Friday, 9 December 2011
Someone recently asked on ‘Yahoo Answers’ (a second home for a musical anorak like me) what Stones instrumentals there were. After writing an essay (as I’m wont to do) about how the end of ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?’ might be considered an instrumental but that the Stones only technically did three released in their lifetime (‘Stoned’ ‘Now I’ve Got A Witness (Like Uncle Phil and Uncle Gene)’ and ‘2210 Michigan Avenue’, all early in their career) I got to thinking: what are the best AAA instrumentals around? Here are my answers, with nominations also for The Beatles ‘Flying’ and ’12 Bar Original’, The Byrds’ ‘Captain Soul’, Oasis’ ‘Swamp Song’, Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Spare Chaynge’, Alan Hull’s ‘STD 0632’ (named after the synthesiser he was using!), multiple McCartney B-sides and the five other ‘jams’ from ‘McCartney’ not listed here, John Lennon’s ‘Beef Jerky’ George Harrison’s ‘Greece’, Simon and Grafunkel’s ‘Anji’, Paul Simon’s ‘Papa Hobo Blues’, various Floyd film soundtracks and ‘Interstellar Overdrive’, Neil Young’s ‘Emporer Of Wyoming’ plus various film soundtrack moments and the kings of them all, The Beach Boys, who released over a dozen instrumentals in the 1960s alone. Note: for these purposes, David Crosby’s vocalised but wordless songs, such as ‘Tree With No Leaves’ and ‘Tampalpais High’ have been discounted, partly because unlike the other examples here there are vocalists (even if they’re just going ‘aaah’) and because otherwise I’d have no space left to add any other songs. Ditto Pink Floyd’ ‘Great Gig In The Sky’ for the same reasons. I’ve also sadly had to discount The Beach Boys’ ‘Fire’ because, well, the Brian Wilson one isn’t quite as amazing and the Beach Boys’ original technically never came out! (include it as #2 on this list if you think it counts!)
10) The Beach Boys “Moon Dawg” (a track from the album ‘Surfin’ Safari’ 1962):
There are so many surfing instrumentals on all Beach Boys albums up to and including ‘Pet Sounds’ that its easy to get a bit blase: oh no, not another bit of filler, given that the band had to make four albums a year and were running low on ideas, that kind of thing. Back here, on the first album, Brian hasn’t got into his songwriting stride yet and is clearly finding it hard to cope with no less than four instrumentals on the album. But ‘Moon Dawg’ shines head and shoulders above the rest, with a fully committed band who;ve finally ‘got’ the knack of getting their surfing sounds down on tape and is taken at one heck of a lick which must be unique among rock and roll records in 1962. For pretty much the last time for five years, this is just the band members playing on this record and its a driving rocker, built around a nifty Carl Wilson surf lyric, some classic Beach Boy harmonies and some pretty impressive dog impressions. It’s Dennis’ drumming that’s the revelation though – told just to go as fast as he can, its low on subtlety but huge on energy and is how he should always have played. If only the other instrumentals propping up up to 50% of the next eight Beach Boys albums could have been up to this standard...
9) 10cc “How Dare You!” (a track from the album ‘How Dare You!’ 1976):
Of all the daring things 10cc did, starting off your new album with the one and only instrumental of your (non-b sides) recording career is one of the biggest. It makes sense though: this is a band who’ve always been obsessed with sounds and studio technique (as last year’s ‘The Producers’ doc on 10cc reveals, they packed one heck of a lot of effort into even throwaway 10 second inserts) who ran a recording studio together, backing other musicians and whose lead guitarist worked on the side as an engineer. ‘How Dare You’ features one of the the great 1occ riffs, urgent and exotic and yet much heavier than is usual for them. There’s plenty of room for multiple percussion overdubs (the opening alone features a marimba, tambourine, maracas, a ‘scraper’ and a hi-hat) and another stroke of genius from Eric Stewart, the world’s most under-rated guitar player. Fans have often puzzled over the start – an audible slap and a female voice imploring ‘how dare you!’, but then 10cc fans have puzzled many things about their favourite band over the years. The only shame is that the song fades (or cross-fades) when it does, having just built up a head of steam and with nowhere really to go...
8) Rolling Stones “Stoned” (B-side of single ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ 1963):
How daring was this for 1963?! Mick Jagger’s somewhat, erm, laidbacked voice intones that he’s ‘stoned’, over a slow bluesy piano-based backing. Actually, this is more of a booze than a drug reference (although clearly in homage to the drug-taking blues guitarists of old), but even so it sounds mighty ahead of their time and I’m amazed there weren’t more complaints from worried parents (then again, the Stones weren’t all that well known by the time of this, their second single). Listen out for an all too rare appearance by ‘sixth Stone’ Ian Stewart, still very much a part of the band by this stage whatever the other guys and record company think, and the sound of a band getting about as close as they ever got to Brian Jones’ original vision of them as a blues cover band who did a tiny bit of their own stuff on the side. Fans of the later recordings might wonder what all the fuss is about, but for five white and largely middle-class kids to be singing this stuff is a huge sea-change for the standards of the day.
7) Grateful Dead “Slipknot” (a track from the album ‘Blues For Allah’ 1975):
Few songs on this list have to fulfil as many tasks as ‘Slipknot’ does. First up, this is the Dead’s ‘jazz album’, so it has to sound much more like something from a Miles Davis album than, say, a Stones or Who one (with the band making the most of their improvisationary skills). Secondly, it has to serve as a suitable linking piece between ‘Help Is On The Way’ and ‘Franklin’s Tower’, two very contrasting pieces which are however nailed superbly by the fact that this instrumental takes the high drama and nagging doubt of the former song a stage further towards catastrophe and then re-builds itself around a riff that circles higher and higher, a neat musical metaphor for a mountain climber slowly bringing himself to the surface after nearly falling to his death. The chirpy life-lesson that we should ‘roll away the dew’ sounds all the better coming after such a fiery combative struggle against the darker side of things. Above all, though, ‘slipknot’ has to work as a song in its own right, something it just about manages thanks to its very distinctive beginning, middle and end. I’d love to know how much of this ‘song’ was structured before the band recorded it because their improvisations around each other’s playing is as good as even the Dead ever get at that particular skill and, despite all the hard work, there’s still quite an obvious edit into the intro of ‘Franklin’s Tower’.
6) Paul McCartney “Momma Miss America” (a track from the album ‘McCartney’ 1970):
I could have quoted plenty of Macca instrumentals, but my favourite is the track announced as ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Springtime’ on the McCartney LP. Now, unlike some fans who go all gooey-eyed over this half-baked album, I have to say that its other instrumentals like ‘Valentine Day’, ‘Singalong Junk’ and ‘Kreen-Akore’ drive me up the wall. ‘America’, though, is terrific: Macca plays everything here and plays it all perfectly: his feedback-drenched electric guitar is noisy, his acoustic is frothy, his clod-hopping drums give the song space and adrenalin, his piano playing is a delight and his bass playing knows just where to accent a rhythm in the song and when to roll around looking for mischief. You really don’t need any words on this song, which as its original title suggests, is all about the fun of playing and seeing how far music can take you. Had the whole of the ‘McCartney’ album been up to this one jam session then I’d be gooey-eyed too.
5) Pink Floyd “Any Colour You Like” (a track from the album ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ 1973):
Fans think of it as the lesser track on their biggest album, but the sarcastically titled ‘Any Colour You Like’ (as long as its black, as the old saying goes) is the clincher this album needs, caught between the lyrical head-hanging of ‘Us and Them’ and going out on a high with the medley of ‘Brain Damage’ and ‘Eclipse’. The song starts with Rick Wright’s as ever under-rated synth playing, with two Rick’s following each other a beat or so behind, before two multi-tracked David Gilmours start bouncing off each other. It’s all very exciting and a great showcase for the band to show off their musical chops (Nick Mason’s drumming is pretty spiffing too here), especially the break near the end when Gilmour starts singing along at the same time as his solo, like the last part of ‘A Saucerful Of Secrets’ but so much better in every way. This is a band learning before your ears and arguably the last time they sound like a real-life true group rather than just Roger Waters’ backing band and placing this instrumental right here livens up a second half of an album that might have been a bit dull without this shot in the arm.
4) George Harrison “Marwa Blues” (a track from the album ‘Brainwashed’ 2002):
The last time George did an instrumental it wasn’t good. Now unlike most fans I have a lot of love for ‘Gone Troppo’ and the way it tries to mix sudden burning realisation with laidback living, but the track ‘Greece’ is everything people say this album is: shallow, undemanding, badly thought through and boring as hell. When I heard that the unfinished ‘Brainwashed’ was to include more of George’s steel guitar playing on an instrumental, alongside the hideous Jools Holland jam of ‘Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’ (the only songs we fans knew about until the album came out), I wasn’t best pleased. But oh ‘Marwa Blues’ is so good it might well be the highlight of George’s last album, saying so much in music that the album couldn’t bring itself to say in words. ‘Marwa’ has, like most of George’s favourite words, multiple meanings but ‘perfect’ is the closest Western version of it, usually when applied to females. The fact that George tags the word ‘blues’ to this song name is very much in keeping with the duality of this album on songs like ‘Pisces Fish’ about the guitarist’s two sided personality but poignantly suggests that, as one of George’s last recordings, this is a last farewell to Olivia and everything he’ll miss when he dies. It certainly sounds deep enough for that, unlike most instrumentals, and words would almost certainly have spoiled a song that’s about everything unsaid in life. Sniff, past the tissues...
3) Belle and Sebastian “Fiction” (and assorted varieties) (A track from the film soundtrack album ‘Storytelling’ 2002):
This whole album sounds nothing like Belle and Sebastian, being a series of piano-based orchestral instrumentals with the odd song and dialogue from a film that nobody ever saw (certainly, I’ve never seen it and I’ve never met anyone else who has). It is, however, gorgeous, with a lilting tune as good as any Stuart Murdoch ever wrote and a fascinating orchestral score that sounds both filmic and epic and down to earth. There are variations on this throughout the album: a scarier minor key version for ‘Freak’, adding Sarah Martin’s classy wordless harmonies and a snazzy accordion part for ‘Fiction’ (Reprise). The end result sounds, well, better than it should for a minute long throwaway on a film nobody was ever likely to see and bodes well if the band ever decide to do a full song-length take on this orchestral idea sometime.
2) Dennis Wilson “Mexico” (an outtake from the sessions for ‘Pacific Ocean Blue 1979, released in 2006):
Another eerily moving instrumental, that says so much without any words to say it at all, this was a bonus track on the ‘Pacific Ocean Blue-Bambuu’ release of 2006. It’s meant to be ‘unfinished’ but doesn’t actually need anything else to improve on it – its perfect just the way it is. A sighing piano line, with strings laid on top and a tired bleary-eyed trumpet call, this song says so much about loss it actually sounds more at one with the troubled songs of the abandoned ‘Bambuu’ project. Dennis had another six years to live at this point, but it doesn’t sound like that here: this is a man afraid of the future and all it might hold and bitterly doesn’t want to let go. Why this song is called ‘Mexico’ is a mystery, as is the voice at the end who laughs and says ‘that’s enough of that!’ Let’s get back to the rock and roll on disc 2, in other words and it’s a shame to go back to normality (if you can call the strung-out wasted likes of ‘Time For Bed’ as ‘normal’) after this glorious sojourn of sadness and silence. Dennis Wilson was a genius – how sad we only really found that out five years ago, some 23 years after his death.
1) The Who “Sparks” (a track from the album ‘Tommy’ 1969):
Best of all, though, is this sterling instrumental from the ‘orrible ‘Oo, best heard on ‘Live At Leeds’ where its extremes between passionate beauty and uncontrolled chaos is one of the most, well, amazing journeys that band ever took us on. Even on ‘Tommy’, though, it’s clearly the stand-out track, putting into music the conflicting thoughts and hurts of the ‘deaf, dumb and blind’ kid heard in a medley with ‘Amazing Journey’. Taking the starting point ‘what would life sound like if you couldn’t hear?’, Pete Townshend delivers one of his more empathetic tracks, offering both struggle and absolution in one. ‘Sparks’ is the perfect expression of that feeling you get on ‘Tommy’ that this is a special child with great insights who’ll lead us all to our salvation because he thinks so differently to us – and yet there’s also a hint of the troubled ending, too, where the audience drifts on after deciding that they don’t like what he has to say and want to be dumb, deaf and blind to their possible salvation. John Entwistle’s bass had never been better than here, on what’s virtually a boxing match between him and Townshend with Keith Moon whacking great lumps out of his drum kit as an accompaniment. Really special.
And that’s that for another issue. Join us next week for more news, views and music!