The de-evolution of the drum machine

Alan Myers died today, aged 58. A talented guy and a sad loss to the music business.

It was Myers who was responsible for the robotic drum sounds on all the early Devo albums. That’s right – their classic sound wasn’t done by drum machine. His playing was cleverer than that. Giving the lie to the usual conceit of the day that drummers were a dying breed.

Close-up of the filter controls of my Moog - er - quantum healing device...
Part of my Micromoog’s main panel. A Moog Model 2080, S/N 2177 – made in Moog’s Williamsville N.Y. factory. Has anybody reading this been to that town?

Got me thinking. On the surface, drum machines looked compelling in the early 1980s. Synth-pop bands sprouted with Ensoniq Mirage samplers, Yamaha DX-7’s , the occasional Roland (Jupiter or Juno), 64-note sequencers and the inevitable Linn Drum Machine. Scritti Politti, Tears for Fears, Kajagoogoo, Thompson Twins – and the rest. Some of their drum machines even had names. Echo, used by Echo and the Bunnymen. Or Doktor Avalanche, which drummed for the Sisters of Mercy.

Luckier bands had access to the Fairlight CMI – a Sydney-built computer-synth that did everything, as long as you liked 8-bit samples. That’s where Frankie Goes to Hollywood got their sound from (if you know their songs, THAT orchestra hit is No. 5, and it’s sampled from Stravinski’s Firebird Suite).

Against this avalanche of eighties ‘high tech’, it seemed real drummers were as obsolete as analog speedometers, clocks and watches. Dinosaurs. Make way for the New Future – digital displays, automatic drummers. It was inevitable. Get with the programme!

Of course, you only had to listen to somebody like Terry Bozzio to realise just how rubbish the notion was. Check out his ‘Hands with a Hammer’, or what he does with Zappa’s ‘The Black Page’. And then there’s Simon Phillips – who can play dissonant rhythms with each hand.

The real problem is that drum machines were framed around the notion that drumming was just a kind of elevated click-track – a punctuation beneath the music. Whereas in reality, drums are a musical instrument of their own, just like any other, and they have to be treated as such. Drum machines couldn’t improvise, they couldn’t humanise – not properly – and they soon faded. Today – have drummers died off, inevitably out-evolved? Not a bit of it. They are as essential as they always were – true musicians who do so much to make modern music what it is.

But then, some of us knew that back in the 1980s. We only had to listen to Myers.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


3 thoughts on “The de-evolution of the drum machine

  1. My husband used to sing in a band back in the day. They used a real live drummer. However, over the years, I heard those machines a number of times. I think I’ll always prefer a live drummer. They can put their soul into the music that a machine simply is not capable of doing. It can only be technically correct.

    1. It’s that word – soul – that sums it up. Automatic drums don’t have it. I guess the point was true of a lot about the 1980s; I recall the decade well, and we seemed to have been so taken then by what we fancied to be ‘high tech’ that we forgot the humanity that is so essential to everything we do. Especially music.

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