Gregg Gillis, better known as Girl Talk, has some interesting comments on The Band’s song “The Weight” in this week’s Onion AV Club “Random Rules” column. Gillis begins by noting that he wasn’t really familiar with the song or the band, and then goes on to note that “because it was recorded…in the ’60s…it didn’t match up exactly in beats, so I had to go back and edit each drum hit to make everything fit…” And given the genre he’s working in (mashups that use a lot of contemporary tracks, that is to say, tracks slaved to a digitally accurate and relentlessly steady beat), it’s certainly necessary to alter the original track’s rhythm if he was going to layer it with samples from multiple songs (his typical procedure). What’s worrisome, though, is that it’s not clear whether he thinks the rhythmic irregularity is intended or a mistake.
Now anyone who’s listened to a significant amount of pre- drum-machine music should know that drummers, however steady their time might be, will push and pull the beat depending on what the song demands. That, in fact, is one of the chief distinctions separating average or even good drummers from great ones. (And Levon Helm’s performance on this track is pretty regularly cited as one of the best recorded drum performances in rock.) That pushing and pulling takes place on at least two levels: at the level of pulse (that is, the frequency of the beat might increase or decrease, i.e., the song speeds up or slows down) but more subtly, at the level of placement: the beats (or subdivisions of the beat) might be placed slightly ahead or behind of strict metronomic time. That elasticity is what gives a lot of old-school dance beats their distinctive feel: listen to somebody like Tom Ardolino of NRBQ, and there are times when the offbeat eighth note is nearly a full sixteenth-note behind – sometimes even if the rest of the band is playing straight eights.
As for “The Weight”: one of the worst performances I’ve ever heard involved some long-forgotten band covering this track. They were opening for a Robyn Hitchcock show in Madison years ago. Everything seemed competent enough, but the band’s drummer played the beats rigidly straight…and the song was utterly lifeless as a result. But I should be thankful to this band: I was trying to figure out why their version was so lame, and I was puzzled for a while, because they weren’t a terrible band in many ways. Nobody played egregiously wrong notes or sang out of tune; the musicianship was sound…but not really solid. Once I realized what the deal was, the light went on in my head: I’d never really thought how important a good drummer is to a band.