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Let's talk about the drumming on Madonna's 'Like a Virgin' for a minute

This is not a photo of drummer Tony Thompson.

This is not a photo of drummer Tony Thompson. Single art

Madonna has a new album coming out tomorrow called Madame X and she seems to be dressing like a pirate in the promo materials. To be honest, I don't know a lot about it.

No, dear reader, for me, the eve of a new Madonna album is primarily an occasion to wax rhapsodic about the drums on Like a Virgin.

You probably haven't thought enough about those drums, but that 1984 album features two brilliant performances: the complex, layered electronic percussion of Jimmy Bralower and, on four cuts, live drums courtesy of Tony Thompson, late of disco greats Chic, whose playing is dee-ee-eep in the pocket, as we drummers love to say.

We're gonna focus on the "real" drums today, 'cause that's what I know about.

Sometimes it gets said that the '60s, in the acid-dropping, free love, endlessly commoditized sense, really didn't get started till around 1965. The '80s didn't share that delayed aesthetic codification, but it's undeniable some big things were locking into place for the decade in 1984—Michael Jackson was in his post-Thriller victory lap years, getting his hair set on fire, Madonna dropped the very star-making album I'm chatting your ear off about, and you’ve maybe heard of Purple Rain. As far as years in the '80s go, it was, well, one of the most '80s of them.

In 1984 Thompson was entering a journeyman phase. Chic had disbanded a year before, and his playing on Like a Virgin sits at the center of a constellation of interesting mid-'80s endeavors.

"Material Girl"

Like a Virgin is a classic "level up" album, and its opening track announces it as such. Madonna's (also excellent) debut album had proven her potential the previous year, and a decent chunk of Like a Virgin does that sound but more, with heightened production value and a bunch of veteran session talent. The drum groove here is one clear indicator of the upgrade.

Where Madonna's production has a fully in-studio sound, "Material Girl" feels more like a dance-pop band—looser, musicians playing around and against each other. Two qualities define Thompson's drumming throughout the album: the power and feel of his playing, and his subtle flourishes.

Thompson's hi-hat work is key here, always shifting emphasis. The synth bassline starts on a heavily accented note on the first beat of a bar, and although that rhythm varies as it continues, it establishes a certain plodding, stomping quality; this is an easy dance song for bad dancers.

But Thompson provides something for the good dancers too—for most of the verse phrase, he emphasizes the upbeats on the hi-hat, or the beats between the one-two-three-four quarter note pulse of the song, playing against many of the other instruments, including that synth bass. He also regularly (yet irregularly!) adds two pssts of the hi-hat (quickly opening and closing it with his foot while hitting it with a stick) precisely with the quarter note pulse, and with the other instruments. These accents always come in the same part of a bar, but they land at different points in the overall musical phrase, which means even though the melodies above the drums might repeat themselves, the overall texture of the arrangement constantly shifts.

Like a Virgin wasn't Thompson's first big session gig in the mid-'80s. The previous year he'd played on "Without You" on David Bowie's Let's Dance, which shared a producer with Like a Virgin, Thompson's former Chic bandmate Nile Rodgers, and also a recording studio, the Power Station. (Stevie Ray Vaughan, who played lead guitar on Let's Dance, did not play on Like a Virgin, but, like, just think about if he had.)

"Like a Virgin"

"Like a Virgin" feels like a cousin to "Material Girl," but at a more authoritative tempo. The upbeat hi-hat is still present, but the groove is more defined by Thompson's huge, "Billie Jean"-like kick and snare and simple, loud snare-crack fills. The bigness of the drums is still there and, according to an old Sound on Sound article about the album's sessions, was a product of engineer Jason Corsaro exploring the Power Station's live room, which was ideal for Thompson's natural sound—he was a very loud player, despite the crisp, tight drums of Chic's hits.

Another side of Thompson's hard-hitting feel can be heard with the Power Station, his mid-'80s band with Robert Palmer (later replaced by Michael Des Barres) and a couple of the Duran Duran guys, who, yes, just named themselves after the studio. Rather than the roomy sound and tasteful flourishes of Like a Virgin, their hit "Some Like It Hot" offers frantic fills and a Battles-y beat blown up with then-modern studio processing and extra percussive elements. The cumulative effect is something like blues-rock Scritti Politti. (Although short-lived, the Power Station managed an impressive number of quintessentially 1980s feats, including playing Live Aid, appearing on Miami Vice, and putting a song in a Schwarzenegger movie.)

"Love Don't Live Here Anymore"

Thompson's other two tracks on Like a Virgin are both ballads with cavernous drums. After a strings-heavy, enigmatic introduction, Thompson's backbeat gives "Love Don't Live Here Anymore" a sense of stately propulsion.

Here, Thompson builds narrative tension through tumbling fills. Imagine yourself on the stool behind a four-piece kit. Three drums sit before you, left to right: a snare, a high tom, and a low tom (drum #4 is the bass drum). You have to play a one-bar fill, four beats in the bar. What are you going to do? Probably go across the drums, spending one beat on each of those four drums, right? Maybe fill that last beat with a couple big kicks? That's the natural inclination of just about all beginning (and many non-beginning) drummers. Well, in this track, Thompson gives us one fill where he plays big, anticipatory triplets on the snare and then… stops, goes back to keeping time. We feel duped. About 20 seconds later, he plays a fill in the same feel, moving from the high tom to low, completing the expected lap around the kit. We breathe a sigh of relief.

"Shoo-Be-Doo"

Where "Love Don't Live Here Anymore" is dramatic, even despondent, "Shoo-Be-Doo" is joyous. Thompson's drumming is playful. He drops in on a sudden fill with an offbeat crash, and keeps the groove on its toes by varying his bass drum hits—you get your typical kicks on the first and third beats of the bar sometimes, but he throws in an extra note before or after every so often, like a little stuttered heartbeat. About 50 seconds in, Thompson sets up the entrance of some flute-like synths with a bounced triplet on the kick drum that leads into a crash at the end of a bar—you might have to listen close to hear it, it's fast.

It's maybe the best drumming moment on the album, and not something you expect from straight pop. In fact, sticking triplets (well, actually sextuplets) between steady eighth notes like this is most associated with one pretty specific reference point: Led Zeppelin's John Bonham, especially on 1969's "Good Times, Bad Times," which announced Zep to the world and also opened a new frontier in rock drumming. What's such a hard-rock flourish doing in this Madonna song, coming from the guy from Chic? And why's it work so well?

I can't answer the second question, but the first actually has an easy answer: Thompson played with Led Zeppelin (alongside Phil Collins) during their short set at Live Aid. Now, that set was a disaster (one for which several culprits have been suggested over the years). The Zep cats eyed Thompson for a fuller scale reunion for a bit, then dropped it. But given Thompson's performances here and elsewhere in the '80s, the what-ifs offered are tantalizing. Many musicians who achieved success in the '60s or '70s adapted awkwardly to the 1980s. (I'd hazard including Jimmy Page and Robert Plant in that statement.) Tony Thompson didn't avoid that, necessarily, but after Chic's breakup, he kept moving, highlighted varied sides of his drumming, put himself on interesting stages with interesting players, and played a small but important role in the breakout of one of the era's icons.