Note: This post is part of a collection of analyses based on the compilation New Wave of British Heavy Metal ’79 Revisited, an album put together by Lars Ulrich and Geoff Barton that is not only a significant account of a particularly important period in the history of heavy metal by two people who helped shape that scene, but may also be a revealing window into the influences and musical raw materials that Ulrich drew from when he founded what became the most successful metal band in history, Metallica.
Jaguar’s song “Back Street Woman” was first released as a single in 1981, with a song called “Chasing the Dragon” as a B-side. Jaguar had released a couple of demos in the preceding year, but the recording of “Back Street Woman” that appears on NWOBHM ’79 Revisited is definitely from the ’81 single, and no earlier recording of the same song appears to exist. Interestingly enough, of the songs I’ve transcribed so far from this compilation, most seem to be from 1980 or 1981, not 1979. In other words, the title “’79 Revisited” is a bit of a white lie.
There is an interesting problem with this song. The opening riff has a fairly distinctive rhythm that is made up of four little “cells” of three eighth notes each, followed by two quarter notes. Music theorists call this kind of rhythm an “overlay,” because the duration of three eighth notes is laid over the repeating quarter notes in the backbeat drum pattern. The higher notes in this riff (C and D) stand out from the repeated As, and form an accentuation pattern that conflicts with the quarter note meter suggested by the drums. The way I hear this kind of pattern, the units or cells of overlay move away from the emphasis of the backbeat, but then the two quarter notes at the end return the riff to strengthen the downbeat, when the riff repeats.
Later in the song, beginning at 0.50 in the version appearing on NWOBHM ’79 Revisited, this riff aligns with the drum pattern in a different way. From the perspective of someone headbanging along to the backbeat in the drumkit, the gutiar riff begins on an eighth note, instead of beginning on the 3-sixteenth-note cells the song opened with. It sounds like the riff is off-set by an eighth note.
The question is: Did the members of Jaguar intend this manipulation, was it something that happened accidentally they decided to keep, or did they not even notice that they weren’t together? There’s no later studio recording to compare this version with, but there is a live video from 1982:
In both the live version and the studio version from the single, the band’s timing is pretty sloppy throughout the track, but this eighth-note shift happens in the same place in both recordings, right after the first time they play riff B’. At least Jaguar is consistent. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the members of Jaguar built the song this way on purpose.1 What I mean is that I doubt the guitarist sat down and thought to himself, “Today I’m going to play this riff a quarter note late for most of the song.” In fact, it doesn’t even really sound odd unless you’re listening really closely, and I’d like to think that if the members of Jaguar wanted to do something special like that, they’d make sure we would notice.
So what is really happening here? I have a feeling that Riff B’, which has a rhythm very similar to Riff A, is messing up the guitarist’s feeling of Riff A, so that coming out of the Riff B’ section it feels natural to play Riff A a quarter note off. If you look at the rhythm of the second half of riff B’, in the example below, you’ll see that it matches the rhythm of A’ exactly. The particular association of downbeats with the three-sixteenth-note figure created by riff B’ makes it perfectly natural to play A’ half a beat off from how riff A had been performed earlier in the song.
"Back Street Woman" -- Jaguar
0.00 A x2 with only one guitar, x2 with two guitars, x4 with both guitars and drums
0.16 B (twice the length of A)
0.20 A x8 with Verse 1 vocals
0.36 B' x4 with Chorus vocals (second half of riff B' is the same rhythm as riff A, but offset by one eighth note)
0.50 A' x4 no vocals (riff A' is the same as riff A, but offset by one eighth note)
0.58 A' x8 with Verse 2 coals
1.13 B' x4 with Chorus vocals
1.27 A' x4 no vocals
1.35 A' x8 with Verse 3 vocals
1.50 B' x4 with Chorus vocals
2.04 C x4 (slower tempo; in a triplet rhythm)
2.20 C' x4 (same notes and tempo as riff C, but with a sixteenth-note dotted-eighth rhythm)
2.40 C'' x4 (C'' is in faster tempo than C and C')
2.56 C'' x8 with Guitar Solo
hold on the note G; count off a new tempo in the hi-hat
3.43 A x1 with only one guitar, x1 with two guitars, x4 with all instruments
3.55 A x8 with Verse 4 vocals
4.11 B x4 with Chorus vocals
4.25 Closing coda/improv flourish with a drum roll
- There are a couple examples of bands making this kind of shift on purpose. For example, S. Alexander Reed, a scholar who just published a book about the history of Industrial Music, mentioned in a message to the Society of Music Theory’s Popular Music email list that a similar eighth-note shift in the alignment of a riff occurs in the song “Just One Fix” by the industrial metal band Ministry. This is also the kind of trick a band like Meshuggah might pull on it’s listeners. But this kind of manipulation is rather rare in rock music in general. [↩]