25 Great Drum and Vocal Breakdowns
Sometimes it comes at the height of tension in a song, when the instrumentation builds to a peak, and there's nothing to do to release it all but strip the song down to its voice and its pulse.
Sometimes it follows a particularly spectacular solo, one so spellbinding that the only way to shift focus back to the song is by doing something radical, like taking the instruments away. Sometimes it precedes the solo, getting the listener's attention and telling them to get ready for something special.
Sometimes, artists just do it because it's cool, and they want to get the audience to clap along and scream for them.
What we're discussing is the breakdown – the moment in a song when the bulk of a track's instrumentation stops, leaving the singer (or singers) and drummer to carry the full weight of the song for a couple of bars, or maybe a verse. Occasionally, one or two of the other instruments sneak back into the mix. Rarer still, the singer will hold the drummer in such high regard, he or she will let the snare-banger have the spotlight all to their lonesome.
For the most part, though, the breakdown is just for the voice(s) and the percussion, and for the crowd to go wild. That's the beauty of the breakdown; it amps things up by paring things back. Here are 25 great breakdowns; turn them up and sing along.
Cheap Trick, "I Want You to Want Me" (At Budokan version)
The studio version of “I Want You to Want Me” is fine, but it possesses about a 10th of the energy of the better-known live cut from 1978. It also does not have the live version’s song-closing breakdown (at 2:57), when the band’s resident rock star (singer Robin Zander) and taxi-dispatcher lookalike (drummer Bun E. Carlos) drive those Tokyo girls crazy.
Bon Jovi, "You Give Love a Bad Name"
Jon Bon Jovi blasted into the big time with this, the first single off 1986’s breakthrough Slippery When Wet album. The whole record was precision-calibrated to be performed in arenas, and “Bad Name” is Exhibit A, with its shout-along chorus and cannon-shot drums, both of which stand alone at the 2:45 mark, to excellent effect.
Robert Palmer, "Simply Irresistible"
Arguably the most debonair of rock stars (eat your heart out, Bryan Ferry), Robert Palmer also had a great feel for dynamics in a song. When he comes out firing after the second chorus (at 2:16), it’s only his voice and Dony Wynn’s drums trying to escape your speaker cones. It’s a perfectly placed breakdown – you’re not expecting it, and it amps up the song as he heads into the third chorus.
Spin Doctors, "Two Princes"
Singer Chris Barron skibbity-bibbity-bops his way through this silly little tale that had the mainstream crowd joining the early-‘90s hippie kids at Spin Doctors shows for a season. It was a fun season, to be sure, and the breakdown at 2:44 got everybody “Woo!”-ing at the same time, in a display of solidarity and fun-lovin’ oneness. Times were simpler then, and we all knew it couldn’t last forever. Sure enough, it didn’t.
INXS, "What You Need"
Easily the sexiest breakdown of this bunch, because when you hear it (at 1:49), you can’t help but think about Michael Hutchence and his hip-swaying swagger. And it’s sad because he’s not around anymore to reprise it, but ultimately we should be thankful that he was here to do it in the first place.
Whitesnake, “Slow an’ Easy”
The breakdown at 2:47 is made to sound like a live audience clapping along, but that’s just the boys in the studio playing with the mics and some reverb. (Not that David Coverdale hasn’t encouraged big audiences to replicate it over the years.) If you ever get the urge to pretend you’re making an audience clap along with your sexy come-ons, cue up “Slow an’ Easy,” and let ‘er rip.
Warrant, “Cherry Pie”
The title of Horniest Hard Rock Band had gotten passed around a lot by fall 1990, when this beater-lickin’ anthem was loosed upon the world, but Warrant wore the crown for a couple of months, particularly when the “Cherry Pie” video was in heavy rotation. The breakdown at 1:30 lasts only half a verse and is oddly placed (halfway through the song, with no real tension built up), but it still rocks.
Queen, “I Want it All”
Freddie Mercury sounds like he’s singing from atop the highest mountain peak, with the wind in his face – “Here’s to the future! / Hear the cry of youth!” – and suddenly, on three other mountaintops, we see the other members of Queen. This chorus of Queen dudes (along with Roger Taylor’s drums – he’s sitting on his peak) makes its demand at 3:13 – “I want it all! / And I want it now!” And at that point, you realize they’re not asking for what they want; they’re just about to take it.
Eddie Money, “Baby Hold On”
Eddie Money’s first hit was a straight-up pop song, catchy as hell, with a soulful undercurrent that he brings to the surface at 2:41, when he cuts everyone but the bassist and drummer and does a little testifying. Maybe even a little pleading. Definitely a little promising. And, like the lady he’s trying to woo, you have to hold on until he’s done.
Quiet Riot, "Cum on Feel the Noize"
The breakdown (at 3:27) in Quiet Riot’s biggest single is just a run through the chorus, but it’s got Frankie Banali’s bombs-down-the-staircase drumming and Kevin DuBrow’s freaky shriek, so it’s an exceptionally heavy breakdown, which is exactly what the song and its audience both need.
Journey, "Ask the Lonely"
What should have been the fifth single from 1983’s Frontiers (had it been included on the album), “Ask the Lonely” features a typically gorgeous and dramatic Neal Schon guitar solo, but rather than just going back to the chorus at 2:40, they go back to the chorus … a cappella. Then Steve Smith’s drums come in and you get a Journey rarity – a breakdown that breaks the tension and heads back to the chorus. It’s there and then it’s gone, and it’s a perfect moment on one of their best songs.
Rage Against the Machine, "Calm Like a Bomb"
The track builds, with the incendiary lyrics rolling off, over what sounds like an alien incursion force landing in a major city, crushing anything in its path. And at 4:31, when you think it can’t get more intense, it’s just drums and voice – and the voice is whispering: “There's a right to obey and there's a right to kill.” And you realize then that you were wrong – it just got more intense.
The Rolling Stones, "I Go Wild"
Mick Jagger’s doctor elaborates on all the things Mick should stay away from, in order to live a healthier life. While most of us would get the lecture about not drinking as much and staying away from excessively salty or sugary snacks, Mick has to give up “politician’s garish wives / With alcoholic cunts like knives.” Because he’s Mick. And the great Charlie Watts gradually inserts little rolls and fills until 3:23, when the other instruments drop off and it’s just him and Mick and the background voices, singing “I go wild!” in sheer defiance of Mick’s doctor. And when they did the song live, they extended this bit to twice its recorded length, not to rub it in the doctor’s face, but because it’s the coolest part of the song.
Kiss, “Do You Love Me”
In one of the rare guitar-and-vocal breakdowns that begins a song, Paul Stanley and Peter Criss (or whoever was sitting in for Peter Criss that day – Kiss liner notes were often full of lies) establish all the things Stanley’s lady friend likes about hanging out with him. We think the song starts this way to accentuate the point when Stanley says, “You like my seven-inch [pause] leather heels,” because the pause is there to make the listener think, for a second, that he’s talking about the size of Little Paul, which might confuse the woman he’s addressing because she knows he’s exaggerating. His leather heels were only three or four inches, on a good night.
Audioslave, "One and the Same"
On Audioslave’s final album, 2006’s Revelations, the band created an unholy brew of metal, funk and noise that seemed to bode well for the future. But they broke up not long after its release. “One and the Same” could have been a song by War, if War had had Tom Morello playing guitar – the groove is deep and the guitar is loud and alien-sounding. The band clears the lane at 2:36 to let singer Chris Cornell and drummer Brad Wilk testify; their bit is the shove that puts the listener on their back.
Bee Gees, “Jive Talkin’”
The rhythm of this massive hit mimics the sound the Bee Gees' car made crossing a bridge into Miami to go to recording sessions. If that’s true, it’s one of the great bits of happenstance in pop music, and one of the coolest. The beat is established at the beginning of the song, but it’s when the chorus hits at 1:51 and it’s just voices and percussion, that the perfection of the whole thing hits home.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse, “Too Lonely”
Buried halfway through a Neil Young record virtually no one likes (1987’s Life), this sub-three-minute hard-rock character study is crunchier than gravel under work boots and features two terrific breakdowns (at 1:31 and 2:24). The fierce live version Young has released from his archive removes the studio polish and the background vocals, leaving the raw rock power of the man and the band, and that’s all we can really ask for, isn’t it?
Phil Collins, “In the Air Tonight”
It’s not really a drum-and-vocal breakdown, but the drum break (3:16) in Phil Collins’ first solo single is iconic and worthy of inclusion in this discussion.
Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the U.S.A.”
At 2:30, the guitars and bass drop out, and it’s just Bruce Springsteen, drummer Max Weinberg and Roy Bittan on the synth, and the song’s story moves from a hellish past to an uncertain present. “Ten years burnin’ down the road,” Springsteen shouts in his most gravelly voice, “Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go.” The listener gets to focus on those lines, to let them resonate. That’s the most chilling part of the song, and it chills because there’s virtually nothing to distract the listener from it.
Kings of Leon, “Red Morning Light”
In which the “Sex on Fire” guy, before he was the “Sex on Fire” guy, discusses a delicate “dirty bird” of the streets who’s “giving all [her] cinnamon away.” At 1:41, all the cranky guitar strummin’ falls away and it’s just a drum, a cowbell and the soon-to-be “Sex on Fire” guy mumbling about birds and cinnamon, and you realize you’re hearing either the silliest or most profound thing that will ever come out of this man’s mouth. And you just ride with it, because whether silly or profound, it’s the coolest sound in the room at that moment.
Billy Squier, “Love Is the Hero”
That “Rock Me Tonite” video ruined everything. This track – which featured Freddie Mercury on second vocal – should have been a massive hit, but the satin pastel cloud over Billy Squier’s head still rained on him, and not even the cool breakdown (at 3:20) could save things.
George Harrison, "Got My Mind Set on You"
Another instance of the drum-and-vocal breakdown beginning the song, only we’ve come to find out the drums weren’t Jim Keltner, but Jim Keltner’s drum machine. The vocals, however, were a chorus of George Harrisons and Jeff Lynnes, all glossy and gussied up, as all Jeff Lynne productions of the era were, and that’s more than enough shiny sound to satisfy.
ZZ Top, “Somebody Else Been Shakin’ Your Tree”
The first song on the first ZZ Top album gave everyone a taste of the band’s honky-tonk Zeppelin side, and when Billy Gibbons and Frank Beard step out for a little drum-and-vocal aside to the audience (at 1:44), one could be led to believe that this was as good as it could get, meaning the ensuing 50 or so years were just gravy. A lot of gravy. So much gravy.
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, "I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”
Each pre-chorus ends with a kind of breakdown, but it’s the last one – where Joan Jett extends the pre-chorus (“And we’ll be movin’ on and / Singin’ that same old song / Yeah, with me”) and goes into the guitar-less chorus (at 2:27 of the video below) – that’s where the magic happens. That’s where the audience shouts the loudest because they can be heard most clearly.
Electric Light Orchestra, “Don’t Bring Me Down”
The whole album comes down to the ninth and final track, probably ELO’s most popular song (at least until “Mr. Blue Sky” made a comeback thanks to a talking tree in a Marvel movie). And the song comes down to a single, three-second breakdown at 1:01 – just drums and some synthesized noise. It’s weird and fleeting, but for those three seconds, ELO sound pretty cool, and no one is singing a word.