The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
With the relentless rise of electronic music and the elevation of the humble DJ to the status of “musician”, it is odd that there are so few instrumentals around these days. After all, if you want to be a pop star but you don’t have the lyrical talent to back up your ability to create a beat, why not just stick to what you’re good at?
When rock’n’roll was a boy, even though a guitarist might have had only rudimentary skills, they churned out their twanging tunes as if they were Segovia anyway. The blistering, blur-of-fingers speed merchants of the 21st century could probably play everything the Shadows ever recorded while in an induced coma for research purposes, but nobody was trying to amaze us with speed in those days.
The Shadows, in fact, are a pretty good place to start. Influential according to such surprising future stars as Neil Young, they issued smart, neat tunes with a minimum of swagger and a tone as clean as their sharp suits. Apache, FBI, Wonderful Land and all the rest showed the world what a Fender Stratocaster could sound like with no effects apart from a little echo or reverb.
Across the pond, Link Wray, a more rebellious, boundary-pushing character, gave us the classic Rumble. He did a version of Apache too, quite differently. Meanwhile pioneering London producer Joe Meek set family radio speakers alight with the keyboard-driven workout that was Telstar, in which the guitar provided a bit of mellifluous light relief in the middle section.
The 1960s was an era when rock and pop were running away with it, but middle-of-the-road bands and orchestras refused to give up, and so we had A Walk in the Black Forest by the classically trained German pianist Horst Jankowski, while Sounds Orchestral, aka orchestra leader Johnny Pearson and some pals, created Cast you Fate to the Winds. These recordings were not rock’n’roll, they weren’t cool, but they transcended fashion because they were beautiful.
1974 saw the emergence of a group of white Scottish lads who called themselves the Average White Band and created an instant classic with Pick Up the Pieces. And there was Focus with Sylvia and Hocus Pocus. They were Dutch.
Then, as the Seventies got dirtier and scruffier, a suave German bandleader, James Last, ploughed a lone furrow with considerable success, while a Frenchman, Richard Clayderman, inserted some embarrassing piano-based items into friends and girlfriends’ record collections when you thought they were into Led Zeppelin just like you were. Then came punk, which didn’t really lend itself to melodicism, and when the musicians resurfaced, it was with lyrics attached, with the odd exception such as Doctor Feelgood’s catchy but album-bound Hi Rise.
A genuine former denizen of a rock band, Vangelis, ditched the disturbing material of Aphrodite’s Child (and yes, he is Greek) to sell millions of copies of the middle of the road stroller Chariots of Fire, while Herb Alpert, a veteran instrumental hit maker from the Sixties, revived his career with the trumpet-led Rise. This was certainly smoother and cooler than his original novelty stuff such as Spanish Flea.
Then we had Mike Post’s theme from Hill Street Blues, plus other American film or TV theme tunes, such as Harold Faltermeyer’s Beverly Hills Cop music Axel F – and guess what, he’s German. What is it about these Europeans?
The 1977 film The Deer Hunter boasted an aching instrumental lament, Cavatina, which classical guitarist John Williams had recorded before the film was made, and the Shadows did a version of it which replaced Willliams’ subtle nylon strings with the plangent ringing of the electric guitar. The purists may have scoffed but Hank Marvin and co. reaped a big hit anyway.
The bombastic, big-haired AOR acts of the 80s and 90s were too preoccupied with tales of broken hearts to simply give us a tune, but then came the freakish success of Kenny G. Sneaking into the music business as a member of Barry White’s band, the sultan of sax smuggled in a bit of easy listening under the guise of quasi jazz.
And then… almost nothing until 2013’s Harlem Shake (originally by producer Baauer), which features a few words, but not enough or in the right way to constitute lyrics.
Is the lack of instrumentals a result of the ease with which anyone can get their words out into the world now? Or is it a reaction against the classical music tradition in which the instruments need no help to convey a message? Well, definitely not the latter. Probably not the former. Lyrics take the spotlight off the music, exposing it to greater scrutiny, so perhaps it’s something to do with that.
Or is it that they’ve got nothing to say? No. It’s no different now from how it was for Elvis Presley: nobody has ever really had anything to say. But it’s natural to want to talk.