17 Essential Songs In 7/4

Paula Bronstein /Getty Images

17 Essential Songs In 7/4

Paula Bronstein /Getty Images

There’s a reason why all those Ramones songs start with “1-2-3-4!” — and also a reason why Captain Beefheart raged against the “big mama heartbeat.” For anyone growing up in America in the last century, 4/4 meter has been the core of popular music — rock, pop, rap, blues, gospel, all the way back to their origins in West Africa. Ergo, lopping off a single beat from two bars of 4/4 is like a car with three and a half wheels: difficult to drive, full of uncomfortable bumps, a mix of the unexpected and the compelling. When a band plays in 7/4 or 7/8 (for non-nerds, just count out “1-2-3-4-5-6-7,” or any mathematical combo like “1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3″) — it feels like a record needle stumbling over a piece of dust or ending a dance move with a rolled ankle.

Rock’s initial boom of 7 came very shortly after the moment when it became clear this greasy kid stuff wasn’t just for driving, dancing, and protesting. Emboldened by the epic ambitions of the Beatles’ 1967 landmark Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, rock bands started imbuing their music with all the highfalutin trappings of classical and art music, including the shifting time signatures of Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, and Ravel. The Beatles did their own dabbling in 7 (“All You Need Is Love”) and prog rock’s barons of bloat naturally followed suit ­– Yes, Soft Machine, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Gentle Giant.

In the ’70s and ’80s, New Wave weirdos like Devo, Blondie, the Police, and the Pretenders imbued their songs with 7, adding an extra layer of off-kilter alienation. The bands of the ’90s grunge boom grew up spinning those punks, but they also loved the lurch of Led Zeppelin (who used 7 in 1973’s “The Ocean”), a more likely influence for the mucky riffs of Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, and Nirvana (who flirted with 7 on Kill Rock Stars submission “Beeswax”). Modern art-indie bands like Battles (“Ddiamondd”) and Animal Collective (“What Would I Want? Sky”) keep the 7 banner flying, as well as all the math-rock, mathcore, progressive metal, and technical death metal bands that live on tricky turnarounds.

It was 25 years ago today — March 8, 1994 — that Soundgarden released their fourth album, Superunknown. The album was full of unusual time signatures (per Wikipedia: “‘Fell On Black Days’ is in 6/4, ‘Limo Wreck’ is played in 15/8, ‘My Wave’ alternates between 5/4 and 4/4, and ‘The Day I Tried to Live’ alternates between 7/8 and 4/4 sections”). And the LP was preceded by lead single “Spoonman,” whose main riff was, of course, in 7. On the same day, Nine Inch Nails released their second album The Downward Spiral. That LP’s lead single, “March Of The Pigs,” was in 7 too.

So we’re celebrating a quarter-century of Superunknown and The Downward Spiral by ranking an odd number of songs using septuple meter. Here are the 17 best uses of the magnificent 7.

17. King Crimson – “Frame By Frame” (1981)

The ne plus ultra of Sixties prog returned in the Eighties with a New Wave haircut. That also meant bolstering the lineup with Talking Heads/Bowie collaborator Adrian Belew and Chapman Stick tapmaster Tony Levin. Far from the pastoral prog of In The Court Of The Crimson King “Frame By Frame” emerged like Indonesian gamelan music or an art-rock rewrite of a Steve Reich phase experiment. King Crimson cofounder Robert Fripp actually met Belew at a Steve Reich concert in New York he attended with David Bowie. How cool is that?

16. Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention – “Flower Punk” (1968)

The Summer Of Love wasn’t even a year in the rearview and Frank Zappa was already doing brilliant pisstakes, turning the Leaves’ garage-banger version of “Hey Joe” into satirical “part time punks” jibes and an epileptic ping-pong of 7/8 terror. (It sounds more like their version than the version made famous by Jimi Hendrix — a Zappa pal who appears in the flesh on the cover of “Flower Punk”‘s corresponding album, We’re Only In It For the Money). “Flower Punk”‘s sped-up vocals point forward to Ween, its math-punk charge can be heard in bands like Dillinger Escape Plan, and the phrase “flower punk” itself would ultimately be adopted by Black Lips.

15. Alice In Chains – “Them Bones” (1993)

“I remember that one pissing me off because it was a pretty straightforward sort of metal-edged tune,” drummer Sean Kinney told Music Radar. “I remember getting pretty frustrated, knocking over the drums and wondering what I could do there. It took a little time to figure it out and make it more unique than it could have been.” “Them Bones” and its walloping 7/8 riff followed Singles single “Would?” as the next taste of grunge landmark Dirt, the album which Alice In Chains presented the uglier, more dopesick side of the band that had a hit with “Man in the Box.” “Off-time stuff is just more exciting,” said Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell, “it takes people by surprise when you shift gears like that before they even know what the hell hit ‘em.”

14. Toadies – “Possum Kingdom” (1994)

This creepy, murder-soaked Southern gothic grunge-pop classic was inspired by the actual Possum Kingdom Lake, found in the Toadies’ hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. “That song is about a character that’s kind of stuck in another world, out floating around Possum Kingdom Lake,” said leader Todd Lewis. “He’s lonely and freaked out and just wanting to lure somebody else into his little realm. This guy wants to convince somebody else to do what he did, which is to burn themselves alive in order to be this other thing.” He said he was reading a lot of Stephen King at the time.

13. Pink Floyd – “Money” (1973)

“[W]e created a 4/4 progression for the guitar solo and made the poor saxophone player play in 7/4,” rememberd David Gilmour about this Floyd classic by bandmate Roger Waters. Easily the most famous 7/4 riff in rock history, this small piece of Dark Side Of The Moon was the biggest chart hit from one of the best-selling albums of all time.

12. Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir – “Erghan Diado” (1975)

There’s no shortage of Balkan music in 7/4, with many Bulgarian folk dances relying on septuple meter. However, no Balkan music captivated America quite like the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir, whose reverberating, haunting album Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares, was a quiet revelation of dissonance and beauty upon its release in 1975 — and a small sensation when reissued by 4AD and Nonesuch in 1987.

11. Rush – “Tom Sawyer” (1981)

Probably the best pop tune from a gaggle of chops wanks, laying a workable formula for bands like Primus, Extreme, and King’s X. The song’s Oberheim space-noise intro appears over Neil Peart’s wild funky 4/4, so naturally it’s beloved by turntablists like DJ QBert and Mix Master Mike. The song shifts into 7/4 about 90 seconds in for a growling instrumental and most of the ripping guitar solo.

10. Radiohead – “Paranoid Android” (1997)

With it’s epic run-time, lack of discernible chorus, musical change-ups, anti-capitalist rhetoric, and smatterings of acoustic and electric 7/4, the first single from OK Computer was the official announcement that staid alt-rock mope-darlings behind “Creep” and “Fake Plastic Trees” had bigger circuits to fry. “People thought it was prog, but prog always took itself so seriously,” Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien told Rolling Stone. “And ‘Paranoid Android,’ there’s a kind of serious message in there, but it’s kind of cartoon-like.”

9. The Pretenders – “Tattooed Love Boys” (1980)

Wrote Pretenders vocalist/guitarist Chrissie Hynde in her memoir: “On the odd timing of the ragged ‘Tattooed Love Boys,’ [guitarist “Jimmy” Honeyman-Scott] later admitted that he’d just been hanging in there. Because he couldn’t count it, he just followed the chords, adding chiming notes and hoping it would sound like he was on top of it. The results were magic.” “Tattooed Love Boys” is locomotive punk rock that rides with alternating bars of 7 and 8 in the verses. Later Hynde would reveal that its intense, enigmatic lyrics were inspired by a sexual assault.

8. Soundgarden – “Spoonman” (1994)

For their first single recorded on the other side of the post-Nevermind alterna-boom, Soundgarden only increased the weirdness of their off-kilter riffage. The 7 meter of “Outshined”‘s verses now spread across the majority of a song, drummer Matt Cameron added clanking pot-‘n’-pan percussion, street performer Artis The Spoonman played a spoon solo from and the Jeffrey Plansker music video featuring no band performance whatsoever.

7. Peter Gabriel – “Solsbury Hill” (1977)

It was Gabriel’s first single after leaving prog-rock titans Genesis and, well … You can take the pop genius out of the prog band, but you can’t take the prog out of the pop genius. “That 7/4 rhythm works well because it feels like a normal rhythm but isn’t quite right,” Peter Gabriel told Sounds magazine. “It’s not like a clever rhythm, just a bit odd. It’ll be interesting to see how people dance to it.” It’s not clear if or how people danced to “Solsbury Hill,” but they certainly took to it, vaulting the strange, pastoral tune to the UK Top 20. He had bigger chart hits in the three decades of his solo career that followed, but “Solsbury Hill” was a movie-trailer staple and — according to setlist.fm stats — remains the most played song in Gabriel’s live oeurve.

6. Soundgarden – “Outshined” (1991)

“You know what’s odd about it? In the early days, with Chris [Cornell, on drums], we wrote stuff like that,” Kim Thayil told Rolling Stone.” When we got Scott [Sundquist] in the band, he couldn’t play the stuff in 7. He’s into Hendrix and Santana, so he’s got great grooves in four. And then Matt [Cameron] comes in and could do stuff like that. We wrote to the strengths of our drummers.” The burly 7 riff and tastefully flourish-filled drums of “Outshined” would make this song a mild hit across rock radio and MTV, but Chris Cornell’s line “I’m looking California/ And feeling Minnesota” would turn out to be one of its more enduring traits, immortalized in a 1996 Keanu Reeves/Cameron Diaz caper.

5. Nine Inch Nails – “March Of The Pigs” (1994)

A gnarled, wounded beast of a lead single, the basic riff “March Of The Pigs” matches three measures of 7 with one of 8. Though drummer Chris Vrenna puts in a bravado performance in both the music video and NIN’s thrilling, destructive, mud-caked Woodstock ’94 set, the head-boggle beat was actually studio trickery. “We did things with drums that I don’t know if anyone has really done,” Trent Reznor told Spin. “We sampled drums in stereo with stereo mics and discovered if you play them on keyboards it sounds like you’re sitting behind the drums for real. On ‘March Of The Pigs’ … there’s no live drums, but it alluded to being real because it didn’t sound like a machine. No way someone could play that like that. It further added a kind of mind fuck to it.”

4. Led Zeppelin – “The Ocean” (1973)

“This was another one where [John Bonham’s] drums just sound amazing,” said producer Eddie Kramer. “Some of the stuff Jimmy [Page] asked him to do in Led Zeppelin … it was complicated shit, and Jimmy would have to run through it with him a few times. But once he locked in, once he knew precisely what he had to play, then he would fuck with it and blow your mind, put a fill where you would not expect it. We’d all be laughing because it was just so insane.” The closer to Zep’s funkiest album, Houses Of The Holy, features a Jimmy Page’s 8+7 riff so classic that the Beasties had to borrow it — and then Robert Plant borrowed it back.

3. Devo – “Jocko Homo” (1978)

It’s a robo-punk song that sounds like a band falling down the stairs, but it serves as a mission statement for Ohio’s favorite mechanical men: taut, disorienting, dehumanized, sardonic. Detailing their theory of “de-evolution,” “Jocko Homo” was one of the first songs Jerry Casale wrote for Devo, followed discussions the group had after the 1970 shooting at Kent State. “We’d play ‘Jocko Homo’ for 30 minutes, and we wouldn’t stop until people were actually fighting with us, trying to make us stop playing the song,” Devo vocalist Mark Mothersbaugh told the Onion AV Club. “We’d just keep going, ‘Are we not men? We are Devo!’ for like 25 minutes, directed at people in an aggressive enough manner that even the most peace-lovin’ hippie wanted to throw fists. We were in a negative-energy vortex back in the mid-’70s.” Special shout-out to Devo fan “Weird Al” Yankovic for straightening out it into 4/4 on his first recorded polka medley, “Polkas On 45,” in 1984.

2. Blondie – “Heart Of Glass” (1978)

Punk band, disco song, prog turnaround … pop success? “People got nervous and angry about us bringing different influences into rock,” Blondie’s Debbie Harry told The Guardian. “Although we’d covered ‘Lady Marmalade’ and ‘I Feel Love’ at gigs, lots of people were mad at us for ‘going disco’ with ‘Heart Of Glass.'” Though it would end up a Number One pop hit and an iconic New Wave classic, “Heart Of Glass” was apparently not a huge hit in actual discos. It probably didn’t help that there was a subversive trick in the middle of the tune to keep anyone dancing on their proverbial toes: About two minutes into the album version (or 2:13 on the 12-inch), the band breaks from disco’s omnipresent, all-important, genre-defining four-on-the-floor pulse for three bars of step-stumbling 7.

1. The Beatles – “All You Need Is Love” (1967)

“Because of the mood of the time, it seemed to be a great idea to do that song,” said George Harrison about “All You Need Is Love,” performed during the first live, global satellite program ever, broadcast while the world was recovering from the Six-Day War in the Middle East and navigating in the morass of Vietnam. “We thought, Well, we’ll just sing ‘all you need is love,’ because it’s a kind of subtle bit of PR for God, basically.” It remains one of popular music’s most universal, indelible sentiments, but “All You Need Is Love” was delivered in a quite unorthodox presentation: Though the chorus is like a campfire tune (“All together now!” “Everybody!”), the verses bulge with the tripping-over-your-feet gait of 7. Just weeks after the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the world’s biggest rock band represented Britain on Our World, the first global telecast. The BBC reportedly told the Fab Four to keep their new song simple enough for a watching world. While they certainly heeded their advice on the iconic chorus, the Beatles and producer George Martin made sure the baroque packaging was anything but simple — a 13-member orchestra, snatches of Bach and Glenn Miller and a unique arrangement with measures of 7 in each verse. Elvis Costello called it a “Northern English folk song” when he performed it at Live Aid, but ended up straightening out to a more manageable 4/4 more suited to an arena sing-along.

We compiled this Ultimate Playlist on Spotify. Listen here.

more from Ultimate Playlist