How the Drum Machine Changed Pop Music

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Nov. 21 2011 11:26 AM

How the Drum Machine Changed Pop Music

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Sly Stone performing in Paris in 2007.

Photo by FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images

Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, a bleak collection of songs by a man who had been a great optimist, was released 40 years ago yesterday. A strange, dark album that nonetheless sold very well, it helped slam the door on 1960s utopianism. But it also kicked off a new era: The age of the drum machine.

It wasn’t the first album to use one: Robin Gibb’s long-out-of-print solo effort Robin’s Reign used a drum machine, as did jazzman Dick Hyman’s novelty single “Minotaur” and the Little Sister song “Somebody’s Watching You” (which Stone produced). But There’s a Riot remains the quintessential early drum-machine work. Unlike those other experiments, people still listen to it. And where Robin’s Reign buried the rhythm tracks in the mix, on There’s a Riot, the “Funk Box,” as Stone called it, plays as prominent a role as any musician.

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People tend to associate drum machines with the 1980s, the age of the Roland TR-808—which helped define a long stretch of hip hop with ground-shaking bass—and the digital Linn LM-1, which used the sampled sounds of real drums. But the drum machine made its first tentative steps into pop music in the early 1970s. There’s a Riot is the centerpiece of a cluster of watershed moments in early drum machine history. Brian Wilson used it around the same time for the song “Til I Die” (perhaps something about drum machines appealed to reclusive pop geniuses?). It’s all over JJ Cale’s album Naturally, released in December of 1971. In Germany, Can and Kraftwerk also dove into this new world of sound—to a whole other, weird, effect. In the next few years, Bob Marley, Shuggie Otis, and others would follow suit.

Automated rhythm has long fascinated inventive minds: Da Vinci imagined a mechanical drum; the 19th century brought the metronome (and with it, frets about the loss of natural rhythm). But commercially available drum machines didn’t show up until the mid-20th century. The first, the Chamberlin Rhythmate, was made in 1949. Ten years later, the Wurlitzer Sideman offered decent enough accompaniment to rattle musicians’ unions, as Mark Brend explains in his book Strange Sounds. (In truth, he modern drum kit probably swallowed up more percussionists’ gigs than any high-tech gadgetry—before the turn of the century, cymbals, bass drums and other percussion were each assigned to a different musician.)

These early contraptions never moved beyond musicians’ rehearsal space. But people continued to improve them, and by the 1970s, drum machines had reached a new level of sophistication. The Maestro Rhythm King, for instance, boasted potentially hundreds of drum patterns. This device is responsible for most of the beats on There’s a Riot.

So what prompted Stone to try the new-ish technology? He first used the Rhythm King simply because he lacked a drummer. The drug-addled Stone had alienated many in the Family at this point in his career—including long-time drummer Greg Errico. “He [used the drum machine] because I’d left the group and he kept calling me up,” Errico told Stone’s biographer, Eddie Santiago. “If I’d been at the sessions, we’d never have tried it.”

That would have been a shame, because the result is unlike anything before or since. Stone added his own drumming to the automated rhythms on some songs, blurring the line between man and machine and creating an entirely new sound. Listening to the album, with Stone’s slurred, distorted vocals throughout, is a jarring experience. With arrangements so loose that things threaten to fall apart at any point, the Rhythm King’s steady, hypnotic pulse seems the one thing holding it all together. Who says drum machines have no soul?

While practical concerns prompted Stone’s forays with the drum machine, he stuck with it for artistic reasons. He used it, although less prominently, on his next album Fresh—a good album, and a less erratic one, though nothing on it approaches the heartbreaking fragility of There’s a Riot Goin’ On at its best.

Beyond aesthetic considerations, the rise of the drum machine represented a philosophical shift. Ceding the job of rhythm, which mirrors the human heart and respiratory rates, to circuits and wires overhauled notions of what it means to make music.

Or at least it would have had anyone noticed. Groundbreaking though it was, the drum machine’s emergence in the early 1970s didn’t make a lot of waves—largely because listeners didn’t know what they were hearing. To modern ears, these early machines sound crude; it’s hard to believe anyone could mistake them with flesh-and-blood drumming. But as JJ Cale told Mojo magazine: “The deal is, in those days people didn’t know about it, so they didn’t realize what it was.”

William Weir writes about music history and technology. He can be reached at williamweir1@gmail.com

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