“I realized a long time ago that instrumental music speaks a lot more clearly than English, Spanish, Yiddish, Swahili, any other language. Pure melody goes outside time.”
Whether a philharmonic symphony in a concert hall, or the street musician on a cold slab of concrete playing “real good for free,” instrumental music has connected humanity long before we learned to develop a lexicon known as language. Perhaps if we had stayed back in that place some ten-thousand years ago, Planet Earth would be just fine today. Words create misunderstandings, these lead to disagreements, catapulting us to the perilous position we are in with nature as well as all number of global conflicts, violent or otherwise. However, songs with lyrics have equally rallied people into tight-knit communities from African slave songs to “We Shall Overcome.”
In this entry I pose the question: Is it “easier” to be affected by sonic vibrations assembled together by forming melody, meter, rhythm and most importantly evoking emotion without uttering a single word? Imagine a sweeping film score, say John Barry’s Dances with Wolves, or the haunting Moonlight Sonata from Beethoven.
By design, words require processing, comprehending meaning, perceiving figures of speech, even reading between the lines. If we agree with Santana, this prevents us from going “outside time.” (You can interpret what he might have meant with such an enigmatic declaration.) Essentially, lyrics can be limiting, whereas wordless compositions have no such barriers.
Yet, as in most every topic I tackle here, there isn’t an either / or; there just is.
One hazy remembrance: As a teenager, a novice at the piano, self-taught, I used to vamp, pound, jam, and chip the ivory. I dare say that old Ahlstrom full upright made sounds, though should Reginald Dwight (aka Sir Elton) have magically appeared in a boa and shimmering rose-rimmed glasses, he would have “let the sun go down on me” to offset the aural assault on his perfect ears.
Eventually, my music was audible, and even published.
But, Leonard Bernstein, Claude Debussy, Howard Shore – now that’s where the bread gets buttered.
Just to be clear:
The ensuing list of songs are from the 1970s and have no lyrics whatsoever, i.e. not even a chanted phrase, title, or woo-woos or la-las. To illustrate, one example that should be A-rated is Average White Band’s “Pick Up the Pieces” (1974) which is mainly instrumental – except for the chorus where the title is sung repeatedly. Also disqualified are film, theater or TV themes or songs as they typically are instrumental and are not typically “pop songs.” As much as the unprecedented “Shaft” (1971) turned film production sound values on its head, I must leave these to their own category – and, perhaps for another entry.
I hope you enjoy these as much as I did making the picks . . .
“Europa (Earth’s Cry Heaven’s Smile)” (Carlos Santana, Amigos, 1976)
Some claim the master musician stole this piece from a Chilean group. No matter what may have occurred, let’s write this off as collective unconscious. Remember there are only 12 notes in a key; you can only do so much. Regardless, this ear candy featuring Santana’s other-worldly phrasing and dynamics topped the Spanish singles charts in July of the year of its release.
“F.U.B.B.” (Wishbone Ash, There’s the Rub, 1974)
When did an album cover cause this much stir in the ‘70s? Oh, nearly every other release. The “rub,” easily misinterpreted by hormonally-ravaged teens, was actually a reference to cricket players. That rather phallic object is a ball being rubbed against the pants, a tactic used by cricketers to gain an advantage against the batter. Put on your headphones, spin the vinyl, and crank it! You won’t hear polite British teacups being clinked with three sugars. I can’t describe what this song “arouses” in listeners, but I witnessed it then! When this was played at a party, things got way gnarly.
“Midnight Lady” (Lee Ritenour, Feel the Night, 1979)
Tough choice between this and Jean Luc-Ponty’s “Aurora.” Therefore, honorable mention to the French jazz violinist whose mastery inspired me across the latter half of the decade and helped me through my difficult second year of college. Ritenour’s romantic picking elicits yearning, desire, urgency. Ernie Watts’ ethereal sax part lifts to the stratosphere. I cannot listen to this song enough. It gets me every time.
“Frankenstein” (The Edgar Winter Group, They Only Come Out at Night, 1973)
A number one smash hit for an instrumental; not easy to do. Produced my musician Rick Derringer, in May of 1973 it held the top Billboard singles spot until a week later when some guy named McCartney wrested it away with a song with lyrics titled “My Love.” Once again, a perfect disorienting lead change and par for the course in the decade of diverse. Ronnie Montrose’s guitar work is the lumbering beat of a monster, as Winter plays keyboards, sax and timbales. “Look! It’s moving. It’s alive. It’s alive . . . It’s alive, it’s moving, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, It’s alive!”
“Breezin’” (George Benson, Breezin’, 1976)
I believe I was driving and was tempted to pull over because my feet were tapping considerably to Benson’s hypnotic rhythmic beat. This was a roll-down-window, Pacific Coast Highway, lose myself in the groove Whoa! Kind of moment. As the Starland Vocal Band (“Afternoon Delight”) and other cacophony began infiltrating the airwaves like the Body Snatchers from their pea pods, a dear friend began introducing me to artists who fused funk, soul, jazz, and even the Father of Rap Gil Scott-Heron. For me, she played the first few measures of “Aurora” (mentioned above), and spun Pat Metheny Group, Romantic Warrior, Jeff Beck, The Crusaders, and Larry Carlton. The car was slowly turning into an entirely different lane.
“Earthrise” (Camel, Mirage, 1974)
In the Prog-Rock realm, one of my favorite lesser-known bands was Camel. A special person in my life turned me on to them in 1975 (along with Dan Fogelberg, for which I will always be grateful). From England, with cool lead singer and flute player extraordinaire Andrew Latimer, the mates reached success across the pond here in the states with their 1974 release Mirage. In an era of crank up the stereo and blast the JBL speakers to listen to Dark Side of the Moon, Camel discovered their own niche with an album filled with dreamy lyrical pieces and this standout instrumental.
“Love’s Theme” (Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra, Rhapsody in White, 1973)
Not even close. When a Barry White record was on the turntable, hold onto your belt. No performer was more responsible for pregnancies during the early to mid-1970s. This wonderful man exuded love, which poured into his music, as if with an unlimited supply. In a piece about no words, I have, no words. Number One on the charts. (Okay, four words.)
“Freeway Jam” (Jeff Beck, Blow by Blow, 1975)
Talk about getting blown away! I have a faint image of being at some friend’s pad, this memorable watercolor-like cover, and the unabashed fusion of styles as if Beck was laying down the gauntlet: Tired of singer-songwriters and arena rock? Feeling a bit nauseated when “Feelings” by Morris Albert plays? Are you fearing that Donna Summer and her neophytes are not a phase but about to become the cultural thing? Well, here’s my middle finger, and while I’m at, the rest of my fingers doing an interpretation of hell on the LA freeways. James Taylor sang about “damn this traffic jam”; written by Beck’s keyboardist Max Middleton, the guitarist rams his semi through the median and explodes in a fireball of large proportions.
“Funeral for a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding” (Elton John, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, 1973)
Elton John and Bernie Taupin changed music forever. The creative forces at work when they collaborated rivaled Lennon & McCartney’s earliest days. By the time Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973) was released, EJ had his first #1 hit with “Crocodile Rock” and he and BT may have been on to something with the concept of nostalgia. At first not intended to be a double album, Elton and Bernie cranked it out in under three weeks, recording it at Chateau d’Herouville, the castle in France where Honky Chateau and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player were recorded. The opening ARP synth sequence was actually played by engineer David Hentschel who did many overdubs to create the rich, layered sound. Elton commented that he wrote the song as if it would be his own funeral music. With its second part “Funeral for a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding” featuring Bernie’s lyrics, the entire song clocks in around 11 minutes, but FM stations played it anyway. And what’s even cooler is they were written as separate songs but since “Funeral” ended in A and “Love” began in A, they decided to make it one piece.
“Jessica” (The Allman Brothers Band, Brothers and Sisters, 1973)
Written by guitarist Dickey Betts and named for his daughter, this tune like all of the above has a jingle jangly, ivory-rippling, guitar-doubling story to tell, yet it has a character I cannot describe, therefore, that unnamed thing is my reasoning for selecting “Jessica” ahead of nine other unforgettable songs. You can feel a story being told through the music. She’s racing around the house. Oops, she just knocked over a chair. Wait! There she goes out the screen door! Can anyone say Tasmanian Devil? Now, in an open field of golden summer grass, dress and hair flowing in the straw wind, she catches her breath. A final gotcha, then they half-run, half-walk back to the porch, collapse into their rocking chairs, and watch the sky for birds and clouds.
Like most artforms, the instrumental in popular music has morphed into trance, house, club, electronica, DJ, and even a one-night reopening of Studio 54. Yes, I did just write that.
As we have done, and as all species do, we adapt, whether we invite the change or not is entirely an individual decision. But change comes, and will always uproot what is beloved, until, at this rate of societal and technological entropy looming large, I may find myself ruing for the 1980s. Reagan. Mullets and big hair. Shoulder pads. The Cosby Show before we knew. Miami Vice and men wearing pink? Drum machines. SALT, START, and Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Oh, someone just please cue Spandau Ballet.
It’s worthwhile to point out that every song with lyrics written usually begins with a musical riff, or motif, whether a guitar lick, a piano phrase, or a blast from a tuba; that unknowable spark that makes us especially stupid to be stupid when we’re so extraordinary beings from the sounds we compose. Just watch a clip from this scene from Amadeus, the Best Film of 1984.
Returning and concluding with the earlier rhetorical question, I will make a differentiation between the two. Stevie Nicks (reference in Gold Dust Woman by Stephen Davis) has written hundreds of her songs where first they emanated from her many journals and notebooks. Thoughts drove the song’s emergence, with the music following. Thousands of musicians work this way and have become either very wealthy, they sustain themselves, or they’re just plain happy doing what they love.
The proverbial limb calls me and out I climb. When the last cows come home, music rules the mixed-metaphor roost. Words without music is poetry. No harm done, just don’t call it a song or composition. Music without words is a song or composition. Logical. Instrumentals allow us to access our hyperactive, overthinking, always plotting and planning brains and pull the disconnect switch, inviting into our open spaces the opportunities to feel on the deepest possible levels.
Lyrics with music can also cut deep. As a musician and songwriter, I must concede that. As a writer, on this date, taking a historical and cultural worldview, music, without language has the opportunity to save us. Santana recognizes this.
Time to go outside time.
Haven’t we been in this time long enough?