Behind every Mick Jagger stands a Bill Wyman, behind every Liam Gallagher sits an Alan White, and behind every Paul Weller, there’s a Rick Buckler and a Bruce Foxton. Although the singers tend to attract, the spotlight, it’s the bass players and drummers that drive the band to the masses. They are the engine, the fuel and the backbone of every group.
But as is often the way, some bandmates tend to get less attention to the men and women singing in front of the cameras. But without a strong bass and a solid drum, a singer can only get so far in life. It’s the ensemble that makes the tapestry, and it’s the little elements that turns a strong band into a classic group.
This list offers a smattering of options that gives an overview of the importance of the bass and drum team in rock. For this list, we’ve limited it to five entries, but there are countless others that could have made it.
The Police made the shortlist, as did Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker from Cream. Ultimately, what made the final listing was based on the song’s ability to play without a vocal to play along with. So, plug in, turn on and drum out.
The five best isolated drum and bass tracks:
5. Yes – ‘Close to the Edge’
Personnel changes are a dime a dozen in the realm of rock, but Yes turned it into an art-form that is both enviable in its outreach and impressive in its procedure. The one constant force in their ranks, Chris Squire, died in 2015, meaning that none of the musicians who played on their most recent efforts contributed to their earliest ones. Yes are, by de facto, a progressive rock brand over a progressive rock band.
But what a band they are, brandishing influences far and wide, the living embodiment of a movement keen to mould genres to their will. Drummer Bill Bruford – who went on to tour with Brand X, Genesis and King Crimson – worked well with Squire, as the two of them formed the rock from which the others could build their records.
There are many tracks we could choose from, but for the sake of this article, we will stick to ‘Close to The Edge’ for its sheer gumption, tenacity and desire to fight off genre classification. Squire sounds like he’s hurting the instrument with the will of Paul Simonon, smashing his instrument to the ground.
4. Metallica – ‘Orion’
Former Metallica guitarist Dave Mustaine might be many things, but judging by his comments, a “poacher” isn’t one of them. “I know when Cliff left Trauma to join Metallica, that really bothered me ’cause of some of the stuff people said that were Trauma fans – they said some nasty stuff about us,” he once said. As it happens, Mustaine wasn’t in Metallica long enough to fashion a bond with bassist Cliff Burton, but Lars Ulrich, drummer and primary songwriter, enjoyed a fruitful relationship with the musician considered by many to be Metallica’s greatest import.
Burton played on the band’s Master of Puppets, harnessing a sound that could have delivered dividends on The Black Album, but for his untimely death. Ulrich never recovered from the death, and he still thinks of Burton fondly to this day. As it happens, ‘Orion’ is opportunity enough to revel at Burton’s almost wizard-like prowess on the instrument, padding out the song’s troubled spiritual journey with a probing middle eighth that highlights the dexterity of his instrument.
Behind him sits Ulrich, playing across every element of his kit, racing to the song’s finish line with an urgent energy that relies more on adrenaline than technical prowess. It’s an incredible performance for a drummer who had long aspired to be one of the great metal drummers. And with ‘Orion’, he accomplished that title and more.
3. Led Zeppelin – ‘Ramble On’
It should as no surprise that Led Zeppelin had the most accomplished pairing in this list, precisely because the band’s pedigree in music was so strong. Like Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones made his reputation as a session player and recorded bass for everyone from The Yardbirds to Donovan, much like Robert Plant, John Bonham was a popular musician in Birmingham, who had moulded his craft on the live circuit.
Much of Led Zeppelin’s work celebrated bombast and bravado, but they were more than capable of writing quieter, more understated, works, as is clear from ‘Ramble On’, a playful acoustic track steeped in Tolkien’s influence. Bonham counts the beats, while Jones performs his instrument with the presence of an electric guitar player. He stays true to his line, refusing to acquiesce when Page returns with a fiery riff, brimming with energy and acidity.
Led Zeppelin performed ‘Ramble On’ at their celebrated reunion at the O2 London in 2007. Bonham wasn’t there to perform the drums, but his son Jason proved a worthy replacement, embodying the jocularity of the original, but with a jazz-flavoured swing that was entirely his own.
2. Genesis – ‘Get ‘Em Out by Friday’
By the 1980s, Phil Collins had become one of the world’s most famous crooners, and by the 1990s, Mike Rutherford had transformed into one of England’s most accomplished balladists, but in 1972, both men served as Peter Gabriel’s rhythm section in Genesis. And Foxtrot, the most accomplished album the band released with the wirey vocalist, is also a tasty exhibition of Collins innovative drumming style.
He later confessed to padding ‘Get ‘Em Out by Friday’ with some of the funk influences that had cemented his personal record collection. Indeed, it sounds like he’s playing in a 1970s disco band, while Rutherford plays with the aggression of a thrash-metal bassist. But it’s these hybrid of influences that made Genesis such an arresting live act, and although Gabriel’s predilection for outrage caught much of the media’s attention, it was the polish of the rhythm section that made the Genesis albums swing so mightily.
Interestingly, both Collins and Rutherford adopted new roles for themselves by the time Genesis recorded …And Then There Were Three… Collins was promoted to the front of the band, while Rutherford had taken Steve Hackett’s place as the guitar player. Which left Tony Banks as the only member who didn’t switch positions during the band’s 30-year history. Good for him.
1. The Beatles – ‘Something’
No, The Beatles are not as flashy as the progressive groups or the metal bands that have padded out this list, but that’s not to say they weren’t musical in their own right. In Ringo Starr, they had a drummer who could hit each and every beat with an equal degree of confidence and ingenuity, and in Paul McCartney, the band had a bassist who could soak their records with melody, economy and flourishes of compositional flair.
John Lennon had effectively left the band by the time The Beatles recorded their swansong Abbey Road, so George Harrison only had the other two to flesh ‘Something’ out with. Considering the maturity of the track, the piece merited stellar performances from everyone, and in Starr’s tumbling beat, Harrison had a padding his voice could easily bounce off.
This left McCartney in the tidy position to play as he did, culminating in a bassline that Irish rocker Gerry McAvoy described as “like a melody on its own.” McCartney was sufficiently impressed by Harrison’s vocal melody, as was Lennon, who called it the best song on Abbey Road.