The Big Beat

In traditional West African cultures, a piece of music is held to be satisfying and complete if there is sufficient rhythmic interest; to oversimplify, rhythm is as fundamental to African music as harmony in European tradition and melodic sophistication in the music of India. Indian music has no harmony as such, and nobody complains; much European classical music is rhythmically one-dimensional — one is tempted to say primitive — and you don’t hear symphony subscribers complaining about that. But when pop music begins moving away from Tin Pan Alley song forms and musical values and embracing the aesthetics of its African origins, suddenly our culture is seen as adrift, endangered, riven by decadence and decay.

— Robert Palmer
Rock & Roll: An Unruly History

[David] Susskind invited Phil Spector to the Open End television program one evening to “talk about the record business.” Suddenly Susskind and “William B.” [Williams], station WNEW’s old-nostalgia disc jockey, were condemning Spector as some kind of sharpie poisoning American culture.... Susskind and Williams kept throwing Spector’s songs at him.... And Susskind sits there on the show reading one of Spector’s songs out loud, no music, just reading the words, from the Top Sixty or whatever it is, “Fine Fine Boy,” to show how banal rock’n roll is. The song just keeps repeating “He’s a fine fine boy.” So Spector starts drumming on the big coffee table there with the flat of his hands in time to Susskind’s voice and says, “What you’re missing is the beat.”

— Tom Wolfe
The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby

Rock music has been accused of having a beat that is at once too strong and too simplistic. Let’s look at these issues individually, and see how they in fact contribute to the power of the music.

If you look at the classic instrumentation of a rock group — drums, bass, electric guitar and piano — one inescapable fact is that they are all percussive instruments. There are no horns or strings, no instruments that are bowed or blown, whose notes smoothly move to the desired volume and then stay there. The musicians play all of these instruments by striking them with a stick, pick, finger or hammer. As a result, their characteristic sounds all exhibit sharply rising and descending volumes. The overall effect is to emphasize the rhythmic value of each note, to give the placement of the peak volume of each note, each chord, at least equal weight with its melodic or harmonic element. In earlier musical forms, the drums, bass, piano and guitar had sometimes collectively been referred to as the “rhythm section.” With rock instrumentation, effectively the entire group became part of the rhythm section.

Part of the reason for increasing the strength of the rhythm in rock — for creating what became known as “the big beat” — was to increase the propulsive force of the music. This is essentially the same reason that regular meter is used in traditional poetry. In this sense, rock is to traditional pop music as poetry is to prose. (And so Shakespeare could fairly be accused of being a proponent of the big beat.) The effect in both rock and metered poetry is to create regular rhythmic patterns that drive the listener along and amplify the energy of the words.

This is why Phil Spector told David Susskind, when he was reading the lyrics of one of his songs on TV, that what he was missing was the beat. One effect of the strong rhythm is to increase the intensity and power of the communication. Listening to rock lyrics without the beat would be akin to paraphrasing Yeats as saying, “Going round in larger circles, the damned bird gets lost.” The meaning of the words is roughly the same, but my phrasing has none of the power of Yeats’: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer.”

Another reason for increasing the strength of the rock rhythm was simply to make the beat an equal player in the resulting music. As suggested above by Robert Palmer, traditional pop forms had made the beat a poor second cousin to melody and harmony. Rock liberated the rhythmic component of the music, allowing it an equal footing with the other elements.

The perception has sometimes been that the beat in rock music is so strong as to overpower the melody and lyrics, making the words unintelligible, for example. While this has no doubt happened at times, it is not an essential part of the music. On the other hand, ears that are used to rhythm being consistently relegated to the background sometimes perceive the beat as overpowering simply because it has been brought to the foreground. The result can be disorienting, because multiple musical components are all vying for equal attention in rock. The effect is akin to viewing modern art in which elements of form and color are no longer subordinate to the demands of strict representation. The result, though, is a much richer artistic experience, in which multiple elements of the music — thematic intent, meter, rhyme and alliteration, vocal shadings, melody, harmony and rhythm — are all working together.

Rock has also been accused of having a simplistic rhythm, based on its consistent use of a 4/4 time signature, with the accents on the second and fourth beats of the measure (a “backbeat”). When used at its best, however, this basic underlying rhythm is just the starting point for many subtle rhythmic variations. After all, with so many instruments all playing a part in the rhythm, it is not necessary — and would in fact be distracting — to have the foundation time signature be calling attention to itself. As Chuck Berry said in “Rock and Roll Music,” “it’s got a backbeat, you can’t lose it.” The interesting part, overall, is not the time signature, which will repeat throughout the song anyway, but what you do with it, the variations laid on top of it, the larger reinforcing rhythms in the song structure. Listen to what drummer Levon Helm has to say about the development of rock drumming.

It’s always been that the rockabilly stuff was real bouncy, driving fours on the bass drum, almost like a jazz feel at times. Circling, just continuously circling. But when D.J. [Fontana, drummer for Elvis Presley] came in, all of a sudden he would plant that thing down and he would start stacking verses against each other with his fills, building up to the solos, and riding the solos in and riding them out. It was great because D.J. gave the music some foundation, some architecture. (Weinberg)

Now let’s look at the Phil Spector and Darlene Love song, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” as an example of how the big beat can function in the overall aesthetic of the song.

The song’s intro starts with a loud beat produced by multiple instruments. A bass then plays the melodic introduction. Maracas or some similar percussion instrument begin to repeat regularly in the background. Bells, emphasizing the season, are used at the end of each bass line, playing two notes, the second coinciding with the large sound used at the very beginning of the song. The transition from the intro to the first verse is provided by pounding drums, supported by other instruments, gradually increasing in volume, until Darlene Love launches into the first verse. Keep in mind all this rhythmic action has so far occurred in the first sixteen seconds of the song!

Now let’s look at the overall song structure, which provides the largest rhythmic framework for the song. I’ve tried to lay it out below so that you can visually see the repeating patterns and variations within the song.

Verse/Chorus Contents Verse/ Chorus Melody
1.
2.
3.
4.
Intro Bass
1. The snow’s coming down
2. I’m watching it fall.
3. Lots of people around.
4. Baby, please come home!
Verse Vocal
1. The church bells in town
2. All ringing in song.
3. What a happy sound.
4. Baby, please come home!
Verse Vocal
1. They’re singing “Deck the Halls.”
2. But it’s not like Christmas at all
3. ‘Cause I remember when you were here,
4. And all the fun we had last year.
Chorus Vocal
1. Pretty lights on the tree.
2. I’m watching them shine.
3. You should be here with me.
4. Baby, please come home!
Verse Vocal
1.
2.
3.
4.
Verse Sax
break
1. They’re singing “Deck the Halls.”
2. But it’s not like Christmas at all
3. ‘Cause I remember when you were here,
4. And all the fun we had last year.
Chorus Vocal
1. If there was a way,
2. I’d hold back this tear,
3. But it’s Christmas day,
3a. Please (Please)...
4. Baby, please come home!
Verse Vocal
1. Baby, please come home!
2. Baby, please come home!
3. Baby, please come home!
4. Baby, please come home!
Verse Vocal,
piano,
drums
1. I need you right here.
2. Please come home!
(fade)
Verse Vocal

You can see the largest pattern is that of two verses followed by a chorus. The verses repeat the same chord structure and melody, with varying lyrics, except for the fourth line, which always consists of the same words, with an accelerating drumbeat in the background. The chorus repeats the same chord structure, melody and lyrics. Variations in the overall structure of verse and chorus are provided by the bass introduction, the sax break taking the place of one verse, and the fade-out at the end of the song.

We have four lines in each verse and each chorus, with the verses using an a/b/a/c rhyming pattern, and the chorus a more focused and intense a/a/b/b pattern. Variation in the four-line structure of each verse is provided in the final verse, when the insertion of a repeated, accelerating call and response “Please” builds tension before the final appearance of the fourth line provides release.

Let’s now zoom in a little further, and look at the rhythmic patterns within each line. First, each line of a verse begins with the word “Christmas” sung by the background vocalists. The maracas keep up a steady beat in the background. Spector’s famous “wall of sound” keeps up the steady pulsing backbeat of the rhythm. On top of this, the lead vocalist and instrumental soloists are constantly playing with the rhythm, adding extra notes, playing a bit ahead or behind of the strict beat.

The overall result is one in which the rhythmic interest is at least as strong as the melodic and harmonic interest, with all three working together to advance the theme of the work.

Tracks

The following recordings are particularly good examples of this element in action.

Next: Artistic Basics