Well, not actually three songs in this case but rather a trio of instrumentals which made it to the peak or near peak of the UK hit parade in that curious lull between 50s rock ‘n’ roll and the Merseybeat invasion, a window during which instrumentals flourished in the charts.
The three I have chosen, although very obvious candidates, are key pointers of fundamental cultural change. Perhaps instrumentals, being that much more removed from the pop song mainstream’s blatantly adolescent concerns, were sometimes better placed to pinpoint this. The cultural changes embodied here were only just stirring but in time they would sweep away much of the old world of deference and hierarchy.
I’m writing about these three singles in chronological order because each one advances the cause, moving away from a yawning, consensual togetherness and towards a new, dynamic, technocratic modernism.
Stranger on the Shore
Performed by Mr. Acker Bilk (clarinet) with the Leon Young String Chorale
Written by Acker Bilk
Columbia A-Side, October 1961
I posted at length on Stranger on the Shore and its particular evocations back in November, soon after Acker Bilk died.
I cannot think of many more hit instrumentals for which the description ‘pleasant’ applies so strongly. Stranger on the Shore’s huge success – a US No. 1 and UK No. 2, the biggest selling single of 1962 and incredibly the biggest selling instrumental single of all time – must be due to more than the easy appeal of a hummable tune.
Much of its retrospective resonance, I think, comes from its positioning in that pre-Beatles period which almost required an inoffensively enjoyable, easy listening piece for families to gather around one last time. An instrumental carries no words to object to, no anchoring in teen angst to alienate older listeners. The melody is played on a clarinet, an instrument which carries absolutely no connotations of rebelliousness or subversion.
Stranger on the Shore could equally well have been a hit a year or two earlier. But if released even two years later, it would surely have been trampled amidst the clamour for the new, the exciting and the overtly youthful.
Curiously, just as the new youth culture advocated a kind of classlessness, Stranger is itself curiously classless not by declaim but by default. Look for any of the faultlines which defined 60s cultural change – faultlines of age, class, ideological allegiance – and you will find not so much as a crack. Stranger on the Shore is an evenly sliced teatime cake of one nation togetherness soon to be seized by eager young hands.
It’s the curious melancholy beneath the milkman hummability which makes Stranger on the Shore so poignant, as if it is aware of its own fate. Nothing better evokes for me the sleepiness of a 1961 suburban English Sunday afternoon.
Performed by The Shadows
Written by Jerry Lordan
Columbia A-Side, February 1962
Apache, Man of Mystery, The Frightened City, Kon-Tiki , The Savage – even the titles of The Shadows’ 1960/61 hits evoke exotica and male, western heroism tinged with melancholy.
Wonderful Land, a UK No 1 written by Jerry Lordan, who also wrote Apache and several other Shadows instrumentals, maintains this quality and adds a widescreen feel, as if riding out into an optimistic future of freedoms barely dreamed of, a new egalitarianism which would have been inconceivable a generation ago – a ‘Wonderful Land’ indeed. The crisp modernism of the piece captures the spirit of the early 60s before the proto-metal guitar riff of You Really Got Me (and all in its wake) offered a much rawer, more aggressively rebellious take on freedom.
With its lovely melody, sparkling precision playing and Norrie Paramor’s just-right application of upturned strings and horns, Wonderful Land is, for me, the strongest of The Shadows hit singles (my favourite non hit single of theirs would have to be 1967’s twisty-turny Tomorrow’s Cancelled).
‘Wonderful Land’ was originally recorded by Bert Weedon – has anyone heard his version? – but Lordan didn’t like it. Just as well, perhaps. It suits The Shadows – and 1962 – to perfection.
Performed by The Tornados
Written & Produced by Joe Meek
Parlophone A-Side, August 1962
Even today, The Tornados’ ‘Telstar’ maintains an almost mythological mystique both in its otherworldly sound and in the circumstances of its creation, despite those circumstances having become well known: named after the communications satellite launched into orbit in July 1962, Telstar was produced by Joe Meek in his cramped home studio flat above a shop on north London’s Holloway Road.
If Stranger on the Shore was the snoozing contentment of the ‘old’ world and Wonderful Land a glimpse of the new, Telstar is the very essence of futurism itself – affluence, leisure, freedom, offering a specifically home produced brand of modernity which couldn’t be further from 80s clinical sleekness. The whole piece sounds as if it is the product of some kind of retro-futurist machine, a space age Wurlitzer spinning into view, dazzling onlookers and then disappearing into a starry sky.
For a composition which celebrates the untold benefits of technology, Telstar is also imbued with a childlike quality and it is this sense of wonder which gives the record much of its enchanting power. That nasal clavioline sound – primitive yet bright – recalls wide-eyed children enthralled to the anticipation of fairground rides, only here the children are all of us, yes, the wonderstruck vocalists who join in with their consenting “aahs!” on the final verse. There is nothing sinister or cynical on offer here – the awe inspired are not duped by commercial forces nor pawns in statist plans but rather willing participants in a shared mass experiment in democratisation and, above all, in progress and a belief in progress. The dreams spun by Telstar are their own, or our own, if we would allow them to be.
It is hard to think of a record which is more resolutely forward looking. Telstar turns away from Harold Macmillan and towards Harold Wilson, almost like a pop premonition of his 1964 ‘white heat of technology’ speech. Famously, and incongruously, it was also one of Margaret Thatcher’s choices on Desert Island Discs.
Britain may not have participated directly in the 60s space race but Telstar – along with the equally eccentric, boffinish Doctor Who which began the following year – were perhaps our contributions. Telstar was English, spectral space age music, otherworldly then, irretrievably so now.
Kenny Hollywood produced a vocal version which inevitably lacks the magic of the instrumental original transforming it into a conventional starry-eyed romance.
Telstar – a UK and US Number 1 and England’s spliced-up, hand held, analogue space age miracle.