You are listening to the Pop Culture Academy podcast. On this episode we are exploring rhythm in rock; talking about all sorts of unique examples from Sting and Alanis Morissette to John Bonham and Neil Peart. Just a reminder before we get started, don't forget to follow us on Twitter. You can always find us on popcultureacademy.com and check out our playlists on YouTube. In fact, if you want to follow along with this episode, there's a playlist up right now with all the tunes that we are talking about this week.
Greetings and salutations and welcome to season two episode 21 of the Pop Culture Academy where we do our very best to treat pop culture with the seriousness that we think it deserves. Last week was tough, I know, all that poetry and I promise we will get right into all things rock and roll in this episode but first and foremost, you know, a brief report on what's been going on since last we spoke. I've been watching the new series Young Wallander which is out on Netflix, came out last week. I'll say of course this has the character of Wallander going for it, you know, that's definitely a plus. I always think prequels are interesting, you know, it's an interesting exercise when you get to rethink how a character became who he is, how things got to the situation where they are and the original Wallander is one of those memorable detectives that you DO want to know more about. Famously I think there's the original Swedish version but famously for the BBC played by Kenneth Branagh, just a great performance and I think it's definitely got that going for it. It's not a bad series by any means, it does all the things that it should, you know, sort of a mystery detective series should but I wouldn't say that it has done anything to impress me, at least as of yet. I think you can find at least a dozen detective series on Netflix that are at least as good as this one. On the other hand, I'm only about halfway through so maybe it will shift for me at some point, maybe everything will click into place and I'll really - I mean, like I said, I'm enjoying it. I'm definitely going to finish it but I think I brought this up last week, the issue may be that we are living in a socially distanced world and that's just going to have an effect on the quality of our television shows and our films and our music. And that may be part of what's at work here. I saw something on Twitter just last week, I couldn't believe this, I think I reposted it on Twitter, something about soaps using mannequins for their romance scenes, like kissing scenes. So, I mean, you see the characters sort of talking to each other but they are at a distance, they are socially distanced and you know those are real actors but then as one moves in to kiss the other (and you know, it's a soap so they must move in to kiss one another) as one moves in to kiss the other one of the actors gets replaced by a mannequin. And it's not subtle. So, you know, really, where exactly have we arrived at this point? I should be grateful for Young Wallander.
But I want to go ahead and get into this week's topic that you were patient enough with me last week to sit through a discussion of poetry. I mean, I think I said this last time but it's certainly true, rock and poetry do have a relationship to one another. I think music fans by and large don't want to acknowledge that fact because like I said last week, for the most part we all hate poetry and we don't want to believe anything so unutterably boring as poetry could actually have a relationship to rock music. Curiously enough ( I know this for a fact) that poetry lovers by which I mostly mean English teachers don't want to accept that rock music bears any relationship whatsoever to their sacred poetry. So they are just as eager to keep the two separate. Go back and check out our episode on Bob Dylan's Nobel prize from a few years back. I just couldn't believe how out of their minds with outrage all my academic colleagues were when they heard this news. I mean it just seemed so out of proportion, it was just irrational blind anger. I've never seen anything like it and you know these stayed people that are normally so calm and cool and collected and logical and teaching college courses. But how could the committee be so dimwitted, you know, Dylan is not a poet he's a songwriter. It just went on and on. So neither side wants to acknowledge the other and I get that but okay, leaving that aside. The point of all of what I was doing last week was actually to say something relatively simple and straight-forward. Maybe I should have just done it but I think it was worth exploring. That simple straight-forward thing is that rhythm is one important way that a song creates meaning. It's not the only way; in some cases, well we won't get into whether it's the most important or not. I think in some songs it is and some songs it is less important. But rhythm creates meaning in a song, that's all I was basically getting at and I was trying to give some examples of how rhythm can become unusual and what sort of effects that can have. I said this last week, if I play "Happy" to you, you'll get it, you'll figure that song out long before you hear the words. Now that song is exceptional. I can't think of many tracks that capture their mood quite as perfectly as that one does. It's genius but you know, you get the idea. Upbeat rhythms generally come with upbeat messages. Slower rhythms generally come with more depressing, more emo messages if you will. You get the idea. So of course now I think it is worth pointing out here that rhythm isn't just a matter of the drums. When we talk about rhythm, that's what we tend to think of. And I did kind of want to turn this episode into a top 10 drummers of all time and I'm sure that somewhere down the road that I'll make that podcast but the point is a song can have rhythm even if there is no drummer, even if there is no percussion at all. As we've talked about, the words themselves have rhythm but certainly a guitar can create rhythm; bass gives rhythm. Just the voice by itself is going to give rhythm so let's just establish that right up front.
All right, so there's something to be said, I mean I really want to get into ways in which sometimes rhythm gets played with and turned into something, I don't know something different. But right off the bat there is something to be said for a straight-forward rhythm. Neil Peart, of Rush, who sadly passed away earlier this year might be my favorite drummer. Certainly he's a top five guy and what makes him so amazing is that he's dead on all the time and he's so technically brilliant, so able to pull off the most complex riffs like they are nothing. There's really no one like him and he is a drumming God, let's just say it. At the opposite end of the spectrum if we're just going to talk about laying down the rhythm and doing it in just that precision sort of way, that perfect precision sort of way, you might talk about Jeff Porcaro from Toto who's another one of my favorite drummers. Porcaro invented what they call the "Rosanna Shuffle" which you can hear in the Toto song "Rosanna", you can hear in "Africa". Interestingly enough, Jeff Porcara also was the person who basically laid down the beats for Michael Jackson's "Thriller". So, again, a very steady precision kind of beat. And really, most of today's music relies so much in one way or another on techno beats, you almost never find a song that's not straight-forward, that's not dead on, that's not perfectly in sync. And there's nothing wrong with that; that is a particular style and that's a great thing. Most songs work that way.
But what I wanted to get into are examples where that isn't true and how sometimes an unusual approach to rhythm can transform a work or not just a work but an entire artist, a band, into something different, where something a little unexpected makes a track stand out just a little more. Now we could talk about Phil Collins', "In The Air Tonight", I mean you can't really do an episode on rhythm and not mention Phil Collins' "In The Air Tonight". Collins essentially invented what's called the "gated drum" sound and there's no drum track I can think of that people universally love more than that track. But actually that's still a pretty straight-forward bit of rhythm. I like the drama of it, that sort of quiet menace that we get through the song and things sort of just calm but menacing until things explode in that single moment. Collins is another one of those guys whether you are talking about his solo work or with Genesis who's always up to something interesting, you know, his drumming. One of my favorites I just actually came across recently, I don't know why, I mean I was a Phil Collins fan when Phil Collins was big, no question, but for whatever reason I didn't buy the albums so I didn't have a sense until we got to ...But Seriously I didn't actually know what all the albums - I knew the hits, that's what I'm saying. I knew the hits and I was going back and listening to some of those albums which are brilliant, was listening to Face Value and the song "This Must Be Love", not a hit but a great song. And there's this little hiccup in the bass line, go back and listen to that tune and I don't know it gives something interesting to that song that sort of stutters somehow in the meaning of the song that, I don't know. But notice again that it is not about drums, that hiccup is in the bass, is in the bass line.
So let's consider a couple songs that aren't what they seem. I already said that we know almost automatically what a song's mood is from its rhythm as soon as we hear it. But that's not true 100% of the time and I really like those times when we get fooled. Sometimes, for instance, you get rhythm used ironically. "Born in the USA", Bruce Springsteen, great example. And I mean that's not completely ironic, that rolling snare drum that you hear through that song is meant to sound like a military march because Springsteen is referencing the military, right? The central character of that song is a Vietnam vet. But where typically that snare drum feels patriotic the message here is quite the opposite; it's sort of like the speaker co-ops this patriotic sound and turns it into something different. It still has the energy and the punch behind it but now it's far angrier; it's like he's shoving this patriotism almost back down America's throat so to speak. I don't want to go too far with this, I don't want to put things into Springsteen's voice that aren't there but yeah, that guy is angry. And he has a right to be. But as a result of all of this and the rhythm, the song gets misunderstood because people hear that beat and the chorus and automatically think bingo, patriotism. Do I have to tell the story yet again of how Ronald Reagan decided to use this anti-Vietnam, anti-military, perhaps anti-American and certainly anti-patriotic song as his campaign theme song in 1984? I don't know who was responsible for that one but if you miss the irony it looks foolish in the end is what it comes down to.
All right, so here is one that's less well-known. Not everybody recognizes the brilliance that was Fountains of Wayne. Of course we lost Neil Peart earlier this year, we lost Adam Schlesinger earlier this year as well to Covid-19. On Fountains of Wayne's Welcome Interstate Managers album they have this song "Halley's Waitress". It's not a big track, it's not an early track, it's just kind of snuck in there. The mood of the song is so melancholy, you know, again, you listen to it, you don't have to listen to the words, it's melancholy, you know as soon as you hear the rhythm as soon as you've got the tone. You hear it and it absolutely it's got to be some tragic tale of lost love, right? It's just got to be, that's what it sounds like. And if you're not listening closely that's what it is. But it turns out that the song is this kind of joke. Halley's waitress isn't actually a very good waitress. They say in the song she's on the phone all the time calling her agent, she wants to be an actress. She's never paying enough attention to her tables, right? And the song is in the voice of the customer and he's very frustrated with her and in fact Halley's waitress is meant to be a reference to Halley's comet because that's how rarely she seems to come by. And so the song, which musically expresses this sort of longing and tragic longing, it turns out to be the longing of a customer for some kind of decent service at the diner that he's at. Now, you know, I think that's clever and funny. There are lots of other examples out there like that but I'm never going to skip an opportunity to plug Fountains of Wayne.
It's also true, though, and I don't think this is all that unusual to say, this is not a startling revelation, that music can do things with rhythm that poetry can't. Now, don't get too excited. Poetry can do things that music can't too. But you know, when you're singing a song you alter the way you would say the words. Generally speaking if you read a poem you're supposed to read it as though it is normal speech. "Whose woods these are I think I know, his house is in the village though..." Nothing unusual there, normal speech. That's very different from music and in fact it's one of the reasons that the two are after all pretty different. If you take a song like Casey and the Sunshine Band's - one of my professors when I was getting my Masters degree just horrified by this song, "that's the way, uh-huh uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh uh-huh." It is pretty Neanderthal-ish if you break it down. There's not much - if you disconnect those lyrics from the tune it really can't be saved. There's nothing there. But the thing is that you shouldn't break it apart. Remember I said last time, dancing about architecture, when you turn something into a chant, even if maybe it's nonsense or it's just syllables, it can become something completely different. Even if it's nonsense like "that's the way, uh-huh uh-huh, I like it..." and that's true of so many songs that if you take the lyrics and you disconnect them and you just read the lyrics they may fall terribly terribly flat. And I think that's partly what the argument was in terms of Bob Dylan is that if you take the lyrics, maybe they don't work as well as poetry by themselves without the music.
But, well, I'm not going to re-litigate that issue but okay, you take another song like Tom Petty's "Into the Great Wide Open" a song I really love. A line in there which he sings is "into the great wide open" and the way he sings it though, again, he's not just saying it as you would say it "...out into the great wide open, into the great...wide open", so that you get this kind of expansion as the line goes on that makes it seem like we're actually heading out into that great wide open. But then open snaps it shut and we find out that the character in this song, he's a rebel but, as the song says, he's a "rebel without a clue". Open, there, isn't actually open at all, it's closed. "Into the great wide open..." it cuts itself off just as it's getting there. There's all kinds of that sort of rhythmic meaning going on in music that we don't even really have time to sit down and analyze. Now I think what Petty does there has something to do with delivery, we could call this the delivery. And there's something in music that connects us to drama and we've got to do an episode on that very soon. But, you know, the way a line gets delivered and there are some great instances of singers playing with rhythm in that way as well sort of screwing, again, this is what I really like when it goes in an unexpected way.
Alanis Morissette, for instance, who people have varying opinions about her. She still produced one of the greatest albums ever made, just purely in terms of sales. I happen to love Alanis Morissette. She's really hip to that idea of chant that I was talking about earlier and not so much in Jagged Little Pill, her big album though it is there but more in her later albums. The opening to the song "Front Row" which is one of the early songs on her sophomore album Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie is just one long line and it should have pauses in it but it doesn't. It comes out in a rush and the result is that it sounds very breathless, "I know he's blood but you can still turn him away you don't owe him anything..." No pauses. Every note the same length, just da-da-da-da-da-da-da. Machine gun, rapid fire, right? And in that case she isn't necessarily changing the rhythm of specific words but she is changing the weight of them, the weight that you'd normally give them in a sentence. Another line, "I can't help you because we're supposed to have professional boundaries..." I can't help you because we're supposed to have professional boundaries. That's the natural pace of that but when it gets rushed that way the lines take on different meanings. It feels - the speaker's mood feels different, you feel that kind of rush of energy, that kind of breathless - I gotta get this out - almost in that case of that song almost because I'm afraid of what I'm saying and I need to get it out before my fear takes over and I can't say it. Sometimes, you take her hit off that album which is "Thank You" and in that song she lists out all the things that she's thankful for. "Thank you frailty, thank you consequence, thank you silence." But you know, she suddenly shifts the syllables in that line so she says, "thank you frailty, thank you consequence" and then she says "thank you si-lence." It's very subtle but si-lence. One of the effects of that and like I said, she does it a lot. To a certain extent I think she's trying to capture the idea of chanting but it also forces you to think about those words. You don't quite hear it right and you think what was she saying there, what was she saying there? And it forces you to go back and listen to the word again and really think about the word and I think that's a very useful technique.
Other artists do this to the point of distraction. I am not sure about half of what Van Morrison is saying on Astral Weeks, okay? Now, don't get me wrong, brilliant album, one of my favorite albums. It's the album I always turn on when I need that sort of spiritual kick but I mean the point is, the point he is making is that the words have ceased to matter. He's fit them in musically and it doesn't matter what the words are and if you get them you get them and if you don't you don't. It doesn't matter. In fact I read somewhere recently and I can't remember where now about something he said to the effect that once he writes the words, I mean once he's got them down, he's written the lyrics to the song, from that point on he no longer cares about the meaning of those words. He cared about them when he wrote them down but then he lets the meaning go and now he's only interested in the sound. And you know, there's a musical point to that. We've talked about chant, we've talked about turning the words into sound, letting the rhythm become fused with the sound so that you can't tell the difference between one and the other and you can't tell what those words are.
All right but let's talk about true rhythm and the places where it gets the most unusual. So normally a rock song, a pop song is all about 4/4 time. Now for the musically uninitiated that simply means four beats, basically. So four beats over and over. "Love Me Do", "love love me do...", four beats [snapping 1, 2, 3, 4]. Or, "Domo arigato Mr. Roboto", one two three four. Or, what, Barenaked Ladies, "It's been one week since you looked at me..." one two three four. Now there are other rhythms that tend to show up. There's 3/4, one two three, one two three, one two three, one two three and sometimes 6/8. "Take It To The Limit", "One More Time" if you know that Eagles tune is in 6/8. "We are the Champions my friend...", also in 6/8. Now rock's not unusual in its preference for those kinds of - there are two or three stable rhythms that are the ones that always get used. I guess as humans that's sort of the beat that we prefer. If you think about 4/4, 4/4 is what you would march to, right? You need it to go one two, one two so that your legs can go right left right left. And if you're going to dance to it, same thing. You've got to have that 4/4 rhythm. Most music throughout history has kept to these basic rhythms, long before rock. Those were the rhythms that we went with. The best moments, though, I mean I think they are the best moments, maybe there's something wrong with me, but the best moments to my mind are when we don't use that 4/4, we don't use that standard rhythm. Now you know this song, it's on commercials and you may not know the name. It's a jazz tune, it's called "Take 5" by Dave Brubeck. So instead of 4/4 it's written in 5/4. Now, that may not sound like a big deal on paper but if you think about it if you're going one two three four and you add an extra beat in there it's going to throw off your march so to speak. Think about it. Tap your feet to 4/4, one two three four, one two three four. Now try to tap your feet one after the other to 5/4. One two three four five, one two three four five, one two three four five. Now my wife claims she can't hear the difference when she listens to "Take 5" - that's part of the brilliance of that song. I mean man, look, you can go a long time without finding a better written song in any genre than "Take 5". And part of what's so great about that song is that you don't realize it's an odd rhythm. They are so good, those guys are so good that they gel in this weird off-rhythm so that it sounds like it's normal. It tricks you into thinking it's normal. That's how good they are.
Sometimes in rock it can be done really well too. You may not realize, for instance, that Pink Floyd's "Money" has seven beats. You listen to that opening bass line that Roger Waters plays at the beginning of that song, so iconic. Da da-da-dum...seven, seven beats. Seven beats and then it starts over. One two three four five six seven, one two three four five six seven. "Tom Sawyer" (since we are talking about Neil Peart) "Tom Sawyer" by Rush also has that 7/8 beat. One two three four five six seven. One of my favorites, a Sting tune from Ten Summoner's Tales which is titled "Love is Stronger than Justice" also seven beats. Now there he kind of - rather than sort of fusing it in such a way that you don't notice that it's an odd seven beats, Sting kind of emphasizes it and that really suits that song so well. That song is meant to be a kind of western tune or an homage or a parody to westerns. Cowboys rescuing damsels in distress only it's very funny. It doesn't wind up where you would think it's going to wind up. So making it just a little off kilter where it feels like the - I mean you can hear the galloping horses in that tune only they're just off a little bit, right? And so doing that suits what he's talking about, suits the story just perfectly.
Peter Gabriel likes these strange signatures as well; "Salisbury Hill" I think is in 7/8, 7/4. Led Zepplin's "Black Dog" which was put together by bassist John Paul Jones has that little turn in it, you know what I'm talking about if you know that song, that the rest of the band - that's this complicated change in signature. So he's in like 4/4 time and he changes to something else for a second and then he goes back. So complicated the rest of the band couldn't actually work it out and Jones basically just had to sing it to them until they got it.
But speaking of Sting, let's end things by talking about a couple of drummers who take rhythm to another level. So not just a song but their whole career is about rhythm on this other plane of existence. I've mentioned Peart and you know that performance in 7/8 of "Tom Sawyer" is brilliant, bar none, but as I said before it's straight up, it's exactly where it needs to be. Incidentally people don't realize that he wasn't just an amazing drummer. He wrote the lyrics to most of those songs. All right but there are instances of drummers who aren't straight up. Maybe my - well I don't want to start saying my favorite all the time but really, one of my favorite drummers is Stewart Copeland of The Police. Listen to any of those songs. He's always always always just a tiny bit ahead of the song, always. He's rushing the beat. You have to listen for awhile maybe but it's there. He comes in just, just a millisecond a microsecond before everything else. And that shouldn't work. That should be bad drumming; that should result in horrible songs and a horrible band that can't make it out of their basement. It just shouldn't work. It should throw everything off if you come in a little too early but it doesn't, it fits perfectly. And I don't think it is just Copeland, I think Sting's bass work is key to that but I mean Copeland's the one, Copeland's the heart of that that's keeping that going and what it does is it pushes the music because it's coming in a little fast, a little fast, a little fast. It gives the music this urgency that you know even if you go to a slower tune like "Every Breath You Take" that urgency is still there, just a little bit early, little bit early, little bit early.
Now John Bonham, who many people consider the greatest drummer of all time, I've seen two or three different lists I think that put him as number one of all time, in his work with Led Zepplin is doing almost the opposite of what Stewart Copeland's doing. He's hanging back, hanging back so far behind the beat. I mean, check out the very first song - it's really amazing if you think about it, the very first song on Led Zepplin's very first album. The very first introduction that people had to Led Zepplin and it starts off, you know and there's this syncopated cow bell and then there's this lazy intro. I don't know how to describe it. You're just going to have to listen to it but the drums are just a bit behind. It's a tour d'force and you know he's in a whole other universe from the rest of that band and it shouldn't work. Again, should not work but it's so perfect and that's drumming brilliance. When you can be in your own groove and make it work somehow.
All right and then there's Keith Moon who I've heard it said was the first "lead drummer". What does that mean exactly? All right well listen to something like "Won't Get Fooled Again". So, normally the drummer's job is to keep the beat, to let other things go on top of that. And you know, maybe you've got a cool beat, maybe you've got a great riff going or maybe you've got a cool feel like Phil Collins does on "In The Air Tonight" but normally you just keep the beat in the background. Moon is up to something completely different. There are all these random fills popping up everywhere, anywhere, wherever he sort of feels like inserting them and they undo that song like just enough, they throw it just enough off balance so that it rises above what it might have been. It would have been a great song no matter what. You do straight 4/4, good song. But he turns it into something that's special in a different way. It's a little bit like what I was talking about before with Alanis Morissette or Van Morrison where they get rid of the meaning of the words and they just focus on the sound, giving the rhythm of the delivery whatever they want. Only here Moon is doing that to the pulse of the whole band. I mean he just transforms the band and again, great song but listen to other tunes by The Who, transforms that whole band into something completely different.
All right, so as usual I could go on and on but that is enough for one episode. Let me remind you if you like what you hear follow us on Twitter, check out our YouTube playlist and check out our webpage at popcultureacademy.com. And please, tell your friends about us. I'l be back next week with an all new episode, see you then.
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