Review by Russell Newmark for 'The Beat'

Review by Russell Newmark for 'The Beat'

Super-hefty hardback

Book - Phil Seamen:
Percussion Genius
By Peter Dawn
Brown Dog Books/Peter Dawn
Music Archive Ltd £45 750pp


STEEPED in its milieu of British modern jazz of the 50s and 60s and yet again leaving the reader longing for the services of a time machine this superhefty hardback is a monumental study of the remarkable drummer Phil Seamen. Fifty years since he died at 46, Seamen remains a legendary almost mythical figure as both a superlative sticksman with a phenomenal technique and as a maverick and mercurial iconoclast. .

The blockbuster volume has clearly been an epic labour of love endeavour on the part of writer Peter Dawn, whose evocative narrative is propelled by a wealth of recollections and insight from a cavalcade of illustrious names, as well as being testament to an assiduous research project. As just one indication of Phil Seamen's importance in the pantheon of drummers, there's the story of the book's foreword.

It was originally going to be written by the inimitable Ginger Baker, who was personally encouraged and mentored by Seamen. After Baker's death, the job was willingly undertaken by another fervent admirer, Charlie Watts (who'd delivered his piece just a few months before he, too, died).

The enduring image of Phil Seamen is that of the archetypally decadent-looking jazzman at the drums, fag-end hanging from the corner of his mouth armed with a sardonic wit that could be abrasively scornful.

But across its 750 pages, this immersive account of his achievements and a whole panoply of anecdotes help to paint a vivid portrait of a musician who built on his instinctive talent, and who influenced and inspired both his contemporaries and those who followed. Seamen worked with the cream of UK jazz Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott, Stan Tracey, Joe Harriott, and so many others but his skill and versa utility meant he saw action in the pop world too. He played on records by Marty Wilde, Shirley Bassey, Frankie Vaughan and Cilia Black although he quit a session supervised by George Martin because he wasn't allowed to have his dog with him. (His beloved Bill did actually cause mayhem in another studio after spotting its resident cat just outside the door Phil also had him in the orchestra pit during his engagement in a West End show - until the dog was 'banned' by the conductor.

He was of course the embodiment of the dichotomy and dilemma of drugs – does a gifted instrumentalist feel they can make him perform even better?     The fact that he was often ‘chemically compromised’ was one reason that his colleagues’ tolerance could be stretched to the limit – and sometimes beyond.  

There are tales of him nodding off at his kit, and of having a disregard for the clock - erratic time-keeping being a rather ironic disposition for a drummer!     On one occasion he and some bandmates were even late on stage after getting lost on the way back from having a curry.    There’s also an episode involving both the Polish ambassador and a milk float.

But the crucial legacy is the artistry itself, and the scope of the coverage extends to a detailed and perceptive ‘technical’ exploration of what made Phil Seamen’s drumming as special as it was. 

A ‘selected discography’ and a startling array of rare photos, record sleeves, posters, showbills and programmes celebrate both him and his featured role in some tremendous line-ups.      

Russell Newmark


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