“You’re only as good as your drummer,” Clash singer/rhythm guitarist Joe Strummer lamented in their documentary Westway To The World, as he recounted Nicky “Topper” Headon’s firing ahead of 1982 breakthrough LP Combat Rock’s tour.
“Drumming…like nailing a nail into the floor,” he continued. “It’s so precise—the beat has to be there!”
Mind you, the Clash didn’t have any ordinary carpenter pounding those nails into their floor. His creative, swinging rat-a-tatting on his five-piece Pearl kit is a major reason the Clash stand on the shoulders of almost every other ‘70s punk band.
Punk rock was supposed to be rock ‘n’ roll stripped down to its primal essence, free of years of pretension to art. And rock ‘n’ roll is all about the beat. Most people think it’s about electric guitars. But the six strings require a solid foundation—a beat that drives all those distorted histrionics. That means you need a monster with a good sense of time in the engine room, driving the band with unflagging energy.
Great skill isn’t required. Remember: Punk’s premise was, “Anyone can do it!” But not everyone could, it turned out. At least a modicum of talent was required to rise above the other three-chord bashers out there. The best ‘70s punk timekeepers had some dexterity to do something other than beat the shit outta two and four. A bit of creativity was required to keep things interesting, at a level maybe just above a caveman pounding two rocks together.
Thus, it is our privilege to present Alternative Press’ list of the best drummers in ‘70s punk. Please enjoy our accompanying custom playlist as you read.
SIGNATURE MOVE: Some of punk’s best trap set bashers actually rose in the protopunk era. Think of the African, cymbal-less beats of the Velvet Underground’s Moe Tucker, the Stooges’ Scott “Rock Action” Asheton’s hard grooves and Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson’s Keith Moon-like detonations with the MC5. Jerry Nolan idolized the Moon of the big-band era, Gene Krupa. Nolan inherited Krupa’s creative swing, which managed flawless timekeeping while playing jungle beats.
He also benefited from growing up in the original rock ‘n’ roll era, which meant he could channel great early rock drummers like Earl Palmer when needed or provide twist or stripper beats if necessary. He improved the New York Dolls 100 times over when he joined after original drummer Billy Murcia’s death by misadventure, and the Heartbreakers left every other punk band in New York and London in the dust because of his work. Nolan is one of rock’s most sadly underrated drummers.
BEST HEARD ON: L.A.M.F.
CLAIM TO FAME: Ramones
SIGNATURE MOVE: It’s hard for the novice to understand what made the first guy seated on the Ramones’ drum throne more crucial than any other guy who occupied it. Yes, Marky Ramone—who drummed behind Da Brudders for two separate terms, a total of 14 years, longer than anyone else—and Richie Ramone were technically better players. But Tommy Ramone, as simple as his drumming appears on the surface, had a subtle swing and groove that no one else could duplicate. He was perfect for the band that created punk rock’s template.
BEST HEARD ON: Rocket To Russia
CLAIM TO FAME: Blondie
SIGNATURE MOVE: Clem Burke was Blondie’s secret weapon. Most eyes were focused on Debbie Harry, exuding her icy ‘50s movie queen charisma as she crooned their thrift store mashup of ‘60s garage pop and girl group theatricality. As the ‘70s melted into the ‘80s, they became supreme cross-genre art popsters. Holding the package together: Burke, swaggering around his six-piece Premier drum set like Moon’s ghost reincarnated on the Bowery. Unlike Moon, however, you could set your watch to Burke’s sense of time. All those staggering fills and rolls somehow managed to hold a groove. He may also be the list’s best-dressed sticksman.
BEST HEARD ON: Eat To The Beat
CLAIM TO FAME: The Clash
SIGNATURE MOVE: Terry Chimes was a perfectly serviceable punk-rock drummer on the Clash’s self-titled 1977 debut album, even if his politically driven exit from London’s Number Two Punk Outfit precipitated an uncharitable billing as “Tory Crimes” in the credits. He unfortunately was about as stiff as the entire contents of a graveyard. The Clash did not come into their own until Nicky Headon—nicknamed “Topper” by bassist Paul Simonon for his resemblance to a British comic strip monkey—joined. Headon idolized jazz drummer Billy Cobham and played in touring soul acts before his fluid percussiveness enabled the Clash to play a lot more than bare-knuckle punk. Now they could master the reggae they loved, plus jazz, early hip–hop, funk, rockabilly, New Orleans R&B and anything that wandered into their gaze. Headon was truly masterful.
BEST HEARD ON: London Calling
CLAIM TO FAME: Buzzcocks
SIGNATURE MOVE: It wasn’t just Pete Shelley’s two-minute pocket symphonies of bruised romance that made Buzzcocks such a crucial band. Nor was it the endlessly creative ways Shelley and Steve Diggle made two guitars clash. John Maher’s crazed but steady drumming—seemingly an endless series of stumbling rolls around his minimalist kit, punctuated by tons of cymbal crashes—was the power behind the throne. In many ways, Maher was the English Burke, to the point where the two drummers admired each other from side stage as Blondie and Buzzcocks toured the U.K. together in 1978. Both gents got even more skilled.
BEST HEARD ON: Singles Going Steady
CLAIM TO FAME: The Weirdos
SIGNATURE MOVE: The darlings of Los Angeles’ early punk scene, art school tearways the Weirdos managed a precise, dadaist blast that welded Captain Beefheart atop the Ramones, decorated with Dix Denney’s Johnny Thunders-esque Gibson damage. Propelling the works: Nicky Beat, the closest the City Of Angels has seen to its own Jerry Nolan. He had all the chops, the swing and the inventiveness, alongside the explosiveness of Moon. (Again, minus Moonie’s inability to keep time worth a damn.) And he managed to hold the Weirdos together while indulging their stapling-together-the-contents-of-a-junkyard fashion sense. Hard to imagine “We Got The Neutron Bomb” minus Beat’s detonations.
BEST HEARD ON: Weird World
CLAIM TO FAME: The Damned
SIGNATURE MOVE: You’ve already seen Moon’s ghost arise many times reading this list. The Who cast a long shadow over early punk. But no punk drummer absorbed what lessons Moon had to teach than the Damned’s Rat Scabies. All drunk-falling-down-staircase rolls and battering-trash-can-lid cymbal work, he drove the Damned through such primal bashers as “New Rose” and “Stretcher Case” with what sounded like one endless drum solo. Except, unlike the prog bands the Damned secretly revered, these guys would never indulge anything so pompous as a drum solo. Scabies managed to fit his virtuosity into two-minute speed bullets. Hence his genius.
BEST HEARD ON: Machine Gun Etiquette
CLAIM TO FAME: X
SIGNATURE MOVE: “My musical hero is Captain Beefheart,” X’s longtime sticks twirler DJ Bonebrake declared in their The Unheard Music documentary. He then explained it was the avant blues primitivist’s sense of playfulness that attracted him. He certainly brought that to Los Angeles’ Ramones-meet-beat-poetry quartet, alongside the musicality of an orchestral background. It meant such seemingly simple bash-’em-ups as “We’re Desperate” and “Los Angeles” flashed a percussive inventiveness that no other L.A. outfit could touch, save for the Weirdos.
BEST HEARD ON: Wild Gift
SIGNATURE MOVE: Please allow this writer one last Keith Moon reference! You simply cannot speak of Chuck Biscuits, the teenage drum dynamo behind Vancouver punk standard-bearers D.O.A.’s classic lineup, without mentioning the Who icon’s trap set insanity. All early D.O.A. recordings—“World War 3,” “The Prisoner,” “ New Age,” you name it—feature drum tracks that sonically recall one of those windup monkey dolls on massive amounts of Red Bull, hurling drums and cymbals around the studio the song’s entire duration. Yet, Biscuits always somehow manages to match his overplaying with the beat. Every D.O.A. drummer since has had to live in Biscuits’ shadow, with the exception of his brother Dimwit.
BEST HEARD ON: Hardcore ‘81
CLAIM TO FAME: Sex Pistols
SIGNATURE MOVE: The man who drove punk’s most notorious band—and possibly its most definitive. But for a genre known for its blitzkrieg tempos, the Sex Pistols were an exception. Paul Cook was punk’s steadiest drummer, and he kept the Pistols at an even, midtempo pace. He also utilized tom toms more than any other punk sticksman—it’s almost a trademark. His unwavering rhythmic support on record was definitely noticeable. But live on the Pistols’ 1996 reunion tour, his was the loudest instrument in the mix. His booming power onstage brought to mind the artful brutality of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham.
BEST HEARD ON: Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols