Saturday, October 2, 2010

Dashboard Madness, Or How I Learned to Drum and Drive

I don’t know the exact moment that I discovered rock and roll, but my earliest memory is from seventh grade. Back then there was no such thing as FM radio, at least not in a popular, affordable format. (I can hear you GenXers gasp in amazement.) My radio was a little handheld transistor model that I carried around next to my ear. I’m sure that people who saw me thought it was a growth on the side of my head.

But a few years later I got my driver’s license and my world changed. Suddenly my radio was in the dashboard, with a single speaker mounted inside with little holes for the sound to come out. It was then that I really got into music and found that I had a unique skill – playing the dashboard or the steering wheel in time to a tune. Having been in band since 4th grade, I had developed some rhythm skills that, when the time arrived, I was more than ready to hone while driving.

Now there are two techniques for playing the dashboard. The first is the “through the steering wheel” technique. In the sixties most cars had a steering wheel that was large enough to easily reach through with both hands extended to the dashboard. I became adept at playing along to “Wipe Out” and steering with my forearms. You can hear the announcer with the disclaimer: “Professional dashboard drummer. Do not try this at home.”

The second technique is the “grasp the wheel between your thumbs and and palm” method. This approach frees up the other digits to keep time on the wheel. A variation on this is to steer with the heels of both hands and whale away in time to the music. With the size of today’s sportier steering wheels, this has become my second favorite method.

As I was driving today, though, listening to Sirius 14, Classic Vinyl, I played along to “Swingtown,” reaching through the wheel and playing the plastic just behind, which makes a nice, percussive sound. And I got to thinking about my favorites dashboard madness songs of all time; those that make it the most fun to play along. So here’s my list.

10. Wipe Out. This is a great oldie with a really simple rhythm. Your hands have to be fast enough to keep up with the sixteenth notes in a method that drummers call a paradiddle. Once you master the basic form it becomes simple to add a little accent. But a caution – this song is tiring. Even the drummer on the original recording breaks with the rhythm as he’s running out of gas toward the end of the song.

9. I Saw Her Standing There. Granted, this song is best known for the incredible Paul McCartney bass riff, but it’s great for pounding the dashboard as well.

8. Bits and Pieces. The Dave Clark Five seemed to be formed around the drummer, maybe because Dave Clark was the drummer. Playing the triplets at the end of each verse requires some additional skill as the wheel actually has to be released to do it properly.

7. I Feel Good. Everybody plays air snare on the rim shot at the end. “Hit me!”

6. Devil With A Blue Dress On. “Fee fee, fie fie, foe foe, fum.” This songs makes me want to drum.

5. The Letter. This is another oldie with a famous air drum rim shot at the end. I perfected this song on a table at a pizza joint near my college campus. Wore out the jukebox too.

4. Born to Be Wild. Cranking the car was not the only way to get the motor running and head out on the highway. Great tom tom beat in this one.

3. Dance to the Music. All we need is a drummer. Happy to oblige.

2. Call On Me, one of my favorite Chicago tunes. Love the latin rhythm. Even us anglos can get down.

1. And at the top of the list is a tie: (Dashboard drum roll please) Santana’s Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen, and Chicago’s Beginnings, both of which end with an incredible latin percussion outro.

The truth is that this list is totally arbitrary. I could make a list of just Hendrix tunes. ’Scuse me while I kiss the sky. Duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh.

To paraphrase a little proverb: Sing as if no one is listening, and drum as if no one is watching.

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