Alex Ross’s recommendations of great examples where Pop meets the Classics (December 2010 post), triggered the editors of 200% to search for more pop songs that cross the border into Classical Music.
Here’s 200%’s playlist – 15 pop songs, in alphabetic order.
1. ABC - All of My Heart - Orchestration by Anne Dudley
Dudley composed all the string arrangements of ABC’s album ‘The Lexicon of Love’. Her string arrangements for ‘All of My Heart’ are Dudley’s finest hour on the album. For two minutes, at the end of the song, the strings command full attention as you hear epic, flowing, grandiose, romantic music reminiscent of Powell & Pressburger and Douglas Sirk movies, ending in an Hallmark moment that slowly flickers like a night candle.
As one of the founding members of Art of Noise Dudley composed a few instrumental tracks, for example, ‘Debut’ and ‘Promenade I & II’, which focus entirely on the strings and demonstrate her melodic sensibility.
2. Björk - Joga - Orchestrated by Eumir Deodato
Taken from the 1997 ‘Homogenic’ album and led by a string arrangement that carries you into a tune that builds up until it reaches an emotional, and experimental, explosion. The album is a seamless fusion of ‘chilly’ strings (courtesy of the Icelandic String Octet), stuttering, abstract beats, and unique touches that include accordion and glass harmonica: ‘Homogenic’ alternates between dark, uncompromising songs. ‘Joga’ contains a nostalgic string theme arranged by Björk and orchestrated by Deodato (of – amongst others – Kool & the Gang fame) that matches the nostalgia for Björk’s home country expressed in this tune.
3. David Bowie - Space Oddity - Arranged by Paul Buckmaster
A year after the release of Stanley Kubrick’s film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, the single was released – produced by Gus Dudgeon, who later became renowned as the producer of several Elton John albums, with arrangements done by Paul Buckmaster, who trained as a cellist. The song, about the launch of ‘Major Tom’, a fictional astronaut, coincided with the Apollo 11 moon landing, which was played at the BBC’s coverage of the landing, and became Bowie’s first hit in the UK.
Buckmaster’s arrangements contribute to the narrative of the song: first, the orchestra accentuates the tension of the launch moment; then, later similar to The Beatles ‘A Day in the Life’, the orchestra is used as a medium to convey chaos, which is used in ‘Space Oddity’ to express the space disaster that is happening to Bowie’s astronaut. At the end of the song the orchestra slowly fades away illustrating the image of a space ship vanishing anonymously in the universe.
4. John Cale - Paris 1919 - Arranged by John Cale
The title track to John Cale's 1973 album, ‘Paris 1919’, is a four minute masterpiece carried by a dynamic piano and strings arrangement – a wondrous backdrop for the lyrics that combine the best of Cale's own eccentricity and introspection with lines such as “She'd open up the door and vaguely carry us away” combining perfectly with the playful “You're a ghost” chorus. Musically, it is a step away from his Velvets past as this is an album on which all songs are written and arranged by Cale, performed by the U.C.L.A. Orchestra with J. Druckman as the Orchestral manager.
‘Pitchfork Media’ notes on the bonus tracks of the album: “The album's title track appears in two additional versions – a ‘string mix’ that features only Cale and a small chamber ensemble, and a ‘piano mix’ that includes a beautiful, overtly Brian Wilson-inspired vocal bridge.”
5. Lloyd Cole and the Commotions - Rattlesnakes - String arrangements by Anne Dudley
The strings on the entire album are ‘sort of’ out of tune. ‘Rattlesnakes’ is a college rock masterpiece of smart, ironic lyrics and sympathetic folk-rock-based melodies. Who needs strings on records like these? The trick, though, is that it works, and adds meaning to the lyrics, especially where the strings accentuate them. Listen to the arrangement from 1:27 minutes onward. The words “She reads …” are sung on layers of sentimental orchestration. The title track, for example, is based on a key image from Joan Didion's stark Hollywood novel ‘Play It as It Lays’, and its chorus compares the song's heroine to Eva Marie Saint's character in the film ‘On the Waterfront’.
6. Bryan Ferry - Smoke Gets In Your Eyes - Strings arranged by Ann Odell
The original version of ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ was a show tune of the 1933 operetta ‘Roberta’, written by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach. Mr Ferry’s cover of the song appeared on his solo album ‘Another Time, Another Place’, a title that can be taken as reference to the period for which he has a penchant; the highly stylish Hollywood glamour of the 1930s.
Mr Ferry’s version of ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ is a sophisticated and nostalgic ode to the period where the strings bring back melancholic memories of a sweet and romantic affair of the past.
Odell also composed the placid string arrangements of Japan’s ‘The Other Side of Life’.
7. Marvin Gaye - I Heard It Through The Grapevine - String section of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gordon Staples
Norman Whitfield produced four versions of the song, including versions by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and Gladys Knight & the Pips. The drama of the lyrics, which are about a man who hears through gossip that his relationship is beginning to break up, is expressed in Gaye’s version to the best effect by the strings that are moody and soulful, but also reminiscent of Bernard Hermann’s Hitchcock film scores with unnerving, unpredictable suspense and doom. The lament in Gaye’s voice – Whitfield challenged the singer to sing the lyrics in a higher key than that to which he was used to do – made this version of the song the biggest Motown hit single at the time. Starting from 1963, the string section of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the concert master Gordon Staples, provided the strings for the all Motown records throughout the 1960s.
8. Elton John - Madman Across the Water - Arranged and conducted by Paul Buckmaster
Paul Buckmaster is also renowned for the orchestral arrangements of several Elton John albums. The original version of the song (included on ‘Tumbleweed Connection’) with Mick Ronson on guitar didn’t feature any strings. In Buckmaster’s version, after 2.30 minutes, the strings erupt with spiky, aggressive and determined movements, reminiscent of the rage that can be found in some of Beethoven’s symphonies. In 1986, a dramatic, and compelling, live-version of the song was recorded with The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
9. The Knife - Tomorrow, In A Year - Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson
'Tomorrow, In A Year' is the title track off a concept album about Charles Darwin and evolution. The Knife led the project but collaborated with a variety of musicians on the compositions. The dense and complex record divided critics' opinion; it received a rare 10/10 review in ‘Drowned In Sound’ and was hailed as one of their top releases of 2010, while the more commercial ‘Q’ Magazine gave it a 4/10, labelling it unlistenable. This track, built on a tribal drum pattern, blends haunting operatic vocals with electronica, creating rich and multi-layered hypnotic rhythms.
10. Massive Attack - Unfinished Sympathy - Arranged and conducted by Wil Malone
Malone’s string arrangements created a lot of subcutaneous tensions in the song. Throughout the song, there is an ominous feeling where it creeps under the skin, but there is also a Mahleresque melancholy. The strings gradually become higher and higher in tone, building up to the climax akin to Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ – a piece that had a formative impact on Malone when he first heard it as an eleven year old.
11. Radiohead - Pyramid Song - Thom Yorke & Jonny Greenwood
Radiohead have the enviable knack of being able to tread the fine line between creating high art whilst still sounding melodic and accessible, which is aptly demonstrated by this piano-and-strings led track with its unusual timing. Amidst sparse piano chords, and swelling string arrangements, Thom Yorke muses over being accompanied by black eyed angels in rivers – referencing Dante's imaginary journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. The strings rise gently and then sway to and fro, and are then joined by trippy melodies played by Jonny Greenwood on an Ondes Martenot – an unusual Theremin-like device. The resulting effect produces a dreamy, yet gently hypnotic journey, drawing the listener into one of Radiohead’s finest moments.
12. The Rolling Stones - She's a Rainbow - John Paul Jones
'She's a Rainbow', featured on The Rolling Stones's ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’ from 1967, is a bold statement of confidence: it captures The Stones parading their musical swagger at the crest of the scene of the period. Never before, or since, did The Stones take so many chances in the studio, possibly following the psychedelic lead of The Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Peppers' released earlier in the same year. John Paul Jones (a session musician before joining Led Zeppelin) arranges the strings in a skittish and playful way that boldly complements Nicky Hopkins impeccable music-box arpeggios piano playing. The composition reverberates with joy, and captures the sentiment of the forthcoming, and ultimately doomed, “Summer of Love” perfectly.
13. The Temptations - Papa Was A Rollin' Stone - Norman Whitfield
‘Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone' was composed by Norman Whitfield, with lyrics by Barrett Strong – a formidable team responsible for an array of Motown hits. Eight versions of the track were released, lasting between 3 minutes 45 seconds to over 15 minutes. The lavish orchestration borrows from Ravel and Tchaikovsky and sits perfectly on the most unrelenting of bass lines. The tune is a pillar of cultural significance in African-American and pop music culture.
14. The Verve - Bitter Sweet Symphony - Arranged and conducted by Wil Malone
The simple and memorable string riff possesses anthem-like glory. The strings have a pulsating effect in the video, which is an homage to the video ‘Unfinished Sympathy'.
15 Scott Walker - It's Raining Today - Accompaniment directed by Wally Stott
The album contains ten originals by the artist and three covers. The album is criticized because it's too difficult to penetrate Walker’s insights through Wally Stott’s string-drenched production. It shrouds the lyrics in a fog that's often too syrupy (according to critics). The song opens with a sparse string arrangement, or is it a hissing noise accompanying a guitar stroke, that builds up dramatically towards the second part, where the glacial grace explodes and becomes a romantic reverie of descent. It’s a majestic opener to a melodramatic album that closes with Jacques Brel’s ‘Ne me quitte pas’.
This Playlist has been compiled by Marcel Harlaar, Louis Warner and Thierry Somers.
Picture: ABC 'All of My Heart' (single)
If you have a suggestion for a song to add to our Playlist “Pop meets the Classics”, including the reason why, please let us know.
Upcoming post: interviews with the string arrangers Wil Malone (Massive Attack “Unfinished Sympathy”, The Verve “Bittersweet Symphony”) and Anne Dudley (ABC “All of My Heart, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions “Rattlesnakes”) who will explain how the string arrangements of these songs originated.