Rhythm Magazine Before The Beatles, The Shadows were Britain's biggest pop group, whether backing Cliff Richard or releasing their own instrumental classics like Apache and FBI. Today he's a successful composer, but back then Brian Bennett was The Shads' longest-serving sticksman. Rhythm engineered an encounter with him to find out the true story of the life of Brian. Published in RHYTHM magazine March 2001

bb_drummer1For three years before The Beatles appeared, The Shadows were indisputably the kings of British rock, defining the classic two guitars, bass and drums format. Starting out as Cliff Richard's backing group, they quickly established a dual role as a hit instrumental group with the immortal "Apache" (1960). Original drummer Tony Meehan left in October 196I and was replaced by Brian Bennett. "Tony only did one year and I did 40, but I'm still the 'new' boy," jokes Brian. Led by guitarists Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch, The Shadows are Britain's most successful ever instrumental group, racking up more than 20 hits (including five number ones), before they took a break in 1968. The fact that they made instrumental albums gave both Shads drummers the platform to shine. Brian's sparklingly precise drumming on tunes like "Dance On!" and "Foot Tapper" - both number ones - inspired the next generation of drummers, from Cozy Powell to Phil Collins, who would go on to world fame. Brian became a top session drummer and Cliff Richard's MD before The Shadows regrouped for a chart revival in the late 1970s. Since then he's had great success writing and producing music for TV and film - including Dallas and Knots Landing, The Sweeney and The Knock, and Dennis Hopper's movie The American Way.

In 1990, Brian also won the Ivor Novello Award for best TV score for The Ruth Rendell Mysteries - you remember it, don't you? Rhythm visited Brian at his impressive home studio (surrounded by 40-odd years of awards, memorabilia and platinum discs), where Brian indulged me by showing exactly how he played the classic drum introduction to "Flingel Bunt" and the Max Roach-inspired opening salvo to his solo, "Little B." Suffice it to say, he's lost none of his renowned flair.

Can we go back to the beginning: were your parents musical?

Not at all. My parents had a small printing factory and I was lined up for that. I remember the first music I saw live was a variety show at the Wood Green Empire when I was six. I thought the violinist was fantastic so I studied violin for a year. But I'd always played the drums - I remember listening to Glenn Miller broadcasts and wanting to be a big band player.

At school I had a good friend, Russell Collins, who tuned into the Voice Of America radio station for Willis Conover's jazz hour. The signature tune was Duke Ellington's "Take The A Train". Then we discovered Stan Kenton - Shelly Manne was the drummer. We were so hungry to devour all music - classical as well.

What was your first kit?

When I was 13 I bought a white Olympic snare drum, stand and brushes - it was all I could afford. I played with dance bands at school before leaving at 14, I gravitated towards the 2i's (legendary Soho coffee bar, centre of the emerging British rock scene). It was skiffle. Home-made music with washboard, tea chest bass and guitars - something that wasn't to do with our parents. Then I was offered a summer season in Ramsgate with Wee Willie Harris.

Wasn't skiffle a comedown from the music you were previously into?

bb_drummer2Musically maybe, but no, that would have been negative thinking. The exciting thing was being 16, making ten quid a week and living away from home. I packed my washboard and got a room by the seaside. Also on that summer season there was a pop singer called Ricky James and he gave me the deposit for a black pearl Premier kit - just a snare drum, bass drum, hi-hat and one Zyn cymbal.

We played Collins' Music Hall, Islington, in what I hadn't realized was basically a sleaze show. In the 1950s you could have nude women on stage but they mustn't move. So you'd get (strikes a pose), 'And now Doris', and she'd be standing there, motionless. Unfortunately, I'd invited my parents and cousins and aunties. On variety shows in those days you'd have a juggler, someone and his barking dogs, Doris, and a novelty act, which was us - rock and roll.

I became resident drummer at the 2i's for a year, 1957 to 1958. A pound a night, playing six to midnight with whoever came down - Terry Dene, Tommy Steele, Vince Eager. Then on to Winston's and the Churchill around Bond Street, the posh clubs you'd see portrayed in the movies where all the '50s gangsters spent their money.

Next I got a job with a comedy musical band called the Red Peppers and did a summer season in Largs in Scotland. I had to dance, do sketches, sing and drum. That year Hank and Bruce came down from Newcastle. I heard some kid had taken my place at the 2i's and he was only about 15. That was Tony Meehan. He met up with Hank and Bruce and the rest, as they say, is history.

I got my seat back at the 2i's alongside (guitarist) Jim Sullivan and (bassist) Brian 'Licorice' Locking. Then Marty Wilde heard us and we went on the Oh Boy! TV show opposite The Lord Rockingham Eleven. They wanted a trio to back people like Conway Twitty and Brenda Lee. We became Marty Wilde And The Wild Cats up till 1960.

Did you record Marty's hits?

Ooh yeah, "Bad Boy", "Sea of Love", "Teenager In Love". The Wildcats were making money but we were all passionately interested in the craft of music. I was encouraged by (Bond composer) John Barry, who did a postal course from Julliard. I did a course in composition and arranging from Berkeley.

That's amazing, hardly the image of early rock 'n' roll.

Well some people spent their money on American cars and it was all over in a year. But we always had a different agenda, even when we toured backing Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. Of course we were out there having a good time. But we still had this thing that we knew what we wanted to do when we were 60 - and we were never going to be 60 - but here I am with you and I'm still working...

I suppose also, they said rock would only last a year.. You couldn't imagine what was to come. "No, we didn't have a clue. You used to carry your own kit, set it up, find your digs, then move on.

And you had a full kit by then.

Yeah, the black Trixon I had for four years, including the first year of The Shadows. Then during the second album I was given a Premier kit. Premier realised that if you won drumming polls you sold kits. We didn't have screaming girls coming to see us, we had guys who wanted to be in bands, which was a great disappointment! You'd look in the audience and every fourth guy had horn-rimmed glasses on.

"Little B" was recorded on the Premier, take one, because I hated doing drum solos in studios. I'd get the routine right on tour first. I regularly did a 20-minute live solo, "Little B", "Big B", "Mountains Of The Moon". The best weren't recorded - live, when you were really firing.

Brian's Kit

Brian remembers his Shadows' Premier as: "White in small sizes, 20" x 12", large-ish mounted tom, 14" x 14" floor tom and a piccolo snare. It appears in Summer Holiday."

He still has the silver glitter Ludwig from Ivor Arbiter with a shallow 22" x 12" bass drum again and rare brass-shelled 400 snare. He also has all his original Shadows cymbals: "Avedis Zildjians - 13" hi-hats, 20" ride, 5" splash, very thin 15" crash on left, 16" crash on right and a 22" swish - copied off Mel Lewis. Zildjian have stuck with me and still write to me four times a year."

In his studio today, Brian plays a ‘vintage’ Pearl maple shell kit with his favourite 13" x 13" beaten bronze shell Ludwig piccolo and a pair of ultra dry Zildjian SR-12" hi-hats.

Going back to Eddle Cochran, I heard he was a useful drummer too.

Yes, he played on a couple of his own hits. On "C'mon Everybody" he played this syncopated bass drum pattern, and he did it while playing eighths on the snare and hi-hat at the same time. The offbeat being part of the eighths, like a two-hand shuffle but played straight.

And some drummers played halfway between straight and dotted - Tony Meehan had it - right in between. It only works at certain tempos. Lionel Hampton did the full shuffle, which we did with Cliff. Another beat I did had a slightly flammed backbeat, I'm not sure if it's in front or behind. A lot of people have sampled the start of "Flingel Bunt", but it's not what they think - the snare flam is on the cross-stick, not on the head.

Now we're up to The Shadows. How, in fact, did you come to join?

Tony left and they said I was the only choice. I was 21 and I was taking over from (Beatles sessioneer) Andy White in the theatre pit for Stop The World I Want To Get Off with Anthony Newley. I said, 'I don't tour anymore and I'm getting £25 a week', So they said, "Double it and get over here". The Shadows was just going to be a fun thing - I wasn't on royalties, I was on £50 for whatever I did: theatres, films, everything. It did sometimes rub a bit hard when the taxman came round and I'm living in Finchley, one-up one-down, driving a pink Ford Prefect and appearing in movies. But I'd have paid a drummer 50 quid also. We broke up in 1968 for ten years, and when we came back it was a three-way split. I did write some of the early songs, like "Summer Holiday" and "Finders Keepers" and that helped.

The Shadows were never big in America. Why was that?

We were badly represented. We had "Apache", a massive hit, but it was released by Jorgen Ingmann in America and went to number one. That should never have happened. Then, the second time we went to America was with Cliff to promote The Young Ones in 1962. But there was already a Young Ones film so they changed the title to "It's Wonderful To Be Young" and they got an unknown songwriter to write a song - Burt Bacharach just starting out. We met him with his girlfriend, an unknown actress called Angie Dickinson. We did this Cine Variety tour and it was the time of the 'Bay of Pigs' fiasco, the Cuban crisis, and we got to Miami just as the tanks were going down to the beach and they were advertising fall-out shelters - America going totally over the top.

In New York, Hank and Bruce took me to Manny's drum store and bought me my first silver Ludwig. There was just something about owning an American kit. I'd always been a Ludwig man because Buddy Rich and Joe Morello played Ludwig. Then in 1964 Ivor Arbiter presented me and Ringo with two kits. The Beatles came a couple of years after we were big. But in the early days we were the two bands to be reckoned with - until, of course, The Beatles changed the whole world.

How did you feel about that? To us growing up, The Shadows were clean-cut while The Beatles had a raw edge.


Well, I'll explain that if I can. The idea was rock'n' roll was short term and they wanted to make us allround entertainers. Cliff was going to work with an orchestra, make movies, variety shows. The Beatles made their own rules, and to them we were old-fashioned - although I met Ringo through the Ludwig association and we hung out at the Scotch of St. James with Keith Moon and all the drummers. But The Beatles did it their way, there was no compromise and the songs were extraordinary. And no other drummer would have been right for that band - Ringo was absolutely made for them. He worked for the songs, and he had a sound, the low-tuned tom toms. Every drummer in the world tried to copy that sound.

After the hits dried up in 1968 you returned to session drumming.

You didn't know who would turn up - one day it would be Ken Dodd and the next day Ella Fitzgerald - I did an album with her. And then I worked with Tom Jones and went to America with him. He wanted a full-time drummer for six months in Vegas and I turned that down - I'd got kids growing up.

So gradually the composing took over.

It was a slow transition. In the 1960s, Norrie Paramor did most of the arrangements for Cliff and he let me do a dozen or so. A lot of my craft was learned doing library music - I'd go to Brussels for KPM once a year and they'd employ a 60-piece orchestra with me on drums. The head of KPM, Robin Phillips, said 'you've done some orchestral pieces, bring a couple of scores to Brussels and if we finish early I'll give you the nod'. Well, we did, and one piece became the World Cricket Series theme in the '70s, and it's still being used in Australia now.

So today, would you say you're a composer or drummer first?

I'm a composer, but I miss playing. I played better when I was older because of the mental attitude of not trying to prove anything. There's a point you get to - this is how I write, this is how I play, if you don't like it that's your problem.

Is there a message for the young drummers out there?

If there's any, it's don't think it started with Dave Weckl - who I see at Ronnie's and he's fabulous. The way he plays was always good, but he's changed, he's not flying around so much now. When you hear him on some of those Dave Gruisin big band things, it's brilliant and I'm sure he writes as well.

Yes, he does.

It's great to dip back into history. When you're 20, someone says, You don't want to listen to that, Krupa's finished, Rich is old fashioned... But at my stage of life, I'm really enjoying going back, even to the Benny Goodman Trio. Krupa was cool and really looked good. And when I was young I used to think Rich was walking all over him, but if it wasn't for Krupa there probably wouldn't have been a Buddy.

Your enthusiasm and hard work set a great example.

Well, I was ill a couple of years ago - had a couple of operations - so I took a year off, built a pond and did the garden. And I feel better now than when I was in my thirties. I've just formed Brian Bennett Records - at last. The first release is called Living Britain, from a six-week TV series, and it's some of my best work. I'm hungry and enthusiastic about everything. I like doing things, I can't stand still. I haven't done it yet...