What do you call a guy that likes to hang out with musicians? A drummer. How do you know when the drum riser is level? Because drool comes out of both sides of the drummer’s mouth. What’s the difference between a pig and a drummer? I’ll spare you the punchline in the name of decency. These are but a few of the often cruel jokes musicians tell each other and believe me, they exist for every instrument (my favorite; what do you throw a drowning guitarist? His amp). If singers are mocked for being prima-donnas and guitarists are trolled for their inability to do anything other than play guitar, drummers are dismissed as unthinking goons whose only skill is hitting things. Nothing could actually be further from the truth. The art of drumming requires coordination, physical strength and the ability to effectively solve math problems mid-song – counting measures, keeping time and changing tempos – while also applying such esoteric musical values as swing and feel.
The new Netflix documentary Count Me In is a love letter from drummers to drumming. In fact, “I love drumming,” are the first words we hear said in the film, courtesy of Jane’s Addiction percussionist Stephen Perkins. “It’s punctuating life with rhythm,” he adds, showing a gift for language and insight at odds with his chosen instruments’ reputation as the province of dumb jocks. Directed by veteran music supervisor Mark Lo, the film is an impressionistic rumination on life behind the trap kit as told by some of rock’s most notable skin thumpers.
Every song you’ve ever heard has begun with a count-in. It’s where the film gets its name. As we meet the various musicians featured in the Count Me In, we learn their beginnings. For Perkins, it was seeing legendary jazzman Gene Krupa on television that made him want to be a drummer. For Iron Maiden’s Nicko McBrain, it was seeing Joe Morello with The Dave Brubek Quartet. Tommy Lee spinning upside down in Mötley Crüe’s “Wild Side” video inspired Samantha Maloney to pick up the drumsticks. She would fill-in for him decades later. The Surfaris’ surf instrumental “Wipe Out” left a permanent impression on Queen’s Roger Taylor, who would in turn influence the Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins. Aspiring percussionists beat on mom’s pots and pans and dad’s hockey equipment before receiving their first proper drum kits.
The drummers in Count Me In come from a variety of backgrounds though the emphasis is on rock drumming, its history, and its most notable players. The Beatles’ appearance on Ed Sullivan inspired a generation of musicians and seated center stage on an elevated drum riser was Ringo Starr, not just a backing musician, but a fully integrated member of the band. Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, who recently passed away, is celebrated for his groove. The Who’s Keith Moon and Cream’s Ginger Baker are credited for raising the bar and breaking new ground. “Every drummer in America in 1975 wanted to sound like John Bonham because he was the best,” says Hawkins of the famed Led Zeppelin percussionist and he’s not alone in bowing down before his throne. Some of the drummers cited are actually interviewed in the film and it’s fun to hear them lionized one minute and talk about their favorite drummers in the next moment.
If Count Me In concentrates on rock, it also gives credit to the jazz drummers that inspired many. The influence of reggae, meanwhile, came in during the punk era and left its mark on the music of The Clash and The Police. Drum machines are discussed and if not exactly villainized, they don’t get away unscathed. “The human element of the feel was taken out,” says former-Lenny Kravitz drummer Cindy Blackman Santana. “I like the human element, because I’m a human being.”
Impressively, Count Me In includes nearly as many women as men. For decades rock music was dominated by male musicians but that began to change in the 1990s. Musicians like Blackman and Maloney showed women could hit as hard and play as well as any man. Along with younger musicians Emily Dolan Davies and Jess Bowen, they talk about the sexism they faced from drunken fans and condescending stage techs alike. For Maloney, playing drums was a form of release from what she describes as a rough childhood. “Guys pick up a guitar to get laid but girls play drums because they want to,” she says.
While Count Me In is made for, about and by drummers, you don’t need to be one to enjoy it. The discussion never gets mired down in details that only a drummer would understand and a love of music, not just drumming, lies at its very core. The film ends with a drum-off between Perkins, Blackman-Santana, Bowen and Red Hot Chili Pepper Chad Smith. If it’s no better than any other drum solo you’ve ever heard, it’s certainly no worse and shows the drummers playing off each other, showing off their skills, then laying down a rhythm for the next to pick up. It’s fun to watch, which is in keeping with the film and its subject matter. As Smith says, “Playing the drums is fun.”
Benjamin H. Smith is a New York based writer, producer and musician. Follow him on Twitter:@BHSmithNYC.