The familiarity of odd meters


“It’s a simple 7/8″. It was all it took to make me feel like a complete idiot.

I had been happily banging on my drumkit for a while by then, but had never had the experience of playing with musicians I didn’t know from anywhere. All the other projects started for reasons that hadn’t immediately to do with the technicalities of the music being played, and in not one of them did such indications ever come up. There had never been discussions about the instruments themselves, either. No “tone” and “texture” discussion of a particular model of drumkit, no “brilliance” of this or that brand of cymbals. None of that. It mostly boiled down to “It’s shiny. It’s loud. I like. Can I bang it now?”.

This was different. I had been brought in at the last minute to replace the usual drummer (spontaneous self-combustion? I’ll never know). There were expectations; a song was to be rehearsed and played, there was no time to hang around having drinks and discuss the music each one likes, no time to wait for the stars to align properly for us all to play it. There were notes and breaks and bridges. And a 7/8 meter which, to someone whose counting skills were limited to what everyone knows about drum playing, appeared to be a monumental, unsurmountable hurdle. Despite not remembering the song at all, I remember the sensation of panic, as if it were yesterday.

The fact is that everyone, (yes, you too) can play drums. You really just need to be capable of counting to 4, which, for most human beings, is not exactly brain surgery. Let me demonstrate: count 1-2-3-4, out loud, at the same pace, repeatedly. Now, instead of numbers, replace 1 and 3 with “boom”, and 2 and 4 with “tack”: boom-tack-boom-tack-boom-tack-boom, and so on. There. Congratulations, you’re a drummer, beating a solid, universal 4/4, the pillar of 90% of rock music. All else are variatons on a theme. As you can probably guess, a 2/2 is even easier, as you only need to be able to count up to 2: it goes 1-2-1-2-1-2-1-… (this skill, incidentally, could very well land you a job playing drums for Metallica, as it seems to be the only beat that Lars knows). If you absolutely must get all hip and technical, you can rename the “boom” to “bass drum” and the “tack” to “snare drum” (or, as we professionals like to refer to them, the kick and the snare).

Oh, and if you don’t care for playing drums at all, please do me at least this small favour: when you clap your hands to music with regular, even meters (2/2, 4/4, and so on, which is most modern music), please clap on the correct beat. There’s nothing as infuriating as a concert audience consistently, happily and stupidly clapping on the wrong beat. This has ruined more than one concert for me, and I suspect that my loud yelling of “noooooo, 2 and 4, for fuck’s sake!”, may have ruined it for other people as well. Now that you know the inner workings of advanced drumming, it’s actually fairly easy to clap correctly: you clap on the “snare drum”, the “tack”, the even beat (i.e. 2 and 4, or 2 and 4 and 6 and 8, and so on). Try clapping to the Alabama Shakes’ Always Alright on 2 and 4 (watch the drummer’s left hand). It just feels right. Now try to clap on 1 and 3. Exactly. It sounds like the prussian army is marching in. I suspect that this was not the groove the band was going for.

As you can now see, a 7/8 meter seems to be anything but intuitive. After that rehearsal, of which I wasn’t fired immediately because of my superior skills in following the bass-player’s foot (can’t remember your name, but thanks for the tapping, man), I sat at home, trying to make sense of this strange beast. The theory, as I understand it and making no claim that it is correct, was clear enough to me: all notes are eighth-notes, and there are seven of them in a measure. “Forget the eighths and the fourths and all the funky subdivisions,” I told myself. Count to up to seven, repeat and repeat. Aha, tapping the finger on the kitchen table, while counting out loud, works! To the drumkit! Hmmm. Hold on. When I play with real sticks on a real drumkit, my counting goes out the window. I don’t know where I am after the second sequence of sevens. Drumkit to kitchen table to drumkit to kitchen table went on for a while, and then I gave up. I shrugged it off with a “bass-player’s shoe it is.”

Later, in the shower, and maybe for having been obsessed the whole day with the damned beat, but for no reason discernible to me, I started humming a song. The song is Genesis’ Back in N.Y.C. Not only did I quickly move from humming to loudly singing into the shower-head, I also started dancing to the beat I had heard countless times and knew by heart.

Holy crap.

It goes onetwothreefourfivesixseven-onetwothreefourfivesixseven, together with the keyboard notes! It’s a 7/8! A 7/8! I could play a 7/8 all this time and never knew it!

This was such a moment of revelation, that I immediately (well, after finishing dancing in the shower, anyway. If you must know, at just the right water temperature, and if no one is watching, I am one fine singer and dancer) took it upon me to listen to what is one of the most important records of my life, song by song, no, beat by beat. A few hours later, after the tenth or so repetition of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, I was speechless. I had just found out that many songs on the album were played in even weirder meters than I knew existed, which was surprising to me, for a very specific reason, which is that I could (still can) play the whole drum part of that record by heart. This meant that even if I had no name for it at the time, I knew how to play very odd meters. Stuff like Back in N.Y.C., which isn’t even a pure 7/8, it’s only 7/8 in the verse , and then 17/4 in the first part of chorus, and 35/8 (whoa!) in the second part of chorus, orRiding the Scree, which is a 9/4, or, or,… I almost had a stroke right there.

The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway was my very first drum teacher. In those long gone days of being able to have the kit set up in the basement, I could play to the album, again and again, for hours on end, much to the annoyance of my family (given the incessant practising, they too, probably know the album by heart now). I could and did study the most minute details of Phil Collins’ drumming technique. After all, it had been my first concert ever, probably one of the last with Peter Gabriel at the helm, and as far as I’m concerned, Genesis never did manage to reach that perfect peak ever again.

I can hear you back there, thinking “Phil Collins? Have mercy…” and I agree with you. I have no patience for anything Genesis or solo, post-Peter Gabriel; Phil should have never left the drums, especially not to sing. The image that he brings to your mind is probably that of a short, bald man singing cheesy songs, which is correct, but not the only image that should pop up. You see, before all that he is a drummer, and probably one of the best drummers who ever was. If you don’t believe me, go try to follow (on the kitchen table is fine) just The Battle Of Epping Forest (7/4, 4/4 and 6/8), or Supper’s Ready (9/8). And I don’t mean to complicate your task by asking to follow the drum breaks, no, just the basic beat. Not obvious, right? And yet the songs are perfectly memorable, even if not linear.

I’ve had the Phill-Collins-is-an-insufferable-twat discussion show up in my life too many times, but never have I had the opportunity to explain why he isn’t. As you can see it takes too long to defend why he is not, at least not when he’s drumming. In the end, to me, anyone who can master that kind of technique with such ease can very well go sing cheesy stuff as much as he wants.

He taught me the 7/8 and that’s all I care about.

Leave a Reply

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.