Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published January 24th 2019
Classical music is always there somewhere
In my recent column about surprising cover versions of songs, I made a deliberate choice not to include anything based on classical motifs. This is because I was already working on this, a companion piece of sorts.
To start with, I really enjoy classical music. My mother reckons it's because I loved Bugs Bunny cartoons as a kid and so many of them used classical music, and so it just sort of entered my brain as good, fun music. I have been to many classical music recitals, and even have a strange liking for opera and light opera/operetta. I know this might not have come up in many columns previously, but there you are. And I know I'm not the only one.
It is probably hardly surprising that modern song-writers 'borrow' passages, chord progressions, motifs, and anything else from classical music. A lot of this music has been popular for centuries, and that indicates a connection with an audience, so why wouldn't you borrow it? (Note: borrow, not steal. Even though very, very few song-writers or performers acknowledge their classical help… Billy Joel and Louise Tucker are obvious exceptions.)
Now, I don't mean taking a classical piece and just re-doing it, as Sky did with their awesome 'Toccata', or with the stunning 'Mozart Sonata #3' by Scatterbrain, or the slightly less awesome and not as stunning '5th Of Beethoven' from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. This is when a classical piece is used in all or part of a song that has had lyrics added; it may even be adapted in some way. But the point is a classical composer has contributed to a pop or rock song and that is the point I'm getting at here.
This was started in my head, by the way, many years ago. It was the Billy Joel track in this list that did it, and by 1996 I had put together a mix-tape (remember those!), taking songs in my collection and comparing them to classical pieces. However, in doing actual reasearchy stuff for this, I discovered a lot of people impose classical music on songs that I personally can't hear (an example is Frank Sinatra's 'My Way') or it is claimed they use a "chord progression" used by a classical music composer. That's not what this is about. This is where you can actually hear the classical piece in the music and you go, "That sounds familiar…"
There's just something about an orchestra and choir that screams, 'Real Music!'
So, in this list, I have only included songs I like. There are a few songs that I can hear the classical basis, but don't like the song, so I dumped them. This includes a number of rap/hip-hop songs, which surprised me. Not surprised me that I excluded them, but that they would think to rap over classical music. Still, good music is good music, no matter what.
And that's what I hope you'll find here.
To start with, though, a comedy song. As I point out, I rarely include comedy songs in these lists because of the whole "tastes may vary" clause when it comes to something that subjective, but this track from Spinal Tap – 'Heavy Duty' – deserves a mention. It's not the whole song that's classical, by the way…
but the guitar solo is simply Luigi Boccherini's String Quintet in E Major, Op. 11, No. 5
Anyway, let's hit the list proper!
'A Whiter Shade Of Pale by Procul Harum (1967); based on Bach's 'Air On A G String'
While this is one of my favourite songs on this list, it is here at the front because it might also be the one I am least convinced by. Sometimes I can hear the similarities very clearly, other times, it seems more like "in the style of" than actual borrowing. Still, the lyrics are bonkers and awesome, the organ playing is frankly magnificent, and the whole song is one of the finest pieces of pop-rock ever put onto vinyl. For many years, this was my "chill-out" song. Listen, relax and float away. I love this. And the Bach piece is similarly wonderful as well.
'When I Get You Alone' Robin Thicke (2002); based on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony
Admission time: I only like this song because of the classical music. This is actually Thicke singing over '5th Of Beethoven' by Walter Murphy from Saturday Night Fever. I feel adding lyrics improves that disco reworking. But the lyrics have been designed to fit the music rather well, and Thicke doesn't do a terrible job of singing, either. I have not been a fan of Thicke's since, but this track actually indicated he might be onto something. In the end, it was Beethoven who was on to something.
'Little Me' by Little Mix (2013); based on Gabriel Fauré's Pavane
Admission time no.2: I don't mind Little Mix. I own two of their albums and find some of their stuff (though little of the stuff from the past year) quite enjoyable in a light, bubbly way. But this song has some deep lyrics, probably inspired by P!nk's 'Conversations With My 13 Year Old Self'. But I think the inclusion of the classical piece throughout actually adds something deeper and more to the song, making it not just a rehash, but a track all its own. (I do like the P!nk song as well, by the way.)
'Plug In Baby' by Muse (2001); based on Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
Okay, it's not as good as Sky, but the way the old Dracula music (also used in my favourite ever film) is utilised in a rock song is really good. I am a bit of a fan of Muse, and this is one of my favourites of their tracks. The guitar sound is raw and they came across as more than just Britpop poseurs. The fact I still like them all these years later tells me I was right.
'It's Now Or Never' by Elvis Presley (1960); based on Eduardo di Capua's 'O Sole Mio'
Look, this isn't my favourite Elvis song (not even close), but it's not a bad little tune, and that is because of the fantastic song it is based on. The lyrics are a little banal, but Elvis delivers them well. However, realistically, the 3 Tenors' version of 'O Sole Mio' is the best version of the song. But the Elvis track is not too shabby.
'(I Can't Help) Falling In Love With You' by Elvis Presley (1961); based on Jean-Paul-Égide Martini's 'Plaisir d'amour'
I prefer this Elvis song to 'It's Now Or Never' – it allows his deep, resonant voice to shine through. But when you listen to Judith Durham (of The Seekers) sing the original, you can hear that the music itself lends a big hand to guiding that voice. It allows for long notes that modern songwriters tend to eschew; this is a song for singers. And it proves, yes, Elvis could really sing. He was not just an image; he was a musician.
'All By Myself' by Eric Carmen (1976); based on Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor
I didn't get into this song until I was in my late teens, some ten years after its release, but I found it beautiful. And yet it sounded familiar. By then I'd discovered Rachmaninoff and it did not take me long to put the two together. The lyrics are so desperately sad (though it is not a proper break-up song, more one about being lonely) and the delivery is wonderful. And the music is, of course, brilliant.
'This Night' by Billy Joel (1983); based on Beethoven's 'Sonata Pathétique'
From my favourite Billy Joel album (Innocent Man), the chorus is pure Beethoven, and he gets a writing credit on the album. I love the way the doo-wop inspired verse leads into the soaring Beethoven-inspired chorus, even if the lyrics are a standard love song. But it is the music, the delivery and Billy Joel's heart-felt singing that makes this track more than "just" another track. This is one of my favourites from Billy Joel's extensive catalogue.
'Lovers' Concerto' by The Toys (1965); based on Bach's 'Minuet in G'
This is another track where a classical piece has just had lyrics added. But, despite the rather 'twee' nature of it all, I like the lyrics and I really like this piece. It is one of the few pieces I can play on guitar, and that's because I like it enough to have stuck with it. The song, with a band and orchestra backing, works so well with Bach's music. It's short, sharp and shiny – a wonderful piece of 60s pop.
'Midnight Blue' by Louise Tucker (1983); based on Beethoven's 'Sonata Pathétique'
The second track to use Beethoven's 'Sonata Pathetique', and my favourite song on this list. It took me literally years to track down a copy of this track in the pre-Internet days, eventually getting a copy on cassette from Europe, of all places. I knew it was based on the Beethoven piece, but I loved her voice, and Charlie Skarbek singing with her added something to it as well. This is a superb piece of synth-pop, driven by a sublime piece of classical music, the perfect meshing of the classical and the modern into one cohesive, glorious whole.
And there you have it. What did I miss? What did I get wrong? Please: comments, questions, suggestions for columns – all are welcome.