London’s historic ’70s pub-rock scene was the starting point. Today, forty years into his career, the drummer has left his mark on dozens of albums, tours with numerous hit groups—and now a popular Hollywood movie.
London’s pub-rock movement of the mid-’70s, whose rejection of the increasingly “progressive” nature of classic rock set the stage for the punk revolution, produced some of the greatest songwriters in pop history, including Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and Graham Parker. Another graduate of the scene, Steve Goulding, holds the distinction of having played drums with all three of those revered artists.
Goulding’s name might not spring to mind as instantly as that of other timekeepers who graduated from the pub scene, like the Attractions’ Pete Thomas or Rockpile’s Terry Williams. (The latter left that pub-rock supergroup to join the late-’70s/early-’80s hit-makers Dire Straits.) But if you’re a fan of pub rock, new wave, or Americana, it’s likely that somewhere in your record collection there’s an album featuring Goulding’s drumming.
Though he’s primarily known for his work with Graham Parker and the Rumour, the band that almost broke big in the late ’70s on the strength of influential albums like Squeezing Out Sparks (which came in at 334 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums of All Time list) and Heat Treatment, Goulding has worked with an impressive and varied array of artists over his nearly forty-year career, playing on some truly classic records along the way. That’s Steve providing the hypnotic pulse on the Cure’s “Let’s Go to Bed” and laying down the grooves for early Nick Lowe singles like “(I Love the Sound of) Breaking Glass,” for which he received a cowriting credit, and “So It Goes,” where the lighting-fast buildups he plays on the snare and rack tom make your wrists burn just listening to them.
It’s also Goulding—not Thomas—slashing his way through Costello’s early hit “Watching the Detectives.” Goulding ended up on the track after subbing for Thomas (who was in the U.S. playing with John Stewart at the time) at tryouts Costello was holding to find a keyboardist and bassist to round out the Attractions.
“We spent all day auditioning bass and keyboard players,” Goulding recalls from his home in New York City, where he’s lived since the early 2000s. “‘Watching the Detectives’ was one of the tunes they had the people learn to see if they could play reggae. Most people couldn’t. I was quite conversant with reggae. I’d been listening to it since before I started playing. Where I grew up in Streatham, South London, that’s where all the Jamaicans came and set up shop, basically. You just had that music all the time. It was one of the first things I ever played on the kit. [Bob Marley’s] Carlton Barrett and [Peter Tosh’s] Sly Dunbar were both huge influences.
“Elvis wanted to record the song as a single,” Goulding continues, “and since they didn’t have Pete around, Andrew [Bodnar, Rumour bass player], Elvis, and I did it, and [Attractions keyboardist] Steve Nieve put the keyboards on it afterward. I wanted to combine Ringo Starr with a Lee Perry/Carlton Barrett kind of thing. I’d had the part worked up because we’d done it so many times during the auditions. [Costello manager] Jake Riviera was in the studio, and after an early take he was like, ‘That’s the one, that’s the one.’ I said, ‘I can do it better,’ so we did it again. And it was technically better, but it didn’t have the feel. So we just kept the previous take, warts and all.”
Peruse Goulding’s C.V. further and you’ll find credits ranging from Carlene Carter to Poi Dog Pondering to Freakwater to a long-standing membership with the punk-country anarchists the Mekons, as well as Mekons offshoots like the Waco Brothers and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. You’ll also learn that Goulding backed David Bowie on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show in September 1980, playing “Life on Mars” and “Ashes to Ashes.” (YouTube “Tonight Show David Bowie” and brace yourself for the booming sound of Goulding’s Rogers kit.) That one-off engagement came about after guitarist G.E. Smith asked Goulding what he was doing over the weekend while they were in New York recording an album with Garland Jeffreys.
“He said, ‘I’m going to L.A. to play with David Bowie—do you want to come?’” Goulding remembers with a laugh. “Then we went and rehearsed one afternoon at the RCA studios in midtown Manhattan. It was really amazing. It was a bit odd playing with one of your pop idols. But he was very approachable and very funny— as normal as someone like that can be.”
The ’80s also found Goulding touring the world with the Thompson Twins, Gang of Four, and Lene Lovich, and appearing in the video for Roxy Music’s “Avalon.” Though studio ace Andy Newmark was Roxy’s drummer at the time, Goulding played with the band on multiple European television shows to promote the Avalon album, and he ended up in the video. “I guess I had the right image for the time,” Goulding says with a chuckle, noting his specs-and-string-tie look in the stylish clip.
Long before Goulding was playing on defining hits of the new-wave movement and performing on TV with his idols, he was a kid banging on whatever he could get his hands on in his family’s home, pounding along to the way-out sounds he heard on John Peel’s radio show, like T. Rex and the Third Ear Band.
“Those bands all used bongos, which appealed to me because I was using my hands,” Goulding says. “I had a tin of nails on a sideboard that sounded like a snare drum, and my bed would be the kick drum. Eventually, around 1969, I got a kit and started playing along to Ginger Baker and Keith Moon. Once I started to get into it more seriously, I met Andrew Bodnar. We’d hang out and listen to records and boil it down to the crew of people that played with Delaney and Bonnie, Leon Russell, and Eric Clapton, which was Jim Gordon, Carl Radle, and Jim Keltner—those kinds of people. Roger Hawkins too—his sound and feel on those Staple Singers records was so great. You’d listen to different albums, read the liner notes, and say, ‘Oh, it’s got him playing on it; I’ll buy this,’ which is how I got into Bernard Purdie. I bought a record by Esther Phillips called From a Whisper to a Scream. His playing on that is incredible. I practiced along to that record religiously for about two years.”
Dig into the Graham Parker and the Rumour catalog and you’ll find that Goulding’s taste for feel-oriented players, and all that woodshedding along with Pretty Purdie, served him well. He’s rock solid on those albums, completely at ease while delivering whatever a particular song requires. When the Rumour bash it out on “Mercury Poisoning” and “Discovering Japan” as if they’re still gigging at London’s Hope and Anchor bar (ground zero for the pub scene), Goulding ignites the band while keeping everyone on point.
It sounds like the same scrappy pub combo—albeit one with a serious pocket, thanks to Goulding—covering Ann Peebles’ “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down” and the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” (the latter from the excellent Live in San Francisco 1979 set). And when a tune calls for staying out of the way and letting Parker’s gifts as a songwriter shine, Goulding knows exactly where to dig in and where to lay back. The band’s U.S. breakthrough, “Local Girls,” is an excellent example, as Goulding’s hands play it straight while his kick pattern and Bodnar’s bass line dance playfully around one another and around Parker’s melody. A smart fill here and there perfectly accentuates Parker’s snarling delivery.
“The original feel of ‘Local Girls’ was more straight ahead,” Goulding recalls. “But [producer] Jack Nitzsche told me to try to play off the vocal a bit. I still don’t think I played what he meant me to play, though. [laughs] He had such a depth of experience that when he told you to do something or said, ‘Why don’t you play it like this?’ you’d go, ‘Sure!’ And what he basically told us was, ‘Stop playing so much.’ The message was stop trying to be such clever dicks and just play o_ each other. Play the song—the song, the song, the song.”
In 2012, thirty years after Parker and the Rumour parted ways, they regrouped to record the critically acclaimed album Three Chords Good. The reunion came with an interesting twist, as writer/director Judd Apatow, a longtime fan of the band, used it as a plot point in his comically dark look at married life, This Is 40. In the film, the owner of a small independent record label, played by Paul Rudd, pins his financial hopes on the band’s first album in three decades. (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t end well.) Parker has some hilarious exchanges with Rudd’s character, and the band is featured in performance, captured during a day of filming that was edited into the DVD This Is Live, released last summer.
“It was pretty surreal,” Goulding says of the This Is 40 experience. “We had pretty much made the record when Graham started talking to Apatow about us being in the movie. And it was like, ‘Okay, great, but can we concentrate on finishing the first record we’ve made together in over thirty years, please?’ Then off you go to L.A., getting chauffeured around, and it’s all very nice. We had quite a respectable amount of time on camera, and the DVD came out of it from the gig we did. We basically played that set twelve times over a period of a day. All of that is just taken from different parts of the set. What you see in the film is the first time we were on stage together in thirty years.
“But you start these movie things at seven in the morning. You’re playing ‘Don’t Ask Me Questions’ before you’ve finished your first cup of coffee. That’s why it’s called acting, I guess.”