The common misconception is that punk musicians aren't very good at their craft. For the most part, that might be true — Dee Dee Ramone did get laughed out of an audition for Television in 1973.
But for a musical genre so driven by the beat, where lightning fast technique is a prerequisite for acceptance, the punk drummer rises above the rest. Unlike the guitar and bass players, drummers can't turn down their instrument or increase the distortion. Sid Vicious relied on Steve Jones for direction, but Paul Cook (the drummer of The Sex Pistols) had his balls on the line every night; a lesson he first learned from Tommy Ramone, the original drummer of The Ramones.
Tommy, who passed away over the weekend, was the prototype of modern punk drumming. After him, the position of punk drummer meant you needed to be talented, machine gun fast, and in the case of Green Day's Tré Cool, part human, part mutant — the secret weapon of a punk outfit.
So here it is, a short list of the most dangerous secret weapons in punk history. It's an homage to the genre's original drummer, Tommy Ramone, who remains the blueprint for every name on this list.
If we've left someone off, it's because they're not punk enough.
5. Tommy Ramone – The Ramones
The prototype isn't always the best. Sure, Tommy Ramone played fast before anyone else even dared to get on the freeway of punk (“Blitzkrieg Bop” started it all), but the drummers that came after him, even as early as the Clash's Topper Headon, took what Tommy did and added disparate influences like reggae and jazz, stuff Tommy never touched. He was the petrol that powered the motorbike rumble of the leather-clad Ramones, but the cats that came after him were plutonium gone nuclear.
4. Bill Stevenson – Descendents
Bill Stevenson should be credited for inventing the modern pop-punk sound—both as the drummer and frequent songwriter on Descendents' 1982 debut, Milo Goes to College. But it's his creativity and feeling behind the kit that makes him the architect of punk's evolution in the '80s and '90s. To date, no drummer has been able to better channel the South Bay scene's bitter resentment of humanity better than Stevenson, who also played with Black Flag for a stint. But Descendents were his band.
3. Nicky “Topper” Headon – The Clash
Topper Headon became the drummer of The Clash in 1977, taking over for Terry Chimes. He may not have been the drummer on their punk debut, but Headon became the catalyst for The Clash's evolution from out-and-out punk band into something more profound — incorporating funk, jazz, and reggae into their sound. “I think the band would have died with punk if I hadn't joined,” said Headon, who in 1982 was sacked by Joe Strummer. After he left, the Clash never played another great gig. But for those five years, between '77 and '82, Headon was drummer, composer and experimenter — the forgotten genius of the Clash.
2. Tré Cool – Green Day
Tré Cool is why Travis Barker is off this list. He's simply more prolific than Barker — just listen to the rolls and explosive soloing on “Burnout” for a sample. After joining Green Day in 1991, Cool quickly made bassist Mike Dirnt sound even better than he was; the unspoken duty of any proper punk drummer. Soon, Cool would become the band's shot of adrenaline during a show. But more than just energy, Cool's got chops (which, unlike Barker, he never overindulges in). Through the years, he's gone from lightning fast to stadium-ready power and clarity — showcased masterfully on 2004's American Idiot. But both in terms of talent and wackiness, Cool will always be Green Day's freak.
1. Earl Hudson – Bad Brains
Earl Hudson of D.C. punk band Bad Brains never got much press. Thanks to a cassette-only debut and erratic touring, the whole band never got the credit they deserved in the '80s. But more than any punk band, then or now, their complex rhythms and range (equally adept at reggae, metal, and punk) allowed Hudson to travel between head-turning extremes: the light-speed brutality on “Don't Need It,” the Rasta groove on “I and I Survive.” Hudson is the starchild byproduct of the Pistols' Paul Cook, Chick Corea, and the Rastafarian movement. Dave Grohl, Travis Barker and numerous D.C. punk drummers all mimicked his style — hell, they tried to steal the combination of power and fluidity he brought on a track like “Right Brigade.” Why doesn't he get the credit he deserves? Bad Brains simply didn't get enough exposure early on, but if you saw them just once, you knew Earl Hudson was Weapon X.