Wrongfooting: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “Woodstock” (1970)

falling-man-370x229A book or film might start with a thrilling sequence that is suddenly revealed to have been all staged, or all in a character’s dream. (The last film I saw like this was Kung Fu Panda.)  Our leg has been pulled. We’re not annoyed, though; we enjoy the outside view of an art form’s structural possibilities.

Can a song pull our leg? Yes, it could tell a story that way in its lyrics, but the visceral effect would be harder to get and far weaker, since a song’s musical consistency matters so much more to us than its narrative illusion. How you can get a comparable jolt in music is by wrongfooting the meter. For example, convince the listener with a feel of ONE-two-three ONE-two-three and then, a few measures in, suddenly force the song into a ONE-two-three-four that starts on the last of those threes—

ONE two three ONE two three
……………………………………..ONE  two three four ONE two three four

—or, more abruptly, on the two:

ONE two three ONE two three ONE two
……………………………………………………ONE two three four ONE two three four

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Woodstock” is the neatest example of wrongfooting I know.  (Joni Mitchell’s original recording of the song on Ladies of the Canyon also goes out of its way to induce uncertainty at the beginning, using pauses in the piano part.)  The opening guitar plays in a pattern that, if it were regular, would probably fall into this meter, with the emphasis on the first beat in each four:

1..2..3..4..1..2..3..4..

Instead, the guitarist keeps wrongfooting on different first-beats with his emphatic low note, playfully lunging at random possibilities of starting over, never getting to beat four.

“Woodstock” start

The effect is of hopping in place, or even backward, instead of advancing as expected.  Leaving out the two opening pickup notes, it goes “oomp ba oomp ba da oomp ba,” etc., corresponding to beats as follows:

1..2..1..2..3..1..2..1..2..1..2..3..1..2..3…

Each of the oomp notes that I’ve marked as “1” is a premonition of a bass note or drum beat that could come in at any time to seriously anchor the meter.  Right when you’re starting to realize you want this, real bass notes show up (B) starting with an abrupt agreement between the guitar and the bass to start afresh:

1..2..1..2..3..1..2..1..2..1..2..3..1..2..3..1..1..2..1..2..3…
……………………………………………………….B……B..B

[Spacing, unfortunately, is variable; I’ve got it right on my display of the website]

The area with the first bass notes, where some sort of handoff is being worked out between the 1s and the Bs, is the most unsettled.  It’s the metrical crisis.  If you only knew, the second and third bass notes are actually clues to the eventual solution since they are right where the eventual measure of four wants them to be, in position to propel a measure forward the way bass notes typically do, one-two-three-bum-bum-two-three-bum-bum . . . But we are still several phantom measures away from hearing this.  Later in this first phantom measure a rhythm guitar chop (G) furnishes another clue by landing on what will turn out to be beat 3:

………………..G………….G………….G..
..1..2..1..x..x..x..x—..x..x..x..x..x..x..
..B…..B..B……….B……..B……………..

Meanwhile the original guitar part leaves us in free fall, meter-wise, no longer giving us any start signals with its low note (that’s why I started writing those notes as ‘x’), and we get to enjoy the vertigo of a couple more merely possible measures of four until the drums and bass together finally emphasize the first and third beats to make it real:

…….G…..
1..2..3..4..    (7 times)  . . .

The words then play off the meter by emphasizing the fourth beat, interestingly tying beat four to the G moment on beat 3 in their phrasing—kind of like a ritualization of the willful short cycles of the opening guitar part:

1....2….3….4….1….2….3….4….1….2….3….4….1….2….3….4….
…Well..I…came………..up-on …………..a child………..of God….

Our leg won’t be pulled again in this track, but we’ll stay on our toes:  the wrongfooting gives the whole affair a nice nervous charge.

*

Here’s a simple, beautiful wrong-step in The Police’s “King Of Pain” (1983), a slight ambush by a downbeat just before the main groove starts, giving us the pleasant challenge of sorting out the rhythm pattern for a measure or two:

“King of Pain”

It’s doubly ambushy because that last lead-in measure was shortened to two beats instead of four (so the downbeat comes on two-and).

*

THE WRONGFOOTING HALL OF FAME
Jefferson Airplane, “She Has Funny Cars”
The Blues Image, “Leaving My Troubles Behind”
Jack Bruce, “Boston Ball Game 1967”
Joe Jackson, “One More Time”
Tommy Tutone, What’cha Doin’ To Me
Pearl Jam, “Do The Evolution”
The Pixies, “Dig For Fire”

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics, Ways of Starting and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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