Monday, July 30, 2012

Rat Scabies’s Ten Greatest Beats

Laughed off as inept as soon as they first shambled onstage in 1976, The Damned had the last laugh by being one of the most enduring and versatile of the first wave of U.K. punks. And who could listen to even their earliest recordings today without hearing the already incredible musicianship at work? This is especially true of Mr. Christopher Millar. He may have taken himself with such a complete lack of seriousness that he gladly accepted the moniker Rat Scabies (earned by an unfortunate skin condition and a furry gate crasher that scurried across the floor during his audition), but he always thrashed the drums with the seriousness of a student who practiced his paradiddles every night and a looner who had no qualms about commanding the spotlight from behind his kit. Rat Scabies is the cursed offspring of Phil Collins (whom he once accosted in an airport to profess his love) and Keith Moon. He’s also punk’s greatest drummer, and as of today, 55 years old. In honor of Rat’s birthday, here’s a listen to ten of his wildest feats.
1. “New Rose” (1976)

It was the U.K.’s very first punk single, and after Dave Vanian’s brief tribute to The Shangri-Las, the first thing we hear is the primal pound of Rat’s toms. Deep, echoing, and a bit slack, this could be the intro to Chris Montez’s “Let’s Dance”. Then with Dave’s groin yelp, Rat squeezes the rhythm tighter than a crawlspace, abusing his hi-hat in double time, scattering Moony fills effortlessly at top speed. Dave’s breathless croon is the sound of a jogger trying to keep up with a formula one racer.

2. “I Fall” (1977)

As he was on “New Rose”, Rat Scabies is almost solely responsible for the blood boiling angst of “I Fall”. Dave, Captain Sensible, and Brian James often sound like they’re ripping their hamstrings to keep up with Rat on Damned, Damned, Damned, just barely keeping pace with the melodiousness that makes their debut such a thrilling sweet and sour dish. Rat bashes the beat so fast it’s almost impossible to hear exactly where the stick makes contact with the snare. Then with a craftsman’s flourish, he gives the listeners—and the rest of his band—a moment to catch their collective breath with an expansive, but very quick, run across the toms.

3. “Stab Your Back” (1977)

The one original track on Damned, Damned, Damned to break Brian James’s songwriting monopoly is Rat’s “Stab Your Back”. This nasty item is an instantaneous drumming showcase, both in terms of how quickly the track shows off the instrument (a spacey phased fill zooms through the intro) and its brevity. But in that one minute, “Stab Your Back” flashes Rat’s extreme stamina perhaps better than any other track. Listen to how he never lets up on that bass drum!

4. “Fish” (1977)

Blinding and unhinged, so far Damned, Damned, Damned has done an ace job of displaying the debt Rat Scabies owes to Keith Moon. On “Fish”, which may sport the most juvenile lyric on the record, Rat gives us our first taste of his more cerebral influences. Though the track never strays from 4/4, Rat’s sudden rhythmic shifts give this stormer a flavor that is almost proggy. Through the verse he smashes his signature snare/hi-hat/bass drum-in-unison noise. Then without a stumble he scoops up the beat with a tight snare roll under the climbing riff. As if he isn’t willing to accept Brian taking the spotlight with his guitar solo, Rat shoves his way to front stage by rolling through the passage at top muscle, accenting the offbeat with his crash, pummeling the kick drum with dexterity normally only achieved with a double-bass pedal. His concluding limb whirling rumble ensures he has the last word.

5. “Love Song” (1979)

On the opening track of Machine Gun Etiquette, Rat Scabies hits hard on a halftime opening that suggests The Damned is going to be taking on more than speed punk this go round. While it is true that their latest album is more diverse than its two predecessors, this particular intro is a con. Algy Ward suddenly cracks the mid-tempo noodling with a fleet bassline, and Rat wallops out a big fill before breaking into his signature beat with a subtle shuffle feel that is almost undetectable at such high speed. Harder to miss are the spacious fills he works in amongst the chaos.

6. “Machine Gun Etiquette” (1979)

Even faster, even more violent and intense is the second and title track of Machine Gun Etiquette. The other guys sound more equipped to maintain Rat’s speed here than ever before, nailing the accents that jolt the beat at the end of each verse. Then Rat commands the mania to a halt with a staccato thump that sounds like the marching jackboots of a fascist army in a scary passage that makes the return to the previous double-time thrash almost sound tame in comparison.

7. “Therapy” (1980)

Having admitted to an appreciation of Genesis and invited Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason to produce their second album, The Damned clearly weren’t your typical punk band. Their artier ambitions came to the fore on the double-disc Black Album. Now Gothic mood pieces, Beach Boys harmonies, and a 17-minute avant garde epic frolicked freely in the same sandbox as the expected punk work outs. Nowhere in The Damned’s catalogue is their dual citizenship in the garage and the music theory class more evident than on “Therapy”. Winding with the whimsy of King Crimson and hitting with the brutality of The Sonics, this is a track that would crumble like a meringue if the drummer wasn’t in complete control of his craft. Rat sets the pace with his opening, elliptical rolls, then helps the group fall in to a regular beat with an atypically simple 4/4 beat. Now that everyone is oriented, Algy can rip out another hyper bassline and Rat can get to the manic pummeling that is his specialty. He then takes us to the simmering yet noisy conclusion with a series of agitated fills that keep the listener from enjoying the calm.

8. “Sugar and Spite” (1980)

Hidden on the B-side of the famously “ overproduced” “History of the World (Part 1)” is one of the best showcases for Rat’s skills. For a mere minute, he gives us a glimpse of his alternate life as a Burundi drummer on “Sugar and Spite”. It sounds like the motor of a Harley Davidson warming up. Then just as it doubles up into overdrive, it fades. Quite the tease.

9. “Gun Fury” (1982)

While we’ve heard many examples of Rat’s speed and insanity here, there are just as many instances in which he went the more deliberate and tasteful route. Perhaps his most impressively restrained work can be heard in the middle of the underrated psych-rock masterpiece Strawberries. Rat keeps the beat in tricky 5/8, barely altering the beat through the song’s three minutes. A mark of a skilled drummer is his or her speed, flash, accuracy, and imagination. A great drummer has all that and the ability to understand exactly what a song deserves.

10. “Take That” (1982)

The Damned were always open to experimentation, so their dalliances with electronic instruments shouldn’t have come as too major a shock in the early ‘80s. It should also be unsurprising that they managed to find the organic thrust of such gadgets. On the great single “Lovely Money”, Rat unites his kit with a blipping drumbeat, yet the track sounds like it could have been a pop hit circa 1966. On “Take That” from the “Dozen Girls” E.P., Rat has his way with an electronic kit, and manages to make it sound as unhinged and powerful as his real one. Is it programmed or was he actually hitting pads? Either way, “Take That” is further proof that punk and imagination were never mutually exclusive, and Rat Scabies was the genre’s most fascinating timekeeper.

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