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Acker Bilk and Instrumentals of Exquisite Melancholy

November 4, 2014

In his masterpiece The Tin Drum, author Gunther Grass writes of a character who is able to “turn feelings into soup.” The ability to summon an emotional response out of inanimate materials isn’t solely the province of Herr Grass’s fictional chef. Musicians can do this, too, though it is a rare and gifted musician who has the ability to use instruments, sans vocals or lyrics, to evoke deep emotion.

Mr. Acker Bilk.

Mr. Acker Bilk was one of those so gifted, and he passed this weekend. Bilk is (largely) recalled for one song, a swooning, evocative, tender piece of instrumental magic called “Stranger on the Shore” (1961). You hear its sighing, sepia-toned melody, with a faint tinge of friction implied by the ever-so-slightly hoarse and almost human tone of Bilk’s clarinet, and you feel something. I have always contended that a great instrumental has more ability to convey an emotion than a song with a lyric vocal, and “Stranger on the Shore” is an superb example of that.

In addition to it’s extraordinary musical character, the track is also notable for having stayed in the British singles charts for fifty weeks, and it was the first single by a British artist in the modern era to top the American charts (“Telstar” by the Tornados/Joe Meek came about a year later).

Now, there’s a lot more to say about Acker Bilk, but the primary reason I wanted to memorialize him is because “Stranger on the Shore” is a perfect example of a kind of recording that the British seem to do very, very well: Instrumentals of Exquisite Melancholy. See, British musicians seem to have a remarkable aptitude to produce instrumental tracks that evoke ones’ most tender and elegiac memories; simply hearing a song like “Stranger on the Shore,” Tony Hatch’s theme from the British soap “Crossroads,” or Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross” captures the feeling of gray early-winter Sundays, rain drops snaking down a windowpane, and an old letter from a childhood lover in your hand. NO ONE DOES THIS SORT OF THING LIKE THE BRITISH DO, so I want to review some of the best of these, with some theories as to why our British friends do this sort of thing so well.

(None of this is to say that Americans can’t write splendid instrumentals, too – Jack Nitzsche’s “The Lonely Surfer” or Love Tractor’s “Fun to be Happy” are fantastic examples, and Percy Faith’s “Theme From A Summer Place” is basically the greatest recording of all time – I’m just saying there’s a particular type of instrumental that the British, with their grey skies and early pub-closing times and lingering stale-burp of wartime rationing, are masters of.)

Tony Hatch’s theme from “Crossroads” (1964) is an excellent example of an IEM, and it’s worth noting for a number of reasons: First, Tony Hatch is an effing genius, one of the great music producers of our time, and he belongs alongside Spector, George Martin, Jack Nitzsche, Shadow Morton, and all the great and near-great freaks who made the ‘60s an explosive and artful time for studio-based music. Just listen to any of his work for Petula Clark – much less any of the stuff he released under his own name, which mixes ‘60s state-of-the-high techniques with easy listening wide screen cinematics — and you will be sold that Hatch is one of the GREATS.

(Damn, if you’ve never heard this, you are in for a TREAT)

Also, the “Crossroads” theme underlines why I theorize the British are so freaking good at Instrumentals of Exquisite Melancholy. The British have a long and truly remarkable tradition of winsome, bittersweet television themes. American television favored upbeat, racing, peppy orchestral grins of forced merriment (think of The Adventures of Ozzy and Harriet or Leave It To Beaver) or mildly amusing numbers with lyrics that told the backstory of the show (Gilligan’s Island, Surfside 6).

But the British have a plethora of enchanting and evocative purely-instrumental TV themes that really dare the listener to feel something, be that excitement and anticipation with a hint of mystery (like the Doctor Who theme), sadness with an overlay of “our best time was a few decades ago” (like the Eastenders theme), or put-away-the-knives-and-stop-looking-at-the-pictures-of-old-girlfriends late-afternoon nostalgic gloom, like the theme to The Last of the Summer Wine. This created a tradition and inspiration for creating and appreciating IEM’s.

To our list of A-list IEMs, lets add one more TV theme: the theme to the long-running British nighttime soap, Coronation Street, written by Eric Spear, and first heard in 1960. It’s likely this influenced Bilk’s’ “Stranger on the Shore” (originally written as the theme to another short-lived soap of the same name). It’s impossible to listen to this without thinking of a gray day in the North of England; it sounds like what Morrissey is thinking when one of those ASPCA commercials comes on.

Next on our tour of IEMs, here’s Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross.”

“Albatross,” recorded in 1968 by the quasi-original Mac line-up of guitarists Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer, and Danny Kirwan, bassist John McVie, and drummer Mick Fleetwood, is such a pure and original piece of majestic, evocative genius and simplicity that it almost defies description; it is a sigh set to music, the wrap of soft down comforter at the end of a long day. Sounding like a version of Santo & Johnny’s “Sleep Walk” on opium, it was significantly – hell, litigiously – lifted by the Beatles for their “Sun King” (though even if ISIS was threatening to behead Ringo Starr’s grandchildren, he could never play with half the subtlety and majestic simplicity that Mick Fleetwood employs on “Albatross”).

Finally…let’s end our visit to the World of IEM’s with Durutti Column’s “Otis” (which I have praised, almost without bounds, elsewhere). “Otis” appears to be a little sunnier than some of these other tracks, but I think that’s deceptive: something about this song instantly bespeaks of memory; and honestly, unless one is completely schooled and subsumed by the lessons of impermanence and non-existence the Buddhist masters teach us, is there such a thing as a “happy” memory? Because all memories, especially the happiest ones, make us recognize what is gone and never to be again.

Drive safely!

Sting: Still a Tool

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