Chicago: “I’m a Man” (Chicago Transit Authority, 1969)
Let’s talk about drums solos. People hate them, or at least claim to hate them. I’m talking about drum solos in a rock context, for the record—it’s a pretty different thing in the jazz world.
I get why. Most drum solos suck. It’s the part of the song where everything a band had been developing together goes out the window, and the guy at the kit starts showing what he can do, which often involves technical demonstrations that fall well outside the rhythmic world of the song. Paradiddles on five different drums in a row! Disjointed patterns, played a few times then quickly abandoned for something else! Arrhythmic pounding! You’ve heard it all.
Sometimes, it goes on for a very long time. Sometimes, it happens on a rotating riser. If you’re Carl Palmer, it might happen while you change your shirt. The drum solo has become the emblem of egotistical display in rock. And not without cause.
But do they have to be so bad? I present to you evidence that they don’t. The evidence comes courtesy of Danny Seraphine, the drummer for Chicago, who at this point were still called Chicago Transit Authority. He takes a solo on the band’s heavy cover of the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man,” which the band often used as a starting point for lengthy jams in concert.
The studio version is seven minutes and forty-three seconds long. Seraphine’s solo begins at around 3:10 and lasts all the way to about 5:30, when he kicks back into the beat and guitarist Terry Kath takes the lead back. And for that whole time, it’s pretty awesome!
Seraphine tries to keep things within the rhythmic framework of the song, but he’s aided by the band’s horn section, which keeps a steady pulse on hand percussion, giving him something to bounce off of. He’s got some guidance, so the whole solo feels like it’s going somewhere. It’s the polar opposite of what tends to happen when the rest of the band stops playing and just leaves the drummer out there to try to do something interesting all on his own. There’s no breakdown, no ponderous silences, no desperate attempt to make things interesting by getting flashy. It’s musical, in short.
Does it single-handedly rescue the drum solo from the rock and roll doghouse? Well, no. No single good drum solo is that powerful. It does do a great job of defying the usual pitfalls, though, and makes a good case that we shouldn’t be totally dismissive of the idea of letting the drums take the lead for a while.