The history of the tea towel in rock occupies a sadly neglected nook in the overall pantheon of the fables of the deconstruction of pop history. Greil Marcus barely touches upon it, Johnny Rogan dismisses it in a paragraph, and only Donovan’s perpetual claim that he invented it on every BBC 4 documentary about the sixties that he can claw his way into briefly keeps the subject hovering athwart the listening public’s consciousness.
Like most people, I first became aware of the phenomenon when watching footage of the legendary rooftop concert performed by The Beatles during the sessions for what eventually became Let It Be. Most people can’t get past the horrific plastic mac Ringo is sporting (possibly one of Maureen’s) but once can tear your eyes away it is clear that he has customised his drum kit by carefully placing a tea towel over firstly the floor tom and then the snare. Before the invention of those little gummy blue pads that you can now attach to your drum heads and in the absence of the gaffa tape first introduced to Liverpool by merchant seamen in the thirties (and then eagerly swapped like gum, chocolates and silk stockings with GIs during the war by impressionable young percussionists throughout the home counties) this was the only way to damp down an overly timbalesque snare. With the experience of unsuccessfully trying to record the drum part for Tomorrow Never Knows while the kit was set up in the revolving door at the EMI offices in Manchester Square (John Lennon apparently wanted it to sound like “…a thousand Tibetan monks all paradiddling on temple drums at once”) still fresh in his mind Ringo would have been careful not to draw any attention to issues with recording the kit, and it is also enchanting to think of him absent-mindedly reading a humorous summary of the laws of cricket, or looking at Giles Martin’s and classmates’ handprints, or perhaps reflecting on some mawkish poetry about a mother’s love whilst shuffling his way through Get Back.
Ringo was not alone in his pursuit of sonic experimentation. Across town Dave Mattacks, newly installed as drummer of incipient folk rockers Fairport Convention was struggling to reproduce the loose sound of Levon Helm’s kit as heard on The Band’s Music from Big Pink. “We ended up draping a tea towel across the snare to mute it – give it that subdued basement feel” he told Patrick Humphries some years later in a conversation recounted in the Fairport biography Meet by the Fridge.
Sometimes the old ways are the best. Only last week I myself was involved in recording an acoustic session wherein le batterie, even lovingly attended to with brushes by our sensitive and attentive percussionist, was overwhelming the delicate nuance of the banjo accompaniment. With a knowing sideways glance and a nod to the long and noble tradition of thinking outside the box our drummer rushed to the kitchen, returning with a lovingly wefted little Fairtrade cotton number which he draped over the snare in order to dampen down the intrusive rattle.
It turns out than in these days of electronic gizmos and digitally-manipulated sound technology, where decades of improvisation and recording expertise and moving the mics and damping the room and tweaking the EQs have been reduced to bits and VDUs, you can now just buy a plug-in.