The superfluous percussionist

This is ‘book’ 15 in the series The Impossible Books of Keith Kahn-Harris. The cover was created by Gus Condeixa. For more on this series, read the introduction here.


What sort of book is it?

A shortish but detailed cultural history. Possibly part of a series.

How likely is it that I will write the book?

I might write an essay on it sometime.

Am I happy for anyone else to write the book?

Go right ahead. However, the idea of the series of books that I float at the end of this post belongs to me!


The motivation behind this book is twofold.

First of all, I’ve been puzzled and infuriated for years by this:

On the left is Nick Mason, drummer of Pink Floyd, behind his stupendously large kit. On the right is Gary Wallis, their live percussionist, complete with an equally massive kit. Yet, not only is it difficult to actually hear what contribution the percussionist makes to the live show, the band’s music is not suited to live percussion. Pink Floyd’s recordings, at least post-Sid Barrett, have a sparse and dramatic sound that require the drums to be restrained most of the time.

So why the superfluous percussionist? Is it just a matter of decadence, of a ludicrously wealthy band desperately trying to find something to spend their money on? Or is it a symptom of something else? A nameless desire for grandeur that prioritises visual effect over sound?

Whatever the reason is, superfluous percussionists have a long history in popular music. At least since the 70s, bands who have little or no need for percussion other than drums have been bring percussionists on tour. There is an untold story here. What is the history of the superfluous percussionist? What drives this history? And what does it say about the development of rock and pop?

This seems to be a very thin premise for a book! But there is something really compelling — to me and least — about taking a trivial, unnoticed phenomenon and exploring it at apparently excessive length. Besides, maybe the superfluous percussionist can reveal a deeper story, a more fundamental truth. I’ve always felt that you could take more or less anything and, if you tried hard enough, find the whole world in it.

My second motivation for this book relates to this. There seems to be a whole host of unnoticed aspects of popular music that deserve deeper scrutiny. For example:

- Why did almost all guitarists stop using curly guitar leads onstage sometime in the 1970s? And who was the first guitarist to figure out that if you tucked the lead behind the guitar strap, it’s unlikely to be pulled out?

- When did taping written set lists to the monitors become the norm?

- When did bottles, rather than cups of water become the norm onstage?

- Who was the first act to start taping spare plectrums to the microphone stand?

The aim, of course, isn’t just to find the first instance of these practices, but to investigate their deeper implications. And if there really aren’t any deeper implications, the challenge of the micro-historian is to make such stories of the secret lives of ephemera intrinsically interesting.

So the book on the superfluous percussionist could become the first in a series of shortish books on these hidden aspects of popular music history. Perhaps this could be a series like 33 1/3, that captures the imagination of readers and writers for years on end?

Actually, the more I think about it the more excited I get about the idea of the series. I’d love to be the editor-in-chief. Perhaps I need to start a new publication featuring my ‘Impossible Series’…

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this Impossible Book, why not browse through the rest of the series here?

Also, please recommend and share it on Medium or elsewhere. I would love to read your comments too.

Many thanks!

Finally, here’s an alternative cover:



Keith Kahn-Harris
The Impossible Books of Keith Kahn-Harris

Professionally curious writer and sociologist. Expert on Jews and on heavy metal — interested in much more. For more about me go to