A Slave to the Rhythm – Part 4

                                                              A Giant Leap into the Unknown


Inspired by the idea of a complete change of scene and influence, I (together with Helen), found our way to rural Kerala in south west India on the trail of Kathakali dance drama and its associated drumming. This trip could fill a whole book in itself but I will try to stay on task with the particular job in hand.


the chenda

We lived with a Brahmin (high caste) family in a village and began an intensive course of watch, learn and (try to) do – Helen with dance and me with drumming. Everything was different. Now concentrating on a single drum, the large, heavy, cylindrical chenda, I was required to start again, usually with the children, together with my first teacher Vidiyan Damodaran Nair (VDN). This was very much the traditional model of learning – one to one with a guru. Now, here’s the catch……..I wasn’t allowed the drum. Instead, a flat log and a pair of fat 10 inch sticks – first you walk then perhaps you might be able to run. More critically still, a new technique for my right hand needed to be learnt. Instead of the normal up / down motion, the right (or leading) hand is played in a ‘towards you, away from you’ action. This was very difficult to get to grips with and created many aches in muscles who screamed  ‘why are you putting us through this?’  The local children had no such problems and my struggles created a lot of humour amongst them on a daily basis. This was probably when I was first struck by the notion of humility. I did make some progress however and mastered the initial ‘Ganapedikai’ blessing. I even managed a go on an actual drum at the end!  I think my teacher thought it was ok but he had almost no English and the household weren’t in the habit of passing on any thoughts he might have had.


After this three month adventure, returning to England presented me with a blank page. I had left The Work to go exploring with no plan beyond. Helen’s vision of a multi-cultural group of storytellers and musicians began to crystalise and I could see creative mileage in it, having experienced many manifestations of such-like in India. I became the drummer in Common Lore Storytellers and Musicians, a group who told traditional stories with related music and song to young and old in every conceivable type of venue and circumstance. As the group secured funding, it expanded its personnel and remit. Apart from the performance angle, I now devised drum and rhythm workshops. I even told stories sometimes but that’s another tale………….


Working with African, Indian, Caribbean, South American and Middle Eastern practitioners quickly expanded my knowledge and capability and also showed me how much more I had to learn. New intricacies and subtleties were revealed. I learnt how to fit complementary but different parts of a rhythmic jigsaw together in the classic model of African polyrhythm – what I call vertical formation – or how to negotiate the lines of an Indian tala ( a cycle of a particular number of beats phrased in a certain way) and come out at the end to hit the Sam (1st beat of new cycle) bang on – what I call horizontal or lateral formation.  All very wondrous stuff that seems to carry a degree of elusiveness about it. There is a quote from a latin percussionist who says ‘ I play clave (key / time line) all my life in the hope that one day I will manage to  play the perfect clave’  There is always another destination up ahead!

A Slave to the Rhythm – Part 3

The third in an occasional series from Rick about his life as a musician – where it all started and what it has come to now

No 3: Influences and idiosyncracies

Time check – 1976. Musically, my ears had been filled by a glorious and rewarding period of listening. Electric jazz had been stirring me most for three or four years and I was influenced by the various drummers that Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Weather Report employed. There were many others of course in other genres.  As players, they occupied a different planet to me but I followed the ethos (still do) that you make your own personal stamp and style. It’s all part of being your own man.

English drummer / singer Robert Wyatt had been an inspiration for some years. He made his own playing style by a mixture of following his own intuition and not being super-technical. I warmed to his individuality and his spirit, and his social circumstances were nearer to me than the super hero drummers through the ages and all the brilliant college graduates that followed in their wake.

Wyatt’s own drumming career was cut short by a major accident which caused him to become wheelchair bound but he reinvented himself as a singer who Elvis Costello described as ‘the most individual voice in English pop.’ Wyatt’s early playing provided a blueprint for drummer Chris Cutler to take a lot further, initially with the group Henry Cow and latterly with too many to mention. Cutler’s playing was a polar opposite to the jazz and groove players I’d taken to heart but I picked up some particular and idiosyncratic elements from him which I added to my playing – a kind of free flow stream of consciousness that wasn’t to do with holding down a line but snaking in, out and roundabout – playing like a moving target but with strong intent and purpose. When I first started playing with The Work, I needed this approach as the music, although tightly and densely written, was also restless and didn’t hang around anywhere for very long. I’ll return to that further on.

What then followed was a year of challenging old habits and trying to create credible idiosyncracies. This involved trying to make the knowingly naïve sit happily alongside sturdy rolling polyrhythms. It was a very experimental period and also when I was making records for the first time. Getting to be able to produce the goods when the red light was on was a new adventure. My co-conspirators at that time were The Family Fodder and People in Control who both aspired to make very off -centre pop music. It was during this period that I was inducted into roots reggae and the radical world of the dub mix. Once again, the way I saw it was not to mimic blindly but to incorporate facets of these styles into my playing and to know when to bring them to the fore. This involved a lot of listening and practical application. Also, at this time, I was listening to an increasing amount of non-western music which seemed to throw the doors wide open when it came to exploring rhythm and its endless possibilities. The concept of rhythm in Indian music is a deep and vast area of exploration – practically a science. I listened from a distance, unknowingly. I didn’t have a key that fitted that particular door but, not far ahead, I would find a locksmith who would create one for me.

Rick in action with The Work in Wurzburg, Germany in July 1981
















I was next asked to be the drummer in a new group just forming. It would become The Work and would be a major step upwards. The Work was just that. A very intense initiation in total commitment to the cause. Eight hour rehearsal days learning complex music that required me to find new ways to play. The guiding force of the group was Tim Hodgkinson, a highly talented and driven musician I had admired previously from his time in Henry Cow. Tim played keyboards and reed instruments and was developing as a flat (slide) guitar player and singer. He also composed very demanding music. Our quartet made a fearful, uncompromising sound and no money but we toured Europe extensively and made records. I felt fully-fledged though somewhat marginalised  by our ‘super independent’ stance. I gained immeasurable experience from the two years I spent in this company but my ears were hearing more and more  music from far flung places and these sounds seemed to be voices calling me to up sticks and away.

After two years in this hothouse, I announced that I had intentions to travel. Despite the tempting prospect of a tour of Japan, I made the decision to leave the band. It felt like a huge leap into the unknown with no turning back. It was, and it wasn’t………………………

A Slave to the rhythm: Part 2

The second in an occasional series from Rick about his life as a musician – where it all started and what it has come to now

No 2 –  Allusions, elusions and illusions


Not having any transport, I had little opportunity to get around and play with other people. For a while I couldn’t see any way forward without making some critical decisions.


After an unhappy term of study at North London Polytechnic, I dropped out and began a series of manual jobs – record packing, verge cutting, stockroom and warehouse portering and so on. The aim was to find a house or flat with like-minded souls where we could play music. This took five months, after which time we were installed in what we all saw as the perfect spot. One major bedroom doubled as the band room / social gathering space and it was perfectly positioned on the third floor, with no neighbours on either side and one below, who lived at the back of her flat and didn’t hear very well.


From here, we had the luxury of being able to play every day and a number of bands were formed with interchangeable personnel whilst I began to learn my craft – though still very much unschooled. I could keep time in 5, 6 and 7 beats in a bar before I could properly syncopate a strong rhythm in 4 (common) time. Evening rehearsals often had an audience of friends who dropped by for various reasons….but I digress.

Four core residents quickly reduced to three, two of which, myself being one, were musical novices. The third, who had proper musical grounding, knowledge and ability stuck with us until circumstance, and opportunity drew us apart. The core band started out as Bygones and Trigons but somehow had become The Famous Tripods by the end. But, by that time, I had had two lessons from a respected player ! It doesn’t sound like much but they made a huge difference. They got me over some technical limitations and gave me a clearer analytical angle on my playing , and on drumming in general. This luxury of a home rehearsal space turned out to be a mixed blessing. It didn’t give us much impetus to get out and play gigs, although we were keen to ditch our day jobs, such as they were .


Bygones and Trigons, or The Famous Tripods:

Clifford ‘Bill’ Taylor, Mick Parker, Rick Wilson.  1973.


My first unified drum kit (model – Olympic) was cheap but very decent. What made it peculiar was that, for reasons of needing to restrict the volume, I covered the drum heads with towelling cloth, which deadens the sound to a tuneless thud. As time went on, I cut away more of the cloth but never the whole lot and so, consequently, I never learnt about the subtleties of tone and about bouncing a stick – both crucial elements to understanding and doing. However, I pushed on.


During this time I had taken a government clerical job working locally. Such jobs paid salaries and were career orientated, but I vowed when I started that I would have saved the necessary pounds to buy my drumkit of choice and to have left the job within eighteen months. A year and a half later, I had my Hayman drums and my Paiste cymbals and I was out of the Home Office and into the Social Security Office – but as a claimant not a clerk. I had grown a small network of musicians and was getting out to play. The flat in Croydon had run its course. I had moved elsewhere and had started gigging semi-pro, supporting myself sometimes with pick -up work, plentiful then, and at others courtesy of the State. The towelling was off the drums for good !