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Taking the famous classics down the popular route

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: October 23, 2012

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The publication of my recent piece on keyboard players, prompted by the passing of Jon Lord, coincided, quite by accident, with the launch of Radio 3's piano season, so I thought for this article I would take a look at classical influences on popular music.

I have previously mentioned Dave Edmunds' stunning guitar work with Love Sculpture on Sabre Dance, which was based on a movement from Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian's ballet Gayane. But in 1969 I bought a great 45 in a similar vein by another band I knew little about at the time, Episode Six.

The title was Mozart Versus the Rest, and it's basically a furious guitar-led romp through snippets of the work of various composers.

The guitarist was Tony Lander and the drummer was Mick Underwood, who had previously played with Ritchie Blackmore in the Outlaws, would later join prog-rock group Quatermass, and also play with Ian Gillan on his solo projects. It was only issued as a single after the band had played it on a Radio 1 session and the BBC was inundated with calls from fans. It didn't make the chart but in the summer of that year, Ritchie Blackmore and Jon Lord saw the band play live in London, and promptly invited singer Ian Gillan and bass player Roger Glover to join Deep Purple.

On the album Shades of Deep Purple, issued the previous year, Jon Lord had himself used excerpts of Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov in Prelude: Happiness which leads into their version of the Skip James blues song I'm so glad. Renaissance would later use the piece as the starting point for their album Scheherazade and other stories.

Both Episode Six and Love Sculpture however, had been preceded by Brum Beat one-hit wonders The Second City Sound. In 1966 Decca issued their single Tchaikovsky One, which made it to number 22 in the UK charts. The arrangement was by keyboard player Ken Freeman, who would go on to build the Freeman String Machine, which was used by Pink Floyd among others, and who became an in-demand touring and session player working with many artists, including Mike Oldfield and Francis Monkman, as well as contributing keyboards to Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds.

Keyboard player Monkman, had been a founder member of Curved Air, who were well known for their classical leanings, and in particular the electric violin sound of Darryl Way.

A fine example of this is the track Vivaldi from their 1970 debut album Air Conditioning which, incidentally, was the first commercially available LP picture disc. Unfortunately, if you wanted to listen to it, you had to purchase a standard copy as well, since the sound quality on early picture discs was pretty awful.

Another remarkable exponent of the electric violin in rock is Liverpool-born Ed Alleyne-Johnson, who started busking with a home-made instrument while at Oxford University.

Despite recording critically acclaimed albums which include his superb composition, Purple Electric Violin Concerto, and going on to work with the likes of Simple Minds and David Bowie, he can still be seen busking on the streets of York or Chester. Busking would seem to be an aspect of his musical life he had no intention of relinquishing.

Classical influences on popular music go back as far as recorded music itself. In 1937 Tommy Dorsey also used part of Scheherazade as the basis for his classic Song of India, and even earlier, in 1922, long before it would evoke images of a boy cycling up a northern cobbled street to fetch a loaf of brown bread, the Largo from Dvorak's New World Symphony was used as the basis for Paul Robeson's Goin' Home.

The Hovis commercial, first aired in 1973, was directed by Ridley Scott and while most people assumed it was set "up north" because the music was performed by a brass band, it was actually filmed on Gold Hill in Shaftesbury. The band, though, was the Grimethorpe Colliery Brass Band. The ad's title was Boy on a Bike, although given his later success perhaps the director should have called it Bread Runner.

Quite a few popular songs from the 1950s drew on classical pieces, with Louis Prima turning Rossini's Largo al factotum from The Barber of Seville into The Bigger the Figure in 1952, and the following year the hit musical Kismet would include Stranger in Paradise, based on Borodin's Polovetsian Dances from Prince Igor.

In 1956 the theme was used in the science fiction film Fire Maidens of Outer Space and Massive Attack also used it in Karmacoma from their 1994 Protection album. Unfortunately, it is the image of dancing fire maidens from that terrible movie which springs to mind every time I hear that particular piece of music.

One 1950s song I have always had a soft spot for is Catch a Falling Star by the late Perry Como. One of his biggest hits, songwriters Lee Pockriss and Paul Vance based it on a theme from Brahms' Academic Festival Overture.

They wrote hundreds of songs for a variety of stars including Brian Hyland's 1960 US number one Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini. Nothing vaguely classical about that one though, or Chuck Berry's Roll over Beethoven, which merely name checks the composer, and then tells Tchaikovsky the news.

Most of the recordings I include here are drawn from my own collection, both in their pop and original incarnations, but I have to admit that I was initially struggling to find a country song with a classical bent.

That was until I enlisted the aid of my old pal Tim Frye from the US Bluegrass Radio Station WPAQ in Mount Airey, North Carolina (http://www.wpaq740.com). I am grateful to him for introducing me to Chris Sexton's Coffee at Midnight album, which includes a bluegrass version of Bach's Minuet in G.

The 1960s had rich pickings as far as source material is concerned. The aforementioned Bach piece was also used as the theme for A Lover's Concerto – a 1965 hit for The Toys, which was written by Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell, who wrote dozens of hits in the 1960s and 70s including The Four Seasons' Let's Hang on and Odyssey's Native New Yorker.

One of my favourite singles when I was growing up was the instrumental Nut Rocker by B. Bumble and the Stingers. They were basically the house session band for a Los Angeles record label, and featured legendary drummer Earl Palmer who played on more than 10,000 recordings.

Issued in the UK in 1962 on the Top Rank label, it made number one here, and was based on March of the Wooden Soldiers from Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker. The piano was played by Ernie Freeman, and the recording was double-tracked, using both a grand and an upright piano.

Other notable 60s songs based on classical themes include The Mindbenders' Groovy Kind of Love, which was based on Clementi's Sonatina in G Major, and the haunting Past, Present & Future by those myrmidons of melodrama, The Shangri-las, based on Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, which also inspired The Beatles' Because from their Abbey Road album.

Probably the most popular song from this era, Procul Harum's classic Whiter Shade of Pale was, of course, loosely based on J S Bach's Orchestral Suite No.3, and his Cantata 140 Sleepers awake, while The Move borrowed Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture for their debut single Night of Fear, and Hall of the Mountain King from Pier Gynt Suite by Edward Grieg, was a minor instrumental hit for Sounds Incorporated in 1963.

The piece has also been used in different forms by a host of other artists, including The Electric Light Orchestra, whose whole approach was classically based, legendary prog-rock band Egg, Rick Wakeman, Erasure, Canadian rockers Saga, Marillion, and Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, who actually performed it as a song. Interestingly, Blackmore had recorded it in 1965 under the title Satan's Holiday with his band the Lancasters, whose members included Nicky Hopkins on piano, Chris Underwood on drums, Chas (without Dave, in those days) Hodges on bass, and Reg Price on sax. Price had also been in Screaming Lord Sutch's Savages with Blackmore, who incidentally was born not far from where I live in Weston-super-Mare.

Rossini's William Tell Overture was the basis for the 1961 novelty hit Piltdown Rides Again, by the Piltdown Men. They were an instrumental studio group put together by The Four Prep's Ed Cobb and their pianist Lincoln Mayorga, well known for the big, echoey piano sound on the Prep's 1958 hit Big Man.

The Piltdown Men only recorded a dozen or so tunes, but I always liked their twin sax-driven sound, and was pleased to see that when this material received a CD re-issue a few years back, the artwork used was from their original EP.

Ed Cobb wrote and produced many hits including Gloria Jones' Tainted Love, later covered by Soft Cell, while Lincoln Mayorga went on to become a well-known session musician and arranger, working with artists as diverse as Frank Zappa, Barbra Streisand and Dory Previn. In recent years he has become a highly respected classical conductor.

One tune which appears on several pop discs is the ever popular Canon in D Major by Pachelbel. It was used most effectively in 1968 by Aphrodite's Child on their song Rain and Tears. This duo was made up of Demis Roussos and Vangelis Papathanassiou, who both went on to great solo success, in very different musical styles. The 1991 hit All Together Now by The Farm and 1994's Basket Case by Green Day also feature the same composition as does Coolio's C U when U get there from 1997.

While in the 1960s there were hits like Mason Williams' million-selling Classical Gas which had a classical sound, but were not based on any particular piece, a few of the progressive rock bands of the 1970s performed actual excerpts from the classics, or in some cases entire works.

On Yes's 1971 album Fragile, Rick Wakeman arranges the Third Movement of Brahms' 4th Symphony in E Minor as Cans and Brahms, while in the same year Emerson, Lake, & Palmer recorded the whole of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition live at Newcastle City Hall and released it as an LP. With ELP and The Nice, Emerson, one of my favourite musicians of the era, used many classical pieces in his music, but one of my favourite 45s remains The Nice's take on America from Leonard Bernstein's fabulous musical West Side Story, in which Emerson also includes snippets of Dvorak's New World Symphony. The child's voice on the end the record is that of singer P.P.Arnold's three-year-old son. The Nice had, of course, originally formed as her backing group. In 1975 Camel also released an entire album inspired by one work, Ravel's Snow Goose.

Quite a few bands have recorded concept albums over the years but only The Who's Tommy is grand enough in concept to live up to the title rock opera, and for me the recording which really brings the story to life is Lou Reizner's brilliant 1972 production, which features the band along with a host of guest vocalists, including Maggie Bell, Ringo Starr, Rod Stewart, Richie Havens, and Merry Clayton, plus The London Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Choir.

There are many other examples of "serious" music cropping up on pop records over the years.

Simon and Garfunkel turned the 19th-century carol Silent Night in to a protest song on their 1966 LP Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, while in solo projects they both quoted J S Bach, with Paul Simon turning the Chorale from the St Matthew Passion into the beautiful American Tune. Barry Manilow used Chopin's Prelude in C Minor as the basis for Could it be Magic? (later a disco hit for Donna Summer), Neil Diamond appropriated Mozart's Piano Concerto No 21 for Song Sung Blue and Rainbow's Difficult to Cure started life as the Ode to Joy from Beethoven's 9th Symphony, which was also used in If I Had Words by Scott Fitzgerald & Yvonne Keeley in 1977.

When I saw Rainbow's keyboard wizard Don Airey perform with the band Company of Snakes at Bristol's Bierkeller a few years back, his brilliant solo party piece that night included snippets of several classical pieces. Coincidentally Yvonne Keeley was Steve Harley's girlfriend, who also sang backing vocals on Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me). Cockney Rebel's single Sebastian, taken from their debut album The Human Menagerie, while not based on any classical piece, used a full orchestra most effectively to produce a record of epic proportions.

Several other tracks also benefited from terrific string arrangements by Andrew Powell, and the album's closing track Death Trip is almost operatic in style. As resident DJ at Swindon's Brunel Rooms in the 70s I was lucky enough to support them when they played the venue on The Human Menagerie tour.

The late great Alan Freeman was of course responsible for introducing a lot of rock fans to classical music via his Radio 1 Saturday Rock Show in which he used classical snippets as jingles. Did I listen in? Not Arf!

I can still sense the classics in music to this day. The opening track Lilies from the terrific new Bat for Lashes CD, The Hunted Man, which dropped through my letter box just this week features Natasha Khan's ethereal vocals over a slowly building layer of synthesizers to produce an almost symphonic effect.

As a coda, I must at least mention a couple of the odder records in my collection.

You either love or hate The Cats 1968 reggae version of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, a piece which had already been recorded by Bristol band The Cougars in 1963 as Saturday Night at the Duck Pond, and as a DJ in the 1970s, I took great pleasure in getting audiences to dance to the Trinidad and Tobago Steel Band's version of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's oratorio Messiah. There is actually a clip on YouTube of them performing it on Liberace's television show. Now I can't really top that, so until the next time, I'll put my baton down, and step down from the rostrum.

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