“Stranger on the Shore” might be otherwise forgotten, at least on this side of the Atlantic, were it not for a minor bit of trivia: the record was the first by a British artist to top the Hot 100. But if the honorific in Mr. Acker Bilk’s name didn’t tip you off, this record doesn’t quite signify the launch of the British Invasion. A clarinet-led instrumental recorded for a BBC television serial is about as far from rock and roll as one can get, at least on this side of Lawrence Welk. It is, however, in keeping with the Hot 100’s anything-goes crapshoot of the early ‘60s, before the chart became dominated almost exclusively by whichever records teenagers were buying at the time. (It wasn’t just 16-year-olds who gave Percy Faith nine weeks at number one.) The raw, vibrant first wave of rock and roll that had emerged in the ‘50s was losing its footing, and it was far from a given that rock would rule the pop charts for the next several decades. Just a few months earlier, Decca Records had rejected The Beatles, notoriously stating that “guitar groups are on the way out.” In retrospect, it’s easy to mock the label’s short-sightedness. But given the state of the British and American charts, the decision was an informed one. And after all, a successful invasion requires an element of surprise.
What separates “Stranger on the Shore” from most of the other easy listening fodder we’ve explored so far is that it works as a personal statement. Regardless of whether or not you like “Theme from A Summer Place,” its bombast and glossy sheen mark it as a piece of film score for a major Hollywood motion picture. “Stranger on the Shore,” on the other hand, started life as a melody composed independently by Bilk. Originally named “Jenny” for his daughter, it only later ended up as the theme for the namesake TV program. And unlike the previous instrumental chart-toppers, recorded by orchestras numbering in the dozens of instruments, “Stranger on the Shore” is essentially a solo showcase for Bilk’s expressive clarinet. There are also some light strings serving as counterpoint, but they are far more restrained than what you’d hear on comparable recordings of the era. This limited palette of instruments allows the composition to breathe, and lends the record a convincing air of loneliness. A more complex arrangement would have undermined the emotional truth of being the title stranger, uncertain of one’s place in the new land and wistful for home.
The relative simplicity of “Stranger on the Shore” also makes it sound more modern than the other orchestral instrumentals that have turned up so far at number one, which in turn makes it easier for me to relate to it as a music listener definitely not of that era. While it’s not a revolutionary record (unlike 1962’s other chart-topping British instrumental – more on that later), it’s one of the few easy listening singles we’ve covered that I actually find easy to listen to. 6
Hit #1 on May 26, 1962; total of 1 week at #1
71 of 971 #1’s reviewed; 7.31% through the Hot 100