Friday, 8 November 2013

I love early 1960s British pop instrumentals – the musical equivalent of beans on toast

I remember my wife once asking me “Do you really like this sort of music?” in a bemused, pitying sort of way after being subjected to half an hour of pre-Beatles guitar-based British instrumental pop on the car stereo. My first thought was: Girls, what do they know about pop music! But it did set me wondering what exactly I find so appealing about what – by any standards – isn’t exactly demanding fare (to anyone not brought up on it, I suspect it might sound faintly ridiculous).

I suppose it’s the same thing I find appealing about fish fingers and mayonnaise on toast or baked beans and bacon covered in extra salt and lashing of tomato ketchup (also on heavily-buttered toast, obviously). Comfort food – and comfort music: maybe I should try eating those dishes while listening to the platters I’m about to share with you.

Okay, perhaps I’m culturally retarded, but it’s not as if I’ve ever suffered from the delusion that Brid's Eye 100% fish fillets - coated in their unique delicious crumb coating - represent haute cuisine or that Nero and the Gladiators were worthy successors to Tippett and Walton. The food and the music make absolutely no demands on me, and, more importantly, they cheer me up: there’s no judgment involved, just sheer, silly, transitory, mindless enjoyment – this is craft, not art.

Pre-Shadows British rock ‘n’ roll instrumentals were almost entirely rubbish (if you don’t believe me, take a listen to The Piltdown Men’s “McDonald’s Cave” or “Hoots Mon!” by Lord Rockingham’s XI, both of which were hits). The problem was British bands didn’t have access to the same guitars (i.e. those made by Fender, Gibson and Gretsch); the same recording techniques (UK studios produced a very clean, "correct" sound - distortion was forbidden); the same access to all the new stuff being pumped out on American radio – here there was only Radio Luxembourg and the occasional pop number on Two-Way Family Favourites; or the chance to learn from fellow musicians steeped in the American rock 'n' roll and rhythm 'n' blues  styles. Despite that, the three years between the release of "Apache" and the emergence of The Stones and The Beatles yielded some terrific singles.

Here, in no particular order, are ten of my favourites, starting with the Shadows' bass-player, Jet Harris, out-Duane Eddying Duane Eddy on his version of "Besame Mucho" in 1962:

Billy J. Kramer's backing group, The Dakotas, released "The Cruel Sea" in 1963 - The Ventures paid them the compliment of covering it in the US:

The John Barry Seven recorded some great numbers - 1961's "Iron Horse", which demonstrated the air of light-hearted menace that typified the sound of early '60s British pop instrumentals, was one of the best:

I was never that keen on The Tornados' "Telstar" - far too cheerful: I preferred the B-side, "Jungle Fever":

Jet Harris teamed up with former Shadows drummer, Tony Meehan to produce the wonderful "Diamonds", which deservedly topped the charts for six weeks in 1963:

Bristol band, The Cougars, plundered Swan Lake for their one modest hit - 1963's ridiculous but lovable "Saturday Night at the Duck-Pond":

Cheshunt band, The Hunters, released the charming, Shadows-like "The Storm" in 1962 (there's a guitar break about 90 seconds in which reminds me of "Sultans of Swing"):

I know nothing about The Packabeats, apart from the fact that, like The Tornados, they were produced by Joe Meek. Their best side was probably the B-side, "Theme from 'The Traitors'", but I've always had a soft spot for the incredibly basic "Gypsy Beat":

John Barry again (and his guitarist, Vic Flick), with the moody chugger, "Zapata" (1960):

Obviously, I have to end with The Shads - my favourite is probably "FBI"  - but a near-second is the strangely moving "Wonderful Land":

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