Stepping Out From The Stool: Drummers Who Became Frontmen
If the endless cliched drummer jokes have taught us anything, it's that most people are simply jealous of the beatmaker. If the number of iconic musicians who make up this list teach us on top of that, it's that some drummers get past all those punchlines and prove they're the most talented thing about their respective outfits. From the time-keepers to the skin-beaters, we take a look at the men who stepped out from behind the drumkit and stole the limelight in the process. Besides, how many singers became drummers? Exactly.
Originally a member of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, the man John Lennon described as “not even the best drummer in The Beatles” went on to have a successful post-Beatles career as a frontman. Known for his composed drumming and off-kilter fills, Starr was recently ranked as the fifth best drummer of all time by Rolling Stone; but his time since the Fab Four has been pretty memorable as well. In 1970, the year The Beatles called it quits, Ringo released two of his own albums: Sentimental Journey and the country-tinged Beaucoups of Blues, which was commercially successful, as was
, his 1973 album. Aside from releasing no less than seventeen solo records (Ringo 2012 being the latest), and consistently touring the world with his All-Starr Band, Starr has also dabbled in acting, directing, furniture design, and most importantly was the original voice for Thomas the Tank Engine.
As drummer for Silverchair, Ben Gillies was often overlooked musically, with far more attention being paid to frontman Daniel Johns’ songwriting and bouts with depression and anorexia. While Silverchair went on hiatus in 2003, most people will remember Johns’ work with Paul Mac in The Dissociatives, but perhaps not Ben Gillies brief spell with a pre-Australian Idol winner Wes Carr in Tambalane, which was described as “the passable demo of some new local high-school band.” Now that Silverchair are on ‘indefinite hibernation’, Gillies has since dropped the sticks, picked up the mic and will release his first solo record under the moniker Bento. Gillies claimed he’s written swags of songs over the years, but it’s only post-Silverchair that he’s found the time to bring them to life. Calling Bento’s forthcoming debut: “An album of self-discovery, of finding myself.”
The man responsible for more Top 40 hits throughout the 1980s than any other artist, Phil Collins may very well go down as the world’s most famous drumming frontman. In 1970, after responding to a Melody Maker ad calling for a “drummer sensitive to acoustic music” to join the Peter Gabriel-fronted Genesis, Collins became their full-time drummer and part-time backing vocalist. This line-up recorded and toured three albums together before Peter Gabriel quit to pursue his own solo career. After a lengthy search for Gabriel’s replacement, the band decided none of the 400+ candidates could do the job, and instead recruited ex-King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford to pick up the sticks while Collins became the band’s permanent frontman. Their subsequent album A Trick of The Tail became the band’s first international hit. His career with Genesis and on his own catapulted him into an elite group featuring only himself, Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson, as the only solo musicians to sell over 100 million albums worldwide.
Long before he was heralded as the ‘Godfather of Punk’, Jim Osterberg Jnr was a freshman in Ann Arbour, and a drummer in local band The Iguanas, which earned him the nickname Iggy. After dropping out of University and moving to Chicago, Iggy played in blues clubs under the guidance of Sam Lay (formally of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band). But after being inspired by a combination of The MC5, The Sonics, The Doors frontman Jim Morrison’s erratic stage persona, Iggy moved back to Michigan and began The Stooges with Ron and Scott Asheton and Dave Alexander. Combining the Asheton’s abrasive take on the blues with Iggy’s insane stage presence, The Stooges were at the time a commercial flop, but have since been regarded as one of rock’s most important acts. Iggy has been credited as the first performer to ever stage-dive; and his subsequent solo career was as erratic as his chemical intake, though he managed to sustain a career with his ferocious addiction to live performance. In 2003 The Stooges reformed with Mike Watt replacing the late Dave Alexander on bass, and at 65 Iggy still tours regularly, with The Stooges being finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010.
Originally from Forfar in Scotland, a 6-year-old Ronald Scott moved with his family to Melbourne, then to Fremantle, where after being rejected from the army at age 15 for being deemed ‘socially maladjusted’ he formed his first band, The Spektors. Predominantly performing covers, Scott was the group’s drummer and occasional lead singer, most notably he sang on their cover of Van Morirson’s ‘Gloria’. His career as a drummer was short lived, as he moved on to be the vocalist for The Valentines, Fraternity (which also featured Jimmy Barnes) and then finally AC/DC. In 1974 Bon Scott replaced Dave Evans at the front of AC/DC, and over the following six years the band steadily carved out an ever-larger fan base, with their 1979 classic Highway To Hell eventually reaching #17 on the U.S Billboard charts. However, while in London working on what would eventually become Back In Black, the 33-year-old Scott died after a night of heavy drinking. Back in Black was dedicated to Scott, and went on to become the second highest selling album of all time, while Bon Scott was rated by Classic Rock magazine as the greatest frontman of all time. Not bad for ‘socially maladjusted’ drummer ey?
Before he was known as the red-and-white-clad frontman of garage rock’s famous brother-and- (but-not-really-brother-and-sister) duo The White Stripes, John Anthony Gillis was the youngest of ten children in a Detroit family. He was also a drummer. At age six he picked up the sticks, and went on to drum in local band Goober and the Peas. Shortly thereafter however, he married Meg White, took her last name, changed his first name, and carved out a place for himself in rock and roll history with The White Stripes. He’s since returned to the kit, in the swamp-blues band The Dead Weather, as well as on his debut solo outing Blunderbuss; and previously on the theme song for the James Bond feature, Quantam of Solace, ‘Another Way to Die’ with Alicia Keys.
One of the great experimental musicians of the 20th century, Frank Zappa started his career in high school as a drummer in The Blackouts. Post-school, Zappa moved into a studio in L.A, affording rent by scoring films and performing drums with his band. But his love of obscure music lead him into the studio, where he would experiment for 12 hours every day, primarily on the electric guitar. He was approached in 1965 to join the Soul Giants as the new lead guitarist, but he quickly asserted himself as the true creative force and the band soon began playing Zappa’s music, earning them more gigs and a record contract. They changed their name to The Mothers of Invention and released their debut album Freak Out in 1966. The band, as well as Zappa’s solo works received tremendous critical acclaim, however commercial success eluded them, as Zappa’s satirical and more experimental ideas were difficult for most audiences. Posthumously however, he has been regarded as “rock and roll’s sharpest mind and most astute social critic” and one of the most prolific artists of his generation, releasing 62 albums during his career.
The only actual surfer in the Beach Boys, whose second album was titled Surfin’ USA, Dennis Wilson has been described as ‘the dark horse of The Beach Boys’. The middle-Wilson started his career in the band as merely the drummer and occasional part of their signature three-part harmonies, however his creative input increased as the sixties ended, with more of his own compositions finding their way onto 20/20, Sunflower and Holland. In 1977, he struck out on his own, releasing his debut solo album Pacific Ocean Blue to widespread critical acclaim and favourable record sales. More famously, nearly a decade earlier, In 1968, Wilson had the unfortunate coincidence of meeting Charles Manson. Initially a fan of his music, Wilson let Manson and his ‘family’ move into his house in Malibu; however up and left as he began to discover Manson’s tendency towards violence. Manson’s short stay with Wilson cost the Beach Boy over $100 000, as Wilson paid for food, their damages to his car, and for the treatment of Manson’s followers’ gonorrhoea.
Some people may recognise him as performing alongside Jarvis Cocker and Johnny Greenwood as a member of The Weird Sisters in the fourth Harry Potter film; but most will probably know Phil Selway as the concise and varied percussive mastermind of Radiohead. Known for his ability to embrace a myriad of musical styles in his drumming, Selway has spent as much time programming drum machines on Radiohead records as he has bashing the actual skins. In 2010, Selway stepped out from behind the drums to release his debut solo album Familial, inspired by his turn with Neil Finn’s collaborative New Zealand shows playing alongside members of Wilco. Selway’s solo outing was met with generally favourable reviews, and embraced more straightforward songwriting than anything the drummer had done with Radiohead in over 15 years.
As part of one of music’s most successful partnerships, Don Henley sold over 120 million albums as the drummer and occasional lead singer of The Eagles. Lead vocalist on hits such as ‘Hotel California’, ‘Desperado’ and ‘Life in the Fast Lane’, Henley went on to have a successful solo career after The Eagles called it quits in 1980. His 1984 hit single ‘Boys of Summer’ remaining a stone cold karaoke classic even back when it won Best Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards. Henley has been an avid environmentalist, a staunch supporter of musicians’ rights, and a staunch supporter of the Democrats, having donated over $600 000 to Presidential nominees, showing the Eagles drummer has always marched to his own beat.
By the time Joshua Tillman became the drummer for Fleet Foxes, he had already released four solo albums. He has since stated that his time in Fleet Foxes was effectively as an on-the-road session drummer, just learning the parts and performing them as best he could, by which stage they were two albums into their short-but-critically lauded career. He played his last show with them in January 2012, before driving around America’s Pacific Northwest in a van filled with magic mushrooms. What followed spawned the basis for his debut album under the Father John Misty moniker, this year’s Fear Fun. Having just toured the world (including Australia for Splendour in the Grass), Tillman’s place in this list shows that he is rare amongst a modern breed of drummers who have immediate success after stepping out from behind the kit.
As the drummer for The Band, Levon Helm and his charges enjoyed supporting Bob Dylan in 1966. They continued to tour as a backing band for the iconic singer-songwriter, until 1970, when they came into their own and began one of the most interesting on-again/off-again careers in musical history. The original lineup had its last show immortalised in the Martin Scorsese-helmed The Last Waltz in 1976. The band reconfigured (minus Robbie Robertson) in 1983, though founding member Richard Manuel was found dead after a 1986 concert. The Band continued under the guise until other original member, Rick Danko, died in 1999. After The Band had finally called it a day, Levon Helm began a successful solo career. Though he had recorded a solo album American Son in 1982, it wasn’t until 2007’s Grammy award winning Dirt Farmer that Helm had asserted himself as a true musical icon in his own right. He released another solo record, Electric Dirt in 2009, which also won him a Grammy award before passing away after a decades-long battle with cancer in April of 2012.
On top of his prolific recordings in his home studio, a basement in his partents’ house. The Sydney-sider was also the barrelling drummer of criminally underrated alternative rock band, Parades. Jonathan Boulet enjoyed moderate success in 2008, performing with the band at Peats Ridge, supporting Jebediah, all the while garnering high rotation on Triple J. However, once Boulet grew his beard and dropped his 2009 debut solo release, which saw him playing every instrument; he was destined for far greater heights. Currently on his first European tour in support of his second album, the long-winded We Keep The Beat, Found The Sound, See The Need, Start The Heart, Boulet is part of the Modular roster, the same label as the likes of Tame Impala, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Presets. Not yet 25, Jonathan Boulet is likely to enjoy a long and lofty career as one of Australia’s great multi-instrumentalists, whose first and last love is the pounding of the drums.
The world’s most famous drummer-come-frontman, Dave Grohl holds one of the greatest rock and roll resumes around. Check it out: drops out of school at 17 to join DC punk band Scream, tours with them for four years. Following their breakup he’s asked to audition for Nirvana, their subsequent album Nevermind makes them the biggest band on the planet, then after frontman Kurt Cobain’s death, Grohl heads out on his own, forms Foo Fighters, they become biggest band on the planet. Jealous? But like so many drummers who spent time up the front of the stage, the urge to bash those skins once again became too strong, and Grohl would spend time as the drummer for Queens of the Stone Age and Them Crooked Vultures; as well as performing as a session drummer for Tom Petty, Nine Inch Nails, The Prodigy and Tenacious D. You can take the drummer out of the stool it would seem, but not the drummer out of the man.
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