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Return of the Instrumental




01.05.20 – Darrell Priestley

Such a topsy turvy world. During the pandemic, there have been winners and losers. On the one hand, travel is a big loser, on the other, the supermarkets romp away. And while the hospitality sector suffers, people stay home and watch Netflix, Amazon Prime, and the new Disney Channel.

I hear today that one of the big winners is Spotify, the music streaming service. We love Spotify, which powers our music endlessly at Northern Music Academy in normal times, though oddly since lockdown began my wife and I have actually listened less, strangely struggling for time. Spotify has seen a big increase in use during lockdown, with more people discovering it’s many benefits. It’s a place to escape to, and you can occupy yourself gainfully by building survival playlists, an antidote to the wall-to-wall covid-19 radio coverage. And this, apparently, is just what many of us have been up to. Particularly popular have been Chill Out music, podcasts, and interestingly, Instrumental music, a subject close to my heart. Those of us who can cast our minds back more than a few decades will remember a time when the instrumental was a key part of popular music.

At one time, there were so many instrumental hits that you never thought anything of it. Memorable examples include Apache by the Shadows, Tesltar by The Tornados, Stranger on the Shore by Acker Bilk, Theme From a Summer Place by The Percy Faith Orchestra, Classical Gas by Mason Williams, Tequila by the Champs, Jean Michel Jarre’s Oxygene, and of course Mike Oldfield’s legendary Tubular Bells. But there were many less well known numbers that still sound evocative today, such as Soulful Strut by Young-Holt Unlimited, Wipe-Out by the Surfaris, Popcorn by Hot Butter, Love is Blue by Paul Mauriat, and Zambezi by Bert Kaempfert, to name but a few.

Sometimes popular music releases revisited the classics, as with Argentine composer Waldo de los Rios’ fresh sounding 1970’s arrangement of Mozarts 40th Symphony, Bach’s Toccata by Sky, and the rousing version of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man by Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Meanwhile, there were latin favourites aplenty, mixed in with modern Jazz standards, tunes like Watermelon Man by Herbie Hancock, George Benson’s Breezin’, Errol Garner’s original recording of Misty, Take Five by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Miles Davis’ seminal So What, Guaglione by Perez Prado, Quincy Jones’ riproaringly fun Soul Bossa Nova, Parisian Walkways by Gary Moore, a haunting instrumental version of the Beatles’ And I Love Her by Jose Feliciano, and almost anything early by Carlos Santana.

Then there were those glorious Movie Themes, ranging from the epic to the sublime, like The Pink Panther by Henry Mancini, Un Homme et Une Femme by Francis Lai, The Summer of ’42 by Michel Legrand, Lara’s Theme from Doctor Zhivago by Maurice Jarre, Cavatina from The Deer Hunter by John Williams, the Theme from the Magnificent Seven by Elmer Bernstein, and so very many more. And that’s not to mention the famous pianists of popular music, Liberace, Bobby Crush, Mrs Mills, Russ Conway (Side Saddle), and the sensational Victor Borge, instrumentalists all.

Maybe you have your own personal favourite instrumental, or perhaps you just enjoy instrumental music in general? One of my all time personal favourites tunes, instrumental or otherwise, is A Walk in the Black Forest by Horst Jankowski. That tune is wound up with of some of my very early memories, such that I can’t hear it and not feel good. It transcends fashionable, and for me it is timeless. It’s something I would want played at my funeral. My memories of this perfect example of light music, an up-tempo piece with a jazz flavoured melody and a gentle swing, were formed as little more than a tot when I was inexplicably allowed to amuse myself with the family’s radiogram. I would place the 7 inch vynil on the stacker, set to auto and watch as the turntable wound up to speed, the tone arm lift as the record fell to the turntable, then the tone arm making the short inward journey until it was over the cue-strip on the record before slowly, tantalisingly lowering itself into place, hitting the groove and those exhilerating opening notes a scant few seconds later. Oh, the ecstasy. I wish I could be there now. Over and over I would play this record, probably my favourite disc of our modest record collection, all of which I played at some point.

Thinking about it now, I am still in wonder that as a small child I was even allowed to use this viscerally thrilling record player. It must have been a way of keeping me quietly occupied, because it could not have been any great confidence that I would preserve the player intact, although as I recall I never did it any harm. In any case, it was a noisy, if musical success. However, this early experience contributed greatly to my life long love of music, and indeed sustains me still, with warm memories to cling to and a melody to remember them by.

In truth, the instrumental never went away, it just fell off the radar of mainstream radio. There are wonderful instrumental recordings out there, and this whole genre continues in semi-obscurity, meaning that you have to work a bit more to find it; but when you do, you will be richly rewarded. This is one reason that people like me have been driven away from listening to much music radio. That and the dearth of anything other than banal lyrics nowadays, but that I fear is a subject for another day.

You may have treasured instrumental memories of your own. Why not share them here? Your comments and memories may be of interest to others. Check back with this article soon, as we plan to publish a Spotify playlist featuring most of the above landmarks of instrumental music, and more.