Instrumental hits were everywhere in the first decade of the rock and roll era in the USA and subsequently in the UK and Australia in the period 1955 – 1965. The charts back then were often a curious mixture of non-vocal records inspired by movies and musical stage shows, rock and roll, jazz, country music, easy listening MOR music, surf rock, novelty themes, and TV show themes, the fascination for instrumental hits would persist well into the 1970’s and beyond but they had become less popular by the 1990’s.
The advent of technological change hastened the rise of instrumental hits as innovative sounds, captured by the more adventurous performers and producers, generated a stream of global hits that dominated the charts and created the first wave of guitar heroes which included Duane Eddy (pictured above), Hank Marvin, Link Wray and Dick Dale. The most significant changes included the widespread availability of stereo records and the improved sound reproduction and amplifier systems available to both musicians as well as the record consumer. The advent of more sophisticated use of echo, vibrato and reverb effects on guitars and electronic organs were also pivotal and were further augmented by the introduction of such special effects technology as the clavioline (Telstar) and the theremin (Good Vibrations). Later, psychedelic feedback and distortion techniques would characterise the rise of R&B instrumental music in the 1960’s, when British bluesmen including Eric Clapton, Peter Green, John Mayall, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Peter Townshend and others emerged in the wake of Beatlemania.
From the mid-1950’s to early 60’s the Australia charts reflected the hits and trends of the USA – pianists like Joe “Fingers” Carr (Portuguese Washerwomen), Al Hibbler (He), Floyd Cramer (Last Date), and Les Baxter (The Poor People of Paris) trotted out their competent but bland MOR recordings to compete with the equally inconsequential themes from such movies as Picnic, Davy Crockett, The Student Prince, The Threepenny Opera, Tammy, Hatari, and A Summer Place.
A raft of hits from the big Four Bs’ of jazz – Dave Brubeck (Take Five), Chis Barber (Petite Fleur), Kenny Ball (Midnight in Moscow) and Acker Bilk (pictured below), (Stranger on the Shore), provided more interesting instrumental options, but it would take the first rock and roll instrumental hits of 1958 and 1959 to really kick the genre into gear.
1958 saw Duane Eddy emerge with Rebel Rouser, and Link Wray and the Ray Men with the ominous fuzz-tone sounds of The Rumble, quickly followed a year later by Santo and Johnny’s gently rocking, if rather somnolent, Sleepwalk, the percussion epics of Sandy Nelson’s Teen Beat and Preston Epps Bongo Rock, and the driving electronic organ of Red River Rock by Ohio’s Johnny and the Hurricanes in 1959, some four years after Bill Halley released Rock Around The Clock in 1955 – the golden age of rock instrumentals had begun.
In the UK The Shadows had perfected their precise style of reverb and echo-inflected Fender Stratocaster guitar technique, to take Apache, Wonderful Land, and Kon Tiki to the top of the UK charts, and the Ventures did likewise in the US with the classic riffs of Walk Don’t Run,.
But it would be the electronic organ that would place a new and dynamic tool in the hands of performers, particularly when allied with such new technology as the clavioline, it inspired some remarkable hits, the biggest of these was the Joe Meek-produced Telstar by the Tornados, the first British-produced record to reach #1 in the US and sell five million copies globally.
The mysterious and manic Joe Meek (pictured above), UK’s answer to Phil Spector, had warped and twisted the chords of his masterpiece of space-age pop around the actual sounds of the radio-communications satellite that gave the song its name, the record was a revelation, and said to be Margaret Thatcher’s favourite song.
The early sixties in Australia saw the rise of our most successful instrumentalist Rob EG (Robie Porter), who would take four records into the charts between 1962-63 – Si Senor, Jezebel, 5-4-3-2-1 Zero, and 55 Days At Peking, and was quickly followed by others who were keen to emulate the success of the international acts .Local rock bands who had regularly backed solo performers began to emerge from the rear of the stage to prominence as they successfully covered overseas hits or wrote their own original songs, these bands included The Joy Boys, the Thunderbirds, the Denvermen, the Chessmen, the Strangers, the Phantoms, and the Atlantics.
The popularity of instrumentals was unprecedented at this time, in 1962 there were no less than six instrumental hits in the top twenty best-selling records of that year in Australia – mariachi-inspired trumpet-driven jazz – The Lonely Bull (Tijuana Brass ft Herp Alpert), languid jazzy clarinet – Stranger on the Shore (Acker Bilk), Joe Meek’s space-age pop – Telstar (the Tornados), Dixieland jazz – Midnight in Moscow (Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen), beguiling piano pop – Alley Cat (Bent Fabric), and pounding percussion – Let There Be Drums (Sandy Nelson), indicating the broad spectrum of genres embraced by instrumental hits at the time.
Surf rock would also produce classic hits of that genre, the Chantays echo-inflected Pipeline, the Surfaris Wipeout, the machine-gun riffs of Bombora by the Atlantics, and the exotic fusion of Middle eastern sounds with full throttle surf rock by Dick Dale and the Dell-Tones with Misirlou
The British Invasion relegated instrumentals to the lower reaches of the charts but Fleetwood Mac would take their LSD-inspired instrumental Albatross to claim their first UK #1 in 1969, Mason Williams guitar wizardry drove Classical Gas up the charts, and Paul Mauriat delivered high class schmaltz with Love is Blue in 1967. The T-Bones would even take an Alka -Seltzer advertising jingle and turn it into the instrumental hit No Matter what Shape (Your Stomach’s In), and the Ventures cashed in on the popularity of the TV cop series Hawaii 5-0 in 1969 with their hit version of the show’s theme music, and in the same year the Memphis soul of Booker T and the MGs was exemplified by their hit Time is Tight.
In the 1970’s the Moog synthesiser-drenched Popcorn hit the charts in 1972 and inexplicably occupied the #1 position in Australia for an incredible 8 weeks, several classical music compositions were converted into pop hits, Joy by Apollo 100 spruced up Bach’s Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, Walter Murphy and his Big apple Band re-imagined part of Beethoven’s 5th symphony as A Fifth of Beethoven, and Deodata transformed the Richard Strauss composition Also Sprach Zarathustra to become the theme music for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Movie themes again surfaced from such hits as Love Story and The Exorcist, Billy Preston delivered a funk, soul and R&B instrumental classic with Outta Space, Herb Alpert continued his blitz on the charts with Rise in 1979, and Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells was one of the standout progressive rock albums of the decade.
Vangelis stormed the charts in 1982 with his theme from the movie Chariots of Fire, but it was Joe Satriani’s classic 1987 album Surfing With the Alien that heralded a mini-revival of guitar instrumentals which Mark Knopfler had kicked off in 1983 with his engaging theme from the movie Local Hero entitled Going Home.
This week’s 4TR Years Ago Special will re-visit classic local instrumental hits including Bombora and The Crusher by the Atlantics, Smoky Mokes and Southern ‘Rora by the Joy Boys, Machine Gun and Wild Weekend by the Thunderbirds, Surfside by the Denvermen and Stampede, The Rumble and The Cruel Sea by the Phantoms.