Interesting Instrumental Hits from the 1970s...
Popcorn- Hot Butter (1972)
Probably one of the first electronic instrumentals a lot of people heard, `Popcorn` was originally composed by Gershon Kingsley of the First Moog Quartet on their album `Music to Moog By`. Born in 1922 in Germany, Kingsley was a pioneer of electronic music and in later life would compose for Broadway musicals. He lived to the age of 97! Another member of the First Moog Quarter, Stan Free, re-recorded `Popcorn` and it became an unusual 1972 hit.
It is one of those pieces of music that seems timeless, it could have been recorded in 2021 rather than almost fifty years ago. The catchy tune is rendered with the lightest touch the sound resembling one of those old video game noises while the drums have the timbre of military snares. The production has a clarity allowing you to hear every element and it retains its allure of futurism even today.
Eye Level - Simon Park Orchestra (1972)
Van der Valk was a hugely popular detective show set in a Holland populated solely by English people. That was what you’d expect in the 70s when audiences were less forgiving of subtitles and the preferred option was to dub other countries accents with English actors. Surprisingly when it came to a recent reboot of the series they still did it with an English cast. This tune was the original show’s theme and topped the UK charts for a month, hitting the top after only two weeks release. Though a hit thanks to the popularity of the series it wasn’t composed specially for the show having been penned by persons unknown as library music. The tune was based on a nursery rhyme. Dutch composer Jan Stokecart adapted and Simon Park arranged this version as the theme tune. Simon Park also wrote the themes to lunchtime drama Crown Court and celebrity mystery series Whodunnit? as well as the incidental music to Danger UXB. This Simon Park btw is not the yoga expert nor the man who once bought Brixton Academy. You can see the 1973 TOTP appearance on You Tube with the orchestra dressed in rollneck jumpers and an enthusiastic Park conducting while the audience attempt a gentle dance.
Amazing Grace- The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (1972)
Well, the military band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards to be accurate bagpiping it up like there’s no tomorrow. Yet there is something beautiful about it, something so stately and powerful. Produced by Alan Fairburn this rendition of a hymn written in the 1770s became the best selling UK single of 1972 and topped the charts in many other countries. The 1972 version is good enough yet going off topic I also found a reworked 2007 version that is even fuller. Underpinned by a full orchestra bagpipes sound more melodic and this classic tune is the perfect fit. There’s a gorgeous key change half way that makes it all sound more like a film theme as the orchestra swells and then if you don’t mind a choir kicks in too! Just to harmonise mind, no words. It’s, er, amazing!
Sylvia- Focus (1972)
Originally written with lyrics by keyboard player Thijs van Leer in 1968 the song was intended for a singer called Sylvia Alberts but she didn’t like it much. Later when his band Focus were working on their third album he revisited the tune asking bandmate Jan Akkerman to reshape it as a guitar led instrumental. He called it `Sylvia` after that singer. Even for 1972, when the UK was in the midst of glam and prog it was a remarkable single highlighted by the switch from rock riffs to melodic guitar that could easily be the `love theme` from a film. It has a distinctive Sixties style organ sound in the background and Van Leer sings along later in his trademark yodel. Its one of those songs with a trick ending where it seems to wrap up before the establishing riff returns.
Talking later about the song, Akkerman said: “In my younger years I used to listen a lot to marching bands. I heard some guy on trumpet in one of these bands, and he had such a beautiful tone, such beautiful phrasing. So the song’s timing and phrasing come from there. The first and second verses were both done in five minutes, so altogether it took ten.”
The only act to feature twice in this list because you can’t have one Focus hit without the other. `Hocus Pocus` features yodelling rather than singing so it counts as an instrumental. Thijs van Leer later said “It came from nowhere; a piece of pure improvisation, inspired by the fun of playing together.” He even claimed he had never yodelled before; “I still think it came from heaven,” he recalled. Jan Akkerman later said the track was “just a send up of those rock groups.” It starts reasonably conventionally with a repeated guitar riff before a drum solo leads to that yodelling over an organ sound. There is, yes, a flute solo! Oh and a weird little fairground bit with whistling in it too.
Much of it was recorded in one take in Spring 1971- “composed instantly” as the band put it- with the yodels, flute solo and accordion added afterwards. It was originally six and a half minutes long with the single version being a re-recorded, slightly faster paced three minutes. On release it overlapped `Sylvia` which was still in the UK charts
Also Sprach Zarathustra- Deodato (1973)
Brazilian Eumir Deodato is responsible for this jazz funk version of the classic Richard Strauss music which was well known at the time for having been used for the film 2001- A Space Oddysey. It was originally written by Strauss in 1896 and the piece of music we all recognise is actually the opening theme called `Sunrise` and is as majestic as can be. Deodato’s version, it has to be said, adds little to the grandeur of the piece but in musical terms it works rather well substituting the distant elegance of the original with a warmer intent. The list of musicians who play on it is impressive including Stanley Clarke and Billy Cobham and the single made the top 10 in the US and UK. There is, apparently, a nine-minute version on Deodato’s album if you must. However the big question here is- who was Zarathustra? Well, he was a Persian prophet (so what he said is quite important) and one of the founders of the Zoroastrianism religion. However historians do not seem to know exactly when he lived or indeed what he did say except that the lore of the religion speaks of messages he received and presumably passed on.
Dance with the Devil - Cozy Powell (1973)
You wonder whether Cozy Powell would have been so successful in the rock world had he used his real name of Colin Flooks. Probably as he was a fearsome drummer whose career spanned a range of heavy bands including The Jeff Beck Group, Rainbow, Black Sabbath and even a stint as a different `P` in ELP. He had a lucrative session career too and is reckoned to have appeared on nearly seventy different albums. In the early 70s he also had a brief solo spell at a time when the idea of drummers doing so was unusual. No singing for Coze though, perhaps wisely, instead he concentrated on instrumentals and this was a hit in 1973. Suzi Quatro plays bass on it too.
This was a first for me, till now I’d never heard this. Essentially it starts like a drum solo of the sort regularly featured in most rock band’s live sets with basic backing from guitars and handclaps. However a tune not unlike something by The Shadows kicks in half way through. Well done Colin Flooks!
Love’s Theme- Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra (1973)
The self styled `walrus of love` Barry White’s deep, deep voice was one of the most distinctive of the seventies but is absent on this single which features his forty piece backing orchestra and it is a rich sound they make. It has dated rather more than many of the songs on this list and without White’s trademark baritone can sound a bit like the theme music for some tv series. In fact listening to it just now I imagined a helicopter swooping over a grand country house and slow motion shots of various characters from this imaginary series! Now you may be thinking- hold on, I’ve heard this with singing and you’d be correct. A vocal version was later recorded by Love Unlimited complete with Bazza but it was this instrumental version that was the hit topping the US charts and making the top 10 here. It opens with swirling violins and soon sets into the archetypal White groove and you really can imagine him singing over it actually so much so that you keep expecting him to do so!
Oxygene Part IV- Jean Michel Jarre (1977)
The best -known tune in this list `Oxygene (Part IV`) was a soothing success in 1977 paving the way for Jarre to embark on ambitious live performances in unusual locations. The son of composer Maurice Jarre, he’d started his career in 1969 and had worked extensively in theatre, ballet, adverts and television. `Oxygene` was his third record recorded mostly in his home studio using synthesisers. He composed much of it on an old Mellotron – the settings he used for `Part IV` were “slow rock” and “rock” even though the results sound nothing like either!
Upon its release in December 1976, many reviews thought the album was bland and characterless but it would go on to sell over fifteen million copies propelled by the success of the single released in August 1977. Jarre later said; “I feel like I was part of the first wave of approaching music differently, in this new and exciting way, and I feel very privileged chronologically to have been there at the right time, at the beginning of something new and interesting.”
In a way it takes the `Popcorn` model of feather light instrumentation and makes it more other worldy. The resemblance to Pink Floyd is definitely there but then the Floyds would come in with singing and guitars whereas this remains floating in the ether with alien noises abounding. I don’t know if there was a video for this back in 1977 but you can easily imagine in your head if you just close your eyes and float away…
Magic Fly – Space (1977)
Another French act, Space appeared in 1977 with something that isn’t a million miles from `Oxygene`. There must have been something in the croissants that year! This lot though dressed up as astronauts in their video bouncing about despite the helmets and having projections of scantily clad space girls showing in their visors while static danced behind. Eventually they disappear and we launch into space.
The mastermind behind the group was Didier Marouani who was actually born in Monaco. The band’s look was inspired partly by contractual issues with Space’s material being released by a different company to the one Marouani was signed to as a solo artist. The name Space was chosen after their debut album was finished because, as Marounai later said; “all the people who first heard the album told me that the sound seemed to come from outer space due to the synthesized rhythm.” `Magic Fly` itself had originally been written for a tv show but rejected and Marouani’s record company declined to release it under his own name hence the alias Ecama who is credited on the albu[j1] m
It’s more of a dance track than `Oxygene` and more varied too with a funky middle eight and the occasional piano notes drifting across wah wah guitar plus a spectral keyboard note wafts across the speakers from time to time. Influenced by Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, Space are in some ways precursors to a lot of the New Romantic music of the early 80s and later Daft Punk whose mixture of pop, funk, electronics (and helmets) they share
Space were not a solely instrumental band though; their early material included contributions from none other than Madelaine Bell, a noted singer who’d fronted Blue Mink and appeared on several well known records. She did not dress up as an astronaut though.
Fanfare for the Common Man- ELP (1977)
Emerson, Lake and Palmer were one of those bands more famous for their wealth and the size of their touring vehicles than for their music. Splicing classical and rock influences they were about as prog as you could be yet nobody talks much about them these days even though they sold millions of records. The chances of them having a hit single might seem miniscule yet here they were doing just that in 1977 of all years!
`Fanfare for the Common Man` was one of several classical pieces ELP performed. Written by Aaron Copeland in 1942 and literally intended as a fanfare, this version was adapted by Keith Emerson and runs for nine minutes (longer than Copland’s original) on the album with this three minute version released as a single. Apparently Copeland liked the version on the grounds that the group did something interesting with it and gave his permission for them to use it. It actually starts with that fanfare before breaking off into their own ideas. The video sees them performing the song in a chilly stadium in Canada looking frozen. And despite one of the best known facts about them being that Greg Lake performed on his own piece of carpet it is absent here.
Star Wars Theme - Meco (1977)
In 1977 there were two version of Star Wars’ iconic main theme vying for chart attention. One was the actual film theme by John Williams, the other was this disco version which ended up being the more successful. Williams got his own back later that year when his theme for Close Encounters of the Third Kind beat Meco’s disco attempt in the charts. The tune is ideally suited to a disco arrangement and Meco- real name Domenico Monardo – slaps an archetypal beat on it and has those orchestral flourishes that mark out most 70s disco hits. Its also got some more than irritating laser noises just to remind you of the source material. Truth be told its very cheesy and I had to stop at 1min 56 sec because my circuits started to fuse but as it is an undeniable part of the Seventies retro experience, please take a listen to it below and see how far you get.
The Crunch – The RAH Band (1978)
RAH stands for Richard Anthony Hewson, a producer and arranger whose project this is. He had arranged `The Long and Winding Road` for The Beatles at Phil Spector’s request though the orchestral arrangement has seemingly always irked Paul McCartney. He was also responsible for the orchestral arrangement on the James Bond theme `Nobody Does It Better`, sung by Carly Simon and has worked with the likes of Supertramp and Diana Ross. So he knows his onions!
`The Crunch` was the very first release credited to the RAH Band which is whoever he is collaborating with though in this case it is just him. In a 1985 interview he explained how the track came about ; “I started on a 4-track just playing anything I could - all I had was a Hohner electric piano…I used that in conjunction with a high-speed Revox A77.The A77 has never been lined-up or anything and it is still as good as it ever was. It just goes on and on and on. The first record I produced using the 4-track was 'The Crunch'.” The name comes from the `crunchy` sound created.
The song was actually recorded in 1974 and three years later someone from EMI picked up on it and it became a hit reaching number six in the UK charts. It might have been number one where it not for the death of Elvis Presley which caused EMI to stop pressing `The Crunch` in favour of the King’s back catalogue. Now 77, Hewson is still releasing new music.
The RAH band’s first appearance on Top of the Pops` was memorable for the bizarre clothes worn by the keyboard player though this is not Hewson. He was booked at a prior engagement so a makeshift group was put together to perform the song and whoever impersonates him is sporting a balaclava and a plastic bag! “When you’ve got no charisma you dress up as a bell end,” as one YouTube comment under the video observes sagely!
Clog Dance – Violinski (1979)
Formed in 1977 by two members of ELO, violinist Mik Kaminski and guitarist Mike De Albuquerque they might have been called Violinquuerque (lol) but luckily settled on the catchier Violinski. The line up also included a member of Rick Wakeman’s band, John Hodgson so clearly it was OK to be in more than one band at once in those days. However, neither Kaminski nor De Albuquerque penned the group’s sole hit. Instead this came from the songwriting prowess of the equally oddly named John Marcangelo who has studied at Leeds Music College with Kaminski. Later he was said to be writing a whole musical based around the theme called `Clogger`. Oh and the precursor to Violinski was a band called Cow…
It isn’t pioneering or spacey or show offy but very catchy with that quality that makes a lot of ELO earworm material. Sounds like the violin was double tracked. It has a great middle eight where Mik uses his fingers and a bit at the end that actually sounds like ELO. When they appeared in TOTP Mik sported a glittery silver jacket and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone look more uncomfortable in Seventies glam clobber. Its an unlikely clog dance but a catchy tune nonetheless.
PS If you’re wondering why I’ve not included the
magnificent `Mouldy Old Dough`, that has a post all of its own here Mouldy Old Dough