When I first started playing guitar in bands in the mid-1980s there were rumours of this guy, a drummer who would occasionally sit in on sessions. He’d never take money and those who played with him were never the same again. One night after a gig at the Half Moon in Herne Hill, I got talking to an old horn player with cracked lips and an uneven accent that hit New York and Harlesden in a single sentence. He said he liked my playing and looked like he’d been around. I asked if he’d ever heard the rumours about the drummer. He fell silent, then said for a drink and three cigarettes he would tell me the story of how he’d once played with the man.
They were six months in and they needed a drummer when he appeared. For the next year he kept them together. He had the chops, a break-beat groove that was all about edge, a ninth floor parapet balancing act.
Some nights it might have fallen apart. But they learned to trust him, work off him, dispensing with four on the floor certainties. He drove them on. He could always be better; they could only be as good as he was. Licks lifted from players in second-rate bar bands came alive with his funk threading the rhythms.
They played on through that summer stirring A&R interest, earning verbal assurances. Until one unfathomably hip cokehead at the back of a pub in Kentish Town put the papers on the table and flipped the lid off his biro. The drummer refused to sign: it wasn’t right for them. The band met without him. They cast their votes, called the A&R and resurrected the deal. The deal fell through.
They carried on without him, knowing in their heart of hearts it would never work. They auditioned drummers. None made the grade. Then one day he was back in the studio when they arrived. His kit had been simplified, his timing honed tighter. Impeccable. Not a word was spoken as they started to rehearse the old songs. Slowly at first, until each change and turn had been unlearned and re-learned. This time chords went unplayed and he showed them the space you filled with anticipation, emphasised the breath before the brass kicked out and lifted them to another place.
That night at the Hammersmith Clarendon from the moment he clicked to count in, they stripped every ounce of flesh from the songs’ bones, broke them open and lay them bare.
‘You wanted it all,’ he said afterwards. ‘That was everything I got.’
He was back in if they wanted. Of course they wanted, but resigned to making a living without commercial compromise and company cash.
Friday night a week later at the Bull & Gate, the billboards announced the comeback of a band no one had ever heard before. He hadn’t shown for the soundcheck. Twenty minutes to go and he’d still not arrived. They borrowed a kit with a cracked crash cymbal, dragged the skinny crew-cut kid from the support band to sit in and keep time. Then the drummer was there. After the second song he took his place, then took the place apart.
In the all night café on the Caledonian Road they asked how come he was late?
‘Some fucker stole my van. The kit was in it.’
Had he got it back?
What happened to the fucker?
‘Boom-bap.’ It was all he said.
No one who was there that night, or any other night through winter and into the spring, ever forgot the band. The gigs started to come thick and fast across north London: Kilburn, Cricklewood, Neasden, Camden. The drummer could have had played with any band he wanted and as word spread once more the company slobs began turning up unannounced. But now it seemed they were looking for a different, younger breed. Eager, vulnerable, hungry for success. Not these couldn’t-give-a-fuck musicians with nothing to lose except each other. That’s just how it was.
On the night they played the Railway in West Hampstead he said he was leaving. He said he wanted the band to know he loved them, that he would always hold them close in his heart, that he didn’t want to destroy them, but it was time to move on.
Where would he go?
He thought for a moment, ground out one last Marlboro under his boot heel. ‘South,’ he said. ‘Deptford.’
And like a Kilburn Kwai Chang Caine in a good shirt, he was gone.
The horn player was dropping hints and I was out of cash. One last thing, he said. When they talked about it afterwards, they reckoned he’d been like a drummer priest, a zen-funk traveller with his kit in the back of a D-reg Bedford. I said goodbye and left him minesweeping the empty tables. I called my girlfriend from the payphone in the hallway. ‘It’s late,’ she said. I told her I was coming over, I had something I needed to talk about. I loaded my gear in the car, shoved in a cassette and hit play.
Boom-bap (c) Nick Triplow 2013
Kilburn Park Image attributed to Cnbrb 2007