Although we like song lyrics around here — slightly more than sane people usually consider healthy — sometimes you can’t beat a great instrumental.
My recent musings about how few words you need to classify a record as a song, rather than an instrumental (here if you’re interested), got me thinking about the instrumental records I’ve enjoyed over the years.
So after 300+ sets of musings about records with words in them, having one article all about songs with no words in them didn’t seem like too much of a departure from “business as usual” in this little corner of the internet.
Some of the tunes I’ve selected were also hits in different versions with lyrics, but to be included in this list, the instrumental version must have been a hit record in its own right.
Here’s the 10 Instrumentals that make my heart sing…I hope they have the same effect on you…
“Albatross” — Fleetwood Mac
Has a more relaxing tune than Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross” ever been written?
No matter what’s happened in my day, John McVie’s soothing bass…as comforting as the sound of a contended mother’s heartbeat to the baby in her womb…Mick Fleetwood’s gentle rhythms on the toms…Peter Green and Danny Kirwan’s guitars in rather ethereal and other-worldly form, sounding a bit like far-off whale-song from a thousand miles away across the ocean…never fail to make calm and relaxed.
Forget hours of meditation. A couple of plays of “Albatross” in the car home after a bad day at work puts most things right in a jiffy.
Written by original Fleetwood Mac frontman Peter Green…a largely forgotten figure nowadays, but one of the best guitar players of all time… “Albatross” is Fleetwood Mac’s only UK number one single.
Despite the worldwide success the band enjoyed in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly with “Rumours”, one of the best-selling albums in pop music history, Fleetwood Mac’s trip to the top of the UK singles charts in 1969 with “Albatross” would turn out to be their only UK Number One single.
And the band’s most relaxing hit by far…
“Dance With The Devil” — Cozy Powell
Definitely not soothing and relaxing…but if, like me, you feel the contribution made by drummers and percussionists to the overall sound and feel of a song is too-often underappreciated, “Dance With The Devil” is the perfect antidote to that.
In fact, drumming is what “Dance With The Devil” is all about.
Cozy Powell was a session drummer par excellence and also played live as a member of bands like The Jeff Beck Group, Rainbow and Black Sabbath. He’s a man who knew his way around a drum kit, that’s for sure.
And, a bonus piece of trivia I never knew until today, the bass player in the studio for the original recording of “Dance With The Devil” was Suzi Quatro, also part of the RAK Records set-up at the same time as Cozy Powell.
For a quick dance…with or without the red guy with the pointy tail…Cozy Powell’s UK Number 3 hit from 1974 is as good a place as any to start…
“Theme From ‘A Summer Place’” — Percy Faith and his Orchestra
I’ve never seen the movie ‘A Summer Place’…and odds are, neither have you.
It did however feature Sandra Dee, whose name you are likely to remember…from the ‘Grease’ soundtrack, if nowhere else. She gets a name-check and a reference to her goody-goody image in “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee”.
‘A Summer Place’ does, however, have the distinction of a truly beautiful theme tune, written by Max Steiner. Percy Faith and his Orchestra took their version of “Theme From ‘A Summer Place’” to the top of the Billboard charts in 1960, a position it held for an incredible 9 weeks.
To this day, “Theme From ‘A Summer Place’” remains one of the records with the longest amount of time spent at Number One in the Billboard charts.
I remember “Theme From ‘A Summer Place’” particularly well as it was used by John Dunn as the theme tune for his long-running BBC Radio 2 drivetime show back in the 1970s. His show usually started after my mum had picked us up from school, so we heard the start of his programme most days on the her Fiat 128’s car radio.
One time John Dunn answered a listener’s request tell us the name of the music he used as a theme tune. So I filed that key bit of information away for future reference and, unlike a lot of other things I learned at school, never forgot the name of this wonderful piece of music…
“Theme From ‘A Summer Place’” has some of the greatest brass you’ll ever hear and the strings are sublime…
“Amazing Grace” — Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards
In the early 1970s, as glam rock started to displace the hippies who’d held sway in the pop charts for the previous few years, fashion choices for performers on Top of the Pops usually boiled down to a choice between platform shoes and spandex or kaftans and sandals.
Dozens of blokes in kilts wasn’t a terribly common sight anywhere, even in Scotland, but it was even less common on the UK’s most famous TV music show. In fact, apart from the odd appearance draped around Axl Rose, it’s a long time since kilts have been the attire of choice for best-selling music acts.
That said, a group of blokes in kilts…serving soldiers, no less…took an instrumental version of the old hymn, “Amazing Grace”, to the top of the UK charts in 1972. It reached Number 11 on the Billboard charts too, and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards were at or near the top of the pop charts around the world that year.
“Amazing Grace” is a beautiful song…my grandmother’s favourite song of all time. And it does have wonderful lyrics as well (“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound/That saved a wretch like me/I once was lost, but now I’m found/Was blind but now I see”).
Judy Collins had a huge hit with her vocal version of “Amazing Grace”, and rightly so, but we’re not talking about songs with lyrics today…well, not much anyway…
Although I am Scottish, so might be more inclined to be moved by our national musical instrument, even non-Scots tell me the wistfulness of the bagpipes makes “Amazing Grace” a very moving experience.
A lone piper played “Amazing Grace” as we said out last goodbyes to my grandmother. It was the most emotional experience of my life by some considerable margin, but it was also very fitting that she embarked on her final journey to the sound of her favourite song, played on the instrument she most enjoyed listening to.
Here, with some lovely photography of my homeland, is the band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards with 1972’s most unlikely Number One record…(actually probably one of the more unlikely Number Once records in pop music history, even including Joe Dolce’s…)
“Theme From Mission: Impossible” — Lalo Schifrin / Adam Clayton & Larry Mullen
I remember ‘Mission: Impossible’ as a TV show, which I was very occasionally allowed to stay up late for when I was a kid. But since the mid-1990s, ‘Mission: Impossible’ is better known as a very successful film franchise starring Tom Cruise.
When the movies came along, they had a slight problem with the original theme tune, composed by Lalo Schifrin. He’d written it in the somewhat unusual 5/4 time signature which sounded a little odd to people raised on a diet of pop music written almost exclusively in 4/4 time.
The unusual time signature also made it harder to mix and fade the main theme into other incidental music in the film, so Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen (respectively U2’s bass player and drummer) remixed the track into 4/4 time.
Some were a bit sniffy about the guys from U2 “dumbing down”, as they saw it, a classic piece of music composition, but I think Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen did a pretty good job.
If you want to compare and contrast, Lalo Schifrin’s original 5/4 version for the TV show is here, and a cracking arrangement it is too… https://youtu.be/7HFakjigeFc
However the movie theme version by Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen hit the Top 10 in the UK, US and around the world. So their version is the one most people think of first nowadays. And here it is…
“Classical Gas” — Mason Williams
Another entry in the “I couldn’t see this being a hit if it was released today” competition. Even by the standards of late 1960s musical experimentation, “Classical Gas” was an unlikely UK and US Top 10 single back in 1968.
Mason Williams was a writer…but of comedy, usually, not of songs…however he wrote an interesting tune and very smartly pulled together some brilliant musical partners to help him deliver his vision.
Behind Mason Williams’ classical guitar, you can hear members of the Wrecking Crew…Los Angeles’ finest session musicians back in the 1960s. Hal Blaine’s distinctive drumming style is much in evidence on the studio recording (although that’s not him in the video below).
And Mike Post…who would later become famous for writing the theme tunes for ‘The Rockford Files’, ‘Hill St Blues’ and a raft of other hit TV shows… stepped in for producing and arranging duties.
There’s also an unusual time signature thing going on in “Classical Gas” as the tune switches around between 5/4, 4/4 and 3/4 time.
But don’t focus on the time signature. Just enjoy a tremendous instrumental, and the winner of three Grammys, written and performed by Mason Williams…
“Pick Up The Pieces” — Average White Band
If you wanted a band to perform R&B Funk for you, I’m not sure Scotland in the 1970s, and the city of Dundee in particular, would have been the place most people would have started looking.
But that’s where the Average White Band came from.
Their name was a tongue-in-cheek reference to their heritage, far away across the sea from the funk and soul traditions of the Motown, Stax and Atlantic record labels in the States.
There is a bit of random shouting in “Pick Up The Pieces”, but it’s not enough to make this into a song instead of an instrumental, at least in the opinion of everyone I’ve ever discussed this with, so I’m including it in my list of top instrumentals.
If you’ve read any of my other articles, you’ll know how much I enjoy a good brass section. Well, you’ll have to go a long way to find better brass than on this 1974 Billboard Number One record.
And don’t blame me if you listen to this and want to start dancing… “Pick Up The Pieces” is as funky as they come and as infectious as anything…no wonder the Average White Band are one of the most sampled acts of all time…
“Theme From ‘Love Story’” — Henry Mancini
Originally intended as a song, when the classic 1970s movie weepy, ‘Love Story’, was due to be released, the studio held back on the lyrics as they didn’t feel the ones originally written were quite right for the film.
However they liked Francis Lai’s work on the score and the main theme, so they kept the tune he’d composed and just used that as an instrumental over the titles.
Later, some completely different lyrics were written by Carl Sigman and paired with Francis Lai’s wonderful orchestral piece to make a fully-fledged song again.
Andy Williams took the resulting song, now titled “Where Do I Begin” into the Billboard Top 10. It’s a great song in its own right but, returning to our main purpose today, Andy Williams’ version wasn’t an instrumental…
However we don’t need to rely on Andy Williams to shoehorn “Theme From ‘Love Story’” into today’s list.
Before the lyrics Andy Williams ultimately sang were written and paired with Francis Lai’s music, Henry Mancini released an instrumental version of the movie theme which spent 11 weeks in the Billboard chart, peaking at Number 13.
I remember the tune for “The Love Story Theme” note-for-note as it was the performance piece for which I won the music prize during my final year at primary school. I played the piano back then, at least reasonably well for a 10 or 11 year old, although I haven’t played in years.
In retrospect, I probably made a bit of a tactical error. The teachers at my all-boys school were impressed that a 10 year old boy was in touch with his emotions sufficiently well that he could deliver a creditable performance of a very tender tune, but my classmates were much less impressed.
For the remaining eight years I was at that school they beat me up on a regular basis for “being soft like a girl”. Ah, yes, the 1970s were a different time.
If you haven’t seen the ‘Love Story’ film, it’s a real tear-jerker. Definitely not to be watched without several boxes of Kleenex to hand…and the tune all by itself isn’t far behind in the tear-jerker stakes, especially when those strings swell towards the end…
“Sylvia” — Focus
Focus were a Dutch band who had two instrumental hits in the UK in the early 1970s, “Hocus Pocus” and “Sylvia”.
I was never into prog rock, and Focus definitely come from that sort of musical direction. However the great thing about a 3-minute single is that you can’t fit a 15 minute organ solo on the track, so both “Hocus Pocus” and “Sylvia” were more accessible to a mainstream pop-oriented audience.
Focus were prog rock…but without most of the excesses which turn non-prog fans off pretty quickly.
Now, before you call me out, there is a bit of vocal on this track. However it doesn’t involve any words as far as I can tell. It’s just a voice being used as an instrument. So “Sylvia” by Focus stays on my list of instrumentals to make your heart sing…
“The Entertainer” — Marvin Hamlisch
Ok, ok, another movie score. But in this case, the tune wasn’t written specially for the movie. Scott Joplin wrote “The Entertainer” a good 70 years before the immensely popular film “The Sting”, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, came out.
Originally a piano rag, a number of versions of “The Entertainer” have been recorded over the years, but ragtime music fell out of fashion much past the 1930s.
That made it an ideal choice for Marvin Hamlisch when he set out to write the score for a film about a couple of con men operating in the mid-1930s.
Because the musical style was unlike anything people had heard in a long time, it immediately placed the movie-watcher back in a time when the talkies were the latest technology, when colour film hadn’t yet taken over from black-and-white, and people who weren’t hipsters still wore spats over their shoes un-ironically.
Marvin Hamlisch has been responsible from some great film scores over the years, but “The Sting” was the movie which launched him into the movie music-writer stratosphere.
Marvin Hamlisch took his version of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” to Number Three in the Billboard Hot 100 in 1974, sparking a big revival of interest in the work of Scott Joplin at the time.
Thanks to the popularity of “The Sting”, and the great work done by Marvin Hamlisch on its score, nowadays “The Entertainer” is a very well-known piece of music indeed.
But it spent a good 50 years languishing in obscurity after ragtime went out of fashion.
Which just goes to show that greatness never fades. What was great once is probably still great today. The world’s problem isn’t a lack a greatness, it’s more often us human beings forgetting where that greatness is.
Writing film scores isn’t the only aspect of life that would benefit from a better understanding of history than most people possess nowadays.
So be bold…look into history…find out things you never knew about what used to happen before you were born. I can guarantee you’ll uncover a range of perspectives and insights which will benefit you today.
Just like Marvin Hamlisch did when he stumbled across an old ragtime song by a long-forgotten composer one day. Look where that took him…
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of some of my favourite instrumental hits. I hope to see you around here again soon. I promise we’ll be back with songs which have words in them next time…