Alan Cross remembers when instrumentals still ruled the charts

Edgar Winter plays as part of a concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of Woodstock in Bethel, N.Y., on Aug. 16, 2019. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

I remember the exact moment I became fascinated with instrumental singles. As I got ready for school one morning in the early 1970s, Red Alix, the longtime morning host on CJOB/Winnipeg, came off the back of a wild-sounding new record by Billy Preston called Outa-Space. “Not sure what that’s all about,” he sniffed.

I immediately bought the 7-inch with my allowance money and played the thing to death on my portable Silvertone record player. It sounded nothing like I’d ever heard before with keyboards (a clavinet, I later learned), electric guitar, and a crazy groove often punctuated by the heaviest ride cymbal I’d ever heard. So much was conveyed without so much as a single word. Brilliant.

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Once I started looking, I realized that the Top 40 charts were very friendly to instrumentals. Another early purchase for me was Apollo 100’s Joy (1971), a modern rendition of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Man’s Desiring, the big hit of 1732. Bandleader Tom Parker sped it up, gave it a beat, and brought in guitar bits supplied by Vic Flick, the guy who put the twang in the James Bond theme.

Updates to classical compositions were quite the thing. In 973, Brazilian Eumir Deodato had a number three hit in Canada with his Fender Rhodes piano version of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra (1886). A few years later, Walter Murphy, now known as the composer of the themes for Family Guy and American Dad, scored by taking Beethoven’s Fifth and turning it into an early disco hit called A Fifth of Beethoven.

TV shows supplied many hit instrumentals. The theme from The Rockford Files by Mike Post in May 1975. The Theme from S.W.AT., released in November of the same year and credited to Rhythm Heritage but was actually the work of composer Barry De Vorzon. He’d have another massive hit with Cotton’s Theme (1973), better known as the title music for The Young and the Restless. When Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci captured the world’s attention at the Montreal Olympics, the piece was retitled Nadia’s Theme and became a top 10 hit in Canada and the U.S.

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For a while, it seemed like every second song on AM radio was an instrumental. When Star Wars hit in 1977, a group trading as Meco (actually American producer Domenico Monardo) reached the top of the Canadian charts with Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band. I was introduced to the smooth Philly sound of the mid-’70s through Love’s Theme (1973), written by Barry White and issued under the name Love Unlimited Orchestra. Then came TSOP (“The Sounds of Philadelphia) via MFSB in 1974.

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Things could get very light and fluffy (read: annoying), too. How many people were chased from Top 40 AM radio to FM by incessant plays of The Entertainer (1973, adopted from Scott Joplin’s ragtime original in 1904) from The Sting soundtrack? Or Franks Mills’ saccharine-sweet Music Box Dancer (1974)? And the less said about Chuck Maginone’s once ubiquitous flugelhorn hit, Feels So Good (1978), the better.

Rock stations also had their share of instrumental hits. The Edgar Winter Group had an unlikely AM and FM hit in 1972 with Frankenstein, which was loaded with synth, guitar and percussion fireworks. It wasn’t even supposed to be included on the They Only Come Out at Night album — Winter figured it was a B-side at best — and was only added when the label realized there was space. When Winter and his band were seen playing it on TV, he had a keyboard slung around his neck. What the heck was that?

Around the same time, Focus, a band from The Netherlands, released one of the weirdest instrumentals of the decade in Hocus Pocus, a six-minute-plus track that was broken into two parts for release on 7-inch. Has there ever been another rock song with this much yodelling? I remember calling it up on a jukebox when one of the town bullies wandered over and snottily asked “Who picked this crap?” I kept very silent but still enjoyed the rest of the track.

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Jeff Beck’s biggest AOR hit was probably the very tasty progressive jazz-influenced Freeway Jam from his 1975 album, Blow By Blow, Fire on High was a spooky 1976 track from ELO’s Face the Music album that came complete with a backward vocal warning (“The music is reversible, but time is not. Turn back! Turn back! Turn back! Turn back!”) Emerson Lake and Palmer’s version of Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man (1977) was an AOR staple and can still be heard during Olympic Games coverage. And how many people still crank Jessica by The Allman Brothers (1973) after he was adopted as the title theme for Top Gear?

Want more? The bouncing reverb-soaked bass of One of These Days from Pink Floyd (1971) with Nick Mason’s slowed-down vocal threat “One of these days, I’m going to cut you into little pieces” And starting with the 2112 album (1976), every Rush fan looked forward to some kind of insane instrumental from the band. Has anyone ever beaten La Villa Strangiato from 1978’s Hemispheres? Not to my ears. (Yes, the piece is subtitled An Exercise in Self-Indulgence, but we Rush fans didn’t see it that way).

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When the 1980s hit, the interest in instrumentals began to wane with only a few managing to find purchase with the general public. Most were movie and TV themes like Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire (1980). By the time we got to the ’90s, Top 40 radio was almost devoid of wordless hits.

If you’re motivated, here are some other suggestions for a words-free playlist:

  • James Brown, Funky Drummer (1970). Drummer Clyde Stubblefield was sampled a billion times and received nothing in terms of royalties.
  • Scotland’s Average White Band, Pick up the Pieces (1974) featuring the insanely tight Robbie McIntosh on drums.
  • Pigbag, Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag (1981), perhaps best-known as the theme for The New Music.
  • Herbie Hancock, Rockit (1984), complete with that weird robot video.
  • Harold Faltermeyer, Axel F from The Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack, which took its name from Eddie Murphy’s character, Axel Foley.
  • Jan Hammer, Theme from Miami Vice (1988)

The best thing about all these singles? You never have to bother learning the lyrics.

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music Podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play

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