Lies our teachers taught us….
My religious education teacher told us that anyone who had taken LSD could never become a used care salesman, the logic being that they would have seen cars just melt under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs and see they were just a pile of metal. More outrageous my physics teacher informed me his brother in law used to play bass for Status Quo. I’ve since checked this and they had had the same bass player, Alan Lancaster, from the very start.
The music teacher told us that the only music that would endure was classical. The reason for this was that a version of Mozart’s symphony no 9 was briefly in the charts. Admittedly it had been tarted up by some guitar, bass and even drums to make the child genius palatable to the masses.
To be honest, that version by Waldo de los Rios is a pretty good use of three minutes 58 seconds. Although I can accept that classical music is capable of incredible depths of emotion and sublime melodies it also tends to go on a bit between these moments, worst of all there’s no bass and drums which at least provides a groove during the filler bits in rock music.
I don’t think I’m alone on this which is why, despite my music teacher’s bold assertion, classical hasn’t endured that well in the public’s consciousness, certainly if you remove it as a source for theme music for films and, most significantly, advertising.
But one can’t escape the fact that there’s some incredible music there. Melodies better than even Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson can manage are just waiting to be exploited. In the 70’s there were quite a glut of classically trained musicians who had made it over to rock but were ever keen to show they had practiced their scales.
One such offering was Joybringer by the Manfred Mann’s Earthband. Keen to show he could play more challenging songs than Do Wha Diddy, Mann had gone prog hence his tendency to veer off into keyboard solos at every available opportunity. If you listen to the radio today you’d be forgiven for thinking that his only hit was his impressive version of Springsteen’s ‘blinded by the light’. No so, his breakthrough hit, pretty much nicked the melody from Holst’s Jupiter in his Planet Suite. To be honest this could be the composer’s best tune but it’s a great one that no amount of synth wanking could damage.
Emerson Lake and Palmer had been doing their bit for classical crossover since their inception. Even today though I refuse to listen to their version of ‘Pictures in an Exhibition’ because there will always be something better to do. On the other hand, I am rather partial to their version of Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’. I don’t really like the tune so putting a pretty brutal boogie beat under it was a big improvement, plus they wore some nice leather jackets to keep them warm in the video. The long version here naturally gives Emerson a chance to do his thing but even that’s ok, see my point about bass and drums, they stop things getting boring.
Greg Lake also took Troika by Prokofiev to improve his ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’ which is undeniably the best thing on the single.
Punk was happening by this time; classical music was going to be a hard sell but…
Disco was all about the rhythm, it was a dance music apparently but rhythm’s not enough on its own. Saturday Night Fever was the soundtrack to 1977 far more than punk ever was,‘A Fifth of Beethoven’ by Walter Murphy took all the good bits of Beethovens Fifth (the dadadadah bit) excluded the less good bits (everything else) and linked it to a fantastic bit of funk. It was basically an update to what Waldo de los Rios had been doing half a decade earlier. The producers had been so keen with this concept that they also turned ‘Night on a bald Mountain’ into ‘Night on a disco Mountain’ which wasn’t as successful and whole lot scarier, especially for those that had been traumatised by watching Disney’s Fantasia as children.
There were more, Barry Manilow and Eric Carman freely used the melodies from the classics for big ballads. Sky were completely upfront in rocking up Bach’s Tocata and Fugue in D Minor and ensured a pretty constant presence on the BBC as theme music to just about any thing. But the weird thing is that the classics are probably being plundered more than ever today by the likes of Mika, Lady Gaga and even Radiohead than in any previous decades. Perhaps it really is the case that we’ve run out of melodies and ‘let’s face it, there’s some pretty good ones written centuries ago still waiting to be used.