed I knew it. It’s interesting, because when we used to play on radio a lot with Adam Faith, we had to come up with a dozen songs, different songs, every week. We had to have a good knowledge of music.”
By the mid-’90s, the Kinks’ second life at the top of the pops had come to an end. Columbia Records dropped the band following decreasing album sales, and though the well-regarded, partially live-in-the-studio album To the Bone came out in ’94—on an indie label—no new Kinks activity was being planned, and Henrit’s ride with the band seemed to have spun its final revolution. “The thing is, there has never been a letter that went around stating, ‘The Kinks are dead—long live the Kinks,’” Henrit says. Kinks alumni have subsequently joined forces for the cheekily named Kast Off Kinks, with Henrit sitting in when Avory is unavailable. “Everybody in the Kast Off Kinks says it began because they were sacked,” Henrit says. “Of course, Ray Davies says, ‘I never sacked anybody.’ It depends on who you believe, but the name does give it something good to hang it on, anyways.”
When asked about the Kinks’ future, Henrit flatly responds, “That comes under the title of ‘f**k if I know.’ I’m not sure anybody knows. If a reunion does happen, my view is you will have to have a football team of players to do all the different songs. There’s a great possibly that Mick and I could play together.”
A lack of new Kinks material or fresh live performance under the official banner hasn’t prevented Henrit from performing. With 20,000-plus gigs under his belt, including pubs, arenas, and television spots, why should he stop now? “People of my generation are not playing pop music,” Henrit says. “We’re not selling sex. Well, even if we are, nobody is buying. At seventy-odd years old, we’re playing angry rock music. Certainly [Hollies drummer] Bobby Elliott is still out there doing it, and a great many other drummers are out there thumping. Whoever thought that would have happened?”
Tools of the Trade
Henrit plays Mapex drums, Zildjian cymbals and sticks, and Remo heads.