Tag Archives: instrumentals

82) The Tornadoes – “Telstar”

Mr. Acker Bilk may have been the first U.K. musician to top the Hot 100, but he didn’t quite launch the British Invasion.  His easy listening, clarinet-based instrumental “Stranger on the Shore” is miles away from the revitalized version of rock and roll that would be shipped back to America a year or two later.  But The Tornadoes’ surf-rock-in-space epic “Telstar” provided early evidence that there was something going on abroad more exciting than what passed for rock at home.  (It’s only fitting that the namesake satellite transmitted the first transatlantic television signals.)  “Telstar” is far too eccentric to be considered of a piece with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but it’s at least in the same musical universe, so to speak. 
Of course, the real story behind “Telstar” is not about session players The Tornadoes but about the producer, Joe Meek.  Meek was essentially the British counterpart of Phil Spector: a genius producer with a fascinating yet highly disturbed (and murderous) personal life.  Like Spector, he worked with girl groups but never quite achieved the former’s success with them. He instead made his mark with mostly anonymous bands and not-quite-top-drawer singers that wouldn’t divert attention from his vision.  In contrast with the organic, symphonic Wall of Sound, Meek built his soundscapes out of electronics and distortion.  His tastes would seem to run too weird to be embraced by the mainstream, yet he netted a few huge hits.  The greatest of these is “Telstar,” an instrumental that derives influence from Meek’s partially-released concept album I Hear a New World (subtitled “An Outer Space Music Fantasy”).  “Telstar” is the nexus between Moog- and Theramin-heavy space age lounge pop of the 1950s and astrally-themed psychedelic rock of the late ’60s, without being as kitschy as the former or as noodling as the latter.  Despite Meek’s liberal use of handmade sound effects and bizarre aural treatments, it’s easy to see how the record earned its number-one spot.  The melody of the track is strong enough to stand on its own, but Meek’s inventive production puts it over the top.  While the underpinnings may be drawn from the familiar, there have been few pop singles before or since that have so eagerly embraced the weird. 8

Hit #1 on December 22, 1962; total of 3 weeks at #1
82 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 8.40% through the Hot 100


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Filed under 08, 1962, 1963

73) David Rose – “The Stripper”

The David Rose LP featuring “The Stripper” is subtitled “And Other Fun Songs For The Family.”  Really.   Which is actually quite appropriate, as the instrumental has surely been used as shorthand for “sexy” in children’s cartoons at least as often as it has soundtracked actual stripteases.  Probably more so, as there’s very little erotic about the cheesy trombone wails; it’s the musical equivalent of Elmer Fudd swooning over Bugs Bunny in drag.  In fact, the pop cultural baggage associated with “The Stripper” is probably the heaviest of any of the records we have discussed as of yet.  It’s bizarre to think that this instrumental was only composed in the second half on the 20th Century – it just seems like one of those pieces of music that has always been there, lurking in the collective unconscious.  Indeed, it was an “accidental” hit, starting life as filler for a 1958 single and only achieving fame after being featured in the film version of Gypsy. Yet it was this throwaway, and not one of Rose’s more typically reserved compositions, that reached #1. Clearly, the success of “The Stripper” was due to the record’s perceived naughtiness, albeit a naughtiness as inoffensive and family-friendly as you’d expect from a 1962 number one.  (Not that current Top 40 singles are necessarily any sexier, despite being more explicit.)  The record’s one saving grace is the air of good humor that pervades throughout. So while “The Stripper” may not actually be very risqué, and the instrumentation may be overblown by half, the LP cover’s assertion that it’s a “fun song” seems, eh, fair enough. 4

Hit #1 on July 7, 1962; total of 1 week at #1
73 of 972 #1’s reviewed; 7.51% through the Hot 100


Filed under 04, 1962

71) Mr. Acker Bilk – “Stranger on the Shore”

“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


Filed under 06, 1962

45) Lawrence Welk – “Calcutta”

Poor Lawrence Welk.  His TV show, still a staple of public television 17 years after his death, is perhaps the epitome of the squarest segments of Midwestern culture.  Armed with an accordion and a flagrant disregard of cool, Welk and his preternaturally wholesome Musical Family waltzed through the old standards and novelty tunes that comprised his trademark “champagne music.”  So it only fits that his #1 hit, despite sharing its title with the name of a city in India, is as whitebread as can be.

So Welk is an easy target.  Still, there’s an endearing naffness to “Calcutta” that distinguishes it from similar chart toppers like “Theme From A Summer Place” and “Wonderland by Night.”  Is it the maracas, the accordion, the harpsichord, the perky multigender voices babbling “la la la”?  Maybe it’s the cloyingly catchy melody or the total absence of Eastern authenticity.  I vote for all of the above, including the miscellaneous corny touches like the “cha cha cha!” rhythm that caps off the song.  It’s more enjoyable than I’d expect anything attached to Welk’s name to be, but at the same time, it’s enjoyable in exactly the way you’d expect.  Whether that enjoyableness is sincere or ironic is in the ear of the listener. 5

Liner Notes

  • The discrepancy between the title “Calcutta” and the total non-Indianness of the music is allegedly because the song derives from a European melody whose title sounds similar to “Calcutta.”

Hit #1 on February 13, 1961; total of 2 weeks at #1
45 of 967 #1’s reviewed; 4.65% through the Hot 100


Filed under 05, 1961

43) Bert Kaempfert – “Wonderland by Night”

It’s interesting to have these occasional reminders that rock and roll didn’t kill the old easy listening tunes completely, that parents and grandparents still exerted enough financial influence to outbuy the teenagers every so often.  It’s hard to really rate “Wonderland by Night” because it is simultaneously so different from what I expect in a pop song and yet sounds so similar to a number of other elevator music tunes.  The false beginning promises a rambunctious start – those wailing horns, the arrested count off  (“One! … One! … One!”, or at least that’s what I think they’re saying) – before settling into mid-tempo blandness.  It’s very close to “Theme From A Summer Place“: they’re both pleasant enough while playing, but I can’t imagine anyone rushing out to buy them, especially in the numbers needed to fetch a spot at the top of the Hot 100 for three weeks.  Then again, I wasn’t an adult record buyer in 1960, so I’m clearly not the target audience.  But hey, at least it’s better than the other Kaempfert-composed song that’ll top the charts in 1961. 4

Hit #1 on January 9, 1961; total of 3 weeks at #1
43 of 965 #1’s reviewed; 4.46% through the Hot 100


Filed under 04, 1961

27) Percy Faith – “Theme From A Summer Place”

After a string of decreasingly compelling death songs, it’s nice to have a bit of pleasant elevator music to cleanse the palate.  I’ve never seen the movie A Summer Place, but the light orchestration leads me to believe that it’s not about an American Indian couple who get hit bit a train conducted by a gang of vengeful Texans.  Actually, the instrumental doesn’t really say anything at all, and not just because it’s missing lyrics.  I’ve seen at least two movies in the past couple of weeks that featured “Theme from A Summer Place,” where the song’s agreeable blandness contrasts comedically with a raucous toga party (National Lampoon’s Animal House) and a creep making grotesque advances on a young woman (Batman).  There’s nothing really to dislike about “Theme from A Summer Place,” but there’s nothing to really like about it either.  Even the musicians in the video above look anesthetized.  The single’s nine weeks at #1, still the longest run of an instrumental at the top of the charts, proves that you can never underestimate the mainstream’s appetite for the easily digestible. 5

Hit #1 on February 22, 1960; total of 9 weeks at #1
27 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 2.80% through the Hot 100


Filed under 05, 1960

19) Santo & Johnny – “Sleep Walk”

If the organ is my favorite musical instrument, as I wrote in the post on Dave “Baby” Cortez, then for a long time my least favorite was the steel guitar. The twangy, whiny sound was part of the reason, but mainly it just always seemed too obvious.  Sticking steel guitar into a song was shorthand for “tragedy” in country songs or for “country” in rock songs (and, I suppose, shorthand for “Hawaii,” but that doesn’t really come up as much).  Over the past few years, though, I’ve reclassified steel guitar into the category of “lethal when mishandled, but also has acceptable uses,” alongside saxophone and recorder.

“Sleep Walk” is one of those occasions where steel guitar works, perhaps because doesn’t fall victim to any of the cliches of the instrument.  It’s there to add a benignly eerie feeling, like seeing the familiar parts of your house turned unearthly through the gauze of insomnia.  The minimal drums and electric guitar are the still of the night, interrupted but not disturbed by the somnambulist weaving through the shadows.  The yearning melody line implies that this sleepwalker stirs from romantic longing, whether from temporary separation from a lover or from unrequited desire.  It was this combination of spectral atmospherics with earthly concerns, though not quite as poignant as the description may suggest, that enchanted teenagers well familiar with mooning over their crushes while the rest of the house slept. 6

Hit #1 on September 21, 1959; total of 2 weeks at #1
19 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 1.97% through the Hot 100


Filed under 06, 1959

13) Dave “Baby” Cortez – “The Happy Organ”

I only discovered yesterday that the version of “The Happy Organ” I had been listening to for this project was actually a 1960 rerecording.  The “Happy Organ” that hit #1 is the version above: tamer, more controlled, less exciting.  In the rerecording, Cortez attacks the tune with the abandon of Jerry Lee Lewis, his organ-playing garnished with a rip-roaring guitar solo.  The guitar in this version, however, is a little too strait-laced, too rock and roll by the numbers.  The tune’s not bad, but it’s a bit anticlimatic after the killer version I’d been used to hearing over the past few weeks.

Then again, Cortez’s tune is credited with introducing the organ – my favorite musical instrument – to rock and roll.  Without it, an integral part of the ’60s might be lost, especially in garage rock.  Would there be “Like a Rolling Stone”? “California Sun”? “Little Bit O’Soul”? “Chest Fever”? Billy Preston?* Well, if Cortez wasn’t the first, someone else would have been.  Still, “The Happy Organ” isn’t a bad start. 6 (for the original; 7 for the rerecording)

*Conspicuously absent from this list is perhaps the most famous organ riff in rock history – for obvious spoilerific reasons.

Hit #1 on May 11, 1959; total of 1 week at #1
13 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 1.35% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 06, 1959