Creedence Clearwater Revival achieved an unprecedented level of success in a short span of time with hits like “Travelin’ Band,” “Proud Mary,” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” helping to establish a down-home sound that has informed several generations worth of roots-rock musicians. Today the drummer responsible for much of CCR’s famous style is still pumping it out for the fans.
Doug “Cosmo” Clifford laid down the gritty backbeats for Creedence Clearwater Revival, one of the most successful bands of the late ’60s and early ’70s. CCR’s twenty hit singles still enjoy ever-present airplay, and the group’s album sales have surpassed a hundred million worldwide. On stages as far flung as the Royal Albert Hall in London and the Woodstock Festival in upstate New York, and during the band’s furiously creative four-year recording career—the legendary albums Bayou Country (“Born on the Bayou,” “Proud Mary”), Green River (“Bad Moon Rising,” “Lodi”), and Willy and the Poor Boys (“Down on the Corner,” “Fortunate Son”) were all released in 1969! Creedence powered out a swampy roots-rock/country/R&B mix that remains influential to artists aligned with the current Americana scene and well beyond.
Today, teamed with original bassist Stu Cook but sans vocalist/guitarist John Fogerty and rhythm guitarist Tom Fogerty (the latter died in 1990), Clifford co-leads a successful touring band dubbed Creedence Clearwater Revisited. The quintet has been bringing Creedence hits to audiences around the globe since 1995, supported by guitarist/vocalist John Tristao, lead guitarist Kurt Griffey, and multi-instrumentalist Steve Gunner. Here, Cosmo tells MD about drumming on classic tracks from back in the day.
MD: What are some CCR songs that best represent your drumming strengths?
Doug: “Born on the Bayou” is my favorite for several reasons. The beauty is that it’s a quarter-note song, so there’s lots of space in there for it to move. I look at all these songs as living things. That’s my philosophical approach. In “Bayou” there’s so much power. As a drummer I have a very simple style, but I use a lot of fills. We’d always done it that way, because we started off as an instrumental trio, with Stu Cook on piano and John Fogerty on guitar. I used my left hand for little fill ideas to supplement the lack of a rhythm guitar. I played a lot with the guitar, and my concept was that whatever I played, it had to be musical and had to make sense for the song. It has to take the song somewhere or bring it back. It’s a simple, basic philosophy.
We were a die-hard American roots band in San Francisco right in the midst of all the psychedelia that was happening at the time. We had some psychedelic embellishments—more so on the first album—because we were trying to be hip and cool. We didn’t have any hits at that time, so we thought maybe if we put a little of that flavoring in there, it would help. That resulted in our first hit, “Suzie Q.” It was an eight-minute song that we had to cut in half to make a single. Our peers laughed at us and said, “You’ll never make it playing that music. You need to get with it, man!”
MD: Another impressive element of “Bayou” is that there’s zero harmonic movement, so the rhythm section has to make it all happen. And in CCR character, it’s socked in and solid but not in a click-track-feeling way.
Doug: I never played with a click track in my life. I just won’t do it. The great Al Jackson Jr. of Booker T & the MGs was a kind of mentor in terms of discussing these philosophies. We did thirty-one dates with them in America. When we hit the big time, we chose opening acts for our tours that we wanted to listen to every night. They were the house band for Stax. Their approach to playing was very basic. It grooved.
Al said to me, “What are your goals?” I said, “I want to be a metronome.” He said, “Why would you want to be a metronome? A metronome is a machine.” I said, “But I want to be on.” Al held up one finger. “Look,” he said, “here’s the beat. The right side of the finger is edging the beat—not going past it but a bit on that side of it. The left side is when you’re pulling it back, maybe from a solo and back into a verse, or from a chorus. Then there’s the middle of the finger. That’s okay too. It can be a verse or something else. You move these notes.”
Growing up, I had listened to Little Richard and heard those cats go into an instrumental section and they would just jump, all moving together. I mentioned that to Al, and he said, “We’re humans, that’s the beauty of it.” That’s one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received from another player. It helped me to be me. I don’t play perfect time. The groove is a living thing.
MD: CCR hit the bull’s-eye with so many infectious hits. What’s the magic formula for the rhythm section that evolved from your long pre-fame period?
Doug: I listened to what John was playing on guitar, and from that I would formulate what was going on in my upper body. My lower body was Stuey’s bass. I was connected to these two guys, with me being the middle. John’s topside part was the feel of the song. Connecting with Stuey on the foot pedal, I either worked with him or opposite. For instance, on “Suzie Q,” the bass drum pattern is real simple. I’m playing the accents. It’s a quarter-note song, but the foot is on 8th notes in between.
Sometimes the backbeat is on the front side of the “finger,” sometimes on the back. Quite honestly, it just happens. It’s not something I do consciously. Playing with Stuey, it’s like riding a bike; we’ve been doing it all our lives. We started the band at thirteen years of age! We learned to play our instruments together and to be a band together. That’s one of the things that gave us a unique sound. We were all on the same page, striving to get where we eventually ended up.
MD: “Fortunate Son” is very different feelwise from “Bayou.” As opposed to the “back” feel of “Bayou,” it has such an urgent edge. It just never lets up.
Doug: It had to be—it was an urgent song. It was about the inequities of the draft. Young guys like us were being taken from their homes and put in the jungles of Vietnam. Fifty-eight thousand of them didn’t come home. It was a very intense, real story line, and we transformed that into the song itself.
Another favorite track of mine is “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” That’s the closest that I came to playing a solo. Again, it’s back and forth between the lead guitar and me. It was our longest track, at over eleven minutes, so I had to do things to keep it interesting and moving. I used crashes on the backbeats a lot. It sets up the song: “I heard it through the grape-VINE.” Those little things guide and support a song; that was my role. The album track “Effigy” is also a favorite. It had a Band-type feel. It’s a powerful political song. There are a lot of drum fills as it builds instrumentally to the finale. Speaking of the Band, I’m honored to be included in an MD issue honoring the great Levon Helm.
MD: You make an unusual choice on “Who’ll Stop the Rain.” On the last verse, the backbeat drops out for a few bars and you just play bass drum and 16ths on the hi-hat. So when the backbeat suddenly drops back in, it feels even greater.
Doug: That was my idea to mix up the song a little bit. It was a powerful song about the Nixon administration: The “rain” was a metaphor for the reign of Nixon. I played a lot of 16th-note fills to imply a marching snare drum. John said he didn’t like that, but just to shut me up he kept them in. [laughs] I fought hard for that one. So, with all those fills, the cymbal breakdown helped to give it a breather and moved the song along nicely.
MD: CCR at its best sounded like a bunch of guys having a blast playing together in a room. That rootsy vibe is a part of today’s Americana ethos. It seems the approach that initially made you out of sync with psychedelia has helped the records endure.
Doug: I’d always proudly described us as the best garage band in the world. And now the Creedence Clearwater Revisited project is in its eighteenth year. I’m as flabbergasted as anybody. We have three generations coming to the show, which I find phenomenal. Now I see a fourth one—what we call the single-digiters! I never thought I would be doing this at this age. We’re traveling all over the world, and we don’t have the pressure of putting out a record next week. We’re just a “travelin’ band”!
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
MD: Your drums on the records have a very natural, open sound, sometimes with a nice bit of ring on the snare—it never sounds compressed. Was that a conscious production decision or just a result of recording as live as possible?
Doug: It was pretty much just the way it was. I had a basic four-piece kit with one crash on the left side and a 22″ ride. I used the ride cymbal as a crash quite a bit. Another unique thing that I’ve been doing since 1969: I have 18″ hi-hats. In the old days—drum gear is made much stronger now—I had to go to the hardware store and buy a spring that would hold up their weight. With the storebought stand I couldn’t even open the hats! [laughs]
MD: Did you do it for volume or for a fatter sound?
Doug: A fatter sound. It gave me more options. I did a lot of things between the shank and tip of the stick. When I opened it, it sounded like a ride cymbal, but because the cymbals were touching, part of the sound would be these big cymbals washing back and forth against each other. When I played straight 8ths, it had one effect, but if I alternated between shank and tip it was like a crosscut saw. It added something really different. Most people never figured it out, even drummers! It’s a simple thing that had a life of its own, and I still use it.
Camco were the drums I played back in the day. They went out of business, but their operations were bought out by Drum Workshop, which I play now. On my kit today I’ve added a middle tom and a crash on the left—I’ve added two pieces in fortyfour years! I’ve used Paiste cymbals since 1969. [Clifford’s cymbals include, from left, a set of 18″ hi-hats featuring a Signature Full crash on top and a Signature Power Crash underneath, an 18″ Giant Beat, an 18″ Signature Power crash, and a 22″ Signature Blue Bell ride.] I’m their oldest endorser—or should I say longest endorser. [laughs] I also use Vic Firth 2B nylon-tip sticks.