All images courtesy of Getty Images
By Andrew Daly
Growing up, my earliest musical memories are generally ones that involve my dad. Early on, we would to listen to his cassettes of Buddy Holly & The Crickets, Elvis Presley, and of course KISS as we rode around in his 1980 Chevy Impala.
It’s hard to remember how it happened, somewhere along the way, after my dad had shown me bands like Led Zeppelin, Boston, KISS, Rush, and others, we started taking trips to the Long Island Drum Center. It was here that I learned my dad could apparently play drums, more so, he was actually pretty damn good.
Well, at some point during these excursions, I started sitting behind the sets of drums which I thought looked cool, and then one day I picked up a set of “Pro-Mark Neil Peart Signature” sticks and started pounding away. Apparently, my dad took notice, as he walked over, put his hands on his hips, and watched me, with a smirk on his face. Naturally, being me, I got uncomfortable and stopped not really knowing what my dad was going to say. Well, even though this was nearly twenty-five years ago, I still remember what he said clear as day, “Hey, you’ve got the knack.” At the time, I really had no idea what that meant, but he then proceeded to show me a few things.
It’s fuzzy now, but I would say it was the Christmas of ’99 where I came downstairs, and first saw my very own drumset. It was a burgundy-colored, late 80s, six-piece Pearl Export Series, with Zildjian cymbals. The rest is history, and while I have always romanticized the guitar, it will always boil down to the drums for me.
So, I felt it fitting to cover five players who I feel are consistently overlooked. I’ve stuck to the tried and true era of the 70s and 80s and contained the playing field to the genres of Hard Rock and Heavy Metal. Comparing Jazz players to Rock players is like comparing apples and oranges, and it’s not on the menu for this trip to the buffet. Anyway, if you were hoping for a rinse and repeat list containing Neil Peart, Tommy Lee, and John Bonham, you came to the wrong place. This is one for the underdogs. Enjoy, and read on.
5) Corky Laing of Mountain
When talking about drummers, and the “art of drumming” in general, it’s important to understand that technical prowess does not always win out. Much like other instruments, a “feel” for the song is extremely important. Moreso, overarching influence on any given genre is also critical, especially when speaking on “underrated” musicians. And so through that line of thinking, celebrated stickmen, Corky Laing checks all of the proverbial boxes. While Corky’s name may not be the first that comes up in most conversations regarding the best drummers of the 70s and 80s era, his influence on the genre is undeniable. While Corky Laing has been known to modestly describe himself as a guy who, “Just happened to be at the right place, at the right time,” most fans of Corky’s long and established career will know better. Corky has been a member of numerous bands, but his most memorable and influential period came during his time with Mountain in the 1970s. Now, Mountain had been floundering before his arrival, but after joining forces with Leslie West, Mountain went on to record three albums which still are influencing Hard Rock and Heavy Metal to this day. The legendary trio of records, Climbing!, Nantucket Sleighride, and Flowers of Evil laid the groundwork, and have served as a blueprint for what was to come from other bands later in the 70s, into the early 80s, and beyond. Corky’s simple, hard-hitting beats can be heard on Mountain’s classic track “Mississippi Queen.” In short, without Corky Laing’s indelible, and early influence, the art of Hard Rock and Heavy Metal drumming does not develop in the same way that it has.
4) Anton Fig of Frehley’s Comet
In terms of drumming, the 1980s was in my opinion, a bit short on style in the drumming department. Now, that’s not to say that the drummers of this era lacked skill because they certainly did not. The real issue was more in the production values of the era. In the studio, techniques such as “gated reverb” ran rampant, and in the live setting, we often saw drummers exchanging their acoustic tom-toms for artificial sounding electronic versions. An example of this can be seen in Van Halen’s 1986 video concert Live Without a Net, where Alex Van Halen made full use of these flat black electronic drum discs. Anyway, while this effect is interesting to a point, there is no substitute for good old-fashioned, hard-hitting drumming, and if you can do it with style, well, you’re really onto something, and that’s where Anton Fig comes in. KISS fans will recognize Anton Fig as the man who “sat in” for Peter Criss on both the Dynasty and Unmasked albums. More widely, he was known as the house drummer for the Late Show with David Letterman from 1986 through Letterman’s retirement in 2015. Aside from that, he was and still is the drummer of choice for all of former KISS guitarist Ace Frehley’s various solo works including Frehley’s Comet. Anton is known as “The Thunder From Downunder,” with a penchant for Jazz inspired, Fusion filled swoons that could bring even the cheesiest of 80s Rock to life in a way that most drummers of the era couldn’t or weren’t allowed to. In retrospect, Anton Fig is one of the most proficient drummers of the 70s and 80s Hard Rock and Heavy Metal era, with a style that has come to define the incredible output of Ace Frehley as a solo artist. Anton is the type of drummer that brings cache to each and every song he plays, all the while pushing his bandmates to be the best versions of themselves, and in turn, elevating the music to new previously unknown. With dozens of session credits under his belt for the likes of Peter Frampton, Madonna, Joe Bonamassa, Billy Squire, and more, you may not recognize his name, but there is no doubt that if you are a fan of any music that was popular during this era, you’ve certainly heard the man lay it down. In my opinion, the best example of Anton at work was showcased on Ace Frehley’s 1978 track “Rip It Out.” In the end, Rock ‘N’ Roll will always have its “Guitar Gods” and famous frontmen, but it’s the unsung heroes such as Anton Fig, that keep the train rolling along.
3) Lee Kerslake of Uriah Heep
On the Progressive Rock side of things, there seems to be no shortage of high energy, high-efficiency drummers, who whirl around seemingly endless-sized drumkits, like an octopus on speed. To be honest, the list is endless, and nearly always fronted by Neil Peart AKA “The Professor,” and rightfully so. Still, there are other drummers who were absolutely essential to not only the survival of the genre but its continued existence when the Rock world more or less turned on Progressive music around the dawn of the 80s. Now, Lee Kerslake may well be the best of that bunch, as well as the most unheralded. In Lee Kerslake, we have another example of a drummer who while you probably have never heard his name mentioned (not often, at least), you most certainly have heard his thunderous playing. Case in point, if you’re a Heavy Metal fan, then you probably are a fan of Ozzy Osbourne, and if you’re a fan of Ozzy, then I am sure you’ve looked into his seminal albums Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman. Have you ever wondered who played drums on those albums? Yes, that is the one and only Lee Kerslake AKA “The Bear” backing up Ozzy on the radio staple and instantly recognizable track “Crazy Train.” Sadly, it seems that Lee had some sort of falling out with Ozzy, and while he did handle all of the drum tracks on Diary of a Madman, Tommy Alderidge continues to be unfairly credited for work he did not perform on the record. Perhaps lesser known is the fact that Lee Kerslake was the long-time drummer for seminal Progressive Rock outfit Uriah Heep. Lee’s skills on the skins can be heard in full effect on albums such as Demons and Wizards, The Magician’s Birthday, Sweet Freedom, and many more. These are albums that have come to define the genre of Progressive Rock in the early 70s, and without Lee Kerslake’s fierce drumming, they simply would not be the same. Sadly, we lost “The Bear” to cancer in September of 2020, a year that seemed to be synonymous with the deaths of numerous musicians. While Lee may be gone, he will not be forgotten. In death, Lee Kerslake’s legacy within the canon of both Progressive Rock, and Heavy Metal music is only beginning to become entirely apparent as reviewers, and “experts” retrospectively look back upon his truly staggering body of work, which culminated in the final solo record he left us with titled Eleventeen. While “The Bear” may have been laid to rest, the thunder he generated rolls on.
2) Kenney Jones of The Who
There are two types of Who fans. You have the type that feels The Who was a better band with the enigmatic, and truly singular Keith Moon, and then you have the fans who believe the band was perhaps better off with the more straight-laced timekeeper in Kenney Jones. I personally happen to be the latter. More so, calling Kenney Jones a simple “timekeeper” would be doing the man himself a grave injustice. In an era where a great many bands came and went, and even greater many drummers went with them, Kenney Jones is a true Rock ‘N’ Roll survivor. There aren’t many drummers who can boast that they were integral members of three of the most important British Rock bands in history, but Kenney Jones certainly can. As a member of The Small Faces, The Faces, and of course, The Who, Kenny has been an inspiration to drummers of all walks of life for well over fifty years. Kenney’s tried-and-true, razor-sharp style can be heard in full effect on albums such as Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, A Nod Is As Good As a Wink…to a Blind Horse, Face Dances, and It’s Hard. Kenney’s approach to the drums is simple: provide a steady, driving, hard-hitting backbeat during the verses, follow your bass player for the changes, and provide textbook, yet noteworthy fills when and only when appropriate. I am aware that there are many who will say my championing of Kenney Jones over Keith Moon is nothing short of Rock ‘N’ Roll heresy, but hear me out. The Who’s Pete Townsend was even quoted as saying that, “Keith Moon held the band back.” Now, that is not to downplay the importance of Keith Moon, as he was integral to both the early sound and success of The Who, but as the band’s approach, sound, and songwriting matured, Keith Moon, unfortunately, did not, which is why Kenney Jones was handpicked by Pete Townsend as Keith Moon’s successor after Moon’s untimely passing in 1978. With Jones, The Who were still bombastic, but were more under control, and were able to craft some of their finest music yet with now-famous tracks such as “You Better You Bet,” and “Eminence Front,” which were ably guided by the ever-consistent Kenney Jones. Kenney’s influence on Rock music and The Who is still felt to this day, and when Zak Starkey took over as drummer for The Who in 1996, it was none other than Kenney Jones who taught him how to play the vast catalog of The Who the right way. Regardless of which camp you fall into, Kenney’s influence on the genre is undeniable, and for that reason, it’s wonderful to see that he is still pounding away to this day.
1) Eric Carr of KISS
Much like fans of The Who, KISS fans tend to be fiercely divided into distinct camps. Basically, you’ve got the camp that lives and dies by the 1970s makeup era, and then you’ve got another camp which steadfastly believes the non-makeup era AKA the band’s 80s and early 90s era is king. There is a whole other camp that likes to complain a lot, and I am not sure they even really care about the music, but that’s a topic for another article. Anyway, while I tend to favor the band’s makeup heyday, I do enjoy 80s KISS a whole lot too. Now, any self-respecting KISS fan will know that original drummer and founding member Peter Criss was jettisoned from the band in 1980, which is where Eric Carr AKA “The Fox,” and his John Bonham inspired, thunderous drumming entered KISStory. Legend has it that Eric Carr (real name Paul Carvello) was working as a stove repairman in and around New York City when he heard the news that KISS was looking for a new person to man the sticks. As the story goes, Eric was an instant fit within the KISS fold both personality-wise, and more importantly musically. At the time, KISS was a band in search of answers and was trying to reclaim their Hard Rock identity after veering off course. In Eric Carr, KISS found an effortless timekeeper, who could easily transition in and out of absolutely monstrous fills. Eric’s bombastic style served as a compass to guide the band back toward their Hard Rock roots, and would soon ably rudder them toward a more Heavy Metal direction with the release of standout records Creatures of the Night, Lick It Up, and Animalize. In my humble opinion, not nearly enough credit is given to Eric Carr for steering the band in a heavier direction, and injecting a life-size dose of energy into a band who at the time, was nearly a decade old, entering their 30s, and was drowning in the new wave of British Heavy Metal. Eric Carr, though an unknown at the time, gave KISS instant musical credibility, and also some much-needed street-cred to boot. As the decade wore on, KISS would sore back to great heights, nearly matching their 70s heyday, with a string of gold and platinum albums. For Eric’s part, he humbly drove the machine and kept them churning forward until his untimely death from heart cancer, at the age of 41, in 1991. Though his health may have betrayed him, Eric showed his mettle. Eric toured with KISS through 1990 and was as ballistic as ever. In retrospect, he was most likely very ill at this time, although he didn’t show it. The knowledge of this makes these high-energy, final performances all the more incredible and special to watch. Never to be held down, and ever loyal to his bandmates as well as his fans, in 1991, Eric Carr exited the hospital to perform with KISS for one final time during the shooting of the band’s “God Gave Rock And Roll To You II” video. It’s been reported that while Eric was forced to wear a wig, and could barely lift his arms, he furiously gave his all take, after take, after take, until the video was finished, only resting for a few moments in between. It’s a moment that his bandmates, Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, and Bruce Kulick have tearfully recounted many times over, and it’s the stuff of Rock ‘N’ Roll lore. In short, Eric Carr was a legend in and out of music. His kindness and dedication toward his peers, and fans alike is what he is remembered for first and foremost. In short, the entry of Eric Carr into the KISS realm may well have saved the band. Eric Carr’s legacy in Hard Rock and Heavy Metal will be defined by his tireless devotion for what he did best, and what he loved most to the literal, and bitter end. Eric Carr didn’t just go out on top. Eric Carr isn’t simply standing up on top of the mountain, no, Eric Carr built the mountain, and the rest are still climbing. RIP Fox.
So, that wraps up my list of 5 Underrated Drummers of the 70s & 80s Hard Rock & Heavy Metal-Era. As always, I am aware that many of you will disagree. And as always, I encourage debate and for you all to round out your very own list. Furthermore, at the very least, I hope these musicians’ accomplishments perhaps inspire you in the same way that they have inspired me over the years. So, if this article raises awareness to some top-notch, underrated sticksmen, or inspires anyone to get behind a drum kit of their own, well, then I’d say job done on my part.
Lastly, as a drummer, it’s especially easy to get caught up in what you can’t do. At the end of the day, few of us can do what the likes of Neil Peart or Mike Portnoy can. Still, there are a great many drummers such as Chris Slade or Phil Rudd who have made a career out of keeping it exquisitely simple. So, when playing the drums, play what you feel, and play with your heart. The rest will take care of itself.