The audible count off (“1…2…3…4) is one way for a tune to get on its feet. It establishes expectations for what the listener will hear. Even if there are slight variations to counting off, room for any sort of creative leeway seems limited.
Yet that is an unjustifiable claim. As humans, we operate in this messy space between accidental and deliberate action. Even something as simple and straightforward as counting off can have an infinity’s worth of variations between the numbers. How interesting yet how reassuring.
Here are a few takes of counting off in music that blur accidental and deliberate:
Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers” begins with Gabriel counting off. It is a normal count off at first: “1…2…”. But then, instead of going “3…4”, Gabriel just says “4” on the “3”, saying nothing on the “4” as a guitar line acts as the pickup for the tune.
In Black Flag’s “Gimme Gimme Gimme”, the version off of Damaged, Henry Rollins sings the hook with the drums and then counts off by himself. Rollins’ count off slightly decelerates from the initial tempo of the tune, creating slight disorientation as the song drives through in this new rhythm.
The Mothers of Invention’s Absolutely Free has a comically strange count off in “America Drinks”. Zappa gives the “1…2…” and then adds “buckle my shoe”: a little rhyme instead of “3…4”. The tune then starts at a new tempo entirely. It is as if Zappa’s count off was just there for comic relief, not for establishing a rhythm.
Or take Kraftwerk’s “Numbers” off of Computer Love. A robotic voice counts off in German to 8 and the tune takes that as the tempo. This count off is not just left alone. It is further integrated through the song as count offs in other languages are introduced. The whole song arguably revolves around count offs.