Oddly Not Odd Meter: Jethro Tull, “A New Day Yesterday” (1969)


In an earlier post on odd meter the main question was, How can a song rock when it doesn’t stay in one of the physically cogent “regular” meters repeating two, three, or four beats? In that context it seemed remarkable that “Money” can really rock in seven, for example, and “My Wave” in five.

The reverse of this question is, How can a song be most metrically disturbing without breaking out of a normal meter?

“A New Day Yesterday” by Jethro Tull is wonderfully, violently undanceable in its verses while upholding a rule of four. Like a dangerous horse it lunges, balks, and drags, creating such odd units within the repeating cycle of four (in two measures of 6/8) that you can count the slow four pulses underneath (marked as 1s) only with effort:

1 – 2 – 3 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 1 – 2 – 3 –

“A New Day Yesterday”

The notes arrive as follows:

(I’m switching to vertical format to avoid the crazy variability of horizontal spacing on different screens)

1  E
2
3
E – D
2  B
G
1
2  A  (in verse, more upsetting: C)
3  A# (B)
B (A)
2  D (B)
3  D# (G)

The key to the mischief is the early G that cuts short the second 1-2-3-. That emphatic G starts everything over, so we expect to count 1-2-3- from it, but then the concluding five-note sequence starts early again after just 1-2-. Scrambling to construe the pulse in that sequence, the best I can do is to treat the first two notes as a repetition of the 1-2- that started with G and then the last three notes as a final three, restoring the normal overall order. So I realize in the end I’ve heard a 3-2-2-2-3. Ian Anderson helps me find the inner pattern of 2s when he sings “My first and last time with you . . .”

The riff makes such a simple and bold statement, you really wouldn’t know how to object to it. But it does make you flinch. For the song to be loveable, some reconciliation is needed so that the odd part doesn’t seem just an ornery outburst. Happily the latter part of each verse brings us down into a normal blues feel (starting with “I want to see you so . . .”) that is perfectly complementary.

I’d say these guys heard “Manic Depression” and took another step.

*

Here’s another interesting disruption inside a four-pulse pattern by Scissor Sisters in Lovers In The Backseat” (2004). See if you can map where the notes of that bass line come down.

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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, Time and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Oddly Not Odd Meter: Jethro Tull, “A New Day Yesterday” (1969)

  1. Steve Smith says:

    Yes, and here’s something else I saw on the 1/f pattern, relating to optimal movie editing:
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203960804577241490326208040.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

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