19. Who Loves the Sun…Velvet Underground

We filter music, not only through out own memories but through our collective consciousness and then add a dash of time distortion for good measure.

Take the Beatles for example, they haven’t existed since 1970 but they are constantly being re-evaluated. In the 70’s Sergeant Pepper was pretty much universally accepted as their best album ever, if not the best album ever, no questions asked, we could still remember the 60’s and SP captured our collective memory of those heady days. Skip forward a decade of so and Revolver had taken the number one spot, to be honest it probably had better songs and the summer of love was a more distant memory and also Revolver helped pave the way for britpop in the 90’s. For a while there seemed to be a flirtation with the White Album as the Beatles top trumps but now we have settled into Abbey Rd as the pinnacle, apparently ‘here comes the sun’ is the most played Beatles track on Spotify and despite an over reliance of half arsed tracks Abbey Rd is the nearest they came to a modern sounding record which hasn’t really dated sonically in the same way as their earlier records..

If you had asked me in 1979 what my favourite albums were the Velvet Underground with Nico would have got a namecheck somewhere in the evaluation. Bear in mind that the only way to hear a record was to buy or borrow it, I cant recall a whole lot of that record being played on the radio. On the other hand it was possible to read about the band who had been namechecked many times by the emerging punk groups. I liked the sound of them, at least culturally and visually so as soon as I had some spare money I resolved to purchase a record all of my own.

For my first choice I was seriously wrongfooted. I had been playing in a band The Aerials and we covered Sweet Jane so that was one song I knew fairly well. Rock and Roll had also had the occasional radio play because it was a straight-ahead pop/rock song. Putting the two together influence my decision to buy Loaded, the last VU album to be released.

Basically it was a big disappointment , it’s the Velvets most mainstream album, its also an extremely watered down version of the band. Drummer Mo Tucker was pregnant so wasn’t keen on squeezing behind a drumkit. Guitarist Sterling Morrison was around but was taking advantage of the time based in New York to study a college course. Lou Reed was about to leave, in fact by the time the record was released in 1970 Lou was gone. The one person who was committed to the record was most recent member Doug Yule. Originally recruited to cover John Cale’s departure on bass and organ, Yule had expanded his CV to singing, playing guitar and even drumming when his brother Billy wasn’t around to cover for Tucker. The album is at its best when Reed is audibly involved as in ‘Sweet Jane’ or ‘Rock and Roll’. Its at its worse when Yule is singing about ‘Lonesome Cowboy Bill’ it’s a question of degree, both of them were involved and I think Reed later won some lawsuit that confirmed he wrote all the songs.

For me in 1978 it wasn’t enough, I wanted to hear something more than good natured songs and as soon as I had a bit more money, I bought the first album with all the songs they wouldn’t play on the radio, it was challenging and edgy, it was so 1978.

A couple of decades on and I was engaged in the ongoing commitment of feeding the iPod, I had retired my vinyl but I would head to Leicester City library at least weekly and take out a few CD’s which, if I liked them I would load into my little white box. I made some great discoveries but there was also the option of downloading some old favourites including the Velvet Underground with Nico. Twenty-five years on though the record had nothing for me. I knew every track off by heart but there was no feel good nostalgia just a record that I had listened to as many times in my life as I needed to. I didn’t download it.

On the other hand Loaded sounds fine now, I still think ‘I Found a Reason’ is terrible but the rest is a good listen.

There was one other reason I bought Loaded though. Radio North Sea International used to play ‘Who Loves the Sun’ regularly. Naively I didn’t realise that this song was totally unrepresentative of the general Velvet Underground catalogue. Its actually possible that there’s no one apart from Yule on this track, its hard to find anything aurally to suggest Morrison or Reed were involved. Its not edgy or challenging at all it’s a song the Beatles or the Turtles could have created in 1965 but it’s a lovely song which I can still enjoy to this day.

Which is more than I can say for ‘Heroin’ or ‘Venus in Furs’

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70’s Instrumentals…more Mike Oldfield

Mike Oldfield made a huge but slow burning impression with Tubular Bells and was to follow this up with more of the same (but possibly better) Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn. But, like any right thinking person, Oldfield couldn’t resister a cheeky stab or two at the singles charts.

After Tubular Bells Oldfield had retreated to his parents home apparently to build a duck pond but in reality to escape the pressures of being a performer which makes his singles career more bizarre. The formula was simple, take a fairly straightforward folky tune, play it on something fluty, bung in a bit of trademark Oldfield  guitar hopefully turn 2 ½ minutes of tunefulness into a hit single.

First out was In Dulci Jubilo a medieval sounding tune which for some reason evokes a Christmas spirit without actually being a Christmas song.That was just as well as Bohemian Rhapsody was dominating the charts, there was no room for a proper Christmas no 1 but Oldfield’s effort made it to No 4 by January and unlike Bohemian Rhapsody we weren’t all sick of it. 

The thing I really like about In Dulce Jubilo is how Oldfield’s guitar takes of half way through, he’s such a lyrical player that the solo is an integral part of the tune and lifts a fairly routineperformance into something far better than the sum of its parts.

https://youtu.be/VCvz7uflMIU

He followed this up with Portsmouth, a fairly straight forward run through of a traditional tune where the melody was carried on the recorder and built up in layers in the traditional Oldfield way. No guitar though, the tune doesn’t really go anywhere which is probably why its only 2 minutes long

https://youtu.be/8CCf7gvmDEU

Oldfield had a huge potential fanbase, there were the hard core rock fans attracted to the new stuff on the virgin record label but he was an intriguing character with his ability to overdub himself on a variety of instruments and he was at the forefront of what would soon be called ambient music. He had the potential to be represented on Radio’s 1,2,3,or 4 . Symptomatic to that was a request to provide the new theme music to long running children’s TV show Blue Peter. The show was tremendously popular but also quite conservative so asking any ‘pop’ musician to be involved was quite a big step. Oldfield gave the tune his traditional treatment but with a synthesiser instead of a recorder as the main instrument. It’s a slippery tune so Oldfield had to record the melody at half speed. Here is the inevitable Top of the Pops appearance with the almost equally inevitable dance routine from Legs and Co, apparently put together in 20 mins.

He was now in the consciousness of millions of children who would hear this twice a week.

As an unwanted bonus feature here is Oldfield playing the William Tell Overture. Its an impressive but fairly pointlessexercise which I’ve never seen before but is unmistakably Oldfield. The strange this is that post Covid the internet is full of people choosing to produce videos of themselves playing all sorts of tunes and looking an awful like Oldfield 40 years ago

. Perhaps the future really is past

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70s Instrumentals…..Mike Oldfield

Instrumentals in the 50’s and 60’s were nothing if not tuneful. The hopeful artiste had about two and a half minutes to make an impression and they couldn’t waste that time with anything that was less than a great lump of tunefulness.

By the 70’s things had moved on a bit, we were now used to extended instrumentation in  pieces of work, progressive bands were extending solos, the Who had produced a kind of opera with musical interludes which proved to be a breakthrough record. Most significantly LP’s were more important than singles and that meant there was a whole load more space for music.

A significant composer who pointed a possible way forward from instrumental music as being more than just a good tune was Terry Riley. ‘In C’ and ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air’ from 1964 and 1969 respectively were tremendously influential among a small group of forward looking musicians with the introduction of repetition using repeated groups of notes to set up layers of pulsating sound.

Along with Steve Reich and Phillip Glass, Riley produced a sort of dynamic ambient music. Compared with writing a conventional symphony it was pretty easy to emulate. Pete Townsend copied the approach for Baba O’Reily (a direct tribute in the name), by the mid 70’s sequencers would be able to reproduce Riley’s minimalist string of notes which made a whole lot of songs sound a whole lot better.

Around the time Townsend was emulating Riley’s work for the ‘Who’s Next’ album a young guitarist called Mike Oldfield had got a gig playing bass with ex Soft Machine Bass player Kevin Ayers who was enjoying a brief but fertile solo career. As well as getting to play assorted colleges and polytechnics around the country he also got to spend time at Abbey Rd Studios where he found plenty of time to tinker away at the plethora of instruments the studio had to offer.

Oldfield was very much a product of the early 70’s. His mother suffered enduring poor mental health and his own health was compromised by LSD. Oldfield was a pretty insecure introverted character who was happiest escaping into a world of his own music.The difference between him and a thousand other studio dabblers is that Oldfield was able to produce discernible pieces of music and get someone to listen them. Eventually he ended up at the Manor Studio, newly built by Richard Branson by virtue of his undouble skills as a session musician. Engineers Tom Newman and Simon Heyworth were able to recognise the potential of Oldfield’s sound pieces that he was working on in his spare time and persuaded Branson to allow some studio time.

Mostly he worked on his own, overdubbing track after track. This in itself proved to be quite a novel for the album which was to be called ‘Tubular Bells’, overdubbing had existed almost as long as recording but now there was the technology to support it and listeners were amazed at one man’s ability to play so many instruments. In fact most of the instruments were variation on guitars, mainly the same one with various treatments.

The enduring impact was down to more that Oldfield’s precocious talent on stringed instruments. Most notable was the piece that inevitably became known as the exorcist theme after it was picked up as music for the film which helped catapult Tubular Bells into public prominence. Here was a piece that seemed to emulate the work of Riley and is the most evocative piece on the record. Elsewhere there’s quite a lot of folky melodies, Oldfield had initially been in a folk duo with his sister Sally and throughout his career was prone to revisit bucolic tunes which inevitable gave him the chance to break out recorders and penny whistles.

By the mid 70’s it seemed like everybody under the age of 30 had a copy of Tubular Bells along with Dark side of the Moon. My mate Phil’s Sister had a copy which we would listen to whenever she was out, people were very touchy about their vinyl getting scratched. Although I heared to it quite a bit at a formative age it didn’t make a huge impression on me. There’s only one piece of music on the album that uses drums (which Oldfield couldn’t play) and at 15 there was a limit to how much recorder and marimba I wanted to listen to.

The other big centre piece of the record is the actual tubular bells theme. Narrated by Viv Stanshall who was next due to record in the studio, it’s a less funny version of the Bonzo’s intro and outro which he also featured on (and wrote). At first it was quite a novelty hearing the introduction of various instruments such as bagpipe guitar, but after a couple of listens it started to grate a bit. The final instrument to be added was the titular Tubular Bells which had probably been appropriated by Oldfield before being removed after a John Cale Session.

Listening to the album 35 years on its interesting how home recorded it sounds in the days of cut and paste and quantising of sounds. Bear in mind Oldfield had to play all of the instruments in real time and apparently there are about 2,000 ‘punch ins’ (ie corrections). That’s without slowing down of and speeding up of tapes to get different effects, it’s a testament to the skill of the engineers as well as the musician. It must have taken hours and hours of studio time which it takes a certain type of person to be able to endure. Its also interesting what a unique guitarist Oldfield is having an immediately identifiable sound (when he’s not messing about with it) which is almost devoid of any blues influence. The lack rhythm instruments seems strange now, the only drums are a brief appearance by Steve Broughton of the Edgar Broughton band, we are so used to the availability of drums whether by machine or sampled that a lot of the time it just sounds like this is a rough cut waiting for a rhythm track.

That’s part of the appeal of Tubular Bells though it’s the imperfections which would be ironed out when Oldfield’ s music entered the next decade. The record helped establish the Virgin empire but there was no where left to go. The next record Hergest Ridge was criticised for being too much like Tubular Bells and the last time I really listened to an Oldfield LP was 1979’s Incantations whch seemed to have a lot of choirs on it.

By that time Oldfield himself had undergone some sort of personal transformation following a self growth Exgenesis seminar. I hope it did him good as to the casual observer he’s become a bit of an arse, leaving Britain because of the smoking ban and living in various tax havens and supporting Donald Trump.

No matter how many years have passed he couldn’t escape Tubular Bells. The sleeve is iconic and now synonymous with Mike Oldfield the brand. He’s revived it on two occasions with tubular bells II and III which have revived the format with contemporary technology which is kind of interesting but neither better of worse than the originals. Recognising the lost potential of the original recordings some older tunes have been enhanced with state of the art (ie soon to go out of date) as Tubular Beats, so far he has resisted tubular grime or tubular dubstep but even on reduced tax he funds might need topping up at some point in the future.

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70s Instrumentals…..Mike Oldfield

Instrumentals in the 50’s and 60’s were nothing if not tuneful. The hopeful artiste had about two and a half minutes to make an impression and they couldn’t waste that time with anything that was less than a great lump of tunefulness.

By the 70’s things had moved on a bit, we were now used to extended instrumentation in  pieces of work, progressive bands were extending solos, the Who had produced a kind of opera with musical interludes which proved to be a breakthrough record. Most significantly LP’s were more important than singles and that meant there was a whole load more space for music.

A significant composer who pointed a possible way forward from instrumental music as being more than just a good tune was Terry Riley. ‘In C’ and ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air’ from 1964 and 1969 respectively were tremendously influential among a small group of forward looking musicians with the introduction of repetition using repeated groups of notes to set up layers of pulsating sound.

Along with Steve Reich and Phillip Glass, Riley produced a sort of dynamic ambient music. Compared with writing a conventional symphony it was pretty easy to emulate. Pete Townsend copied the approach for Baba O’Reily (a direct tribute in the name), by the mid 70’s sequencers would be able to reproduce Riley’s minimalist string of notes which made a whole lot of songs sound a whole lot better.

Around the time Townsend was emulating Riley’s work for the ‘Who’s Next’ album a young guitarist called Mike Oldfield had got a gig playing bass with ex Soft Machine Bass player Kevin Ayers who was enjoying a brief but fertile solo career. As well as getting to play assorted colleges and polytechnics around the country he also got to spend time at Abbey Rd Studios where he found plenty of time to tinker away at the plethora of instruments the studio had to offer.

Oldfield was very much a product of the early 70’s. His mother suffered enduring poor mental health and his own health was compromised by LSD. Oldfield was a pretty insecure introverted character who was happiest escaping into a world of his own music.The difference between him and a thousand other studio dabblers is that Oldfield was able to produce discernible pieces of music and get someone to listen them. Eventually he ended up at the Manor Studio, newly built by Richard Branson by virtue of his undouble skills as a session musician. Engineers Tom Newman and Simon Heyworth were able to recognise the potential of Oldfield’s sound pieces that he was working on in his spare time and persuaded Branson to allow some studio time.

Mostly he worked on his own, overdubbing track after track. This in itself proved to be quite a novel for the album which was to be called ‘Tubular Bells’, overdubbing had existed almost as long as recording but now there was the technology to support it and listeners were amazed at one man’s ability to play so many instruments. In fact most of the instruments were variation on guitars, mainly the same one with various treatments.

The enduring impact was down to more that Oldfield’s precocious talent on stringed instruments. Most notable was the piece that inevitably became known as the exorcist theme after it was picked up as music for the film which helped catapult Tubular Bells into public prominence. Here was a piece that seemed to emulate the work of Riley and is the most evocative piece on the record. Elsewhere there’s quite a lot of folky melodies, Oldfield had initially been in a folk duo with his sister Sally and throughout his career was prone to revisit bucolic tunes which inevitable gave him the chance to break out recorders and penny whistles.

By the mid 70’s it seemed like everybody under the age of 30 had a copy of Tubular Bells along with Dark side of the Moon. My mate Phil’s Sister had a copy which we would listen to whenever she was out, people were very touchy about their vinyl getting scratched. Although I heared to it quite a bit at a formative age it didn’t make a huge impression on me. There’s only one piece of music on the album that uses drums (which Oldfield couldn’t play) and at 15 there was a limit to how much recorder and marimba I wanted to listen to.

The other big centre piece of the record is the actual tubular bells theme. Narrated by Viv Stanshall who was next due to record in the studio, it’s a less funny version of the Bonzo’s intro and outro which he also featured on (and wrote). At first it was quite a novelty hearing the introduction of various instruments such as bagpipe guitar, but after a couple of listens it started to grate a bit. The final instrument to be added was the titular Tubular Bells which had probably been appropriated by Oldfield before being removed after a John Cale Session.

Listening to the album 35 years on its interesting how home recorded it sounds in the days of cut and paste and quantising of sounds. Bear in mind Oldfield had to play all of the instruments in real time and apparently there are about 2,000 ‘punch ins’ (ie corrections). That’s without slowing down of and speeding up of tapes to get different effects, it’s a testament to the skill of the engineers as well as the musician. It must have taken hours and hours of studio time which it takes a certain type of person to be able to endure. Its also interesting what a unique guitarist Oldfield is having an immediately identifiable sound (when he’s not messing about with it) which is almost devoid of any blues influence. The lack rhythm instruments seems strange now, the only drums are a brief appearance by Steve Broughton of the Edgar Broughton band, we are so used to the availability of drums whether by machine or sampled that a lot of the time it just sounds like this is a rough cut waiting for a rhythm track.

That’s part of the appeal of Tubular Bells though it’s the imperfections which would be ironed out when Oldfield’ s music entered the next decade. The record helped establish the Virgin empire but there was no where left to go. The next record Hergest Ridge was criticised for being too much like Tubular Bells and the last time I really listened to an Oldfield LP was 1979’s Incantations whch seemed to have a lot of choirs on it.

By that time Oldfield himself had undergone some sort of personal transformation following a self growth Exgenesis seminar. I hope it did him good as to the casual observer he’s become a bit of an arse, leaving Britain because of the smoking ban and living in various tax havens and supporting Donald Trump.

No matter how many years have passed he couldn’t escape Tubular Bells. The sleeve is iconic and now synonymous with Mike Oldfield the brand. He’s revived it on two occasions with tubular bells II and III which have revived the format with contemporary technology which is kind of interesting but neither better of worse than the originals. Recognising the lost potential of the original recordings some older tunes have been enhanced with state of the art (ie soon to go out of date) as Tubular Beats, so far he has resisted tubular grime or tubular dubstep but even on reduced tax he funds might need topping up at some point in the future.

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70s Instrumentals….Rock

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.

https://thefutureispast.co.uk/2020/05/10/13sylvia-focus/

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

https://youtu.be/4WFfqEjEkZo

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.

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instrumentals..Disco

Let’s face it, Disco was made for the instrumental, in fact disco was made for everything, just ask the Bee Gees. Slip a disco beat under any half   decent song and there’s a potential hit in the making.

At least that seemed the case 1974-78 when Disco was just about as big as any musical style could be.

Most of the earlier disco instrumental hits were basically a bit of light classical with added wah wah guitar.Take ‘Love’s Theme’ by the Love unlimited orchestra, fluttery strings lead to the sort of tune Mantovani would have been proud to play in the 50’s. This time round there’s the aforementioned guitarplus two handed hi hats and Barry White has created a song its really heard to dislike. White had other hits of course in other forms but his Love Unlimited Orchestra also spawned Kenny G who would have his own instrumental hits in the 80’s.

For some reason the flute had a significant renaissance in the 70’s instrumental. Its just there on ‘Love Theme’ but right to the front on Van Mcoy’s ‘Do the Hustle’. Again there’s the silky strings and a trumpet break but the tune, such as it is, carried by the flute. Its insanely jolly which was just what we wanted in 1975. ‘Do the Hustle’ was a permanent feature on Top of the Pops as evidenced by numerous You Tube Videos featuring resident dance troupe Legs and Co in a variety of costume changes. So successful was the record that Mcoypersuaded us to do ‘the shuffle’ a couple of years later although apparently we still preferred to look at Legs and Co rather than his flute player.

Like the above composers Biddu was a very talented composer and arranger at a time when talented composers and arrangers were using their ‘orchestras’ to play disco. ‘Summer of 42’ was written by Michel Legrand, the sound he intended starts the record but soon its time for the funky guitars and four to the floor bass drum which isn’t going to let up.Apparently both members of Buggles served their time in Bidhu’s orchestra.Did it influence Yes? Probably not. Apart from being one of the very few notable Indian musicians finding a career in Britain in the 70’s, Bidhu went on to be immensely popular in South Asia and far east .

Its hard to know the difference between a song and an instrumental with disco, James Brown had illustrated the benefit of a vocal interjection in an otherwise instrumental piece but whether its ‘get up like a sex machine’ or just ‘do the hustle’ its never meant to be the highlight of the track. Hamilton Bohannon score a pretty big hit with ‘Disco Stomp’. This actually had a couple of verses of lyrics but I’m sure it was the hypnotic beat that went on and on and on that attracted people to it. ‘Fly Robin Fly’ similarly had a two linelyric and a group of women to sing it but it’s essentially an instrumental that got Silver Convention on Top of the Pops.

With that in mind the last tune is from the beginning of the disco sound. TSOP is typical of the Philadelphia sound with its lush horns and strings. Produced by MFSB (Mother Father Sister Brother) a group of session musicians, for the US television show ‘Soul Train’ it’s a similar approach to what Barry White was doing on the West Coast with the Love Unlimited Orchestra. There’s a smidgeon of vocals by no less than the 3 Degrees but that’s not what people were crowding onto the dance floors to hear.

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70’s Instrumentals…Synthesizers

Over the space of 5 years in the 70’s, the synthesiser transformed itself from being something of a novelty instrument. In the early 70’s it was a case, to misquote Samuel Johnson, that playing a synthesiser was not  about doing it well but being surprised it could be done at all. It’s unlikely that many of us thought that Switched on Bach was better that the great composer himself but there was a certain novelty at hearing a Moog parping its way though the Brandenburg Concerto.

One of my favourite syth instrumentals make full use of the ridiculous noise of the Moog. Originally by long forgotten band Hot Butter, Popcorn is the cheesiest of cheesy tunes, its been covered by the Muppets and Crazy Frog which must give some indication of the tune’s fan base. Its very much anovelty record , at this point electronic percussion was in its infancy so it features real drums. Sounds were developing fast, in a couple of years this would be unredeemably dated but in 1972 it was great.

Around the same period,Tangerine Dream actually used to come and play Norwich, I managed to resist, huge slabs of synths just weren’t my thing and the general public at large seemed to agree with but they were hugely significant as a band pointing a way forward. A bigger break through was just around the corner though. Sequencers were now becoming available giving a constant stream of notes which could makeup for the lack of a decent drum beat. Its all over the Who’s Baba O’Riley of course although strictly speaking that’s not a sequencer at work although the affect is the same. The big breakthrough was ‘I feel Love by Donna Summer’ featuring a sequencer but also white noise for the hi hats, the bass drum was the only instrument that couldn’t be created electronically. 

This opened the floodgates for electronic music, the backing was so good not every track needed a Donna on it. 1977 was the year, it was as if everyone had had a synthesiser for Christmas. Or perhaps it was just everyone on the continent, in England we were still keen on our electric guitars but in France, Germany, Italy, even Greece the electronic sound was featuring heavily.. Kraftwerk were becoming extremely influential, but they lacked the popular touch to get hits, at least in 1977. 

Until Vangellis got his act together it was the French who proved adept at popular electronic instrumentals. There were Magic Fly with Space and Cerrone with Supernature. Cerronein particular had the knack of the letting the sequencer do its own thing once that and the drums were worked out the song almost wrote itself. Cerrone was, in fact a drummer by trade who was able to master the evolving technology quickly enough to capture the moment. Supernature has lyrics (written by Lene Lovich) but they’re not really necessary the instrument version was just as good. It wouldn’t be long before established artists began to release extended remixes of their records utilising the same techniques for release on 12 inch singles. By the start of the 80’s the sequencer was everywhere.

It was another Frenchman who really made it really big with electronic music however. Quite why Jean Michelle Jarremade sold truckloads of records and Tangerine Dream didn’t remains something of a mystery. He never seemed to be taken seriously by the music critics and I always assumed that his records (lets be honest it was always Oxygene) were owned by the people who drove ford cortinas with their suits hanging in the back. As usual I was wrong, his music’s stood the test of time very well. The melodies are pretty basic, but the textures are amazing. Not that Jarre would care, he’s hugely talented in music and art and he was married to Charlotte Rampling , that s enough for anyone especially as Oxygene has sold over 12 million copies.

The gap between Hot Butter’s ‘Popcorn’ and Jean Michelle Jarre’s ‘Oxygene’ was around 4 years synths were developing at an incredible rate, the next development was bringing the costs down, it took until the late 70’s before your average working musician could afford one but as soon as they could there was another wave of electronic music which thanks to the likes of Cabaret Voltaire and the Human League was largely happening in the UK .

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70’s Instrumentals..classically influenced

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.

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70s instrumentals..Light Classical

Remembering Junior choice when writing about Free last week provoked a few memories about the light classical/easy listening that was having its last gasp in the 70’s.

Most of our parents had record players of some description, the stereogram, for example was a much-coveted piece of furniture. The irony of course is that most parents didn’t actually like music that much, at least not in the same way that we did. In fact, our parents had tended to listen to music as it came along without being overly critical, popular music was just that. With a need to have something to play on the new piece of furniture a popular choice (and on that seldom got played) was something light and tuneful. James Last was the choice for most, Mantovani was more suited to those who couldn’t stomach James’s rock workouts. My family had travelled so our choice of easy listening was the bohemian Bert Kampfert, his ‘Swinging Safari’ remains a favourite to this day.

It might seem incredible now, but for all of the 70’s Top of the Pops had its own orchestra. They didn’t have a great deal to do as most of the show was mimed anyway, on the other hand all music was produced by real instruments and the Musicians Union actually had some power, so the musicians remained on call for when they were needed.

That was usually for backing some middle of the road singer but occasionally there might be an instrumental nudging its way into the charts and conductor Johnny Pearson would lead his band through the track often having had the barest or rehearsals.

So here are three instrumentals from the early 70’s that have been largely forgotten by social chroniclers but warmly remembered by anyone who wasn’t a teenager in the early 70s

Sleepy Shores Johnny Pearson Orchestra.

Number 8 in the charts in 1972, sleepy shores was the theme tune to Owen MD which was an amiable drama series about a doctor. Although I cant remember where I’ve left my phone most days I can recall every note of this and that Nigel Stock was the titular GP. Although I must have been in my early teens, I loved this tune so much so that I persuaded my mum to buy the piano music for this. Such were the crazy times when buying the music for a to 10 hit was even an option. It wasn’t a hugely successful purchase, my mum wasn’t really convinced that she wanted to learn to play it and I could only manage the right hand as far as the fast run at which point I would give up. Utilising the octave jump most notable in ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’ but also about to be used by Bowie in ‘Starman’, sleepy shores is pretty much what is says on the tin.

Galloping Home London String Chorale

Written by Denis King who was a kind of ITV version of BBC’s Johnny Pearson. King was very adept at wring theme tunes to TV series and with the theme to (the new adventures of) Black Beauty he won an Ivor Norvello award and had a minor chart hit. I assume Black Beauty was one of those Sunday tea time programs as listening to this again I can almost taste white bread, cucumber and tinned salmon that invariably was the family meal. I’ve always been a bit partisan about this tune as the writer of the original novel Anna Sewell was a local woman and my mum would frequently tell us how at school she would park her bike in Black Beauty’s stables. Having checked this out it seems that Sewell spent a lot of her younger life in London rather than Norwich so I suspect it’s a tenuous brush with fate  orpossibly just a lie. However Sewell did write the book near the end of her life in Old Catton the next village/suburb to where we lived.

I’m glad I cleared that up.

Galloping home is quite a stirring piece, every bit as evocative as Sleepy Shores

Eye Level- Simon Park Orchestra

Like the previous pieces, Eye Level had its genesis as a TV them tune, This time for the Dutch detective series Van der Valk. Today you can watch a different Scandinavian crime drama every night of the week but in 1972 setting a series in Amsterdam was pretty radical and seemed to imprint itself on a nations consciousness at a time when we all watched shows together.

It’s a bit of a twee tune, if you mess about playing scales for long enough its almost inevitable that you will slip into Eye Level, at least if you are of a certain age. I suspect its impossible to play this to anyone over the age of 50 who has lived in Britain and they not recognise it.

Eye Level was a number one record which does rather beg the question, who bought these records? Vinyl was not cheap, I couldn’t imagine kids prioritising these over T Rex. Did middle aged (ie over 30) people suddenly make the exodus to a record shop or at least Woolworths. 

It’s a mystery but somehow these tunes seared themselves into a nation’s consciousness in the same way that Slade and Bowie did.

More instrumentals next week.

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18:Alright Now.. Free

Music is important to us because of the way it makes us feel. That’s why for nearly everyone, their favorite music is from their Teenage years. A time of change and turmoil for most of us, we are hypersensitive and having new experiences. Music is the soundtrack to those times and hopefully we’ll remember it forever.

Music was changing so quickly in the 70’s that a person’s musical taste can be quickly linked to their age. If I had been just a couple of years older I would have been more attached to prog and heavy rock, the ‘older brother’ music. A couple of years younger I would have been more attracted to the shiny pop of the late 70’s. Instead my formative years lets say around 16 coincided with the mid 70’s which was a little bit of a musical doldrum (only in relation to the 70’s, compared with what was to follow it was a veritable garden of musical talent).

Alright Now was released in 1970, I was probably only 11 years old and I was still listening to ‘Junior Choice’ on the radio. Introduced by Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart’ the show had started introducing pop records alongside children’s, novelty records and even light classical. I can’t remember hearing Alright Now on the show although its not impossible, fairly heavy rock music was pretty popular, it got in the charts and was on ‘Top of the Pops’ but whether it entered my consciousness through those Saturday morning shows I really don’t know.

Somehow though, it seemed like the song had always been with me. It must have been played a lot but there’s another reason and that was it’s popularity as a cover version. It’s an easy song to play, although like a lot of Free/Bad Company songs it’s hard to play as well as the original. When I got to the stage of going out and seeing cover bands in pubs this song would inevitably be trotted out (other staples were ‘Smoke on the Water and ‘Both to be Wild’), I’ve heard it a lot, I’ve played it a lot, in fact I can manage all the instruments apart from the guitar solo-its that easy. But despite that it’s a song of far more than the sum of its parts and I’m always happy to hear it again.

It’s a fantastic sound, slightly funky bass (Gibson SG, very in vogue for a while especially with the smaller player) Overdriven Les Paul, simple and effective drumming and ,of course, Paul Rogers vocals which, for some reason, have seldom been bettered. It’s a bit strange in the sense that there’s no Bass in the verse despite being written by bass player Andy Fraser, it’s a selfless act although he makes up for it with the distinctive bass part in the solo

If a song had a smell this would have a combination of body odour, patchouli oil. Old Holborn tobacco and Newcastle Brown ale. To be honest plenty of people smelt like that its quite a comforting smell for me.

And, of course, it reminds me of being young again which is no bad thing.

But here’s the thing. In the clip below they are playing the song live and, is it just me or is this a fantastically great band? I’ve tried to reunite with ‘rock’ on many occasions and it just doesn’t do it for me but I would take 5 minutes of Free over the entire back catalogue of the Foo Fighters, are these the ramblings of an old man or is 70’s rock just better ?

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