The Bo Diddley beat, a rhythmic structure originating in sub-Saharan Africa via the Caribbean (otherwise known as the Clave Beat), is a great example of the re-appropriation of musical trends and styles by the West. It is also one of the most thrilling and arse-shakingly compulsive rhythmic patterns to be used in popular music. As noted, Bo Diddley did not invent the pattern, however he was the man who popularized it through songs such as ‘Bo Diddley’ and ‘Who Do You Love?’ Below are some examples of the Bo Diddley beat in popular music over the past sixty years.
Bo Diddley – Bo Diddley
This song, and indeed most of Diddley’s output, is shockingly simple. It is about as bare bones as pop music gets. The beat is everything. One only has to see that Diddley had a guy in his band who exclusively played maracas to know that rhythm and percussion were key to his overall sound. Diddley’s tremolo inflected guitar is used almost as a percussive instrument itself, only there to further service that most addictive of rhythmic patterns. Fuck a chord change; just keep that train chugging along.
The Stooges – 1969
From the plains and jungles of sub-Saharan Africa via the sun-drenched isles of the Caribbean to the urban decadence of Detroit, the Clave Beat has been used by a very eclectic group of bands and performers. Even proto-punks like The Stooges were hypnotized by the Bo Diddley beat, so much so that they ended up opening their debut record with their own twisted version of it. ‘1969’ is again marked by its simplicity, so much of the power of the song derived from that relentless rhythm and of course from Ron Asheton’s shimmying guitar work.
David Bowie – Panic in Detroit
This is one of the biggest songs to ever employ the Diddley beat. It is also a fine example of the excesses of many early 1970s recordings. Not only are there the requisite tom-toms and shakers to drive the beat along, but the song also features congas and seems to double down on the rest of the percussive tracks. Guitars are double-tracked and ascend and descend, playing off the bass guitar that keeps everything grounded. Bowie’s vocals and those of his back-up singers reach massive heights. It would be weird if Bowie did not have at least one song that featured the Diddley beat, given his obsession with foreign music styles and his successful amalgamation of so many of them into his music over the years.
Abba – Dancing Queen
This is a subtler version of the Diddley beat, the reason for its subtlety owing to the fact that the strictly percussive elements of the song do not outline the rhythm. The drumbeat is a standard mid-70s disco beat. It is the pianos, synthesizers and bass guitar that drive the Clave beat evident in the song. And it is all done quite masterfully.
The Clash – Hateful
The Clash, particularly Joe Strummer, had been longtime Diddley fans by the time they recorded their 1979 masterpiece ‘London Calling’. So much so that Diddley opened for them on a 1979 tour of the US, confusing many of the fans and Diddley himself who took particular umbrage with how many amplifiers the Clash used and the subsequent jet-engine-like noise they produced. This version of the Diddley beat is much more stiff than the other versions presented here. Check out ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’ from the same record for another Clash example.
Bow Wow Wow – I Want Candy
This has to be the most famous incarnation of the Diddley beat (either this or George Michael’s ‘Faith’). Originally released by The Strangeloves in 1965, the Bow Wow Wow version turned this semi-obscure ’60s bubblegum pop song into a worldwide hit in the early 1980s. Bow Wow Wow were the creation of Malcolm McLaren, former manager of the Sex Pistols and partner of fashion designer, Vivienne Westwood. He supposedly handpicked this song for the band to record and release as a single, a move that turned out to be quite wise.
Primal Scream – Movin’ On Up
A bunch of pilled out delinquents buy a sampler and come up with one of the most inventive and expressive songs to feature the Diddley beat. A highlight from their 1991 record ‘Screamadelica’, this song is bathed in the glow that the members of Primal Scream had experienced during their excursions into the acid-house scene of late 1980s Britain. Positivity abounds, awash with the warm feelings that ecstasy and the Second Summer of Love had provided for Bobby Gillespie and co.
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