What Makes It Good: The Beat

As Mattie Z. said in the comments to my previous post, ‘rock is all about the beat’. Can’t argue with that — both the authority of one of my oldest longest vintage music-arguing-friends and the compulsion of the beat brook no contradiction.
Instead of arguing aye or nay, let’s make some distinctions. First, there’s the beat that rock inherited from r&b and jump blues (among other sources) — the hip-pumping, lascivious beat that triggered hysteria when rock ventured to put its head above the parapet, the beat that Elvis siphoned from Wynonie Harris, Big Mama Thornton, Louis Jordan, Hank Ballard, and their colleagues into the pop mainstream. That’s the beat that made dancing fun; it separated whatever came next from whatever was played before.* The beat catapulted Elvis and Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis into currency, and made possible the ascendance of Buddy Holly and the wave of rock and roll whose crest was the Beatles. There’s a beat that sets rock and its [precedent and] antecedent musics apart. When I think of music that I count ‘good’, I’m with Matt.
That beat I love can get big and funky — for which thanks be to James Brown, the Meters, the Stax-Volt Big Six, Sly Stone, and George Clinton — in a distinctive way. A just right funky beat can justify a song almost all by itself, a phenomenon that generations of samplers have discovered and benefited from. A rich, prominent, resonant rhythm riff is an evocative, primal, irresistible thing.
The beat criterion also applies to higher-adrenaline urgency, and even rhythmic violence of some rock. Anyone can just play it faster, but some songs, some styles, some performers demand a greater intensity of themselves and their listeners, and repay that intensity with interest. The Stooges album Raw Power names much of what’s at stake: louder, faster, more insistent, and worth the extra sweat.
So I love rock and roll (‘I Love Rock and Roll’ — not coincidentally, a huge beat), I love funk, and I love the frenetic urgency of uptempo music. Yup, it’s the beat. But over and above the criterion that the best sets, I love music that plays with the beat — syncopated, or hesitating, or withholding the beat that the music seems to promise us. I’m a total sucker for that ploy. When a performer can make the compelling case that everything hinges on the upcoming beat, and then defer it (convincingly), that’s genius.
A few years back, when Pippa and Si and I were living together I think, the topic of ‘great rhythm sections’ came up. I know the names I’m supposed to know, and we agreed on a few, but it was surprising how few really stood out once we were listening for just that. The outstanding, amazing exception we heard was Keith Moon and John Entwistle, who could not only deliver a tremendous beat, but could play with it, nuance it, fill, run, and then wallop it back into shape. Matt won’t be surprised at that conclusion, since he and I and our friends had pretty much decided that years ago. But over the years, my jaw-dropping admiration for Moon and Entwistle hasn’t abated.
Matt says ‘uninspired drumming or overly simple rhythms usually prevents something from being categorized as good, or great’, and a lot hinges on ‘uninspired’ and ‘overly simple’ — but these are areas where professional beat-keeping rhythm sections can function mostly as a more decorative metronome, and with about as much appeal. A lot of very popular music treats the rhythm section as a functional necessity, but not as anything that should be allowed possibly to distract record-buyers from a star vocalist or lead guitarist, and the group’s tight trousers. Wrong move. In the immortal words of Lee Dorsey, ‘Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky (From Now On)’.


* That’s not a strictly chronological claim, of course. People still made un-rocking music after Elvis broke out, and as I just said, people had been rocking before Elvis. Once mass audiences, which is to say ‘white audiences with disposable income’, discovered the beat, Elvis’s predecessors seemed to belong with him and the future, while performers who neglected the beat belong to the insular past.

1 thought on “What Makes It Good: The Beat

  1. An interesting read related to this conversation is, “This is your brain on music” by Dr. Daniel Levitin… musician/audio producer turned neuroscientist.
    The book is aimed at non-musicians, and not well written to boot, but many of his conclusions based on his neuroscience research related to music are helpful.
    He clearly identifies the two main theses of this post: 1. Beat is deep (my words). Brain activity related to rhythm takes place in the oldest, most primal parts of our brain; and 2. Variation and nuance are pleasing. We like it when musicians do something unpredictable within a particular framework.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *