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Why it's time to stand up for ridiculous percussion instruments

If you laugh at the triangle or the scissors, then you are the fool my friend

Why it's time to stand up for ridiculous percussion instruments
02 January 2018

Another day, another Gallagher brothers argument, but this time it was not a disagreement over the usual fare.

No, this time, it was about a pair of scissors.

Eagle-eyed viewers of Later… With Jools Holland back in October spotted a rather unusual performer onstage with Noel Gallagher and his High Flying Birds:

Naturally, when invited, Liam couldn’t resist a dig back:

This, to me, is frustrating. When I saw this stuff, I sighed, loudly. 

And then I became angry.

Because this is yet another example of the ongoing, persistent and unfair demonisation of what is one of the bedrocks of music: ridiculous percussion instruments.

They are constantly and ruthlessly undermined, the subject of cheap jokes and laughs, but I’ve had enough, and it’s time someone stood up for them.

Now, I’ll admit, I wasn’t always fully aware of the true power of percussion. Growing up, all that mattered to me was the primordial instruments of rock and roll: drums, bass, guitar and voice. Very quickly, I added in the shape-shifting and versatile keyboards and the sparkling, brilliant piano. The rest of the orchestra? Yes please to the big brass boys, very nice thank you to the beautiful strings and good on you to the elegant woodwind (the solo oboe does sound like a duck but in context, lovely stuff).

But percussion? No, that stuff’s just silly isn’t it? It’s what you learn at school before you learn ‘real’ instruments. You bash about a bit on the xylophone/glockenspiel whatever it is, hit that stupid one with a ball on the end that makes a clack-a-clack-clack sound, scrape that other one (probably called a ‘scraper’) and TING-TING-TING-TING on the triangle - truly a pointless instrument if ever there was one  - whilst giggling and gurning away. Kids’ stuff right? A total waste of time and nothing that anyone serious about music should have any business bothering with.

How very, very wrong I was.

I guess you could say my Damascus moment came during a Faithless gig at Brixton Academy in 2001. By that point, the legendary dance act had transformed their live show into a pretty big affair, including Sister Bliss with her banks of keyboards and a truly awesome drummer. However, what blew me away was the unbelievable percussionist, Sudha Kheterpal, who commanded a vast army of gizmos, effortlessly changing the feel and texture of every track that was played in ways that I’d never really thought of before. She was the coolest person on the stage. OK, fine, that’s a lie, no one is ever going to out-cool Maxi Jazz, but she ran him close.

The amazing Sudha Kheterpal

Suddenly, my eyes opened, I began hearing percussion in songs that I thought I knew like the back of my hand. It was everywhere, hidden in plain sight, and I’d never noticed it before.

Obviously, it soon became clear that congas (the big ones, before you ask) were the bedrock of any decent disco or funk track worth its salt. Bongos, their little brother, were a fruity little addition when you wanted to brighten things up. Timbales (the big drum things) were essential part of anything vaguely latin or tropical.

But these were the big, obvious ones - everyone kinda gives these guys respect already. You can’t really argue with them.

No, the really clever stuff was going on under the surface. 

Tambourine? Another kid’s instrument? Wrong. Ever wonder how all those great Motown tracks have such energy? It’s all from the humble tambourine. In fact, so important was tambourine to the Motown sound that they had their own in-house guy, Jack Ashford, whose career-defining performance came on Edwin Starr’s classic ‘War’: 

You want another one on which tambourine is utterly crucial? Oh go on then.

It’s not just motown; U2’s ‘With or Without You’ is a masterclass of tambourine use, from on-the-beat taps to the full-on rolls heard when the song gets going:

In the same, energy-giving way, the humble shaker - egg, or otherwise - is practically omniprescent on any pop song worth its salt. Witness:

Next up for redemption: the cowbell.

Has there ever been a more mocked instrument? Entire comedy sketches have been made about it and how it’s oh-so-easy to play, any idiot can do it. Well, true, it’s not technically difficult, but the clever bit? Knowing where and when to put it - and you’ve still got to absolutely nail that groove. And when you do, suddenly, it makes that four to the floor kick like a mule. Just witness the relentless cowbell-driven excellence of ‘September’. So good, the producer thought, “Yes, let’s make cowbell the only instrument apart from the guitar to be playing all the way through the entire bloody track”.

I’d like to think that this Sigur Rós song single-handedly (or rather, double-handedly lol) makes the case for the simple and delicate beauty of a glockenspiel/vibraphone (remember glock/vibraphone=metal, xylo/marimba=wood):

Castanets? Bit of a laugh when you’re pretending to be a flamenco dancer? Tell that to Whitney Houston who employed unarguably the greatest castanet roll of all time in ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ (at 1:24):

Guiro (the scrapy one), claves (the two cylinders of wood you gently tap together), cabassa (the one where you hold the stick and then move the chains of beads round) and vibraslap (the one with the ball on that goes clack-a-lack)? Oh yeah, they’re just instruments that are all over one of the greatest songs ever, Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’:

Here’s another bonus guiro-banger for you:

But, finally, our thoughts must turn to the most unfairly-maligned of all the percussion instruments: the triangle.

Reader, never has an instrument been so misjudged, for the triangle is one of the greatest instruments there is.

Exhibit one, this absolutely classic piece of triangle work in Maria McKee’s ‘Show Me Heaven’:

The minimal brilliance of the triangle work on The Bangles’ ‘Eternal Flame’:

Hell, even Taylor Swift has boarded the triangle train on a track from her most recent album, ‘Gorgeous’:

And get a load of the triangle in this all-time banger.

Have you ever seen a professional triangle player? It’s absolute dynamite.

I could go on - agogô bells, gongs, crotales - they all have their place, often making crucial contributions to songs which wouldn’t sound the same without them. And yes, even scissors. Why? Because the world of percussion knows no limits. It answers to no man. If you want scissors on your record and it sounds good, then get that microphone plugged in and let’s hit the big red record button. Just remember not to run with them in the studio.

You know what Liam? The sound of a pencil sharpener with a load of reverb on it actually might sound pretty cool. I’m going to go and try it right now.

(Image: Rex)