Seen and Not Heard: Almost-Classic Instrumental Tracks

The lost classics and hidden gems of popular instrumental music

This is a post by associate editor Blake Madden

The year is 1999, and it’s only a few seconds old. With confetti in their hair and the promise of the future in their eyes, party-goers all around America celebrate to Kenny G’s version of “Auld Lang Syne”.

Kenny’s alto saxophone, which oozes out over layers of pre-processed schmaltz, is the perfect soundtrack to whatever channel is showing a continuous loop of a burning yule log. As the music plays, some have tears in their eyes, saying goodbye to a past that will never return.

With apologies to Don Maclean, this is the day the music died. Kenny G’s “Auld Lang Syne” will be the last instrumental song to come within smelling distance of the top twenty on the American pop charts.

Despite its current status as an endangered species, instrumental pop was once king, or at least could stand toe-to-toe with the rest of the blabbermouth majority. A look at the pop charts of 1960 reveals no less than 14 instrumental songs in the top 20, with the likes of Percy Faith’s “Theme From a Summer Place” and The Ventures’ “Walk, Don’t Run” peaking at #1 and #2 respectively. But by the 70s, the wordless honeymoon was winding down. That entire decade produced seven #1 instrumentals.

The 80s continued instrumental pop’s sad descent into obscurity as the decade produced just eleven Top 20 instrumentals, many of them covers or theme songs, with only Vangelis’ “Chariots of Fire Theme” and Jan Hammer’s “Miami Vice Theme” earning the top spot.

The only top 5 instrumental of the 90s came courtesy of U2’s  Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr., with their interpretation of the “Theme From Mission: Impossible”. Kenny G hit #10 twice, his last being “Auld Lang Syne”. When Kenny G is your last hope for anything, you’re cooked.

It seems unlikely that the music community forgot en masse how to write any compelling pop music without words, so what happened? Maybe our attention spans have gotten too short. Maybe we’ve been conditioned by reality TV and talking head news shows to think people always need to be saying something, even if what they say offers little substance.

Regardless of the reasons, the term “classic instrumental” probably hasn’t been used to describe any song written since 1985 and may never be again…

Except here! We here at TMimaS reject the notion that instrumental pop is dead and buried (maybe badly maimed at best) and have decided to present a list of classic instrumentals that never were – the hidden gems lost in the aether of public disinterest.

Ananda Shankar – Streets of Calcutta

The nephew of famed Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar, Ananda Shankar made it his life’s work to fuse Western pop and rock music with traditional Indian music, recording sitar-based covers of tunes like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and The Doors’ “Light My Fire”. Shankar’s success was thanks in no small part to the time he spent in Los Angeles in the late 60s, soaking up Western grooves while jamming with the likes of Jimi Hendrix.

In 1975, Shankar returned to India and recorded Ananda Shankar and His Music, a collection of jazz-funk grooves that blended Western instruments like electric guitars and Moog synths, with traditional Indian instruments such as the sitar, tablas, and mridangam. The standout track, “Streets of Calcutta”, earned a re-release on Blue Note Records’ 1996 rare groove compilation album, Blue Juice Vol. 1. If you can listen to it without a Bollywood party breaking out in your head, we can’t help you.

Beastie Boys – Ricky’s Theme 
Ricky’s Theme

Beginning with Check Your Head, the Beasties started sprinkling handfuls of pensive, jazz and funk-tinged instrumentals throughout their albums. The band consisted of MCA, Mike D, and AdRock on bass, drums, and guitar respectively, along with keyboard player Mark Ramos-Nishita (Money Mark), and percussionist Eric Bobo.

Nestled deep within their Ill Communication album, “Ricky’s Theme” stands out from so many of their other groove/ rhythm-centric pieces, due to Money Mark’s strong electric piano lead and the song’s melodic movement. Producer Mario Caldato, Jr. gives the recording the sound and feel of an after-hours church, and “Ricky’s Theme” stands like a song out of time, its influences more recognizable than its own place in musical history.

My Bloody Valentine – Touched

From the hall of oddities comes this quaint number from My Bloody Valentine’s  infamous landmark, Loveless. The album’s lone written contribution from drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig, “Touched” is a domestic dispute between two enraged orca whales, a soap opera shot on an infomercial sound stage, and a strangely beautiful piece of music that wraps up all under a minute’s time. Ó Cíosóig was beset by personal and physical problems during the making of Loveless, leaving him unable to contribute much to it (the majority of the drums on the album were actually samples of Ó Cíosóig programmed by lead guitarist Kevin Shields). “Touched” however, is reported to be entirely of his making, which also makes it the only music on the album performed by anyone but Shields.

Tortoise – Glass Museum

Along with Explosions in the Sky, Tortoise is one of the last true torch-bearers of instrumental rock and pop music.

Formed in Chicago in 1990, they’ve garnered both critical acclaim and a niche loyal fanbase without ever saying much (2006’s The Brave and the Bold, an album of covers featuring Bonnie “Prince” Billy, was their only foray into vocal music). Mixing elements of jazz, indie-rock, and electronic music, the band has formed a style that their own fans have trouble describing at times.

“Glass Museum” may be the best representation of  all of the typical Tortoisecharacteristics: multiples basses underneath shimmering vibraphones and naked, undertsated guitar, ghostly organs drenched in reverb pulsing in and out, touches of improvisation, and an inexplicable math-rock changeup towards the end that somehow resolves itself back to the main theme.

The Incredible Bongo Band – Apache

When is a band not a band? When is a hit not a hit? And what does a surf classic have to do with the roots of hip-hop? The answers to all of these questions can be found in The Incredible Bongo Band’s 1973 cover of the Jerry Lordan tune “Apache”.

The Incredible Bongo Band was not a band at all, but a revolving cast of Hollywood session musicians assembled by MGM music head Michael Viner. Their purpose: creating and covering funky instrumentals for B-grade sci-fi movies.

“Apache”, already made popular by groups like The Shadows, Jorgen Ingmann, and The Ventures, might have been low-hanging fruit, but the Bongo Rock LP  went nowhere commercially. The true champion of the Bongo Band’s “Apache” was Bronx DJ Kool Herc, who incorporated its long percussion-laden breakbeat section into some of the earliest live hip-hop mixes. Since then, “Apache” has been sampled countless times, leading Herc to call it the “national anthem of hip-hop”. Check out West Street Mob’s 1983 interpretation  in the form of their song “Break Dance Electric Boogie”.

Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet – Having An Average Weekend

Perhaps unsurprisingly, instrumental pop often finds its greatest success in film and television. Toronto trio Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet achieved moderate success with releases throughout the 80s and early 90s, including a 1992 Juno Award from the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for “Instrumental Artist of The Year”, but their lasting legacy will always be their main theme music for Canada’s loveably absurd sketch-comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall.

“Having an Average Weekend” introduced every episode of The Kids in the Hall from 1988 to 1995, with Shadowy Men’s music also bookending sketches and commercial breaks. They were often praised as one of the better modern surf bands, prompting them to record a song entitled “We’re Not a Fucking Surf Band”.

What are some of your favorite lesser-known instrumentals? Tell us about them by emailing [email protected].

Blake Madden is a musician and author who lives and works in Seattle, WA.

This entry was posted in Featured Stories, June 2012, Rants and Raves. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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