Monday 12 May 2014

Fifteen Great AAA String Parts (News, Views and Music 244)

You only notice them doing their job when they're not doing it properly: the same is true for all sorts of jobs including a cleaner, the boss of a mega-corporation and prime minister (so boy have we noticed David Cameron a lot lately!) The same is often true for strings on rock and roll records - never the most natural of bedfellows (well, not unless Brian Wilson is in control anyway!) Subtle string arrangements are something of a lost art I think - nowadays instruments have to be in-your-face or might as well not be there at all. However at its best a subtle string arrangement, lower in the mix than the singers and instruments, can really enhance a record and make the very good sound great. There are plenty more examples out there (why not post your own ideas in the comments section?) but here are ten recordings we think are the finest at showing how rock and roll and classical can sit side by side, as ever listed in chronological order:

1) The Beach Boys "Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)" (Pet Sounds, 1966)

Am I alone in finding the 'Pet Sounds' album a bit lush? Personally I'd have preferred the album to have a tougher, streamlined sound to match the often hard hitting lyrics ('Today' is the best Beach Boys album to get if strings are your thing, not 'Pet Sounds'). However there's one outpouring of emotion that absolutely needs to sound huge and warm and overcome with emotion: 'Pet Sounds' sole love song. Brian Wilson's clever arrangement is at its best when the lovestruck narrator breaks off from the song to hear his loved one's heartbeat, only for a sudden swell of emotion to come out of nowhere and turn the whole song into a Hollywood movie. 

2) The Byrds "John Riley" (5D (Fifth Dimension), 1966)

An, err, interesting stereo mix (splitting the strings on the left hand channel and the Byrds on the right) means that - if you so choose - you can hear both parts to this song more or less separately (with just the tiniest bit of leakage). Allen Stanton's string arrangement is a neat match for the Byrds, adding the hope and optimism buried in the old folk standard at the same time, the strings sweeping upwards at the same time as the vocal parts mean the Byrds essentially end up looking at their feet. The tension on the line 'he picked her up, all in her arms' is almost unbearable, the Byrds' harmonies suddenly joining in with the strings in a happy ending that almost makews up for those ominous closing guitar notes.

3) The Beatles "A Day In The Life" (Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band, 1967)

The most famous strings passage in rock and roll comes in the middle of this song, when under Paul McCartney's leadership a 40-piece orchestra joins parts A and B of the song together with a swirling, cacophonous, improvised swirl of noise with every player going from the their lowest note to the highest and ending up in the same place at the same time (or at least that's the theory - the strings get there all in a bunch at the end). The perfect encapsulation of this edgy song's darker side, it makes for a perfect set-up for the crashing piano chords that subdue it into silence at the end of the song. 

4) Buffalo Springfield "Expecting To Fly" (Buffalo Springfield Again, 1967)

While credited to Buffalo Springfield, strictly speaking this is from a solo album Neil Young was working on with Jack Nitzsche that got released under the Springfield banner when Neil returned to the band (for the second of five times!) A gorgeous song about fragility, the Hollywood Movie strings stretch out like the picture perfect life the narrator knows he can never have. Most Neil Young songs are about sounding as small as possible but this one takes a small song and makes it sound wonderfully big, the first two Nitzsche-Young masterpieces of arrangements on this list.  

5) The Hollies "Would You Believe?" (Butterfly, 1967)

The Hollies spent more time with orchestras than most bands did and worked with a whole range of arrangers over the years (including Manfredd Mann's Mike Vickers and 'Two Ronnies' arranger Alan Tew). For my money, though, the most sympathetic arranger for the band was classical composer and jazz quintet leader Johnny Scott. Whilst he worked with the Hollies into 1971 (five albums in total) 'Butterfly' is the greatest example of trying to fit an orchestra onto a rock and roll track. We've plumped with Allan Clarke's moody 'Would You Believe?' as our example - a marvellous turbulent arrangement full of drama and pathos as the narrator finally admits that he's in love and struggles to come to terms with why anyone as wonderful as his loved one would want to spend her life with him. However we could have gone with many other examples: from start to finish only The Beach Boys' 'Smile' rivals 'Butterfly' as a whole album where rock and rollers and classical musicians are working in tune with each other.

6) The Beatles "I Am The Walrus" (Magical Mystery Tour, 1967)

There's a wonderful mix of this song doing the rounds on Youtube with just the vocals and the strings (and the radioplay chatter at the end). Without the rock and roll elements 'I Am The Walrus' manages to sound twice as eerie and other-worldly, as Lennon's vitriol against every belief system that's ever held him back inspires George Martin's greatest single achievement on a Beatles record. Built around the nee-naw siren call that first inspired the song (when one went by Lennon's window when he was trying to write) to the suitably Lewis Carroll topsy-turvy ending. All together now: 'Oompah oompah, stick it up yer jumper!' Never has such a familiar sounding instrument sounded so creepy. In short, a masterpiece. 

7) The Monkees "Porpoise Song" (HEAD, 1968)

The 'Head' film needs something substantial for the opening credits: they do accompany the band symbolically 'drowning' after all, chased by a horde of people they've just upset. Thankfully Carole King was on top form that year and gave the band one of her best songs, although interestingly her piano demo is actually one of the most scaled-down she ever made (usually Carole King demos are more polished than finished records!) It's Jack Nitzsche - nominated for the job by the Buffalo Springfield - who added those stunning strings though, turning 'Porpoise Song' from a sweet hymn into an epic about life and death, with a few references to the film thrown in for free. Listen out for the 'single mix' if you can (not on the 1990s Rhino re-issue for some reason, but on both the 'handmade deluxe' version and both Monkees box sets) that include almost a full minute's worth of instrumental coda, where you can really hear the strings loud and clear. And yes, the scratching strings really do sound like porpoises!

8) Neil Young "The Old Laughing Lady" (Neil Young, 1968)

Ex-Phil Spector arranger Jack Nitzsche is back for a third time on this list with his glossy production for Neil Young's first album. One of Neil's loveliest songs, this song really benefits from the epic swirling arrangement that rightly takes centre stage, moving even Neil's lead vocal into the wings. The strings hardly play a note but waft in and out of the song like a knitting needle, keeping the falling-apart narrator just about together enough to get to the end of the song. Outstanding.

9) The Beach Boys "Cabinessence" (Smile, 1967/20/20 1969)

This song shouldn't exist. Many a textbook on classical music will tell you that you can't have a rock and roll waltz in 3/4 time, but Brian Wilson isn't built like most composers and wrote the definitive waltz anyway, a masterpiece in dramatic tension. 'Cabinessence' celebrates the American settlers and pioneers, living out of log cabins with the promise of adventure and never have their temporary home seemed so safe and cosy when set against the hard-hitting 'Who Ran The Iron Horse?' section of this song. Most Brian Wilson arrangements are something special but this one, with a spiralling ever-moving flurry of violins, is special indeed. No wonder Leonard Bernstein considered Brian the greatest composer who had ever lived.  

10) Simon and Garfunkel "The Boxer" (Bridge Over Troubled Water, 1969)

'The Boxer' is a great example of a song that builds up verse by verse. The strings don't actually come in until the rowdy middle section near the end of the song, but Jimmie Haskell and Ernie Freeman's pack a real punch when they do join in. By this time the boxer is weary and bloodied but still unbowed and nothing adds weight like Paul's exquisite string arrangement. The moment when the whole sound lifts, leaving just one acoustic guitar trailing off into the distance, is the perfect ending.

11) Lindisfarne "All Fall Down" (Dingly Dell, 1972)

'All Fall Down' is Alan Hull's chilling attack on town planners who never give a thought to the people who have to live in the towns they make and gleefully calls on the listener to 'tear them down'. The sudden shock appearance of a brass band, strings and (when the band played it on stage) Morris dancers near the end of the track is one of the highlights, as if celebrating tradition and how things used to be done properly in the 'good old days' (it's a very Ray Davies song this one!) Subtle, refined and dignified and yet somehow rather desperate and pleading sounding too, this fine arrangement was done by Lindisfarne drummer Ray Laidlaw's brother Paul.

12) The Kinks "Nobody Gives" (Preservation Act Two, 1974)

The Kinks didn't often use strings on their songs (the harpsichord is more their thing) but 'Nobody Gives' suggests that the run of impressive Kinks albums might have been even greater had they used more. This track comes two thirds of the way through Ray Davies' ambitious double-act rock opera about the evil Mr Black and the only slightly wicked Mr Flash and is sung by 'The Tramp', the closest Preservation-land has to a conscience. Shaking his head over how civilised people can turn on each other and fight so quickly, he gives us a history lesson on Hitler, unions and politics before deciding that the true problem is that 'nobody gives anymore!' Fittingly Stanley Mayers' arrangement sounds like a distillation of 20th century music - more frequently a TV and film composer including a 1964 edition of 'Dr Who'- before leaving the song hanging in mid-air.

13) The Hollies "Secondhand Hangups" (Another Night, 1975)

More Hollies magic with one of the best examples of a string arrangement on the list. The Hollies barely play on this track, in fact, their velvet harmonies floating over a symphonic landscape the equal of any in the classical world. The lyrics may be about a tiny slight the narrator's had - his girl simply hasn't called round to see him in a few days - but his imagination is left to run riot in the stunning arrangement, which gets more and more dramatic by the bar. 

14) Dennis Wilson "Time" (Pacific Ocean Blue, 1977)

Dennis Wilson's weary narrator is finally home after a drunken binge he can barely remember. Full of remorse and guilt, he realises that he's left it too late to say sorry and musically beats himself up about it. Sid Sharp's arrangement covers a lot of ground on this track, going from being hauntingly beautiful and reflectively mournful before becoming aggressive and jagged, like all hell has been let loose. 'Pacific Ocean Blues' is a remarkably emotional album - perhaps the most out of the whole AAA canon - and the strings play a big part in enabling Dennis to express what's on his heart and mind. 

15) Paul McCartney "Through Our Love" (Pipes Of Peace, 1983)

There are many great Paul McCartney arrangements - the French horn on 'For No One', the piccolo on 'Penny Lane', the 'everything' on 'A Day In The Life'. For my money, though, the best Macca-George Martin arrangement comes late on in the duo's partnership, from the penultimate album they ever made together. Simple but exotic, a huge orchestra makes this little song sound huge and fittingly makes the promise of spending a life together with your life partner sound like the greatest adventure in the universe. 

That's all for now (fade on strings) - be sure to join us next week for more news, views and music!
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