The 10 best punk drummers of the ’90s, from Dave Grohl to Tobi Vail
The ‘90s was the moment when the experiments wrestled control of the laboratory away from the scientists. Suddenly, punk rock — the ragged step-sibling of rock and pop — was squarely in the mainstream of culture, after years of ruling the underground. It spawned alternative music and the latter’s most successful subthread, grunge. Grunge was what ultimately turned the beakers and Bunsen burners over in the lab and donned the pristine white lab coat. But not before tearing off the sleeves, reattaching them with safety pins and spraypainting the back.
A few years later, punk took over — in its most melodic form, pop punk. Punk finally staged the overthrow of the mainstream it threatened in 1977. It just took a lot longer to storm the Bastille than the length of time it takes to play "Pretty Vacant." This is what happens when you’re dealing with a culture that prides itself on its messy, misfit ways.
The difference between this wave of punks and the originators was generational. OG punk rockers grew up on revolutionary ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll and pop music, stacked ‘70s music and culture against it and found them lacking. This new breed grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They were latchkey kids who enjoyed the heavy metal that dominated it, even if it was supposed to be the enemy. They were fans in spite of themselves. So it’s quite possible they were taking on aspects of that mainstream rock as they created music and culture that would engulf it. So that the drummer you could most closely compare to the guy in Nirvana was the member from Led Zeppelin. It just stands to reason, doesn’t it?
Presenting Alternative Press’ pick of the best punk drummers of the ‘90s. Some may be new to you, but all had an impact. As always, please enjoy our bespoke playlist as your reading soundtrack.
CLAIM TO FAME: Nirvana
SIGNATURE MOVE: The world, or at least parts of it (namely the hardcore scene), first heard of Dave Grohl when he was bashing the tubs for D.C. hardcore heroes Scream in the late ‘80s. Next thing we know, he’s on MTV with Nirvana, detonating his kit at Satan’s idea of a pep rally behind a bunch of cheerleaders with anarchy symbols on their uniforms. It was a little thing called "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and Grohl’s articulate slam was a large reason why it took over the world. If Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham was reincarnated in 1991, his name was Dave Grohl.
BEST HEARD ON: Nevermind
CLAIM TO FAME: Green Day
SIGNATURE MOVE: Frank Edwin Wright III became Tré Cool when neighbor Larry Livermore tapped the precocious child’s natural musical ability for his punk band, the Lookouts. His monster chops and natural showmanship fully bloomed once he replaced original Green Day drummer John Kiffmeyer. His Keith Moon homage made an immediately notable difference on GD’s second LP, Kerplunk! His rapid-fire fills and ultra-precise time-keeping continue to drive the band who officially mainstreamed punk to this day, pushing Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt to the top of their abilities. As a great drummer should.
BEST HEARD ON: Dookie
CLAIM TO FAME: Manic Street Preachers
SIGNATURE MOVE: When leftist glam-punk act Manic Street Preachers initially burst out of Wales in (as early tune "Stay Beautiful" put it) “a mess of eyeliner and spray paint,” no one suspected drummer Sean Moore of having classical training. Perhaps this explains his assisting cousin James Dean Bradfield in writing the band’s music? It certainly explains his contributing occasional keyboards and trumpet to various sundry MSP tracks. That musicality — also shared with Topper Headon, of perennial Manics inspirations the Clash — might inform his expansive take on basic punk drumming. There’s more than 4/4 bashing propelling those white-denim’ed flying scissor kicks.
BEST HEARD ON: Generation Terrorists
CLAIM TO FAME: Fugazi
SIGNATURE MOVE: Fugazi had an almost immediate impact, having members of both Minor Threat (Ian MacKaye) and Rites Of Spring (Guy Picciotto and Brendan Canty). These bands changed the tone and texture of D.C. hardcore in the first half of the ‘80s. But Fugazi would change the game again by essentially inventing post-hardcore. Canty’s muscular percussive flexibility contributed a lot toward building that dynamic, especially on their definitive 1990 LP Repeater. His tribal funk toms are so essential to one instrumental, they named it "Brendan 1." In more than one way, Canty’s elastic time signatures might be Fugazi’s secret musical weapon.
BEST HEARD ON: Repeater
CLAIM TO FAME: Thee Headcoats
SIGNATURE MOVE: Bruce Brand, the backbone of several of garage poet/painter/guitarist Billy Childish’s bands, was initially the guitarist in 1977 punk outfit the Pop Rivets. Brand switched to drums for Childish’s next group, the ‘60s British Beat-inspired Thee Milkshakes. Through Thee Mighty Caesars and into Thee Headcoats, Brand brought Bobby Graham flavor into his drumming, whose killer beats propelled classic ‘60s U.K. recordings by everyone from the Kinks to the Dave Clark Five to Tom Jones. Though he hasn’t played with Childish since Thee Headcoats’ 2000 breakup, he remains active with other core members of the Medway garage scene.
BEST HEARD ON: Archive From 1959 - The Billy Childish Story
Steve “Thee Slayer Hippie” Hanford
CLAIM TO FAME: Poison Idea
SIGNATURE MOVE: Steve "Thee Slayer Hippie" Hanford began powering Portland punks Poison Idea with their second album, 1987’s War All The Time. His Keith Moon-meets-Gene Krupa take on hardcore instantly elevated PI’s musicality. Hanford also took over production duties with that album, and all Poison Idea from that point were as well recorded as a Metallica album. He brought a certain musical imagination and adventurousness out of them unheard of in hardcore, before or since. For example, how often have you heard your local thrash outfit throw in kettle drums or gongs? Hanford played both on "Say Goodbye," heightening the drama considerably.
BEST HEARD ON: Blank Blackout Vacant
CLAIM TO FAME: Elastica
SIGNATURE MOVE: In U.K. punk revivalists Elastica, Justin Welch’s burly pounding navigated the rest of the band’s fuzzed-out Fenders and half-inched Wire and Stranglers through mid-’90s alt-pop’s emotional minefield. He had more than a little Clem Burke in his makeup, absolutely perfect for their updated take on late ‘70s art-pop. Resultantly, he gave shape and form to their electro-shock guitars and leader Justine Frischmann’s arch, untutored feminism. Elastica’s bright-pop-things moment may have been brief, but it was incandescent. Welch’s powerful drumming helped light their touch paper. He was most recently heard in an instrumental project called DETHHAUS.
BEST HEARD ON: Elastica
CLAIM TO FAME: Bikini Kill
SIGNATURE MOVE: Flagship riot grrrl act Bikini Kill made old-school punk rock revolutionary all over again. Their third-wave feminism gave their noisy rock a moral authority and a fresh energy it had not seen in quite a while. But ideology wasn’t the only thing reenergizing their sound. There was also Tobi Vail’s crashing drums. She pounded six shades of goo out of her tubs and was always directly on top of the beat, pulverizing it into submission. She was the Muhammad Ali of punk drummers, letting her sticks do all the talking while owning one of the heaviest bass drum feet around.
BEST HEARD ON: The First Two Records
CLAIM TO FAME: Refused
SIGNATURE MOVE: Sweden’s Refused may have begun as a good-if-standard hardcore band. Something snapped with their third album, The Shape Of Punk To Come. It envisioned a future music that was punk mostly in energy, spirit, volume and aggression, but with a cut-and-paste compositional style. Some of Fugazi’s post-hardcore collided violently with post-punk, hip-hop, techno and jazz… often within the same track. Although some serious recording science was involved, this definitely required a certain rhythmic dexterity on drummer David Sandström’s part. If he never played another note, his work on Shape Of Punk alone would make Sandström one of punk’s best drummers.
BEST HEARD ON: The Shape Of Punk To Come
CLAIM TO FAME: Babes In Toyland
SIGNATURE MOVE: Lori Barbero hadn’t hit a drum in her life when she formed Minneapolitan girl gang Babes In Toyland with singer/guitarist Kat Bjelland in 1987. Which perhaps explains the untutored flair she brought to BIT’s rhythm section, a sort of eloquent tribal stomp and liquid groove sense that never relents. Barbero only got better as she went along. By the time of 1995’s Nemesisters, she was goosing the Babes’ mutual oral sex ode, the four-minute double entendre "Sweet '69" with a crashing Latin garage groove, oily tom-toms and a lowrider cowbell. Barbero made everything both heavy and danceable.
BEST HEARD ON: Fontanelle