Thursday, 11 December 2008

Dance Mission: Impossible!

Imagine the scene. You are a DJ at the office Christmas Party where, let’s be frank, your punters are not exactly talented dancers. What’s the worst thing you can possibly do? Apart from snog the boss’s secretary. Top of the list will probably be to play one (or all if you’re really wanting to visit the job centre the next morning) of the following:
‘Living in the Past’ – Jethro Tull
‘Money’ – Pink Floyd
’15 Step’ – Radiohead
‘Four Sticks’ – Led Zeppelin
‘Solsbury Hill’ – Peter Gabriel

Leaving aside the various artistic merits of the songs and artists, the real reason why these songs should never grace a social occasion where amateurs stalk the dance floor like primeval beasts (after a few stiff gins) is that they are virtually impossible to dance to - unless you happen to have trained with the Bolshoi Ballet during that summer season in Europe. And the reason why George from accounts will have difficulty with them is that they do not have simple time signatures, or to put it another way, a consistent, danceable beat.

The majority of pop/rock songs march along in 4/4 time (4 beats in every bar) and a lesser number waltz around in 3/4 time (3 beats in the bar) and these are relatively easy rhythms to understand and thus dance to. The songs in the list above have complex time signatures with either 5 or 7 beats to every bar for at least 50 % of their playing time and this makes them very difficult to decipher on a dance floor. Believe me, as a non-dancer myself I am particularly sensitive to this sort of thing and sympathise entirely with the hapless George.

Nevertheless, whilst not great for the disco, songs or music with complex time signatures can be thrillingly different. The progressive bands of the early 70s experimented with odd time signatures endlessly with greater or lesser success, but my favourite by some distance is the theme to Mission: Impossible, the 60s TV spy thriller series featuring self-destructing tapes and lots of false walls. Written by Argentine composer Lalo Schifrin, it rampages along in 5/4 time giving it a slightly ‘lumpy’ and syncopated feel which really suits the inventiveness of the programme itself. Over the years, this piece of music has rather taken on a life of its own and is now used constantly as background accompaniment to any daring deed (unsurprisingly, Shrek 2 used it in a rescue scene) and is probably recognised by most people even if they are unaware of the original TV programme that spawned it.

All in all, a truly iconic piece of music. Just don’t try and dance to it.


Jeff said...

I don't think my comment earlier went through, so I'll just say it again, lol. My favorite Radiohead with an unusual time signature would probably be 2+2=5, which has a 7/4. Another classic is "Happiness is a Warm Gun" from The Beatles which bounces all over the place.

musicobsessive said...

You're right of course. I dare say an entire set-list could be constructed of complex time signature tunes. What a fun evening that would be! At least the bar would do a good trade.