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Meet a Drummer: A Q&A with Kenney Jones on His Storied Career and Memoir "Let the Good Time

Kenney Jones

February 27, 2019 | by Andrew K. Lau

After years of waiting for the right time Kenney Jones finally published his memoirs, Let the Good Times Roll (Thomas Dunn Books/St. Martin’s Press), a clear-eyed, good-natured account of a career that took him from humble beginnings in London’s East End to the backline of some incredible groups. In addition to the career-spanning view, Jones doesn’t shy away from the minutia; from explaining studio tricks used on certain songs to advice on buying the right drum sticks. Throughout the book his voice is no-nonsense, clear, and, for the most part, without remorse.

After some usual boyhood shenanigans, things get off to a good start in a used music instrument shop where he happens upon the drum kit once owned by Brian Bennet, the drummer of his favorite group at the time, The Shadows. Bought without hesitation, Jones uses it to develop what would eventually be his distinctive heavy-hitting, economic style first heard with The Small Faces. Formed in 1965 when he was 15 — with bassist Ronnie Lane, singer/guitarist Steve Marriot, and keyboardist Ian McLagen — the quartet experienced a meteoric rise after signing to a management deal a mere five days after their first show. A debut single was in the charts two months later; those were different times, folks.

The band, having its roots in the Mod movement, walked a tightrope between R&B rave-ups and the nascent psychedelic pop sounds. Be it Marriot’s soulful tenor cresting over the band’s roar, or Lane’s laidback whimsy, they were a strong live act as well as a tight studio unit despite their collective young age. A string of hits and bad management followed quickly and The Small Faces flared-out by early 1969 when Marriot jumped ship to form the heavier Humble Pie with guitarist Peter Frampton (whose style Jones describes wonderfully in the book as “like a flower opening”).

Shell-shocked at the abrupt end to the group, Jones, Lane, and McLagen holed-up in a daze for a few months. “No one could understand how we were feeling,” he writes of the time. “We didn’t want to say goodbye to each other, but we didn’t know what to do next. Coming together to jam, laugh, and piss around, reminded us that music can heal, as well as tear apart.”

The Small Faces

Help came in the form of two refugees from The Jeff Beck Group, guitarist Ron Wood and vocalist Rod Stewart. Just like that, they were on their way once again. The Faces were a stripped-down, well-oiled rock ‘n’ roll band of the highest order, switching out the glistening pop sensibilities of The Small Faces for a harder, minimal approach. The next five years saw them rivaling even the Rolling Stones. With their experienced, tight rhythm section, organ, and the distinctive raspy vocals, there was an exuberance to The Faces’ work, which has often been copied but never matched. And they never hid their fondness for alcohol, at one time even employing an onstage bartender. However, as with The Replacements, another stripped-down rock ‘n’ roll band, their hard-partying image became a bit of a weight, distracting from the indisputable talents of its five members.

Stewart’s solo career eclipsed the band by 1976 and he was catapulted into a silky, Hollywood Superstardom while the others scattered into sepia-toned, low-profile solo projects. That changed for Jones in 1979 when he was asked by his old friends in The Who to replace the recently deceased Keith Moon. Stylistically, it may seem as an illogical choice; Jones’ no-nonsense drumming was the opposite of Moon’s hit-and-miss, almost obnoxious flamboyance. Whether the fans knew it or not, The Who were changing even before Moon’s death and Jones was a perfect choice, something which has been appreciated only with the passage of time. So, the decision was a polarizing one (even within the band itself), but such distinctive Who songs from the early 80s, such as “Eminence Front,” wouldn’t be as successful without Jones’ contribution. Not one to sit still, he formed a short-lived group called The Law with Paul Rogers, and is currently leader of The Jones Gang, a band he formed almost 20 years ago with Rick Wills.

In a show of full disclosure, I will freely admit to copying more than a few of Jones’ best moves for my own usage years ago. I may’ve been overheard more than once referring to The Faces as “a perfect band,” so it only makes sense I have a little one-on-one with this guy. I dialed him up recently at Hurtwood Park Polo Club in Surrey, a southeastern region of England, where he serves as chairman of the club he created 25 years ago.

Despite having so much to talk about, our conversation didn’t stray too far from his profession. From tempo struggles within The Faces, dealing with an upcoming surgery, the polite controversy over what to do with one of his first kits to decoding the mystery of Joe Morello, my questions were met with Jones’ humble grace and gentle speaking voice that betrays his powerful drumming. Most importantly, Jones laughed at the amazing way his life has turned out.

NO RECESS!: You mentioned it took a few attempts to write Let the Good Times Roll

Kenney Jones: [The book] was always going to be about the same; when I was encouraged to do it, I was quite excited about it [but] after a while I didn’t feel comfortable ‘cuz I was only about 30 years old, ya know? I have no right to write an autobiography when I haven’t even lived my life yet, so I parked it to one side. And then when I had cancer for a second time I thought, I better do this before I pop off. [laughs]

NR!: I suppose the clock was ticking louder in your ears at that point.

Jones: Exactly, exactly.

NR!: Your parents were able to see a majority of your career and I would imagine they were pleased to see their boy reach such heights.

Jones: They were. I was their only child, we had no money, so I was spoiled with love and affection and encouragement and that sort of thing. But they still scratched their head thinking, ‘What’d we give birth to?’ I hardly went to school at all and we had a hit record straight away in the charts when I formed the band about the time I was 15, and so I’ve only known what I do straight away.

NR!: One of my favorite parts in the book is you buying [Shadows drummer] Brian Bennett’s drum kit by pure chance, which you played into the 70s.

Jones: Beginning of The Faces, yeah. I made the first album [First Step, 1970] on it, actually, and probably part of the second [Long Player, 1971], and then I got another drum kit. Loads of em!

NR!: Were you sponsored by anyone?

Jones: Well first off, I was sponsored by Premier. Then I joined The Who and was sponsored by Yamaha at the same time. When I went to Japan with The Faces my road manager came up to me and said — I should say my drum tech because they like to be called drum techs — he said, “You won’t believe this but the guy from Yamaha has brought shitloads of drums he wants you to try.” They brought a whole lorry load and I said, “I’m already sponsored by Premier.” And they said, “That’s only for England.” I’m the oldest serving endorsee, I’ve been with them since 1972, I think; whenever the first time we went to Japan.

NR!: Do you still have some of those old kits?

Jones: I’ve got some stuff floating about, yeah. Not too long ago, Brian Bennett called me up, “Kenney,” he said, “I don’t know if you’ve heard of my problem.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “My studio has just burned down, all my drums are wrecked.” And he sent me a picture of all his drums burned out and all you can see is burned-out hardware. He said, “I was just thinking on the off-chance you wouldn’t sell me my black drum kit?” And I said, “No, it’s my black drum kit.” [chuckles] So we started laughing. I said, “It’s a difficult [decision] for one reason: I liked all The Shadows tunes you recorded on that drum kit, then I got it and played all The Small Faces stuff including [The Small Faces final album] Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake and part of The Faces stuff on that drum kit, and I’ve used it on certain other things. Brian, I really sympathize with ya but… really don’t know what to do.” He said, “Yeah, yeah, I understand.” I said, “Lemme think about it and call ya back.”

So I thought, What do I do? I don’t want to let him down ‘cuz I understand his plight, you know? So I called him back and I said, “Brian, I think I’ve solved the problem.” He said, “Oh, what’s that?” So I said, “Why don’t we share it? You can have it for as long as you want and I’ll have it for as long as I want, we can just keep passing the ball backwards and forwards.” And he was just silent. I dunno, I think he just wanted it back. But it’s a bit of a tall order asking me 50 years later to give it up. And also, I don’t feel that’s it’s mine, I feel it belongs to the fans, you know? It’s in Liverpool in the British Music Museum, just the base drum and right next to it is Brian Bennett’s bass drum as well, his silver glitter one, haha! Both Ludwigs, both side-by-side. It’s incredible. I never thought it would end up like that. We’re such good friends. It’s lovely.

The Faces

NR!: I noticed that your set-up changed a lot from The Faces to when you started playing with The Who. It looked as though you added six or seven extra drums to your kit...

Jones: It wasn’t like that. What I did was I ended up with a big floor tom-tom, and right next to it was a [tympani] that was especially for “Pinball Wizard,” [imitates opening drum part] ba-boooom, ba-boooom; it was really for effects of trying to get the sounds that Keith [Moon] got. I had to play completely different. I said when I joined the band, “I’m not going to copy Keith, I can only play me. I’m a straighter drummer, Keith never used a hi-hat, I use a hi-hat… certain fills you have to do very similar ‘cuz he had some very good fills. So, I got a few more toms — it was a natural progression. I had less drums [than Keith] but I could do a lot more.

NR!: A lot of credit goes to you for even considering the job in the first place.

Jones: I’ve served my tour of duty, and that’s that. [chuckles] I’ve moved on which is great. When The Small Faces and The Who toured together, it was like dealing with one band, anyway. The hardest thing, which I said in the book, was learning The Who’s entire repertoire within two weeks of rehearsals and then the show we played for two-and-a-half, three hours straight. I used to look forward to playing “Behind Blue Eyes” ‘cuz I could have a rest in there.

NR!: The workout regimen you had to undertake in order to keep up with that amount of playing was incredible, almost making yourself into a new person.

Jones: I like a bit of booze, I don’t take any drugs, [but] I couldn’t even drink ‘cuz, basically, if I drank anything it would go to my muscles which would affect my playing; it doesn’t go to my head, don’t ask me why. Crazy. I got used to the buzz of being straight, really. When you’re super fit, it’s a buzz.

NR!: You mentioned a few drummers in the book who I think are still under appreciated, the first being [Dave Brubeck Quartet drummer] Joe Morello. Your description of when you saw him play a drum clinic before you were in The Small Faces, watching him play one-handed rolls and then trying to figure out what he was doing, was remarkable.

Jones: Yeah, it’s sideways! I couldn’t figure it out for years trying to practice it and literally threw down the sticks and said, “It’s fuckin’ impossible! How’s he do it?!” It was only when I was talking to Carl Palmer, who got friendly with Buddy Rich and that sort of thing, and I told him about it and he said, “No, it’s a sideways motion,” like a paintbrush, moving your wrist side-to-side. And that’s even hard to do, but that’s how you do it... it’s a tease.

NR!: A magic trick.

Jones: You got to be good at that. I’ve got a fast foot, that happened to me by accident when you get your nerves and you can’t stop your hand or foot from shaking; that happened to me while I was practicing. My bass drum pedal just went bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup. What I did was I kept that going and mastered the art of control and built up my muscle, so eventually I could do triplets and all kinds of stuff. It’s amazing how I stumbled into that, you know. I could do bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup forever and play a straight beat right over it.

NR!: Another drummer you mention is Bobby Elliot from The Hollies...

Jones: Oh, great drummer, great style. I loved his fill-ins.

NR!: There’s footage of them playing “Look Through Any Window” from the German TV show Beat Club where he brings his arm upwards hitting his right cymbal underneath and then, in the same motion, bringing that same arm down on top of the left cymbal; such a great subtle move. And then he smiles and winks into the camera.

Jones: He was an expert at that, I loved him. We used to tour together so Bobby and I used to sit down and I’d say, “How’d you do that?” He’d show me, then I’d do it, it was great. When people ask my for advice I say, “Practice but find your own style.” Bobby found his own style, I found mine. Once you discover yourself, you’ve discovered your own way of playing, it’s very important to do that rather than mimic and copy someone.

NR!: What makes your book so unique is that it’s not just an overview of your career but you have these side trips into smaller details such as the phasing techniques that were applied to [The Small Faces single] “Itchycoo Park,” for example, or how to buy drumsticks. It’s a really well-rounded book.

Jones: Oh good, I’m glad you liked the book. It’s nice to feel that I’ve been useful for something. [giggles]

NR!: It’s funny you mention that because I was surprised to read that, at one point, you thought your two bands had been forgotten.

Jones: Yeah, yeah. I’m surprised we influenced so many people, you know? It’s incredible. That fans get younger and younger, it’s incredible.

NR!: How does that feel?

Jones: It’s great, like something handed down from father to son, mother to daughter, that sorta thing.

The Who with Kenney Jones

NR!: You paraphrase another fantastic drummer, [Booker T. & The MG’s] Al Jackson, as saying drummers need to know their place and not get showy, which is something I think you really adhere to but it’s an aesthetic the person you replaced in The Who, Keith Moon, didn’t live by. At all.

Jones: That’s right. I had to come out of my shell, my comfort zone, and do a little bit more off-the-wall stuff, you know? In the best way I could; I’m not natural playing all over the place, although I’m pretty good at it now. [chuckles] I do some Who songs in my band [The Jones Gang] when we play, and I put myself in Keith’s place a little bit more now and I understand quite how he does it; a lot of it was he didn’t know where he was [laughs], making it up as he went along, I know for a fact, yeah. I thought, I’m gonna come at it more wildly. And it works, it’s great!

NR!: The closest I can recall of you playing in a more showy way is on [The Small Faces track] “Song of a Baker,” with those amazing triplet flourishes you throw in there. When you switched to The Faces you economized your playing quite a bit, becoming more minimal.

Jones: That’s right, yeah. Everyone was slowed down or ahead all the time in The Faces, either completely drunk or stoned. Woody [Ron Wood] would start a song, one of those long beginnings, and if the tempo was like [steadily] boom-bum, boom-bum, boom-bum… he’d start it like [slowly] bum…bum…bum…bum… depending how many nights he’d had no sleep with Mac [Ian McClagan]. And so, I had to go with it ‘cuz he’d brought it in so I had to play it like that and then Rod [Stewart] would stand in front of me making a circling motion with his hand with his back to the audience and I’d go: “I know!” [laughs]

NR!: [laughs]

Jones: I’d try to speed it up and it’d get it almost to the [correct] tempo and Woody would say, “It’s too fast!” [laughs] Very funny little things you’d see being in the driver’s seat.

NR!: Right, the driver’s seat; you comment early in the book how, as a boy, you just wanted to be a driver.

Jones: Oh yeah, yeah, my dad was a lorry driver by trade, see, and he taught me how to drive when I was really, really young in country fields and stuff like that. I’m a pretty good driver now, ya know. [chuckles]

NR!: As good a driver as a drummer?

Jones: I’d like to think so, I’m safe.

NR!: A few car wrecks along the line.

Jones: There have been, yeah.

NR!: Well, looks like you ended up being a kind of driver after all.

Jones: Yeah, it’s strange.

NR!: You’ve also come across some pretty strong-willed frontmen with Steve [Marriot], Rod, and Roger [Daltrey], which underlines your patience not just as a musician but as a human being in order to weather their individual personality traits.

Jones: [laughs] I’m very proud of the albums I’ve made between those bands, in other words The Law with Paul Rogers, two great albums, I really love them and also the Jones Gang album, we had a number one hit in America, a song called “Angel” and it’s a stunning album, those still hold up today.

NR!: It’s must be difficult to make room for those other projects amidst your more well-known work.

Jones: I know, yeah, but it’s fine, I’m very proud of them; if nothing else, I’ve left something behind for when I pop off. [chuckles]

NR!: Your line of “I never play angry” really stuck with me, too.

Jones: People come up to me and say, not all the time but quite often, “It must be wonderful being a drummer, you take all your anger out on your drums.” If I’m angry or upset in any way I don’t get anywhere near my drums. It’s my instrument, it makes me happy, gives me piece of mind, and it cheers me up, so why should I hit the very vehicle I love?

NR!: Right, that’s not how it looks to someone watching from the audience.

Jones: Well, it’s an instrument, and to this day I’m very proud to say I play an acoustic instrument. I never really got into electric drums, I’ve got nothing against them, they’ve got their own environment. I’ve played to click-tracks when I was in The Who on “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Who Are You,” “Baba O’Riley,” and various other things, and I used to do lots of sessions with click-tracks, so that’s fine. I enjoy listening to Phil Collins who often uses electronic percussion and then he plays along with it, which is great, I really like that.

NR!: There’s another under-appreciated drummer.

Jones: He’s brilliant. He’s not really playing now ‘cuz he’s got a problem with his hands.

NR!: He has such a distinctive sound, too, so it’s a shame we’d lose something like that; thankfully we have his records.

Jones: It’s really surprising, he had a couple of operations that didn’t work. I’m having an operation on my forefinger; when you get older you get calluses ‘cuz your bone grows out a little bit. The surgeon drains all the blood out of your arm and they cut it so you don’t bleed..

NR!: [gasps]

Jones: … and then they file away your bone then they sew you up again.

NR!: That sounds barbaric!

Jones: But it works, it’s good. Wouldn’t want to do it unless I had to.

NR!: When did you start to feel your body start to change where it became more of a strain to play?

Jones: I like to do stuff. I call it stuff; every day I do different stuff; I love driving tractors, picking up things, working hard, that sorta thing. Now and again, I bang my hand by mistake and that can hurt for a little bit and that can bring on a lump or two — that’s why I’m having an operation. So, you can’t stop living, you gotta go on. But I’m very lucky that I can still hold my sticks both ways — the jazz grip and the other way — so I can play both and everything’s fine and everything works. I’m amazed.

NR!: And you’ve beaten cancer twice.

Jones: Yes, exactly, yeah. Thanks to the help of a lot of other people.

NR!: You covered that part of your life with such humility in Let the Good Times Roll.

Jones: When you’re writing a book, you gotta speak the truth; you can’t make things up and glamorize things. All I did was tell the truth, it wasn’t that difficult to write when you’re speaking from the heart.

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