Friday, December 04, 2009

Weekend Listomania (Special "The Ghost of Harry Partch" Edition)

Well, it's Friday and you know what that means. Yes, my Oriental amaneunsis Fah Lo Suee [The Woman Without a Joke] and I will be heading to Darien, Connecticut and the historic Wee Burn Country Club for a couple of rounds of golf with Tiger Woods and his lovely wife Elin Nordegren. Unfortunately, Wee Burn used to be restricted, so it's unclear which of us will or will not make it onto the green.

As a result, posting by moi will be sporadic for a couple of days at least.

But in the meantime, here's a fun little project for us all:

Best or Worst Use of Non-Traditional Rock Instruments on a Post-Elvis Pop/Rock Song or Album!!!

If that category sounds familiar to you, it does to me too, but despite an archive search, I can't actually find a previous entry with the same theme. So I figure cut the geezer some slack. In any case, I'm reasonably certain most of my current nominees wouldn't have been on any earlier list.

Well, the Red Crayola, at least.

No arbitrary rules then, at least not per se, but there are a few basic points we should probably all agree on.

By traditional rock instruments I mean the following, which have been the template for the music since the earliest days: Drums. Bass. Some form of piano and/or organ. Saxophone. Harmonica. And of course guitar.

That all seems pretty cut and dried, although obviously we may have some arguments around the margins, at least where keyboards are concerned. Obviously, the weird little electronic thingie that's on Del Shannon's "Runaway" counts, ditto mellotrons on all those 60s songs. Synthesizers, however, are a grey area, and I think a decision on whether they're non-traditional has to be made on a song by song basis. As do some other electronic keyboards, like clavinets.

Other than that, though, the possibilities are pretty wide open, I think.

And my totally top of my head Top Seven are:

7. The Troggs -- Wild Thing

Written by Jon Voight's not-a-wingnut brother and originally recorded by Sybill Burton's boytoy Jordan Christopher. The solo, of course, is played on an ocarina. The humble Sweet Potato on a pop smash -- genius!!!

6. The Monks -- I Hate You

Blank generation punk a decade ahead of its time, but instead of rhythm guitar, it's amplified banjo. A lot of rock fans weren't ready for it in 1966, and in some precincts they still aren't.

5. Joanna Newsom -- Peach, Plum, Pear

Some people find her little girl voice annoying; others seriously contemplate shoving pointed sticks into their ears to make it the pain of it go away. Perhaps we can all agree, however, that Newsom's use of classical harp in a pop/rock context is at the least imaginative and a little different.

Or not. Jeez, she's an annoying singer.

4. The Beatles -- For No One

One of the most gorgeous and heartbreaking records ever made by a pop group, and the french horn solo is a big factor. I doubt many Beatles fans realized, back in 1966, exactly what a coup it was to have Alan Civil play the part, though. In fact, Civil was pretty much considered to be the greatest living player at the time; it wouldn't have been all that different from George Martin convincing Jascha Heifetz to drop by for a fiddle overdub.

3. Rolf Harris -- Stairway to Heaven

A digeridoo on the Zeppelin classic. To be honest, that's they way I always heard the song in my head.

2. The Red Crayola -- Evening: Dust

A legendary live performance at the Berkeley Folk Festival, summer of 1967. Drummer Fredric Barthleme described it to me thusly:

"That's where [bassist Steve] Cunningham played the famous block of ice. He brought a block of ice on stage, put it on a stand with some aluminium foil under it, and miked the foil. It was an outdoor concert, and it melted attractively."

I couldn't find an mp3 of the show, but the album pictured above has the entire Crayola performance on two CDs. You can order a copy here and you can hear some audio snippets here.

And the most memorable use of non-traditional instrumentation on a rock record quite obviously fricking is --

1. Pianosaurus -- The Letter

An entire band playing on toy instruments (from the 1987 album Groovy Neighborhood, produced by the incomparable Peter Holsapple). I actually saw these guys back in the day (Irving Plaza, I think) and they weren't remotely the novelty joke you might have expected; covers like this one aside, they had some terrific pop originals. Fortunately, the album is currently available on iTunes, where it behooves behearing.

Alrighty then -- what would your choices be?

[Shameless Incredibly Late Blogwhore: Uh, my parallel Cinema Listomania -- theme: best flicks featuring undercover agents of some sort, hero or villain -- is now up over at Box Office. As always, I'd be incredibly grateful if you could go over there and leave a comment; management really needs to know I'm worth my life-changing freelance rate. Thanks!]


Dave said...

Here are a few:

"Heroin" -- Velvet underground (best use of an electric viola in a rock song?)

"Hurdy Gurdy Man" -- Donovan (who played the tambura?)

"Lady Jane" -- Stones (cool dulcimer)

"Summer in the City" -- Lovin' Spoonful (the jackhammer is a musical instrument, isn't it?)

Percolator -- Billy Joe and the Checkmates -- featuring a xylophone. I still have the 45 on Herb Alpert's Dore Records (home of Jan & Dean"

Mister Pleasant said...

That Monks track is a hoot and a half.

My additions - all generally classical music instruments:
Dead End Street - The Kinks
Til Death Us Do Part - The Kinks
Tears of a Clown - Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
It Wasn't My Idea To Dance - The Move
French Horn
Circles - The Who
Every Little Thing - The Beatles

Anonymous said...

French horn - "You Can't Always Het What You Want - Stones, played by my homeboy Al Kooper.

"It's a Long Way To The Top (If You Want To Rock n' Roll) - AC/DC - Bagpipes, bitches!

"I Will Dare" - Replacements, Peter Buck on the mandolin. (And don't get me started on mandolins.)

"Shipbuilding" - Elvis Costello - one of Chet Baker's last solos.

"Chelsea Hotel '78" - Alejandro Escovedo - cello. (I know that I'm always going on about this guy, but RUN to see him if you have the chance to see him with the strings. 2 violins, 2 cellos, and 2 acoustic guitars, and it rocks as hard as anything I've ever seen. Really.)
-bill buckner

Sal Nunziato said...

I'm pretty sure it's Jascha doing the solo on Louisiana Man by Doug Kershaw.

Gary said...

Mister Pleasant already got the bassoon from "Tears of a Clown", which was the first thing I thought of. But the second is Peter Thoms glorious trombone work on Thomas Dobly's "Hyperactive", which also features jaw-droppingly amazing bass playing by Matthew Seligman.

Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary said...

Whoever played the flute thing on The Blues Project's "Flute Thing".

Feral said...

I'd leave out bands that included a horn section (e.g. Chicago) or groups with a signature instrument (e.g. Jethro Tull) so I'll mention these:

The Sax breaks in the Stone's "Can't you Hear Me Knocking, and Ian Hunter's "All American Alien Boy"

Steel Drums in ELP's "Karn Evil 9"

More Mandolin in Rod Stewart's "Maggie May" and of course "Mandolin Wind".

Xylophone in The Violent Femes' "Gone Daddy Gone"

And I always loved Entwistle's French Horn rips in "Overture From Tommy"

Oh, and more French Horn in Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush".

Gummo said...

What, no no-prize for my guess?

Anyway, I got exactly 3 sung syllables into that Joanna Newsom song before I had to turn it off. OMG.

That Rolf Harris cut is delightful.

And I'd nominate Lou Reed's amazing suite, Street Hassle, for the cello (I think?) that plays the piece's repeating riff before it's picked up by bass and guitar.

And speaking of xylophones -- Under My Thumb, by the Stones, played by the incredible multi-instrumentalist, Brian Jones.

steve simels said...

No Prize to gummo

Sorry about that ....


David said...

Theremin on "Good Vibrations"
Flute solo in "California Dreamin'"
Harpsichord on "In My Life"
Banjo on The Long Ryders' "Never Got to Meet the Mom"

steves said...

The first one that popped into my head was "Mull of Kintyre" (bagpipes, of course).

Not necessarily the best or worst, though.

steves said...

Hey, speaking of "For No One"...

I have a terrific bootleg of McCartney playing that on an acoustic guitar (sounds like he was playing it for George Martin for the first time), and he sings the French horn solo--and most of the other horn parts--note-for-note. Really lovely.

(Unfortunately, the recording quality borders on awful.)

Unknown said...

how about the Slinky on the Tokens' "He's in Town?"

and I have an old 45 on Capitol that says, "Vacuum Cleaner solo by...." and that's all I can remember. Dang my memory.

Gummo said...

steve --

I believe that Macca cut is from a bootleg of songs recorded on a cassette or other portable recorder in the Abbey Road control room -- so you have a cheap recorder recording sound being played back over speakers.

Which explains the sound quality.

Noam Sane said...

That Thomas Dolby song ("Hyperactive") also features someone playing the "thundersheet".
(It's big sheet of metal you hit with a mallet. Sheet music! haha.)

Having said that.

Todd Rundgren's "Onomatopoeia" features one of everything, or just about. And doesn't Dylan's
"Highway 61 Revisited" have some kind of weird comedy-whistle thingy on it?

Marsupial said...

"Pictures of Matchstick Men" (the Camper Van Beethoven version) for the violin work.

If you want to talk vacuum cleaner solos, you have to mention "Vacuum Genesis" by Game Theory (off Lolita Nation, like just about everything else.)

I'm sure I could come up with some obligatory Sparks tracks if I thought hard enough...

Marsupial said...

Noam Sane got me thinking about other Thomas Dolby: "Dissidents" for it's use of a typewriter as occasional rhythm enhancement. (Much more germane to the song than the typewriter in something like "Exhuming McCarthy" by R.E.M.)

MBowen said...

What, no mention of the very relaxed Adolf Hitler on vibes on "The Intro And The Outro"?

That Pianosaurus record is very nice - saw them play at Maxwell's and as Steve said, they might be a novelty, but they're definitely not a joke.

elroy said...

I like the tap dancing in "Think I'm Gonna Kill Myself" by Elton John, and the typewriter on "Famous Umbrellas" by King Radio.

Edward said...

Glockenspeil - Bruce Springsteen Born To Run (and on much of the album

Tubular Bells - Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield

All of the weird stuff Tom Waits has been messing with for the last 20 years;>

Edward said...

Oh, and never heard Joanna Newsom before. Who knew Kate Bush and Bjork had a love child;>

I find her strangely interesting.

dcBill said...

Back when I was in the Young Caucasians we played at Maxwell's with Pianosaurus and you're absolutely right. I remember enjoying their set quite a bit.

I seem to recall that the soundman that night was the bass player from the Bongos who regaled us with stories of how little a successful band actually made. Downhill slide into law school from there.

dave™© said...

I'd go for the banjo that morphs into a dobro (or whatever the hell it is) in the climax of Brian Wilson's "Cabinessence." A truly masterful moment.

Seconc place would be his use of Sparklett water jugs on "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" (and several other cuts on "Pet Sounds")...

Libby Spencer said...

This is a hard category. I'm not seeing any references to George Harrison playing the sitar. Think he played it at least on Norwegian Wood maybe.

And I have this half-recollection of a tuba in a Beatles song. I could be wrong. But I clearly remember a tuba in some song back in the day.

And how about the cash register in that song Money?

Libby Spencer said...

Just remembered. Think the tuba was in Yellow Submarine, no?

Padre Mickey said...

I can't believe that no one has mentioned Tommy Hall's jug playing in the 13th Floor Elevators' first album. That's what made their music (well, Tommy Hall's electric jug playing and Roky's just plain nuttiness).

Anonymous said...

hey, how come no one's mentioned the pogues yet? too obvious? i nominate their entire catalog, but especially 'fairy tale of new york.'

john cale's viola and harpsichord on nick drake's 'fly' are heart-stoppingly gorgeous.

Unknown said...

When's the next bus to Oswego?'s comment about Nick Drake's "Fly" reminds me: the zip on 10cc's "Iceberg" (from How Dare You)

John Fowler said...

I'll mention the album Illinois by Sufjan Stevens. Lots of weird instruments throughout - banjo, glockenspiel, horns. I swing back and forth between thinking this is a wonderful album and thinking it's over-the-top too 'artistic'. However, the middle part of the CD (from "Jacksonville" through "The Man of Metropolis...") is a set of several great songs in a row. I'll nominate "Chicago" as a favorite, which makes use of a lot of vibraphone (I think that's what it is).

Edward already mentioned Tom Waits, as using lots of non-traditional instruments. I am partial to the album Swordfishtrombones, and in particular "Just Another Sucker on the Vine" (lovely accordion with horns), and 16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six" (is that cowbell???).

Finally, thanks to Noam Sane for reminding me about "Hyperactive" (hadn't heard that in years), and WtnbtOswego's Pogues/"Fairytale of New York" nomination, just perfect!

Brooklyn Girl said...

I suppose Scott Walker's playing, among other things, of a slab of beef in this doesn't really count, does it?

Anyway, anybody who remembers the Walker Brothers (and even those of you who don't) should see this movie.