Do people record instrumentals anymore ?
In my early childhood instrumentals were a staple of the top 20. From Russ Conway to Lord Rockingham’s XI, from James Last to Mantovani from the Shadows to Fleetwood Mac, I could go on but I wont.
Bear in mind that for the 40’s and 50’s Jazz/Big Band was the music of the youth and that was largely instrumental so perhaps its wasn’t surprising that we weren’t willing to drop the instrumental immediately despite the likes of Dylan persuading us that lyrics might the future.
In the 70’s there was still a currency for songs without words, partly because the single was popular and the single has two sides. Not wanting to waste precious lyrics B sides were often instrumental, sometimes, if a record company was really lazy, it could be the A side without a vocal track but equally it might be an undemanding instrumental track recorded with the minimum of fuss and bother and occupying at least 2 mins and 30 seconds on the dark side of the single.
The rise of prog also meant an increase in non-singing bits on records but they didn’t usually make hit singles, ELP had a hit with Fanfare for the Common Man of course but equally freakish was the sudden rise of Focus a band who never sung and were Dutch.
I cover the short-lived Dutch invasion here
As Sylvia recently jumped out at me from my Spotify Hawkwind Radio playlist (which I was utilising to get me through a very dull working at home afternoon), I was reminded of what a great sound Focus were able to produce for a short time.
And, for me it’s all about the sound of this track. It’s a simple tune, guitarist Jan Akkerman bends a few notes but this this is a major key rather jaunty tune, its not impossible to imagine it being played 10 years earlier by the Shadows with their trademark shimmer. However, Sylvia is the sound of hairy young 1972 largely due to the Hammond Organ of keyboard player/flautist and yodeller Thijs van Leer, its actually Van Leer’s song so all credit to him for resisting the temptation to insert a bit of keyboard wibbling. As JS Bach would tell you, you can’t go wrong with a good organ descending bass lineand it’s present and correct here.
Just the sheer sound of this track is superlative though , there’s a minimum of effects but its an electric performance. Standard industry equipment. Hammond, Gibson Les Paul, Fender Jazz bass, a live warm sound that really hasn’t been bettered, and never will.
It’s a bit of a mystery what happened to the bands music after that. Sylvia was their biggest hit but there was the equally good and completely deranged Hocus Pocus and then very little. Akkerman liked to keep things a bit loose which can be seen by the Old Grey Whistle Test Video below. The band struggled to get on on most levels which led to changes in the rhythm section and eventually Akkerman’s departure. Inevitably though the band just wanted to move on from what had made them distinctive but as new keyboards were developed and new members joined the music became more musak and their audience moved onto different things, theresonly so much yodelling a person can take