Friday, August 15, 2014

The lost art of the pop instrumental

August 24, 1985 is not remembered as a significant date in history in particular, but to those who followed the Billboard Hot One Hundred chart, it marked the end of something that true music aficionados sorely miss. This date saw the last “instrumental” to top the Billboard pop chart—Jan Hammer’s theme to the television crime drama Miami Vice. Since 1990, only five instrumentals have reached the top-20—a sad reflection on respect for music generally.  

Now, I love music that actually utilizes the musical instrument as a conveyance of sound, and I am particularly disturbed by the lack of orchestration in today’s so-called “music.” Sure, in the past rock critics called string arrangements “syrupy” and “commercial,” but the truth is that strings were the principle instruments in classical music, and in popular music gave songs a certain emotional push, especially if the singer wasn’t particular good at conveying it him or herself. 

However, many rock, R&B and pop acts respected the music enough to compose the sub-genre known as the “instrumental” that didn’t always employ orchestration, but did place instrumental competence at the forefront. Of course, I’m no particular fan of the “big band” era, but it continued to influence the charts in the early 1960s, with no less than 58 instrumentals hitting the top-20, six of them chart-toppers, from 1960 to 1963. The fans of this music were clearly older people yearning for the music of their own youth, and it was a rare instrumental like The Tornadoes’ garage band opus “Telstar”—that even sounded like it was recorded in a garage—that made a significant impact on the new era of young rock-and-roll fans. 

With the advent of the Beatles and the British Invasion, instrumentals continued to chart throughout the Sixties but significantly less so, with only three reaching Number One on the Billboard Hot One Hundred (“Grazing in the Grass,” “Love is Blue” and Henry Mancini’s love theme from the film Romeo and Juliet) from 1964 to 1969. 
The Seventies, however, saw renewed interest in the instrumental. Although fewer total instrumentals charted in that decade than the previous one, more of them hit Number One on the Hot One Hundred—ten in total, although none spent more than two weeks at that position. One difference was that during the Seventies most of those tunes were original recordings written specifically for radio play. But things changed in the 1980s. Of the mere 11 instrumentals that made the top-20, six were either movie or television themes, while the Royal Philharmonic offered up a “Hooked on Classics” medley; only four were recorded by artists writing specifically for the pop-instrumental genre—and two of those were by Kenny G. 

The fact of the matter is that Herb Alpert’s 1979 hit “Rise”—which was one of the three Seventies’ instrumentals to peak at Number One for more than one week—was really the last true pop instrumental to top the charts. Vangelis’ theme to the film Chariots of Fire was obviously inspired by the Rocky theme by Bill Conti, which was also a number one hit, and Hammer’s Vice theme played well to the “cool” crowd with their slick outfits. 

Instrumentals were meant to showcase competence with musical instruments and an appreciation for classical forbears. It is thus not surprising that the genre is now “dead” in the “pop” music world, which to me is as clear an indication as any of the lack of either musical competence—or worse, lack of any appreciation of the value of instrumentation as way to cross generations. Today, it is not about the music, but about the “image” of the performer and their singing—when it isn’t helped by Auto Tune. I cringe at the thought that this is what “music” has come to today—and true music critics refuse to inform of this reality, preferring to justify their existence by referring to music as something that happened in the past.

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