Quest For Flour
...or, Andy Duncan's search for the self raising drum kit.
Or, when does a drum kit stand on its own 12 feet?
This magazine has always prided itself on its dedication to the Great Issues of our time. Already we can point doubters to our fearless investigations of the social relevance of the Fantom, the practical application of the Sabian and of course, the aesthetic qualities of the 40 gallon oil drum.
Yet even by these dizzying standards, this month's edition must surely be faced only by those with a stout heart, a strong stomach and a ready supply of clean underwear because we are going to face a problem that has afflicted drummers since the dawn of time itself, since the first amoeba grooved through the primal soup with its (waterproof) personal hi-fi, since the first amphibian roller skated out of the water with its ghetto blaster perched (fishing gag there) just behind the gills.
Picture, if you will, the scene. Neolithic man squats in the dust just outside the family cave. He's an inquisitive sort and having discovered the secret of fire a week last Tuesday he's bored and restless. He needs a new challenge.
Suddenly and for no apparent reason, a light bulb flashes into life above his head. Unaware that he is ignoring the chance to invent electricity several thousand years ahead of time, he leaps into action.
Pausing only to grab his flint hammer and chisel he dives into the cave. For several minutes we hear the sound of furious hammering and before you can say Piltdown Man he staggers out into the daylight bearing what can only be described as a stone drum.
As the hours pass the stone drum becomes one of several. Soon stone cymbals and stands adorn the collection and our hero eventually emerges with the final component elements, the stone stool and a pair of smart bone sticks.
Parking himself on the ground for a quick cough and a drag, he is contemplating the fruits of his labour and a new and infinitely more sophisticated problem occurs; how can he set up this new invention to get the best out of it with the least effort?
Already he is trapped in the ultimate dilemma. Soon he will discover that his prototype kit is useless as stone doesn't resonate, but he has plenty of time to improve his materials since he's going to have to hang around for quite a while until someone invents the electric guitar and, eventually, music.
Throughout history, the hapless drummer has been plagued by the problems of setting up. At the court of King Arthur it was having to play in a suit of armour that caused all the trouble. If the stool position was set too low, then the drummer was unable to get up without assistance, dangerous in the event of fire, riot, declaration of war or a lucky windfall during the bingo.
At the banquets of Henry VIII all concerned were obliged to stuff their trousers with sawdust so that they were able to stay put and carry on partying when the call of nature might otherwise have had them hopping off to ye gents. This left the medieval drummer with stiff, straight immobile (and probably damp) legs, so once again the high stool setting was combined with long distance from the bass drum to create a feasible playing position.
At Versailles, where a carelessly blown handkerchief could cause offence, Louis XIV's drummer had to be very careful where he placed his stool. If he preferred to sit facing the hi hat, then he might be seen to be turning his back on a certain unfavoured group.
This was the origin of the extremely low stool setting combined with vertically angled cymbals which caused no offence to anyone since the drummer was thus almost totally obscured from view, save for the occasional glimpse of a flapping silver wig tail or the wave of a scented drumstick.
As well as bending over backwards to conform to social convention, the drummer's set up has been equally influenced by great achievements in other spheres.
During the Renaissance, Italian drummers took to playing on their backs, believing that by emulating the position of Michelangelo when he painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling (one afternoon, two coats!) they too might be inspired.
This involved fixing the entire kit on to a large board which was then tipped up at the front end, forming a right angle with the ground. The drummer, lying on a plank, was then lowered into position from above by a block and tackle.
This severe practice was eventually curtailed by a fatal accident to Ringo Da Vinci, a distant cousin of the famous inventor (who, incidentally, left sketches of a flying drum platform). He was decapitated by a falling cymbal which was loosened by vigorous playing and eventually broke free during a wild lute solo at the end of "Roll Over Da Vinci And Tell Botticelli The News", a song dedicated (with tragic irony) to his celebrated relative.
After the horrors of the First World War, the Dada movement set out to ridicule convention and caused a sensation by exhibiting toilet seats in Art galleries. The drummer, ever morally forthright, wasn't far behind. Gigs rapidly dissolved into chaos as the snare drum was set in a symbolically unplayable position on top of a stepladder, the high hat was laid impotently on its side, the bass drum heaved sacrificially into the front row of the stalls and its pedal removed solemnly to an adjoining building.
Nor had the drummer flinched when I called upon by his fellows to adjust his set-up for King and country. No schoolboy could fail to be stirred by the tale of the Wooden Drum, a miraculous escape from a German prisoner of war camp during the Second World War, devised by Alf "Basher" Wilcox, the ingenious camp drummer.
The plan he evolved was a masterpiece of organisation which relied upon split second timing (something Alf knew all about!) and some nifty brushwork during the last chorus of "I've Got A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts" (to this day an unsubstantiated claim).
This was how it worked: by resorting to the old Navaho Indian trick of pleading and begging, Alf was able to convince the commandant that the only way to keep the shambolic playing of the camp band in time was to set up facing them from the front of the stage. Being classically Teutonic, the said officer was a stickler for precision and the band was thus a source of great embarrassment to him. He agreed.
This meant that Alf could set his bass drum directly over the trap door in the stage beneath which lay the entrance to the projected escape tunnel. As he moved the kit onstage prior to each evening's concert, members of the reed section would see the diminutive frame of Bernie "The Mole" Arrowsmith curled up inside the bass drum.
As the band swung into action, Bernie would open a hatch in the bottom of the drum, wriggle down through the trap door and start work on the tunnel. Good timekeeping was essential as each thwack of Basher's snare drum had to conceal each clomp of The Mole's shovel.
As soon as Bernie had filled his trousers with earth, he would climb back into the bass drum. At this point the pair's doubling ability came into play. Alf fancied himself as something of a conjuror and would apparently materialise The Mole from out of nowhere with a graceful sweep of his Catering Corps apron.
The Mole, hands reclining informally in his pockets, would then launch himself into a dazzling tap dancing routine, carefully allowing small amounts of earth to trickle out of his trouser legs as he did so.
At the end of the number, to deafening applause, Basher would make The Mole "disappear" until another two legfuls were ready for dispersal. By this method (and with diligent aprés gig sweeping up) the lads were ultimately able to complete their tunnel undetected.
The commandant was delighted at the band's improved timekeeping and announced to his minions that he was glad that he had ordered the lazy Englanders to try out his revolutionary set-up. Already promotion, Berlin and the Fuhrer (a renowned amateur drummer) were beckoning in his mind's eye.
On the night of the escape. Basher explained that he would make the entire band disappear, one by one, during his arrangement of "West Side Story" (a joke on the assembled German guards since it hadn't been written yet). Eventually only Basher and his metronome (installed at his insistance to demonstrate the band's new found ability) remained. Bowing graciously he then limboed smartly into the bass drum, leaving the Huns to be happily entertained by the brisk clicking of the metronome. By the time its clockwork mechanism had run down, and the Germans had applauded, rushed backstage with their autograph books and realised what had happened, Alf and the boys were long gone.
Yet even two World Wars have failed to eradicate the problem of the most favourable set-up. Still we scratch our heads as we contemplate which stool location will offer the most uplifting view of the old aristocratic profile. Did those thousands of drummers sacrifice their all (and in some cases even their kits) in vain?
Not if this magazine has anything to do with it. We have pledged ourselves to leave no stone unturned in our search for the Nirvana of the FSU. The Fab Set Up. After years of study and careful preparation, including the translation of Egyptian engravings, the examination of Greek Vases and the successful cloning of an entire new drummer from some of Charlie Watts' toenail clippings, we are ready.
Check the pointers listed below and question. Probe. Improve. Yes, the FSU is just around the next corner. Here we go:
1. When you set the height and position of your stool, can you (a) still get a good view of your admiring invited guests as they languish in the wings while still being able to (b) simultaneously clock your admiring fans in the front rows as they crave the excitement of an acknowledging smile?
2. When you set the height and angle of your snare drum, can you (a) dash off a Rockabilly backbeat without the risk of fetching either leg a nasty wallop during moments of musical abandon while (b) still offering more than a nose up view of your expensive clobber and majestic physique?
3. When you set the height and angle of your tom toms, can you (a) flash around them at breakneck speed without skinning your knuckles on the snare, hi hat or tom rims while (b) still keeping them at the optimum angle for bouncing the odd stick at recalcitrant members of the road crew who might be attempting to grab 40 winks or belittle your choice of socks?
4. When you set the adjustment on your bass drum pedal, can you (a) play it with such dynamism that you part the hair of those assembled headbangers at the front who catch the air pressure of every beat, without; requiring such physical effort on your part (disgusting) that you risk either (b) spoiling the crease in your smart, one-piece, orange glitter suit or (c) causing unnecessary wear and tear to your platform soled, crocodile skin boots?
5. When you set the height, angle and position of your cymbals, can you (a) mute one crash cymbal with your teeth while belting the others without (b) rising from stool (uncool) and still be able to (c) use them as a screen to obscure your view of fellow band members who owe you money or pull ugly faces when playing?
6. When choosing a spot to set up and adjusting the entire kit in relation to itself, can you (a) make it swiftly to a back door in the event of an unfavourable audience reaction while (b) still having a clear view of your manager as he attempts to make off with the night's takings while (c) being able to guarantee hitting something as you lash wildly out in the distracting process of espying the said villain?
If you can say "yes" to all that lot, then you are obviously in need of psychiatric help and must be denied the use of sharp instruments or access to high buildings in the interim. So just to pass the time, here's a quick quiz:
A: Why did Keith Moon set his tone so flat?
B: Why does Buddy Rich sit so high up?
C: Why does Steve Gadd sit so low?
D: Why does Larry Tolfree (Joe Jackson) set up a floor tom on either side of himself?
E: Who said "The audience were with us all the way, but we shook them off at the bus stop?"
Answers — A: To keep his cooling supply of water on the skins. B: So that he can intimidate the audience with the combined view of his fast hands and his grimacing boat race. C: Because he's a pro. He knows the less that can see the less they can aim at. D: Because he's an idiot. E: Me.
Feature by Andy Duncan
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