Usually a rock track gives you a firm grip on time. You’re instantly comfortable with 120 beats per minute, which is rock-normal. Faster than 160 beats per minute starts to feel too-fast, pushy; keeping up with it takes effort.
Thus one of punk’s great opportunities for disruption is in tempo. Screw groove! Going way beyond 160, speed-punk blasts us forward like a fire hose clears a street. Could anyone make really beautiful music with such a brutal punk gesture? I think The Replacements do in “Kids Don’t Follow.” True, they come storming out of the gate way too fast to articulate more than short word phrases and a simple lead guitar figure; there’s no chance of lyrical or musical refinement. But we can tell that they don’t have the reckless intention of going all-out superfast; or perhaps, in the beer-soaked circumstances, they don’t have the dexterity to go faster; anyway, the result is that they go a meaningful speed (like the kids are not merely running away), which makes the song feel measured, even slightly slow in relation to the superfast alternative we’re wary of. Consequently it does sink in and one wants to hear it again—for the song and not just the rush. It sits right on the boundary between too fast and too too fast, around 192 bpm. You have to try to keep up, but you can. This is not flying or clipping along, this is flailing; a bodily bid for transcendence; punk with soul. The trying situation is expressed perfectly in Paul Westerberg’s handsomely hoarse vocal.
In an earlier post on slow killer tempo I wondered who has achieved a fast one. Googling “fast” and “fastest rock song” I see lots of very fast songs (and, by the way, unreliable measures of speed); but of course high speed is one thing and killer tempo is another. I’ve already praised Cactus’s smoking “Parchman Farm” at a marvelously fast 240 bpm, but I wouldn’t pitch the 240 as a killer tempo. While the drums and bass do have to mark all the beats in some of the measures, we’re not viscerally required to keep counting 1-2-3-4 at top speed; we get lots of breaks to gather ourselves. That’s true too of Joe Jackson’s “Friday,” which I’ve clocked at 280 in a glorious live version but which alternates between true 280 and a half-time feel of, in effect, 140. The 192 bpm of “Kids Don’t Follow” is more of a thrill (and, in a good way, a strain) because we’re strongly and continuously led to follow all those beats.
I suspect there will be much variation in our judgments of fast killer tempo, more than with slow killer tempo, since the range of possible speeds is so wide and each listener’s personal body time must affect the feeling of being right on a cusp between fast and meaninglessly faster. I’d be interested to hear some other judgments.