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February 11, 2010

No vocals? No problem.

this man is playing a xylophone

Is music without any words any good? I don't see how that's possible. Hee hee.

In this guest column, Owl Meat takes a look at some of the more memorable instrumental tunes from the past few decades:

There is a lot of instrumental music out there, but very few songs break through as hits. It helps if they have a catchword like "tequila" or are linked to something visual, like the opening of Hawaii Five-0, a Pee Wee Herman dance, or hillbilly sodomy.

Here are my wildly subjective highlights:

Most awesome: Edgar Winter Group's "Frankenstein" (1973). Add the visual of a giant albino wearing an early 1970s keyboard synthesizer and it's frothy with awesome.

Goofiest: "Hocus Pocus" by Focus (1971) – Yodeling Dutch dude, gleeful screaming, ah aaaah aaaah aaaaaaaaahhhhhh ...

Most unlikely hit: "Tubular Bells" by Mike Oldfield (1973). Although not written for the movie, the inclusion of a piece of this in The Exorcist gave this odd composition legs. The album sold over 15 million worldwide.

Best liquor instrumental: "Tequila!" by The Champs (1958). It was a throwaway "B" side for another artist's single. This song survives because Pee Wee Herman did a weird dance to it and its one word lyric is fun to yell in a bar.

Best surf rock: "Hawaii Five-O" by The Ventures (1969). Iconic.

Song most changed by its context in a movie: "Dueling Banjos" from Deliverance (1972).

Most catchy/annoying: "Popcorn" by Hot Buttered (1972). Synth-pop is born.

Most brilliant: Jimi Hendricks' version of the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock (1969). Feedback and a screaming guitar becomes a political statement. I just figured that out.

Most pretentious: King Crimson's "Larks' Tongues in Aspic" (1973, 1984, 2000). Robert Fripp's  acid trip noise odyssey of beautiful wretched excess.  This song was released in three parts over the course of 27 years. Part 1 is trippy excess. Part 2 is droning, rhythmic, atonal, mesmerizing, bordering on industrial. I love it.

The problem with instrumental music is that it's hard to identify songs that don't have a words. I love some of Jeff Beck work, but I have no idea what they are named. Here's one of my favorites: "Cause We've Ended as Lovers" (2007). While Eric Clapton could make his guitar gently weep, Beck's guitar is having a full-on emotional breakdown.

Instrumentals were popular in the 1950s and 1960s, but seemed to peak in the 1970s. Some of those were novelties that capitalized on new electronic techniques and instruments. I can't think of many recent hits, maybe you can.

Did I forget to mention Yanni? Yes I did.

(Photo by Getty Images)

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Posted by Sam Sessa at 11:30 AM | | Comments (13)
Categories: Owl Meat's Tipsy Tuesdays


Not a lot of columns that start off with "hillbilly sodomy" payoff with a great Jeff Beck song and a Yanni putdown. Bravo, sir.

Don't know if it's a hit, but the score Michael Giacchino has written for the TV show LOST is alluring and evocative.

Larks' Tongues in Aspic is great, but easily over the collective heads of most listeners. The latter two parts were more lack of imagination in titling than extensions of the work. If you really want pretentious I give you ELP's Piano Concerto No. 1 from Works Vol. 1. Allegro Giocoso, indeed.

How many of these come to mind?

Misirlou - Dick Dale
Madison Time - Ray Bryant Combo
Wipe Out - The Surfaris
Take Five - Dave Brubeck Quartet
Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet - Henry Mancini
Feels So Good - Chuck Mangione
Walk, Don't Run - The Ventures
Rise - Herb Alpert
A Taste of Honey - Herb Alpert & the Tijuania Brass
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly - Ennio Morricone
The Hustle - Van McCoy, it only has a one line chant of "do the Hustle" that's said a couple of times.

Special mentions

Martin Mull's "Dueling Banjos" parody "Dueling Tubas"

"(Let's Dance) The Screw - Parts I & II" - Phil Spector, act label check, The Crystals, and uncredited Phil's lawyer.
Not a hit, not even released beyond DJ copies but very funny story behind it, unless you were his partner Lester Sill.

IRS Records had a sub label called "I.R.S. No Speak"
He (Miles Copeland III*)... wanted to take a poke at New Age Music, stating in the introductory brochure, "It should be apparent that what No Speak isn't is New Age. No Speak eats New Age for breakfast."
Source Wikipedia

* brother of Stewart Copeland of The Police, who released an album on No Speak

Benny Goodman's recording of "Sing, sing, sing" does it for me.

Spot on, strigine one.
Taste in instrumentals does seem to be the more 'wildly subjective', as these wordless songs furnish more of a blank slate on which we write and recall our mood and memory, often of the first time we heard it: who we were with and what the feeling of that phase was.The very word 'nostalgia' first described the homesickness malady of soldiers who were maddened by the melodies of home, like a siren song compelling a desertion to the past... I'm just sayin-those old tunes really take you back.

Some faves, then:
How flutalicious is Traffic's "Glad", which still gets me all barleycorn? How double t outtasite is "Outa Space" by Billy Preston, (which demands a chaser of "Will it go 'Round in Circles")? What sings me back home like the Allmans' "Jessica", or their "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed"? Enough with the questions.
And of couse what better subject than seduction when you can't find the words;and here I'm not talkin disco trash like "TSOP" by MFSB, but rather the heavy hittin heavy pettin "Foreplay" by Boston , (Jeff)"Beck's Bolero", or the might-as-well-be-instrumental-'cause-it's-in-French "Je t'aime...Moi non plus". Hubba hubba.
For Songbook author Nick Hornby, the Santana instrumental "Samba Pa Ti" was an adolescent's crush: "I was convinced that it described sex." ( I prefer the Sufi swirl of their "Every Step of the Way"-dance until my feet don't touch the ground, indeed.)

Declaring herein the Subjectively Supreme instrumental is (drumroll here, [and not the 'drums/space' Dead dreck for which the FF button was designed]):
Bruce Springsteen's "Summer on Signal Hill" recorded by Clarence Clemons and the Red Bank Rockers ( and originally titled "Now and Forever", according to the geekaustive webinerds @, [subtitled: 'Lebanese tribute to Bruce Springsteen']) ([Enough with the parentheses])

Ratatat, Daft Punk, Groove Armada, and Steve Reich

My contract requires that Ubermagen's slo-jam version of the Benny Hill theme song play me onto stage or into any room I enter, along with the release of fourteen doves

Any Herb Alpert. I just hit the treasure trove of all the TJ Brass LP's at the Goodwill in Nottingham. Perfect martini/manhattan drinkin' soundtrack.

Everything Burbeck & Bird ever did.

Can I get a Man...Or Astroman?!

Big In Japan has to be the best "mostly instrumental" combo I have ever seen live. I was blown away by the first time I saw them and remain so to this day.

The best description of instrumental music was summed up by the tagline on an old Ultraworld flyer for an event at The Spot years ago:

"Music without words helps yourself think."

What? No mention of Zappa? Particularly Hot Rats?

My goal is always to get you guys to comment and educate the rest of us about what you think is great or bad. At best, I hope to be a lightning rod for your opinions. Mine are quite lame yet my own which makes them uh mine? Rock on.

I just rediscovered my friend Jim Beam who was lost during the blizzard.

Oh my gravy, I should stop typing flurbbity fuh bbibbidityt hamon! etc

I think your perception of "hits" places its focus too much on "pop" or Billboard 200 hits. Obviously, there are plenty of instrumental "hits" if you focus into the jazz, classical or electronic music genres.


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About Erik Maza
Erik Maza is a features reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He writes for several sections of the Sun paper and contributes weekly columns on music and nightlife. He also writes and edits the Midnight Sun blog. He often covers entertainment, business, and the business of entertainment. Occasionally, he writes about Four Loko, The Block, the liquor board, and those who practice "simulated sex with a potted palm tree." Before The Sun, he was a reporter at the Miami New Times. He's also written for Miami magazine, the Orlando Sentinel, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Gainesville Sun. Got tips? Gripes? Pitches? He's reachable at Click here to keep up with the dumb music he's listening to.

Midnight Sun covers Baltimore music, live entertainment, and nightlife news. On the blog, you'll find, among other things, concert announcements, breaking news, bars closings and openings, up-to-date coverage of crime in nightlife, new music, round-the-clock coverage of Virgin Mobile FreeFest, handy guides on bars staying open past 2 a.m. on New Year's Eve and those that carry Natty Boh on draft. Recurring features include seven-day nightlife guides, Concert News, guest reviews of bars and concerts, Wednesday Corkboard, and photo galleries, as well as reader-submitted photos. Thanks for reading.

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