It’s funny how things work out – Phil Rudd was always on my list for this series, always. You’re just going to have to trust me on that. And then the world has learned of Rudd’s arrest for attempted procurement of a murder. Jokes have already been made how it might have been the first hit AC/DC had had in years. By the time you read this I will have already been on one radio station as the hack-for-hire (dirty deeds such as that are done REAL cheap) talking about the future of the band and the tarnishing of the brand and being just the 397th person to make the Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap reference in the media.
And just as the talk of Bill Cosby’s sexual-predator past does not stop me from enjoying the best of his work (or does it?), nor will the Woody Allen scandal cries ever change how I feel about his work – Phil Rudd is one of my drumming heroes. It doesn’t matter that this story will have him painted as something from Underbelly-meets-The Castle, a cashed-up bogan from that great penal colony – crime is in his blood along with so many drugs. You can set the news stories to a vaguely heavy metal beat, I’m not condoning his actions – I have never really been interested in any of the stories about this man. All I know is that he plays with a simplicity and restraint that is missing from his personal life. I never listened to AC/DC, nor Rudd, with any concerns around the personal lives of the players. And what I do (think I) know about AC/DC – I’ve been enough of a fan to listen to all the albums, attend a show, read more than one book about the group – is that they’re probably a bunch of soulless bogans. And I couldn’t care less.
Phil Rudd was almost my first drum hero in fact – and for one simple reason. The first song I ever leaned to play – from the very small handful of drum lessons I received as a 12-year-old – was Highway To Hell by AC/DC. It’s almost the very epitome of the basic rock beat. And Rudd represents the arc to me – when I started playing the drums I wanted to play like Phil Rudd. Then you get excited by hearing Max Roach or John Bonham or Buddy Rich or Ginger Baker or Phil Collins or whoever else. And you briefly entertain ideas around playing ‘like’ one or any of them. You learn fills, you add in your own tricks eventually. You push yourself. You then start to feel very pleased with pushing the beat, with adding in as much colour as you can. And then years later you realise that if you could only play like Phil Rudd – exercise that kind of restraint, make the simple and correct choices for the song and be the engine, the thing that propels the band (and then realise that your job is only that, and always that) – well that’s something to strive towards.
You aren’t wrong to try everything else first of course. But you get the feeling Rudd never did. He arrived at whatever sound was just right for what he wanted to achieve, for what he was capable of and what helped define the sound of the band. And he just stayed there. It too was in his blood.
Rudd wasn’t my first drum hero because I listened to The Beatles and Cream a lot more than I listened to AC/DC – but he was the first drummer I tried to imitate.
I turned down the chance to meet him a few years back – because it didn’t really interest me to meet him.
But when he was back in the band for their last world tour I had a seat where I could see him very clearly. Brian Johnson did his Andy Capp look and even swung across the stage on a huge bell for Hells Bells, Angus Young was everywhere, scurrying with his guitar, possibly looking for his shirt. Malcolm – poor Malcolm, the other vital component of the AC/DC motor – was stoic. His rhythm guitar the very heart of the band. And then there was Phil Rudd. Looking like the mechanic that picked up the sticks on his smoko break and played only what he knew. An attitude that got him through some 30 years, on and off, with the band. He probably never lost a stick nor cracked a cymbal. Barely broke a sweat let alone a skin.
But no AC/DC song ever sounded wrong – unless you never liked the band. The songs always moved forward – in just the right way. And I’ve always loved the simplicity of his playing.
It was a big stadium show that I saw – big, dumb, rock’n’roll fun. But I couldn’t take my eyes off Rudd, you could set a clock by the way his hand went down on that snare, always on the 2 and then the 4. Never more. Ever.
Drummers You Just Can’t Beat started life as a series of posts on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page