Paul Colbert talks with the drum throne behind the Power Station.
Lots and lots of people know Tony Thompson. Honestly. There are the obvious ones like John and Andy Taylor from Duran, plus Robert Palmer, but they're only in the same band with him — The Power Station.
Outside of them, drumming has made Tony dozens of acquaintances, you probably know some. Ever heard of David Bowie, or Mick Jagger? How about Chic or Blondie? No? Well look, here comes another one now.
"Toonnyy!! Hey man, how are ya?" "Great, man, jus' great. I gotta tell ya, your album is really smokin' back in the States, man." "Really!! How long ya here man, we really gotta get together..." and so on.
That was Bryan Adams who had just shattered the smug calm of a select London hotel with a bellow like a bull frog and a t-shirt like a damp rag. And he hasn't even played with Tony Thompson. At least, I don't think so, though it is challenging to try to keep track.
"They were very hard on me to begin with... strict... they were so conscious of time. We'd argue for hours and Bernard would always be right. He taught me to lock in and lay it down solid. That was how Chic was. Nothing was written out. When you played it and heard something, you'd go for it. In the end it got to be too candy coated and I was really frustrated with the whole thing. Nile was bringing in a lot of drum machines and playing them to death. But we used to have so much fun in the studio... a ball... if people knew how much laughing was going on behind those tracks..."
That was Chic in a nutshell — probably the greatest pop/funk band in the world. The people being hard were Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers. The former produced The Power Station material, the latter was first recruited by Duran to remix The Reflex — with not inconsiderable success.
But this is Tony Thompson's story, even if it does seem to take in large chapters of other band's lifetimes along the way.
When he was 11, Tony Thompson started going to his grandfather's house in New York to play on the small drum set his grandpa had bought for Tony's cousin. The dumb kid was only seven, and had decided it was best for drawing on with crayons. Tony knew better. About then he heard Toad on the radio and became an instant Cream and Ginger Baker 'freak'. After Baker it was Bonham — Thompson is prepared to argue for him as still being the world's greatest drummer — and beyond that was a now disdainfully viewed period of total technique and multi-times, when the entire percussion world was forced to do Billy Cobham's bidding.
"I'm a feeling drummer," assures Tony Thompson, today. "You don't dance to paradiddles." Even so, Tony, has anyone ever asked you to play anything you can't do? "Nope, never, I stay on top of it."
Edwards and Rodgers shook Thompson out of his techno-era. He was surprised to pass the Chic audition, reckoning Nile would have dismissed him if Bernard hadn't spotted something beneath the pyrotechnics. They told him no fills, no flash, and keep it to 2 and 4. He's forever grateful.
"Playing good 2 and 4 is not easy. I can spot different drummers' 2s and 4s — Cobham and White aren't as believable playing it as a lot of rock drummers. There's so much you can do with just the bass drum, snare and hi-hat. I was only allowed to play 2 and 4, so I got my cookies off doing something on the hi-hat. I pride myself on playing 16ths on the hi-hat, but real rhythmical, not mechanical. You can do a whole bunch of groove with that. A lot of cats don't spend time enough to feel drums. My advice to young players is to learn time and groove; groove is all. You can do some serious shit with that."
Lessons with Narada Michael Walden helped, especially as Walden would never approach the drum kit, but conduct the instruction from behind a piano. "If you know what it means to write a song, then you know how to play on that song. If you're a songwriter yourself, you know how it pisses off other songwriters to have the drummer going crazy all over their stuff."
Tony Thompson's first serious kit was a Ludwig — a colossal Bonham-esq set up of 28in bass drum, 12x15in mounted and two 18x24 floor toms (inspired by seeing Carmine Appice's blonde wood, double version in Cactus). Today he's surrounded by a more manageable 8x10, 8x12, 9x13, 16x16, 16x20 and 24in bass in Yamaha (9000 Recording) with a 6½ wood snare. "Great drums, I'm real pleased, best hardware in the world." Meanwhile, in his mother's attic; are six Gretsch kits that filled the gap.
The Power Station recordings reflect a cavernous, ambient, gated drum sound, partly the responsibility of the lofty dome-like studio in which they were recorded (The Power Station in N. York City from which the band took its name), and partly the responsibility of violence.
"I hit hard. Jason Corsaro (Station owner, designer and engineer) says he's never seen anyone so fierce. I'm evil. I have a company that makes my sticks. Powertip, in Canada — I use the biggest model and I still break those suckers."
"And I use Ambassador Clears for the heads; real thin; they let the drum breathe. I like loud. When I hit something I want it to come back at me straight away. I want my nose to bleed. Same reason I use paper thin crashes from Zildjian; 18in and 20in. Rides I change all the time, for some reason, but I always stick to those crashes. I've beep using some quick beats for the hi-hats, the ones with holes in the bottom... 14in for the studio, 15in for stage. And a Cameo bass pedal, best bass pedal in the world. That bicycle chain, it's amazing, no squeals and it just reacts. On the Bowie tour I swapped to an Evans bass drum head and that helped, gave it a warmer sound."
Yes, let's hear about Mr Bowie, for whom Tony Thompson did the Let's Dance album and tour.
"Talented cat... the most major influence... I'm not impressed easy, but Bowie... The thing with that album was that for the first time I was recording in the studio at the same time as the singer. He was only putting on a reference vocal, but it was great, we had this eye contact. If he hadn't been singing, I would have thought, 'a fill should go about here'. But watching him, I tried in different places, and they worked."
And Bowie, drawing on his few weeks in the business, came back and recreated his reference track so the fills did stay in place.
"He's not always a... consistent human being. He'd be different with me from one day to the next... but he's a sweetheart, the only cat who let me play in the studio the way I played on stage."
At the start of the eight month tour, someone had convinced Bowie that the sound wasn't 100 per cent. Thompson arrived to find his drums had been removed and a Simmons substituted. He'd never sat down at one before. "I tried it for a while, and said, David, this is going to need time." Thinking on his toecaps he added, "If I hit these like I was hitting my normal drums, I might get boneshock and not be able to finish the tour." The drum kit reappeared. "If that's the way drums are going... not for me."
How about Power Station? "Yeah, that thing's really blown up, really gotten outa... gotten crazy," offers Mr Thompson who is perhaps surprised that what started as a thrash with some friends has developed into videos, personal appearances, and the current round of interviews that has him sitting in a London hotel reception which is still pondering on why Bryan Adams' album should be self-combustible.
"I met John and Andy in the South of France; they said they'd always liked the Chic stuff. I saw them again in Sydney and they were really strong about playing together. I said, after I finish the Bowie tour, let's get in touch. We laid down some tracks at Maison Rouge without a singer. John was a little nervous to begin with, but he feels groove real well."
"At that time I'd just finished doing Jagger's solo album, so I called him in Nassau, talked about him singing, and he said, sure, send me the cassette. But in the meantime, John had met Robert at the Rum Runner club, and kept raving about him. Robert flew in, didn't even take his coat off, came straight to the studio and did it."
Bernard Edwards and Jason Corsaro did the mixing, and according to Thompson, kept the rest of the band out of the way because they all wanted to tinker. Corsaro was the man responsible for Chic's engineering, and Thompson believes it was towards the end of the Chic days that ambient drumminess started to raise its thwack. "I did an album with Johnny Mathis once which no one will ever hear, and that's where it really started." Raw drums and Johnny Mathis??? That's apparently what the record company thought as well, and they shelved it. "Smokin' album." Guess we'll never know. You can't be friends with everyone.
Paul Colbert (One Two Testing - mai 1985)