Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published March 6th 2020
Updating the classics by any means
I need to thank Cheryl from the UK for the idea for this article – thanks, Cheryl! After my cover songs of 1990, she asked me if there were any other rock versions of classical music I knew of. Well… yes!
There are a great many, but not all are great. Some are really awful. The majority are mediocre. And there are even a few are just the classical piece by a classical orchestra with a lead guitarist and over-enthusiastic drummer ruining everything. So I went through my rather eclectic music collection and came up with 10 great versions of classical pieces.
And this possibly includes a lot of songs that purists are going to get up in arms about and I am completely ready for that. I am one who likes a wide variety of musical styles, artists and content. But maybe you'll find a new piece of music here that may tickle your fancy!
What I have decided to do is have a version by a traditional combo (orchestra, string quartet, whatever) and then the "updated" version, just for comparison.
And before I begin, I need to mention Ray Manzarek's 1983 album Carmina Burana, which is the whole thing done in his inimitable keyboard style. No one track really stands out – you need to listen to the whole thing. I have it on vinyl (surprise!). Also, the Brian Setzer Orchestra released Wolfgang's Big Night Out in 2007 which is another great album, but is big band jazz, not rock/pop. Sorry, Brian! And finally, modern proponents of what is basically pure classical music, like Rick Wakeman and Bond also don't get a look in.
Okay, the list! No opera, no lyrics, just the music:
1) Piano Sonata No. 3 by Mozart
The track that started this! It is actually a surprisingly straight-forward rendition of the piece, used, I think, to show the guitar ability of the band. They do a (in my opinion) good job of this, and it is quite a fun listen. (Please note, I have avoided the official video – it is truly abysmal.)
2) Symphony No.5 by Beethoven
Walter Murphy (as 'A 5th Of Beethoven') (1976)
Probably best known for appearing on the soundtrack of the film Saturday Night Fever, this disco take on the famous symphony is surprisingly well done. Murphy made a bit of a career out of updating the classics into a disco idiom and while some of his others are fine, none really matched this one.
3) & 4)In The Hall Of The Mountain King by Grieg
The Who (1967)
Electric Light Orchestra (1973)
This is a tune even I can play on guitar! The Who's version is a bonus track from the 1995 re-release of the album The Who Sell Out and is a heavy, drum-based stomp through it which I absolutely adore. ELO's version from their On The Third Day album is a little more straight forward, but still there is that rock undercurrent that breaks through more often than not. This is such a magnificently written piece of music that it seems anyone could do it. I even have a techno version of the track!
5) Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Mozart
Technoclassix (as 'Eine Kleine Technomusic') (1993)
And speaking of techno! This has to be one of the weirdest albums I have ever bought – Never Mind The Beethoven by Technoclassix. 11 classic pieces rendered as techno music. I bought it because I was an aerobics instructor at the time and wanted something different for my classes. And I still have a soft spot for it. I will say that not all of them work, but I like this one for being the closest to the source material. And it worked in class as well.
6) Piano Concert in A Minor by Grieg
Electric Light Orchestra (as 'Grieg's Piano Concerto In A Minor') (1982/2000)
More Grieg! More ELO! Come on, Jeff Lynn is a genius, ELO were awesome and Grieg was one of the most under-rated composers ever. This is, again, a pretty straight-forward version, but the drums and guitars just add to it magnificently. It was recorded in 1982, but not released until 2000 on the Flashback box set (yes, I own it).
I would also like to mention as an aside, one of Morecambe and Wise's best comedy bits featured this piece and André Previn.
7) The March from The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky
B.Bumble And The Stingers (as 'Nut Rocker') (1962)
One of my favourite instrumental tracks, that I completely forgot about when compiling my list of best instrumentals in rock, this really updated version of the Tchaikovsky classical piece is so wonderful. Talking to friends who are real musicians, they say the 1962 version is very straight forward, but the instrumentation makes it sound so different. I'll trust them – I still like it.
8) Sabre Dance by Khachaturian
Love Sculpture (also known as Dave Edmunds and Love Sculpture) (1968)
While I love the original piece, this one is made so much better by being done on electric guitar. I have seen a live clip and the speed of the fingers as Edmunds plays this has to be seen to be believed. Then again, I was also stunned into immobility watching a ten year old play this on the glockenspiel when I was a school teacher, so, you know… Still, a great piece of music, and great interpretation of it.
9) Bolero by Ravel
Jeff Beck (as 'Beck's Bolero' (1967)
As close to a 1960s supergroup as you could get. Jeff Beck, one of the premiere guitarists of the time, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, eventually of Led Zeppelin fame, Keith Moon, of The Who, and Nicky Hopkins, keyboardist extraordinaire. It is just a stunning piece of music, and the fact that now, over 50 years later, it still stands up, is a testament to the skill of all involved.
10) Toccata And Fugue In D Minor by Bach
Sky (as 'Toccata') (1980)
Yes, my favourite instrumental track ever is merely a modern day version of the JS Bach piece, also used in the films Dracula and Rollerball. I love this track. The Sky version is, to my mind, the very best version of this track I have heard, with glorious keyboards, powerful drumming and some frankly brilliant guitar playing. This is such a wonderful piece of music… I cannot say enough about it.
And there you have it – ten classical pieces played by rock musicians. There is a lot of music here, and so I hoped you have enjoyed just listening to some of the greatness that is included. So much classical music gets ignored, but it should not be. It is timeless, as these modern renderings of it prove.
Hope you had fun!
There will always be something glorious about classical music...