There were 9 entirely instrumental number ones in the UK chart in the 1950’s. The 60’s had even more, ten to be precise. By the 70’s there was two. The 80’s saw a complete drought and after that there’s been a couple every decade.
Number one hits don’t tell the story of a decade, believe me, the 70’s were more interesting musically than a version of Amazing Grace by the Scots Dragoon Guards would suggest; but there’s a pretty clear indication that instrumentals are not as popular now as the 60’s though.
A major reason for the 60’s glut were the Shadows, pre-Beatles they were the most significant group in Britain by a very long way. They had no less than 4 number one records in that decade. All of these before 1963 when the fab four side lined them considerably. By the end of the decade band members Bruce Welch and Hank Marvin were producing CSNY type vocal tracks, the twangy guitar forgotten for a while. The band has cast a long shadow in just a few years though, there weren’t many teenage guitarists in the early 60’s who hadn’t spent a lot of bedroom time copying Kon-Tiki or Apache.
By the 70’s those Teenagers might be in successful bands and a small piece of the Shadows might be carried on into the next decade. It was still considered pretty acceptable for people considered to be rock artists to put out an instrumental single and sometimes to get at least a minor hit in the process.
I’ve already written about Dutch group Focus too much, but they were significant in having two instrumental singles in quick succession and Sylvia, at least, channelled the spirit of the Shadows.
Another notable piece of rock instrumental snuck it’s way into the UK charts and disappeared again but survived the rest of the 70’s thanks to radio 1 DJ Alan Freeman who was the nearest the BBC had to a hard rock DJ and who I listened to more than I really wanted to because he broadcast on Saturday afternoons. Freeman would intersperse short musical clips as jingles and a 5 second burst on ‘Frankenstein’ would be repeated and repeated. I still have no idea how the song really goes beyond the theme but it does give me the chance to share possibly the most outrageous Old Grey Whistle Test performance ever.
Warning, this clip contains drum solos
Funkier still was Billy Preston’s single Outa Space, low on tune, high on funk, Preston’s clavinet groove was never really intended as a single (it was initially a B side) but DJs loved it and it got to number 2 in the states. Probably too funky for the UK in 1971 though. The Commodores distilled its essence for Machine Gun a couple of years later
Who doesn’t love a drum solo ? Sandy Nelson and the Surfaris has already had drum featuring instrumentals in the 50s/60s. Pop producer Micky Most had already scored an unlikely hit for Jeff Beck and decided he would do the same thing for one-time Beck employee Cozy Powell. This time there would be no attempts at coxing a musician to sing. Powell’s first and biggest hit is a drum solo instrumental which managed to lift Hendrix’s ‘Third Stone form the Sun’ without any legal action, they were the days!
Powell was a rare example of a celebrity drummer, for a while he was all over TV whether it was Top of the Pops or kids shows. He didn’t stick with anything long moving from pop stardom to bands like Rainbow and Sabbath before being killed in a car accident.
A strange anthropological feature about the Scots is that musically they tend to look to USA rather than England. The Average White Band was their disparaging name for a group of Scottish guys who wanted to play funk and soul. Luckily, no one had invented cultural appropriation and the band were able to just get on with doing what they loved.
Pick up the Pieces is a piece of James Brown influenced funk with a slippery horn line. It was the first time I had heard music like this, and it took me a while to appreciate it, bear in mind previous instrumentals had been Eye Level by the Simon Park Orchestra and the aforementioned AmazingGrace so this was something of a cultural leap. Unfortunately the drummer on this track, Robbie McIntosh, died shortly afterwards from cocaine laced with strychnine which rather tempered the achievement of a great instrumental hit which seems to sound better, in no small part to McIntosh’s drumming, every year that passes.
The 50’s saw two number one hits in quick succession with the same tune (Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White). Its hard to imaging that sort of appetite for a tune anymore. I’m sure out there there are loads of instrumental tracks being created in home studios. The last British number 1 from 2013 is one such track. Animals by Marin Garrix is a huge sounding track which at one point features a synth sound not a million miles away from ‘Popcorn’ recorded over 40 years earlier. Unsurprisingly, given the history of continental Europe in instrumental music, Garrix is Dutch. Animals hasn’t got a great melody its not the sort of thing that your milkman would whistle, modern composers have a lot more tools at their disposals especially in texture and rhythmic options which means that the tune no longer has to be the main thing.
And the tune based instrumental is now as endangered as the milkman.