Thursday, July 23, 2015

Rutsey or Best!

Often in casual conversation between music lovers and fans, there comes the 'what if?' sort of conversation. The sort of discussion that happens when music fans are discussing a change in the line-up of their favourite band or bands and two or more people are sitting and contemplating questions like: what would've happened if so-and-so hadn't left the band? Or would the band have sounded different or stayed-together or even have succeeded if whathisname hadn't died/left/quit/was fired?
   Well, in one such conversation someone brought up such a question. The question was simply: Who would you rather be? Pete Best or John Rutsey?
  It was a simple question that involved the two most famous line-up terminations in all of rock n' roll history. Each of them a drummer, and each of them fired only a short while before the band began to 'take-off' and become famous and successful.
   Pete Best was with the Beatles for approximately three years, from about 1959 through 1962, and he was there throughout the formative tours of Hamburg and Germany that helped the Beatles become the high-energy live show that they were well known for. Pete Best played the majority of the Beatles famous 'Cavern Club' gigs and was there right up until they got their first recording contract by a major label.
    John Rutsey was the drummer for Rush for as much as six years, from the inception of the band by three high-schoolers playing in a basement of the Toronto suburbs, through their first years of writing songs. He played drums for Rush through all of it's bar-band years and up to and including their first album and a few gigs of their first tour.
   Then they were both fired by management.

The Reasons and the Real Reasons.
'Musical Differences' has always been the classic/most common excuse given by rock bands when releasing a member from his or her duties. Nowadays, it's not unusual to say: 'he/she wanted to spend more time with family'. 'The group has grown apart' or 'is pursuing other opportunities' is also used to end the service of a player that is no longer going to tour or record with a successful band
  The 'real' reason is usually a drug addiction, or debauchery that led to the rhythm guitarist sleeping with the lead singer's girlfriend or some series of events like missed rehearsals, recordings or even shows that may have ended up costing the rest of the band time or money or headache in enough quantity that everyone determined that termination was the best alternative.
   However, fans have always assumed the reasons for the termination of both Rutsey and Pete Best was that they were replaced by a drummer who was better, a higher caliber, or perhaps better suited to the overall sound of the band.
    It's difficult to say whether Ringo Starr was substantially better than Pete Best on the drums. Ringo would learn and improve with practice and touring and became one of the most famous drummers in the world and recognized and applauded for specific flourishes and accents associated with certain songs, but early recordings of Ringo Starr don't suggest that he was technically more capable than Pete Best at that time. It seemed Pete Best was more able to improvise, while Ringo Starr was perhaps more steady on the timing.
    On the other hand it's a tough road to advocate for John Rutsey, whose replacement became one of the most revered drummers of all of rock. Neil Peart was already steady as a metronome and capable of triplets, polyrhythms and complex timings when he joined Rush, and he only got better as he continued. At the same time Neil Peart seemed better suited to the progressive direction that Rush was headed for in later albums of the mid-1970s.
    Both John Rutsey and Pete Best were considered to be a bit heavy-footed, and strong on the bass drum, but this sort of trait is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be an asset, depending on the band that you're in.
    Many people have contemplated that the real reason that Pete Best was fired was because of aesthetic-reasons. Brian Epstein wanted all of the fab four to wear the mop-top haircut and appropriate stage suits, while Pete Best combed his hair back like Elvis and wore jeans and jackets as was the 'Teddy Boy' style of the time. Many more have suggested that Pete Best was fired because he was becoming too popular. In those Cavern Club gigs that he played, Best was well known to be more popular with the feminine members of the audience and was becoming so well-known around Liverpool that people were calling the band: Pete Best & the Beatles.
    While the real reason for Pete Best's firing is a subject for some controversy and speculation, the real reason John Rutsey was fired is not in question. In 2010, with the release of the movie Beyond the Lighted Stage, Rush's former management admitted that Rutsey was fired for health concerns. Rutsey was a diabetic and was purported to drink too much to properly take care of his condition (It should be noted that in the mid-1970s it was much more difficult to tend to such a medical problem than it is today). Viewed as a potential medical liability, Rutsey was terminated shortly before Rush was about to begin their first U.S. tour. 

   It could be argued that there wouldn't be so many people who even cared about these two fired drummers if neither of them had ever made it to the recording studio. It could be true; there have been many bands that have gone through numerous line-up changes before recording their first album and no one seems to care about those people because there aren't any quality recordings that people can listen to and let their mind wander and contemplate such questions of the 'what if?' variety. At the same time, the actual amount of recordings of these two drummers with their original bands is very small and largely only known by specific fans of the band.
   Pete Best recorded less than ten singles with the Beatles, mostly for Parlophone, and is most known for his alternate-version of Love Me Do. On the Beatles Anthology I, Pete Best appears on some ten tracks, including previously unreleased songs. Pete Best also appears on some performance recordings that were done for some radio-shows on the BBC in the early 1960s. His fame is also partly derived from his aforementioned popularity in his home-town of Liverpool, where many of those who saw him in the Cavern Club still say that he was the better drummer.
   John Rutsey on the other hand is best known for Rush's first album, which was originally an independent production by the band that was later picked up and distributed by a major label. This album is not only in wide circulation throughout North America, but is still so popular with Rush fans that it was re-released on Vinyl just last year with some pictures and photos of the original band, including John Rutsey. All of this seemingly is actually encouraging Rush fans to continue to appreciate the work of the drummer that they let go.
     To go one step further, Rush has actually released to fans a video recording of an entire concert performed with John Rutsey at a high-school auditorium stage in St. Catharines, Ontario from 1974! It contains a few songs that don't appear on any Rush album and clearly displays Rutsey as the spokesman and leader of the band, introducing the players and announcing songs. It would seem that Rutsey has an advantage that Pete Best doesn't. His former band still thinks he's pretty good and they're not afraid to show it.

The Pete Best Band and other Bands
    John Rutsey, after leaving Rush, seemed to disappear from any sort of media or musical endeavours and his personal life outside the band is largely unknown except for Alex Lifeson's account that Rutsey had become a gym-rat and could occasionally be found at a certain fitness centre in Toronto during the late-eighties. Rutsey passed away in 2008 from a heart attack due to complications from diabetes and his family kept the funeral private and out of the media attention.
    Pete Best, on the other hand, went on to work with several other bands. He was even signed to a recording contract with Decca (the label that turned down the Beatles) and went on several tours before giving up music and taking up a steady job, first helping at a bakery, then as a civil servant. Since 1988, he began to 'take-up' offers and invitations to perform for several groups, including Beatles tribute bands, and since then he has picked up the sticks, formed his own band and plays many of the old favourites that he is known for.  His own band is called simply The Pete Best Band.

Working Man
    If there's one song where all of John Rutsey's ability and talent shines through, it's the song Working Man. Despite being replaced by possibly the best drummer in the world, Working Man stands alone as a testiment to Rutsey's style. Although the guitar riff blares out like a factory horn to start the workday, musically, the drumming doesn't take a back-seat. From the opening taps of the hi-hat to the straight rhythm of the verse, to the characteristic working-man sound of the guitar riff backed by a simple but catchy drum riff, the drumming lends itself to the overall sense of drudgery of a factory worker of the time. Rutsey's heavy-footed drumming style is exactly what's needed for this song to work, and it's his ability to improvise which keeps the loose middle-section from falling apart while his bandmates are solo-ing away however they choose.
    While Rutsey's replacement can be credited for many things, and certainly has the ability to play all of the songs Rush has written, there seems to be certain cues that have to be hit to play the drums to Working Man, and it's the way Rutsey played it. Several tribute bands and local bar-bands have covered the song and even moderate Rush fans have noticed whether or not the drummer has caught on to those taps at the beginning, the bass-drum driven rhythm and the characteristic rolls on the snare drum during the middle section. It's the song from the Rutsey era that clearly has stood the test of time. It's the one that still gets played at live shows when Rush goes on tour, and it seems to serve as true reminder, to both the band and its fans, of where Rush originated. If a drummer could pick one song to be known for, Working Man would be a pretty good choice.

To be fair, it should be pointed out that Rush, though they would eventually known worldwide, never could claim to be as famous as the Beatles at the height of their career, nor could it be said that the band took off so quickly after Rutsey was replaced. But if you had to be a ditched drummer, who would you rather be? Rutsey or Best?