Fifty-one years ago today, Future Yes drummer Alan White displayed the audacity of youth on John Lennon’s “Instant Karma!”
Alan White was only twenty years old on September 12, 1969, when, the day after witnessing a gig by the drummer’s band Griffin, John Lennon called him for the soon-to-be-former Beatle’s first solo performance. As Lennon explained to White on the phone (on his second attempt; the first time White thought he was being pranked and hung up), the show was the very next day at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival, in front of 20,000 people no less. But they’d just, you know, rehearse on the plane ride over. It’d be cool.
Sure enough, it all worked out splendidly. Lennon and White, alongside guitarist Eric Clapton and bassist Klaus Voorman, went down a storm, even if a writhing, screaming, sacked Yoko Ono tested many festival goers’ patience, and a recording of the show, titled Live Peace in Toronto, would go on to sell a million copies.
Four and half months later, White was still twenty when Lennon called on him again, to record a song he’d just written, “Instant Karma!” On January 27, 1970, Lennon, White, and Voorman, this time accompanied by George Harrison on guitar and Billy Preston on keyboards, entered Abbey Road Studios to put down, in record time, a track notable not only for its commercial and cultural significance — the first solo-Beatle smash hit represented Lennon’s denouncement of his “hyped revolutionary image” — but also for its Phil Spector production, which cast in relief White’s tumbling, uplifting, tom-heavy performance.
Following a quiet Lennon count-in (“…three, four”) followed by two ominous whole-note piano chords, White enters with a neat little four-stroke ruff beginning on the snare and ending on a bass drum note on beat 4. (Later videos show White moving the snare notes to the floor tom, likely as a way to more closely mimic the thuddy sound on the original.) The short “hole” during the final beat of the bar provides a lovely moment of anticipation before the band comes in on 1, with White swinging a light shuffle on the floor tom and punctuating the vocals with jaunty 8th-note-triplet fills, often accenting the upbeats.
It’s all relatively standard stuff — though beautifully executed with equal parts lift and swagger — at least until it comes to “those fills.” You know the ones, those straight-16th rolls that we drummers rejoice in air-drumming to whenever the song comes on. To this day they sound shocking, and not only because they jump out of the arrangement so boldly, but because they somehow, stubbornly, refuse to jibe with the age-old drumming “wisdom” to never, under any circumstances, disturb the flow of the groove.
“At that time with my own band,” White says in a six-part Prism Films interview about Lennon that’s viewable on Youtube, “I’d been experimenting with irregular rhythms. When you come to the drum breaks, you change the meter. So it sounds like you step aside for a moment and go back to the song.
“I used the tom-toms [on ‘Instant Karma!’] as, like, cymbals,” White goes on. “And we put a cloth, a towel over them. It was muffled, really tight sounding. And when it came to the drum break, I’d step out and change the meter a little bit.”
Lennon loved the effect, which is compounded on the recording by the other instruments dropping out — though it’s tough to tell whether the band played it that way during the tracking or it’s the result of deft editing.
“John said, ‘Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it, it’s perfect,’” White says on the Prism documentary. “And he never really told me to do anything. I was just messing around, experimenting with the drum breaks. And he said, ‘No, do that every time it comes to this part of the song.’”
White plays the breaks at two pivotal moments, leading into the choruses after the lines “How in the world are you gonna see?” (0:55) and “Why in the world are we here?” (1:43). Watching the Plastic Ono Band’s appearance on the British TV show Top of the Pops at the time, it’s easy to read into the smile that John flashes in Alan’s direction after the second occurrence that he continued to get a kick out of the drummer’s adventurousness. (One also imagines Lennon dug White’s wonderful crash accents at 2:10, behind his emotional vocal line “Come on and on and on on!”)
“It was something I was working with as far as my thoughts about drumming at the time,” White told the website Yesworld.com in 2013. “You can play a groove, but if you have a slight solo spot where the drums become dominant, there is no good reason why you should play it in the same meter as the rest of the song. So that’s why even though ‘Instant Karma!’ is a shuffle, when it comes to the drum breaks, I made them into rock ’n’ roll drum breaks. And I guess that kind of left an impression in a lot of people’s minds.”