Playing with the numbers
June 21, 2008 9:54 PM   Subscribe

Thinking of Joe Cocker's great cover of the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends", I started wondering: what other cover versions have actually changed the time signature of the original?

The Beatles' original, of course, is in 4/4 time, and Cocker's cover turns it into a swaying, soulful R&B waltz. From 4/4 to 3/4. Nice! Now, one other example comes to mind, but, IMO, its not nearly as successful: Lalo Schifrin's taut Mission Impossible theme, from the original TV series. It was originally in 5/4, which was a big part of what gave it it's tension and urgency. The horrible movie soundtrack versions of recent years however, have dropped the 5/4 (after a brief introductory statement of the figure, if I recall correctly) and turned it into a plodding 4/4. A tragic dumbing down!

Anyway, what other covers out there have gone so far as to change the time signature of the original? Any more, I wonder?
posted by flapjax at midnite to Media & Arts (47 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
There's a neat Tito Puente cover of "Take 5" that's in 4.

When I was in 9th grade I had the idea of "Round Midnight" as a quick, uptempo jazz waltz (ala Coltrane's "My Favorite Things"). I didn't, and still don't, have the chops to play it (now a straightlaced classical trombonist), but I'd always hoped someone would record a great version that way.

That's all I can think of off the top of my head. I'll post others if they come to me...
posted by rossination at 9:58 PM on June 21, 2008

Hah -- I do this kind of thing all the time! You're probably looking for actual musicians, though. :)

- Béla Fleck and the Flecktones do this all the time. They play "Michelle" in 6/8, "Silent Night" in 5/4, and "The Star-Spangled Banner" in a huge mess of changing time signatures. I'm sure there are others.
- Ollabelle does a version of "John the Revelator" in 7/4.
- Not sure if this one counts, but Blues Traveler has an album called Cover Yourself on which they reinterpret their own songs. "The Mountains Win Again" is in 6/8 (as opposed to the original 4/4).

I'll be back if I think of more.
posted by danb at 10:06 PM on June 21, 2008

I think Barry Adamson's cover of "Man With The Golden Arm" changes the time signature of the original in parts, and makes it less interesting. One of his rare missteps.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:07 PM on June 21, 2008

It usually goes the other way -- everything squared out to 4/4 to rock it up. or out.

My Back Pages
Dylan 3/4
Byrds 4/4

Mr. Tambourine Man
Dylan 2/4
Byrds 4/4

Blowin' in the Wind
Dylan 2/4
Stevie Wonder 4/4

But check this cover:

Don't Think Twice
Dylan 4/4
Eric Clapton 6/8

Then there are the odd balls:

Mission Impossible Theme
Lalo Shifrin 10/4
Soggy Donuts 8/4

Promenade from Pictures at an Exhibition
Moussorgsky 11/4
Keith Emerson 12-ish

Blue Rondo ala Turk
Dave Brubeck 9/4
The Nice 12/4

Cool Jerk
The Capitals 4/4
Todd Rundgren 7/8

Blood Sweat and Tears did a monstrous cover of Sympathy for the Devil / Symphony for the Devil (actually more of a rhapsody) that was all over the place -- polyrhythmic, atonal. . . no clips online, though. It's on "3".

I'll think of more.
posted by Herodios at 10:14 PM on June 21, 2008 [10 favorites]

Oops, didn't see your mention of the execrable movie cover of Schiffrin's briiliant MI theme. I'm totally with you on that. 10/4 is one of my favourites time signatures (see also J Tull: Living in the Past).
posted by Herodios at 10:17 PM on June 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: There's a neat Tito Puente cover of "Take 5" that's in 4.

Ha! So he does! It's crazy what he does with the piano vamp!

Blues Traveler has an album called Cover Yourself on which they reinterpret their own songs.

Great idea! You know, Brazil's soaring-voiced songster Milton Nascimento has been "covering" himself for years, with multiple versions of the same songs released over the years on his various albums. I reckon he might've shifted some of his own time signatures, though I'm not intimately familiar enough with his output to think of any specific examples.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:19 PM on June 21, 2008

Response by poster: Wow, Herodios, nice work, man!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:21 PM on June 21, 2008

One of my favourite topics.

I'm thinking there's gonna be other jazz waltzes (6/8) that got rocked up into 4/4. Likewise some country tunes in triple time that got the same treatment. I'll work on it some more.

(BTW, there's a whole class of country tunes with verse=4/4 and chorus=3/4 and vise versa. Another project for ya. )
posted by Herodios at 10:25 PM on June 21, 2008

Quick derail. I can see how you can differentiate easily between 3/4 and 4/4...but how can you tell the difference between 2/4 and 4/4?
posted by Deathalicious at 10:38 PM on June 21, 2008

2/4 has only a strong and a weak beat. 4/4 has a strong, a medium, and two weak beats. You can't always tell the difference.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:50 PM on June 21, 2008

I think U2's cover of the theme to Mission: Impossible changed it from 5/4 to regular old 4/4.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:51 PM on June 21, 2008

"Neat cover of Take 5 in 4".

There are several "neat" covers of "Take 5" in 4, but I've always assumed that anyone who covers "Take 5" in 4 is a little, well, dense. It's rather like the Bugs Bunny cartoons you see with the violence edited out.

Covering a song written in 4, in 5: brilliance. The reverse, laziness.

95% of the songs you hear are in 4: taking one of the few that are in 5 and playing them in 4 is extremely lame.

I don't recall any covers that change the time signature. I'm working on a cover of Tomorrow Never Knows in a slow 12 with a lot of jangling horns and stuff but that has never been done live yet (soon, soon)....

Devo's Satisfaction, while still being in 4, does at least change the underlying feeling of the beat so dramatically that it's hardly the same song.

Coltrane's My Favorite Things is sort of the same, a different feel, you could argue that it's in a 6/8 waltz time as opposed to the original, but that's sort of cheating.

How can you tell 2/4 from 4/4? When I was young these questions bothered me endlessly; now it seems obvious. 2 goes "KICK snare KICK snare", 4 is "KICK hat Snare hat KICK hat Snare hat". :-D (yes, I'm simplifying, so sue me....)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:52 PM on June 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

"House of the Rising Sun": Don't know if this counts as a "cover" because it's a folk song, but both Dylan and the Animals sang it in 6/8; Frijid Pink made it 4/4.
posted by Pallas Athena at 10:53 PM on June 21, 2008

I think U2's cover of the theme to Mission: Impossible changed it from 5/4 to regular old 4/4.

Let me reiterate - lame! Lame! Lame!

It's taken me well over 20 years to get to the point where 5 and 7 are almost as logical as 4 and 6. If you aren't dedicated enough to understand odd tempos, don't cheap out on them by playing them in 4/4.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:03 PM on June 21, 2008

Can't forget this one!

Gershwin et al 6/8
Billy Stewart 4/4 (fantastic long version of his 1966 hit! What a voice!)

= = = = =
Derail: songs in both 4/4 and 3/4

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
verse=3/4, chorus=4/4

Illegal Smile
John Prine
verse=4/4, chorus=3/4

Kenny Rogers
verse=4/4, chorus=3/4
posted by Herodios at 11:13 PM on June 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Alien Ant Farm's cover of "Smooth Criminal"
posted by amyms at 11:14 PM on June 21, 2008

The F-Ups cover of "All The Young Dudes"
posted by amyms at 11:19 PM on June 21, 2008

Kevin Gilbert's "straightening out," or deconvolution of the polyrhythm of the keys/guitar vs. drums in Zeppelin's Kashmir stands out to me. Kashmir is largely a 6/4 chord progression against a straight 4/4 drum beat that rounds out every --what-- 12 bars? Gilbert makes it a 4-bbl. 2/4 stomper. short article, with audio links at end
posted by Devils Rancher at 11:25 PM on June 21, 2008

Kevin Gilbert did a great cover of Zeppelin's "Kashmir" that straightened out the beat. I think it's on the Thud Live at the Troubadour disc - and a Google search turns up a version on YouTube.
posted by kristi at 11:32 PM on June 21, 2008

kristi, if you can find a new retail version of Thud! it'll still have the bonus CD shrink-wrapped to it. Y'know, I didn't discover him until he was dead, and I'm at risk of getting all maudlin, here.
posted by Devils Rancher at 11:41 PM on June 21, 2008

Erasure straightened out "Solsbury Hill" when they covered it. (Original mostly 7/4, they go 4/4 except for, apparently, one line in the chorus.)
posted by kindall at 11:46 PM on June 21, 2008

I remember watching several different clips of Metallica playing Sad But True live in which Lars Ulrich stretched the triplets in the hook into straight quarter notes, giving the song some nice 5/4 measures in a way that led me to believe he didn't know what he was doing. Maybe he can use the money he gets from the RIAA to buy music lessons.
posted by billtron at 12:50 AM on June 22, 2008

Flapjax, you'll be able to add more to the list if you make this a MeFi Music Challenge.
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 12:50 AM on June 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

"Find My Baby," off Moby's "Play," takes a vocal sample from a song in 12/8 and sets it to a very square 4/4 beat. I'm not sure it counts as a cover, exactly, but there it is. I'm guessing people who listen to more sample-y music will have other examples of this sort of thing.

As well as the ones danb mentions, the Flecktones do "Star of the County Down" (normally a reel in 4/4) as a waltz.

I've heard "Amazing Grace" in both 4/4 and 3/4. The original hymn tune is in 3. The only version in 4 that I can name for certain is Tori Amos's, but I'm pretty sure there are others.

Joni Mitchell's "Chinese Cafe" quotes a few lines of "Unchained Melody." If I remember right, some of them are in 4/4 and some in the original 12/8.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:11 AM on June 22, 2008

I'll leave it to the musicologists to figure out the official time signatures but here are two:

Simon & Garfunkel

Ring of Fire

Johnny Cash

Wall of Voodoo
posted by Opposite George at 1:37 AM on June 22, 2008

but how can you tell the difference between 2/4 and 4/4?

If I had the time, I'd turn that into an AskMeFi. I mean, 2/4 is one thing, but 6/8? Or 17/16? Or 11/8 overlaid with 5/4? How are your brains wired?
posted by effbot at 1:50 AM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

A Lover's Concerto from 1965 (with many covers) is a Bach minuet warped into 4/4. I had a big 'Huh? Wazzat?' when I first heard it.
posted by hexatron at 4:35 AM on June 22, 2008

Re: more songs in two time signatures: Nine Inch Nails, 'March of the Pigs' (7/8 and 4/4).
posted by Beardman at 5:03 AM on June 22, 2008

Excuse my ignorance about time sigs, but wouldn't any SKA cover qualify? Bim Skala Bim's cover of Brain Damage is certainly different than the Pink Floyd original.

Also Lick The Tins (not SKA) cover of Elvis Presely's Can't help falling in love is almost a reel.
posted by Gungho at 5:17 AM on June 22, 2008

In terms of at least stretching the beat structure, I can think of three sort of orchestral funk covers of classical music: David Shire's "Night on Disco Mountain" and Eumir Deodato's "Rhapsody in Blue" and "Also Sprach Zarathustra." The last one is my favorite; he took a piece that didn't really have much structure at all (until the last bit) and worked it out.
posted by Madamina at 5:58 AM on June 22, 2008

Laibach's Let it Be

Whole album to choose from.

Though I thing all the songs are in 4/4 - that's if a time signature can even be applied to industrial nazi machine music
posted by mattoxic at 6:00 AM on June 22, 2008

An artist named Dawson Cowals once recorded a cover of the old standby "Away In A Manger" in 5/4 time. He called it "Away In Five" and it's still one of my favorite holiday recordings ever in the history of anything. I highly recommend it.
posted by ZachsMind at 6:03 AM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've heard "Amazing Grace" in both 4/4 and 3/4. The original hymn tune is in 3. The only version in 4 that I can name for certain is Tori Amos's, but I'm pretty sure there are others.

Ani Difranco's 4/4 version can be heard in this bongo-playing baby clip.
posted by booth at 6:40 AM on June 22, 2008

Response by poster: Hey, this is great, thanks everyone!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:43 AM on June 22, 2008

Venetian Snares: Öngyilkos Vasárnap is a lot like Billie Holiday's Gloomy Sunday, but made into 7 from the original 4*. Also Motley Crue: Too Young To Fall in Love (4 or 2?) -> Too Young (7 or 14?).

Also, I know what lupus_yonderboy is saying, but I still like the Val Bennet's cover of Take Five, inexplicably titled The Russians Are Coming, off the Trojan Records chillout set.

*("The Hungarian Suicide Song": Elvis Costello, Björk (and Jack Nicholson?), in Hungarian, etc)
posted by mjg123 at 7:58 AM on June 22, 2008

There's that hideous cover of Over the Rainbow you hear everywhere.
posted by The Bellman at 8:30 AM on June 22, 2008

Beardman, NIN also released a remix of "March of the Pigs" in straight 4/4 throughout as opposed to 7/4 and 4/4.
posted by infinitewindow at 8:51 AM on June 22, 2008

Miranda Sex Garden slowed down and syncopated the hell out of My Funny Valentine. Also, Rasputina's Fire and Ice has some odd rhythmic stuff going on. I never could count time to save my life, so I'm out-of-my-league with this answer and possibly wrong, but they do screw around with the rhythm at least.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:00 AM on June 22, 2008

Love this thread, and it's an inspiration to me to cover some classic songs in a different time signature.

If we're talking about shifting time signatures, then Zeppelin must be mentioned. One of the nice things about bands like Zeppelin and Faust is that they really believe in these odd time signatures so they don't sound "weird" when they play them.

Consider LZ's "Four Sticks". The verse is in a pounding five (the lick is ONE TWO THREE (four) AND, the offbeat at the end is what gives it its sticky) but it moves seamlessly into a swaying 6/8 in the chorus (and I listened to it again in depth, thanks YouTube, and realized they occasionally throw in a bar of 6 in the chorus too, it's extremely deliberate). (I haven't heard that song in years, it's brilliant, the change in sonority between chorus and break, the relentless drumming throughout where the change in time signature is just a change in which notes are emphasized.)

Even worse, "The Crunge" has a completely unclear time signature. The main riff is in 9, but I've looked at the score and they count as a bar of 5 and a bar of 4; worse yet, there are short bars of length 2 or 3 that they occasionally put in to make the song come out the way they needed to. (This is the good sort of bad.) If the song itself weren't so silly, it'd be too clever for words.

These are fairly early songs, but the later Presence album, e.g., is almost entirely about experiments in time signatures; most of the songs have peculiar stops and pauses in them or are put together in some metrically peculiar way.

I remember I used to be bugged in Achilles' Last Stand by the way Plant repeats one of his vocal lines an odd number of times. That just feels wrong. As I write this, I'm now no longer sure if that was a deliberate oddity or not.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:19 AM on June 22, 2008

er, throw in a bar of 6 in the verse, sorry.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:20 AM on June 22, 2008

(Interestingly enough some Tool song, "Stinkfist", came on, and it's in various weird time signatures. However, I don't love Tool enough to do the analysis, they're sorta humourless...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:25 AM on June 22, 2008

Shonen Knife, Top of the World? If so, probably every cover ever done by Shonen Knife.

Or the Ramones, Bad Moon Rising. Ditto.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 11:54 AM on June 22, 2008

I don't know enough about music theory to even know what 4/4 actually means (4 beats in a period of time when you expect to hear 4 beats?), but the Cowboy Junkies' cover of the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane" seems like a candidate for changing the time signature. If someone can confirm my intuition, or explain why it's wrong, I'd love to know it!

Recent mefi post about the Cowboy Junkies.
posted by A dead Quaker at 12:28 PM on June 22, 2008

About Summertime: I'm pretty sure Gershwin wrote it in a slow, drifting 4/4, and Janis Joplin (among others) covered it in 6/8.

For Dead Quaker and anyone else confused: Time signatures at Wikipedia.
posted by Pallas Athena at 2:31 PM on June 22, 2008

Third Coast String Quartet renders some of My Favorite Things in 5 (in a medley with Take Five) but then switches to 6/8 for most of it.
posted by eritain at 11:25 PM on June 22, 2008

Simon & Garfunkel's socio-political protest version of "Silent Night" is in 12/8 instead of the standard 3/4.
posted by tzikeh at 12:13 AM on July 14, 2008

Silent Night is traditionally in 6/8.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:37 AM on July 14, 2008

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