Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Paying Homage To Drummer Everett Morton: The Heart and Soul of The Beat

As a bass player I always listen to the drummer.  I can't help it!  As a 2-Tone devotee, I was influenced by some of the best drum and bass combos including Horace Panter and John Bradbury of The Specials and Mark Bedford and Daniel Woodgate of Madness.  That said, I want to pay my respects to  the unique talent of the The Beat's drummer Everett Morton. He and band bassist David Steele have influenced my bass playing and approach to music more than any other musicians.

While The Beat has often been defined by its front men Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger, as a bass player I have always focused on the way Morton and Steele were the engine of the band, creating uniquely new rhythm patterns -- witness "Mirror In The Bathroom" and "Twist & Crawl" -- that have stood the test time.  When you hear those songs, you immediately know you are listening to The Beat.

I think its fair to say that the timeless quality of The Beat's sound is defined by Morton's distinctive drumming style that includes syncopation and polyrhythm within a rock beat. He plays the entire kit percussively versus the familiar kick drum/snare/hi-hat style favored by others, employing rim shots where you would normally expect to hear the snare drum. Influential to many (just listen to Stewart Copeland of The Police, among others), Morton should be a household name.

The uniqueness of The Beat's sound may have been a happy accident, having much to do with how differently Morton and Steele approached their instruments.   According to Wakeling: "David Steele was a punk with a clear idea of what he wanted and where he was going. Everett Morton was a left-handed drummer; he had his kit set up like a right-handed drummer but played it left-handed. His was an original style and if you worked with it, it sounded real unique." 

Morton immigrated to England from St. Kitts in the mid-sixties, working in a kettle spinning factory and playing music in the evenings and weekends. He first learned the drums when his cousin asked him to join his band. After a stint at drum school in Birmingham, followed by practicing almost constantly on the furniture in his house, Morton developed his own style and began playing out around the Midlands.

Morton joined Wakeling, Steel and Andy Cox at the urging of a friend who worked with Steele at a psychiatric hospital in Birmingham.  At first it was rough going for the four band members. Morton was a reggae drummer, but the other three did not have experience playing the genre. While they listened to reggae frequently, they had up until that point been playing in a punk style. This was the beginning of the band's marriage of punk and reggae. These early days yielded the band signature hit "Tears Of A Clown."  Check out Morton performing the song live during the 1983 US Festival.

As it turns out, the song was one of the first the band ever played together where they clicked. By fusing a sped up early '60s Jamaican drum beat with the sweet Motown sounds of the original, the band hit on something unique. According to Wakeling: "When we first started rehearsing the songs, the drummer  thought our songs were a bit weird. We had rehearsed the songs, and it would go okay for a minute, and then we would all veer off on our own little tangents and we'd lose the groove on it again. And so Everett said, 'Why don't we find a song that we all know and learn that one by ourselves, come back next Tuesday, and we'll play that song and get a groove with that one. And then we'll go back and play one of your weird songs, like that mirror thing.' And so that's what we did, we'd play 'Tears Of A Clown,' then we'd play 'Mirror in the Bathroom,' then we'd play 'Tears Of A Clown.' We'd play 'Twist And Crawl,' and we'd play 'Tears Of A Clown,' 'Big Shot,' 'Tears Of A Clown,' 'Click Click,' 'Tears Of A Clown.'

Although The Beat relied on Jamaican rhythms and other island rhythm and blues techniques, thanks to Steele, they differed from other ska revivalists by raising the intensity of their music with punk. Rolling Stone magazine described the band's first album "I Just Can't Stop It" as "a rambunctious cluster of singles held together by tenor saxophonist Saxa's winning, authoritative blowing and a rhythm section ... that cared more about adventure than duplicating antique reggae."

As such, The Beat's best songs often had pumping, four-on-the-floor foundations with intricate, offbeat stick work, and Steele's intricate and patterned frenetic bass lines would lock in very tightly while the drums would shift, sway and move. Have a listen to "Twist & Crawl" as an example.

Aside from the introduction, the song is based on two short verses, a longer verse, and a solo. These four sections repeat once, and then again with the song ending on a variation of the longer verse. Although considered a ska song, its really based on the rocksteady reggae that Morton heard as a youth in the West Indies. The hi-hat plays straight eighth notes with a quarter note accent while the kick pedal plays quarter notes and the rim shots plays on the three, with a second rim shot on the four.

Listen to any song from The Beat's catalog and chances are that Morton's drums are key to what makes them memorable.  Fans of the band who live in the U.K. are still lucky enough to still see Morton perform with Ranking Roger's version of the band.

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