Great ’80s Drum Performances

Part 1: New-Wavers and Classic Rockers

by Adam Budofsky

The era known as the ’80s, roughly the period between the dawn of punk and rap in the late ’70s and the rise of indie rock and hair metal in the middle of the next decade, was a time of great change in pop culture. Like the fashion of the day, the songs—and, by extension, the drumming on them—were largely about big, bold statements that were fun and memorable, and perhaps most important, sounded new.

Though the ’80s are still sometimes maligned as a time when music retreated creatively, the following tracks, and those in subsequent parts of this feature series, tell a different story. Many of the cuts we examine this month were hugely successful radio hits in their day, and nearly all of them are the work of top-level drummers successfully expanding upon, and in some cases brilliantly simplifying, the strides of their ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s predecessors. While future chapters will highlight tracks from R&B, jazz, metal, and other genres, here we focus on artists associated with the oft-misunderstood category dubbed new wave, as well as several already established acts that, in their own unique ways, successfully appropriated some of that style’s artistic principles.

Big Country
“In a Big Country”
Big Country“Big Country’s music was very Celtic and anthemic,” Mark Brzezicki once said in a Modern Drummer interview, “and it stirred me to approach it in a slightly military way.” Indeed, this leadoff track (and single) from the Scottish quartet’s 1983 debut album, The Crossing, charges out of the gate with six measures of the drummer’s unaccompanied beat, which goes far to set the tone, not only for the song but for the band’s whole aesthetic. “My rudimental playing might be quite bad if you judge it according to formal pipe band standards,” Brzezicki explained, “but I adopted that kind of feel while incorporating some funk patterns on the bass drum. I had this idea for ‘In a Big Country’ to use a ‘Let’s Dance’–type bass drum pattern with a constant five-stroke roll happening on the snare, and getting the hi-hat in as well to produce a dance feel. Producer Steve Lillywhite was very open-minded; if it was different, he wanted it on a record. It was stirring and passionate to match Big Country’s songs; it helped to give the band an identity.”
“Sunday Bloody Sunday”
U2 Sunday Bloody SundayAlso in 1983, Larry Mullen Jr. had perhaps an even more explicit reason to take a “military” approach to this number-seven single from the Irish group U2’s third album, War. The song, inspired by the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland known as “the Troubles,” also begins with a solo drumbeat, one of the most identifiable in rock history and a favorite among drummers. In the August 1985 issue of MD, U2 lead singer Bono said that Mullen’s playing early on was “florid,” in the mold of Keith Moon, but that he “devolved” in a sense, learning that less can mean more. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is as good an example of that concept as any.

Clem BurkeAnd then there’s this track, from the New York/New Jersey band Blondie, featuring the unabashed Keith Moon fanatic Clem Burke. Like many of Blondie’s biggest hits, the lead single from the group’s fourth album, Eat to the Beat, smartly updates elements of ’60s music, in this case Brill Building girl-group pop and swinging-London-style blazers like “I Can See for Miles” and “Leaving Here.” Effectively a three-minute tribute to the nearly nonstop style that Moon was famous for, particularly in concert, “Dreaming” finds Burke spattering fills pretty much throughout the entire tune, except, somewhat perversely, during the fade-out, where drummers are often tossed a bone and “allowed” to do their thing. “Honestly, even I was surprised that one got through like that,” Burke told MD in June of ’99. “But we were on a roll then, so producer Mike Chapman kind of gave us free rein on Eat to the Beat. So we were like, ‘Let’s go for it!’”

Elvis Costello and the Attractions
“Lipstick Vogue”
“When I was young,” Pete Thomas told Modern Drummer in December of 1995, “I used to hitchhike out to Mitch Mitchell’s house. He was my hero, and he lived in this house not too far from where I grew up. I used to stand by the gate, and eventually I got asked in and he showed me around. It was the greatest thing.” It’s not hard to hear a little of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s legendary drummer in this track from Elvis Costello’s second album, This Year’s Model, which was the first to feature his long-running group the Attractions. Thomas fiercely attacks the snare and toms throughout the recording, providing an urgency that defined much of the post-punk music that flooded the American market in the wake of revolutionary bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols.
the Knack
“My Sharona”
Bruce GarySpeaking of urgency… This classic from L.A.’s the Knack is practically bursting at the seams with teenage angst, and the late, great drummer Bruce Gary communicates that vibe with an avalanche of full-set fusillades. Like many of the songs on this list, “My Sharona”—an iconic new-wave track if ever there was one—begins with the drums pounding out the main riff’s rhythmic base sans accompaniment. Unlike most of the tracks in this roundup, however, “My Sharona,” from the group’s debut 1979 album, Get the Knack, features an extended guitar solo. No navel-gazing ’60s exercise here, though; the section is a steadily building, hugely exciting trip that Gary swings into bad health, double-timing it near the end and sending listeners into aural ecstasy. The Knack would never reach these heights again, artistically or commercially, but we should be wholly satisfied that the band gifted us with this much sheer energy—and provided such a timeless platform for Gary’s talents.
the Pretenders
“Tattooed Love Boys”
The original lineup of American expat Chrissie Hynde’s Pretenders was an endlessly adaptable ensemble. British drummer Martin Chambers slugs it out ferociously on the band’s self-titled 1980 debut, even on tricky tracks like this one, which features alternating bars of seven and eight. New wave rarely sounds more adventurous or incendiary than it does here.
Adam and the Ants
Adam And The AntsUnder the tutelage of Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, the British new-wave band Adam and the Ants presented a highly stylized sound and appearance, a mix of punky guitars, chanted choruses, and faux-African rhythms. McLaren soon nicked the entire band—and its unusual sound—and began a new outfit, Bow Wow Wow. But lead singer Adam Ant simply hired new players, including dual drummers Chris Hughes (aka Merrick) and Terry Lee Miall. The pair’s Burundi-inspired beats—all rimclicks and pounding floor toms—still sound fresh today, as evidenced by this popular track from 1980’s Kings of the Wild Frontier album, which was reissued this year as a deluxe double CD package.
the Icicle Works
“Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream)”
You can still hear this track often on ’80s-style radio, and for a number of good reasons. Not least is Chris Sharrock’s gloriously pounding rhythm track, featuring timbale and backwards-sounding snare overdubs, gargantuan snare accents, and a continuous bed of tom singles and doubles. Like so many new-wave groups, Icicle Works hit the U.S. charts in a major way only once, but if you have to strike gold a single time, this is a noble way to do it. Sharrock went on to join several other notable acts, including the La’s, World Party, Del Amitri, Robbie Williams, and Oasis.
the Cure
“Just Like Heaven”
The Cure Just Like HeavenWhen Boris Williams joined the legendary British band the Cure in time to record 1985’s breakout album The Head on the Door, he brought a higher level of sophistication to the band’s drum chair. By the time of ’87’s double album Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, he was fully integrated into the group’s idiosyncratic style. The hit single “Just Like Heaven” features many of Williams’ charms, including his stylish and integrated use of China cymbals, solid time sense, and fondness for a nimble floor-tom-to-crash-on-the-2 maneuver.
Simple Minds
“Don’t You (Forget About Me)”
Mel GaynorAnother ’80s band that can claim one gargantuan U.S. hit, Scotland’s Simple Minds has in fact enjoyed a fruitful career of nearly forty years. Longtime drummer Mel Gaynor has left the group a couple times during its long run, but he’s consistently manned the throne for the past fifteen-odd years now. He’s also the drummer whose stomping beat and tasty fills largely define this track from the soundtrack of 1985’s famous coming-of-age film The Breakfast Club. Gaynor can rightfully lay claim to one of the great air-drumming moments in pop history, the nimble snare-centric fill at the end of the tune’s quiet breakdown section. Listen carefully for the subtle double crash at its conclusion—classy stuff.
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”
DevoChances are, no one’s ever described Devo as classy, but that doesn’t mean the group from Akron, Ohio, didn’t possess copious charms of its own. Before they crashed unexpectedly into Middle America’s living rooms with the truly strange MTV video for 1980’s synth-heavy megahit “Whip It,” drummer Alan Myers and crew were a more guitar-oriented punk band—if an extremely odd one with a singularly well-thought-out worldview that provided the basis for their lyrics, visuals, and sound. This take on the famous Rolling Stones hit, from 1978’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, is one of the great pop covers of all time, and a significant reason is Myers’ choppy factory-floor drumbeat, which completely reimagines Charlie Watts’ original groove to immensely fun effect.
Missing Persons
“U.S. Drag”
Terry Bozzio
photo by Ebet Roberts
Missing Persons put the new in new wave more aggressively than most. Putting aside the band’s avant-garde visual appeal, the music these musos concocted was, for a short time at least, utterly fresh, matching singsong melodies, squeaky girl-group exclamations, and rhythmic sophistication far beyond your average pop band’s. Terry Bozzio, a veteran of Frank Zappa and the Brecker Brothers’ bands, as well as the modern-leaning prog supergroup U.K., was able to filter all his interests through MP’s aesthetic, and this track is a classic example of how he applied his adventurous inclinations. The main 6/4 groove of “U.S. Drag,” from the band’s 1982 debut LP, Spring Session M, deceives the ear: Wait, where’s the 1? Oh, there it is. Odd turnarounds in the vocal sections further throw us off balance, but the darned thing still grooves like mad. Search YouTube for Bozzio playing “U.S. Drag” live, and marvel at how fully he throws himself into his performance—and then how he takes an over-the-top solo at the outro. Some kind of a drumming bar is raised here, some kind of a border moved.
New Order
“Age of Consent”
New Order consisted of the surviving members of Joy Division, the Manchester, England, band featuring singer Ian Curtis, who took his own life in 1980 on the eve of the group’s first U.S. tour. The new act successfully shed the musical ghosts of Joy Division with its second album, 1983’s Power, Corruption, and Lies. Much of this progress was aided by the increasing adventurousness of drummer Stephen Morris, who began to embrace electronics while continuing to challenge himself with double-handed multi-surface workouts like the one on leadoff track “Age of Consent.” Morris’s hypnotic yet surprisingly nuanced beats can be great fun to play at the kit, and “Age of Consent,” with its brisk pace, alternating left- and right-hand snare hits, and pounding four-on-the-floor bass drum, is one of his best.
The Police
photo by Ebet Roberts
the Police
“Message in a Bottle”
Ask drummers to tell you the first name they think of when you say “the ’80s,” and it’s a good bet Stewart Copeland will be the answer. The Police became one of the decade’s most iconic bands by blending post-punk attitude with third-world rhythms—a subject that Copeland, the son of an American CIA officer and a Scottish archaeologist, was familiar with due to his having grown up in the Middle East. “Message in a Bottle,” the opening track on the Police’s 1979 sophomore album, Reggatta de Blanc, features many elements of Copeland’s much-lauded style—a skittering and driving rhythm, offbeat snare and tom accents, playful rimclick work, and surprisingly timed fills like the classic one at 3:41 during the outro.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
“Here Comes My Girl”
Hitting the charts in the late ’70s just as new-wave bands began to draw attention in the States, Florida native Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers melded a soulful vibe to heartland Americana, but with enough of a modern flavor that they still made sense in a scene that welcomed Elvis Costello and the Ramones. Drummer Stan Lynch was featured on all of the Heartbreakers’ albums through the early ’90s, and this track from the group’s hit 1979 third release, Damn the Torpedoes, benefits greatly from his sensual groove, impeccable time, and song intelligence. Lynch plays it cool throughout but still manages to provide just enough tweaking at the fadeout that without even being aware of it, you look forward to his repeated snare fills and nudging crash cymbal hits every time the song comes on the radio.
Billy Joel
“It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”
Liberty DeVitto
photo by Steven A Weiss
Another long-serving drummer to a ’70s-into-’80s megastar, Liberty DeVitto came to prominence on elaborate Billy Joel tracks like “Captain Jack,” “Prelude/Angry Young Man,” and “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” Joel only got bigger in the ’80s, adapting to the world of short haircuts and three-minute pop nuggets with a seemingly endless string of hits, including this track from 1980’s Glass Houses. The lyrical sentiment is clear, but Joel has his cake and eats it too, arranging the song in a contemporary way, with DeVitto staying completely away from cymbals in the verses, even down to avoiding the common crash at the end of the super-dry, in-your-face tom fills. When Liberty enters the bridge section with sloshy hi-hat accents on the 2 and 4, it’s that much more powerful due to the previous absence of bronze—but he doesn’t linger long, pulling the hats right back tight in perfect service of the song’s dynamic downshift. He then ends the section with a long, brash 16th-note fill, again avoiding the crash at the end.
Max Weinberg
photo by Max Goldenberg
Bruce Springsteen
“Born in the U.S.A.”
Yet another ’70s icon who fared well in the following decade, Bruce Springsteen ruled the music world in 1984. The often misunderstood title track to his seventh album, Born in the U.S.A., featured the E Street Band’s “Mighty” Max Weinberg slamming out the kind of anthemic beat and cascading fills that earned him his nickname. As Springsteen moved past the wordplay and involved arrangements of his ’70s records, his music became less self-consciously clever and more direct, and Weinberg reacted accordingly, finding inspiration in Bruce’s workingman rock.
Steve Smith and Kenny Aronoff
photo by Lissa Wales
“Don’t Stop Believin’”
“When coming up with drum parts for the tunes we did in Journey,” Steve Smith says in part two of his self-titled Alfred instructional video, “I had the luxury of being in at the ground floor as the tunes were being written. I’d try to think of clever ways to make it sound more interesting for me, the song itself, and the listeners. [‘Don’t Stop Believin’’] is an example of a tune where I got to really put some of my own personality onto the drum part.” Smith did that by weaving the cymbal bell and the toms into the main beat while keeping the hi-hat going with his left hand. The result is a track that delivers the goods all the way to the back of the arena but also allows for a level of sophistication missing from many ’80s anthems. The approach has placed the tune among drummers’ all-time favorite tracks to cover.
Pete Townshend
“Give Blood”
One of the most flexible and consistent drummers to come out of England in the ’70s, Simon Phillips was an intriguing choice to support the solo work of Pete Townshend, whose long musical relationship with Keith Moon in the Who was perhaps the most explosive and unpredictable in rock history. Townshend’s solo albums allowed him the opportunity to try things outside of the Who’s comfort zone, though, and this track from 1985’s White City, featuring Phillips’ total control of ghost notes and penchant for elegantly dropping out backbeats at just the right times, is a highlight of the guitarist’s post-Who work. “I’m always looking for something a little different to do,” Phillips told Modern Drummer in December of 1986. “[The drum part] needed to be something that wasn’t too complicated, where the backbeat would cut through but there were other things happening that would chug it along. At clinics I’m always asked about the little notes that you sort of hear. I like that sort of playing, as well as keeping a good ‘crack’ going.”
the Power Station
“Some Like It Hot”
Tony Thompson
photo by Rick Gould
Featuring soulful British singer Robert Palmer and members of the new-wave hit-makers Duran Duran, the Power Station—named for the famous New York studio where the group’s self-titled 1985 debut was recorded—benefitted greatly from the wallop of ex-Chic drummer Tony Thompson. “Those rooms at the Power Station are so big and resonant that a 10″ mounted tom ends up sounding like a big floor tom,” Thompson told MD in his December 1985 cover story. And sure enough, the drummer’s explosive beats and tumbling hard-funk fills come on like mini explosions in the mix, making it a hugely powerful and appealing drum performance.
John Cougar
“Jack & Diane”
John Cougar Mellencamp achieved his greatest artistic heights on 1985’s Scarecrow, featuring the impossibly solid thumping of his regular drummer, Kenny Aronoff. But Aronoff had earned a permanent place in our hearts a few years earlier, on this hit from 1982’s American Fool. Another ’80s production that achieves a certain power precisely because of the exclusion of cymbals (there’s a lesson there, kids), “Jack & Diane” is partially famous for Aronoff’s classic air-drumming moment at 2:30, a tumbling two-bar fill that, sure, is nothing fancy on the surface of it but is brilliant nonetheless. And maybe that’s Aronoff’s genius—a highly educated musician, the drummer went on to become one of the most successful freelance musicians of all time by knowing the exact sweet spot where advanced technique and bald-faced hookiness meet.
“The Spirit of Radio”
Rush Spirit of RadioThere are other cuts that Neil Peart–o-philes inevitably mention when asked for their faves. But it’s tough to overstate the level of appreciation that classic-rock fans have for “The Spirit of Radio,” from Rush’s 1980’s release, Permanent Waves. That album finds the progressive Canadian trio dabbling in new-wave flavors, and its opening track, which tore out of FM radios with its opening salvo of roundhouse fills, perfectly balances pop hooks with Rush’s famous sense of adventure. (It even clocks in a second or two under five minutes!) Peart is the expected picture of technical authority, from his pristine ride cymbal pinging to his turn-on-a-dime control during the feel shift at 3:36.
Van Halen
“Hot for Teacher”
Alex Van HalenSong intros don’t get much wilder or woolier than this one from the legendary L.A. band Van Halen’s sixth album, 1984 (named, naturally, for the year it was released). The song begins with Alex Van Halen pounding out a fairly complex floor tom pattern featuring the ever-popular hairta rudiment, played over shuffling double bass drums. Add some tom hits and then a driving ride cymbal, and you’ve got one of the most classic drum tracks of the ’80s—or any decade.
Jeff Porcaro
photo by Randy Bachman
“When I first heard [Toto keyboard player] David Paich play ‘Rosanna,’” Jeff Porcaro told Modern Drummer in February of 1983, “the Bo Diddley groove was very obvious. Because the tune was a shuffle feel, I felt that the half-time shuffle thing would feel the best. The tune also reminded me of New Orleans–type second-line drumming.” Porcaro went on to share written exercises to help MD readers figure out his beloved drum part, saying that now we’d be able to “rip off” the same beats from John Bonham and Bernard Purdie that he’d borrowed years earlier. But as most of us are painfully aware, knowing how to play a famous beat and performing it as well as a legend like Jeff Porcaro are two very different things. But we can try. We can always try.
Phil Collins
“In the Air Tonight”
Phil Collins
photo by Lisa Tanner
Slithering along ominously for nearly four minutes before the drumkit finally kicks in, Genesis drummer/lead singer Phil Collins’ debut solo single, from 1981’s Face Value, is to many ears the iconic drum track of the decade. After a slow build featuring a tricky Roland CR-78 drum machine loop and some ominous synths and lead guitar, Collins brings his vocal to a boil and gives way to “the fill.” You know the one. Made up of a three-note grouping between the toms and bass drum, and ending with two thunderous floor tom hits, it breaks the tension with a bang, ushering in a groove of just kick and snare with some spicy ghost notes thrown in. It’s actually only the first of many wicked fills, a succession of variants that blur the downbeats with the hippest kick, tom, and snare combos you’d likely hear on Top 40 radio then or today. And the sound of the drums was almost as shocking as the part itself. The “gated reverb” approach actually originated a year earlier, when Collins and engineer Hugh Padgham were both working on former Genesis singer Peter Gabriel’s third album. Gabriel, who famously eliminated cymbals for the recording, noticed how cool Collins’ drums sounded through the control room talkback mic in Townhouse Studios’ “stone room.” Besides inspiring a million air-drumming moments, “In the Air Tonight” led legions of engineers down a path to re-create the song’s unique sonic properties.
Thanks to Modern Drummer contributor Ilya Stemkovsky and Howard Massey’s excellent book The Great British Recording Studios on the “In the Air Tonight” entry.