Forum Member Profile - Nigel Smithson
Forum Member Profile
Name: Nigel Smithson
Tell us about yourself
I’m retired, live in Birmingham with my 4th wife – she says I’m ‘a typical muso’ because of my past ‘mistakes’ – and spent my working life in IT and latterly as a driving instructor, until having to stop altogether for health problems. Drumming has been the mainstay of my teenage and adult life, as you will see.
How and when did you get into drumming?
It must have been in about 1961 when my late brother Andy took me to Birmingham Town Hall to see the Dave Brubeck Quartet. I’d already got used to him playing ‘Time Out’ (1959) and ‘Time Further Out’ (1961) on the Dansette at home, and to see and hear all of those tracks played live was a mesmerising experience. It was the first live performance I’d ever been to; I was transfixed by Joe Morello’s power and skill, and knew from that moment that I wanted to drum. I proceeded to drive my parents crazy by drumming with knitting needles on a dining chair; shortly afterwards they bought me a pair of stave bongos with untuneable tacked-on heads (which sounded terrible played with knitting needles) and, soon after that, a blue Broadway kit. It consisted of a bass drum with calf heads, snare, concert tom, and brass hihat and ride cymbals, which I rapidly beat to a pulp. For my next birthday they bought me a matching brand new single-headed floor tom from the long defunct Ringway Music in Birmingham; it was a special order and cost 15 quid.
I had a couple of drum lessons in my teens from an ex pit drummer at the old Birmingham Hippodrome, at George Clay’s on Broad Street; he said (a) ‘there’s nothing further I can teach you about pop drumming’ (wrong) and (b) ‘I could get you a job on the cruise ships’ (I didn’t take him up on that, how I’ve regretted it ever since!). Apart from that, I’m entirely self-taught. I used to read Buddy Rich’s Modern Interpretation of Snare Drum Rudiments on the toilet, but as that’s not the ideal practice venue, it never meant much to me.
During the mid 60s I frequently played in an organ and drums duo at a heavy drinking pub in central Birmingham called the Railway, later a well known rock venue, now sadly demolished. We were paid in pints of mild, which I hated - I was only 14 or 15, after all.
My first band got together when I was at secondary school; we played school dances and so on; during the first major gig I remember us having no PA – the vocals went through a 15w Bird guitar amp, and we were still told to turn it down. My kit slid all over the polished wood stage, and during ‘They’re Coming to Take Me Away’, Mark the lead guitarist found a cardboard box backstage and dropped it over my head; along with the Crazy Foam he also sprayed on my cymbals, it made for an interesting musical experience.
Various bands followed that one over the next few years; it took me until my mid twenties to realise that I was probably not going to make the big time. By then I was a computer programmer on some of the early mainframe, and had already been married and divorced. I was well into salaries and mortgages (but realised later that I hated all the corporate stuff) and played innumerable pub gigs with various line-ups.
Somehow, the clock had now sped round to 1985, and I was playing regularly with a blues band. For some bizarre reason I was lured into buying a brand new, old stock, yellow Simmons SDS9, paired with a Carlsbro Cobra 90 keyboard combo amp. This lasted precisely one gig and attracted the band’s total contempt, due to the wet cardboard box snare sound that I seemed unable to alter. At the same time, my first daughter Zoe was born – I had remarried a couple of years previously (wife no. 2 – keep up!).
Luckily – or so it seemed at the time – I managed to swap it for a brand new Pearl Export in smokey chrome, which seemed the height of luxury at the time. Proper hardware. Tom holders that didn’t let go. Pity about the shells, but it seemed excellent to me, and the band were well satisfied too. Puzzlingly, at some point in the proceedings, I divorced and remarried – wife no. 3. It seemed a good idea at the time.
Time then for a change of band, and along with the four-piece brass section, we used to rehearse in the keyboard player’s rather large garden shed. I bought a dirt cheap Ludwig Vistalite with concert toms to keep in there; later all the band’s gear was stolen from the shed, but amazingly my contents insurance paid out for the kit. The theft put paid to the band, sadly.
I used the insurance proceeds and sold the Pearl to buy a massive black and white double Staccato kit from Poole Percussion. By heck it was huge. There were five (or maybe six) black rack toms, a black floor tom, and two white kick drums. We drove down there to buy it – it came in individual large rectangular Leblonde cases – and had to hire a second car to get it all back to Birmingham. I’d taken up with the blues band again, and we had a regular Sunday night pub residency for many years. In retrospect the Staccato was totally ridiculous for that gig; it was very hard work to transport (in its own Bedford Rascal van by then), looked daft in a half empty pub, and wasn’t particularly nice to play.
I sold it (for more than I paid) to a guy who showed up in a very slightly smaller van; with some effort we rammed the kit in and he drove off happy. Tired of monster kits and lugging them around, I had a total brainstorm and, on the rebound (so to speak) bought a Remo Legero. This was wondrous in its portability, moderate in its sound, and rubbishy in the way the featherweight bass drum moved around (back to old school dance days) until one of its legs snapped clean off.
Domestic and work pressures had by then got the better of me; I had another daughter Ellie in 1993, and stopped playing altogether for a few years, but had a subscription to Rhythm and used to scour the ads (no Ebay in those days), which led to me buying a beautiful charcoal shadow Ludwig Superclassic kit from a shop in Scotland. This sat, along with a Supraphonic, unused in my back bedroom for a couple of years until I misguidedly sold it again to fund some house repairs, a move that I’ve bitterly regretted ever since. The drumming bug bit again, though, and I found myself heading to Doncaster to buy a burgundy fusion sized Tama Starclassic. This lovely thing got me back into gigging – with the same old blues band again – but unfortunately by then I’d decided I fancied a DW (I blame a Rhythm article that described a DW snare as sounding like a birthday cake hit by a baseball bat), so when the same Doncaster drum shop got a second hand one in, I shot up there to swap the Tama for it.
At this point, things started to go badly wrong. I stacked the DW up at home and didn’t feel like playing it; in fact I didn’t feel like doing anything at all. Soon afterwards, feeling indescribably awful, I had a nervous breakdown and spent some time in hospital getting over it. It slowly became apparent to me whilst in there that I had for a long time been in the wrong job and the wrong relationship, and that I was very rarely myself, in fact my whole life consisted of role-play, and they were roles that I hated. I had to go back to work sooner than I would have chosen to, to find that I had been effectively replaced by a contractor, and so it was no surprise when I was made redundant three weeks before Christmas 2001, after nearly 20 years with the same employer. Bear with me; we will get back to drumming soon.
To make things worse, my mother was terminally ill, and died three weeks later. This double whammy would have been unbearable prior to my hospital experience, but fortunately I had found the resources to cope. I decided to re-train as a driving instructor, during which my 3rd marriage came to an end by mutual consent. Shortly afterwards I met the gorgeous Heather who is now my 4th and final wife, and we had such a lovely time together that I found a new lease of life and started drumming again. Yes, it was with the same old blues band, and then another band too, with a more Hendrix-ey twist, for which the DW was perfection personified. Or so I thought…
In October 2003, not even two years after we met, I was diagnosed out of the blue with advanced and inoperable prostate cancer. To make it worse, in shock and disbelief I sought a second opinion, which not only confirmed the diagnosis but also gave me no more than five years to live. We were stunned and I could barely function at all for six months. There seemed no point in anything, the Hendrix band went on hold, I left the original blues band and the DW sat unused in the garage.
Over the next few months, as I realised I wasn’t about to drop dead, life slowly returned to a semblance of normality, despite innumerable hospital visits, and from somewhere the urge to play resurfaced yet again. Having retired from the driving instruction job after barely a year of doing it (due to the medication), gigs kept me sane and provided an alternative to focusing on my own mortality. They even kept me going when my dear brother Andy died of pancreatic cancer in 1997 after a brutally short illness.
This more or less brings us up to date. Along the way I sold the DW (power toms) and bought a PDP CX (short stack toms) which to my ears sounded just as good and cost half as much. I also bought a Peavey Radial Pro, and a Yamaha DTXpress for those quiet practice moments in the garage at home. The occasional gig with the Hendrix-ey guys continued, and I joined a female fronted rock and pop covers band, all of whom have turned into close friends.
Unfortunately my drumming days are virtually over. I find it increasingly hard even to rehearse, as the cancer and its treatment sap my energy more and more. As a swansong I’m determined to buy myself a vintage Ludwig kit, which will take things full circle back to where I came in. My daughter Ellie has along the way turned into a fantastic drummer, and wants to make a living from the music business, which I find massively satisfying and personally rewarding.
I’m writing this whilst recovering from a blood transfusion yesterday. Drumming has been a way of life to me; I realised some time ago that I was a musician pretending to be an IT professional, and that mistake was for a while my downfall. Although I have never made much money from it, it remains the thing that motivates and stimulates me, and provides a distraction when times are tough. I’m sure it’s helped me to outlive my five year prognosis too – over eight years on and still here. All of this thanks to Joe Morello, back in 1961.
What are you doing musically at present?
Contemplating stopping, and dreaming at night about vintage Ludwig Superclassics.
Most memorable drumming experience?
No surprise here: seeing the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1961.
Kit set up?
PDP CX maple, 8” 10” 12” 14” 14” 16” 22” – the rehearsal room kit
Peavey Radial Pro 750 maple, 10” 12” 14” 14” 22” – the gigging kit
Gretsch Catalina Club, 12” 14” 20” – the tiny rooms, or feeling very tired, gigging kit
Yamaha DTXpress II – the play in the garage kit
Favourite drummers and why?
Joe Morello – the reason I started playing – massive skill and sensitivity, one-handed 32-stroke rolls.
Bob Lamb (Steve Gibbons Band) – amazing laid back groove, tension building spaces in his licks – he also engineered and produced UB40’s first album ‘Signing Off’ – all good Brummie musos.
Jim Simpson (Magnum, UFO) – just technically brilliant, endless power.
Sheila E – fantastic, flashy showmanship when she backed Prince in the 80''s.
My daughter Ellie – she can play stuff that I never could, can cope with ease with complex time signatures, and double kicks like a steamhammer. A future star, I’m sure.
Favourite drum DVD?
I’ve never watched one in my life, but frequently look at drumming clips on Youtube
Favourite bit of kit?
My Ludwig Acrolite snare – scratched and battered, but sounds the dogs’ – and it was only 40 quid.
Anything you would like to add?
Rock till you drop, that’s me, and I probably will soon.
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