Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Instrumental

People overlook the instrumental.  Over and over, overlook it.  You think it is lesser, even unimportant.  When you encounter it on a CD, you think it is a few minutes to skip over, an afterthought, a lesser effort, a filler.

That's too bad, but I know why you do it.  You think that any instrumental, especially on a rock or pop CD, is something that the band or the artist couldn't quite finish.  They couldn't figure out what words to put with it; they couldn't settle on a melody, or couldn't find one in the first place. You think, to be British and crude, that it's a toss-off.

But, as person who writes a "song" or two from time to time, I am here to tell you that instrumentals exist because there are some pieces of music that exist better without words.  It isn't that a musician fails in his or her attempt to put words to it; it is that it doesn't need words.

I am thinking of:

Yes' "Mood For A Day"
Springsteen's "Paradise by the Sea (or C)"

Traffic's "Glad"
Carlene Carter's "First Kiss"
Steve Earle's "Dominick Street"
Phish's "The Inlaw Josey Wales"

Neil Young's "String Quartet from Whiskey Boot Hill"
Jorma Kaukonen's "I'll Let You Know Before I Leave"
Led Zeppelin's "Bron-Y-Aur"
The Who's "Quadrophenia"
any number of Meat Puppet songs
Nickel Creek's "The Smoothie Song"

Steve Howe plays "Mood For A Day."

That's dozen (or so) off the top of my head.  Without even trying. And I don't really know the names of Meat Puppet songs.  But all of the above are songs that I look forward to when I listen to the CDs they appear on. Little songs that I love and cherish.  To me, the instrumental track or tracks on a CD are sometimes the best moments.

But see?  Even I am doing it.  By calling them "little songs," I am suggesting that they don't merit the same examination, the same evaluation, as the big songs on a CD.  I am wrong.  It's just that we so desperately want the words to mean something, want the words to give us direction, that we ignore the possibility that the instrumental could speak to us just as much.

We allow the musical interlude, the instrumental break, the endless solo, but only as part of a structure that contains words to surround that wordless expansion of a song.  Would the Allman Brothers' "Mountain Jam" have a place today?  Would "Jessica"?

 The instrumental is a special piece, most of the time, a memorable melody carried not by words, but by some instrument, or several instruments.  It is a delicate piece, usually, something that might not even bear the weight of words.  It is not a song (usually) that someone couldn't be bothered to write words for.  The instrumental can change the pace of a CD, can show you a different side of a musician or band, can allow you to focus on the instruments, instead of the voices.  Meditative or awe-inspiring, the instrumental may end up as a backdrop, but it wasn't written that way.  It was first played as a show piece by someone extremely pleased with what he or she had just come up with.  Because it is not an accompaniment to a voice, it is probably more challenging, more intricate, more of a stretch for the player.

Heck, the great Bob Mould kicked off his entire solo career with the beautiful instrumental piece, "Sunspots." 

I may be working with an outdated paradigm.  If so, please give me a little leniency.  Think of, with me who can carry way too much history, surf music.  Think of movie soundtracks.  Think of "Classical Gas."  Even our most popular trends have been rife with songs that don't have words.  Even some that do have words have no meaning associated with those words.  But maybe no more.

All I would argue is, if you are a listerner, do not downplay the instrumental.  That it will be a gem, little or otherwise, has a high likelihood, and if it is something that you connect with early on, I promise that it will become one of your favorites on any given CD going forward.


troutking said...

Also Living in the Country by Pete Seeger.

Great, great post. A wise spotlight on overlooked treasures.

troutking said...

The 100 greatest rock instrumentals:

Yep, Green Onions is number one, as it should be.

G. B. Miller said...

I agree. It's taken until I was in my forties before I could appreciate the instrumental, not just in rock, but in all genres of music.

Personally, I think some of the more creative and beautiful intrumentals are in bluegrass and folk/Americana.

Bob said...

Mr. Miller, I could not agree more, but for the purposes of this post, I'm not up to speed, in terms of bluegrass (or jazz), as to what songs are true instrumentals and which ones are instrumental versions. Favorites like "Salt Creek," "Billy In The Lowground" and "The Minstrel Boy Has Gone To War," for example, I'm assuming were songs with lyrics first. That being said, Norman Blake has written any number of beautiful instrumentals in the bluegrass/folk arena that are favorites of mine. I especially recommend "Coming Down From Rising Fawn."

Trout, it is a good thing Booker T, etc. dropped the original lyrics from "Green Onions":

Got green onions
Got green onions
Glad they're not Tonions, etc.

I don't think the song would have been as good. My favorite Cropper instrumental is "Big Bird," but in researching it, I've discovered, alas, that it was a vocal first.

Billy said...

a) Ask any rock musician from the last 20 years to name The Biggest Rock Instrumental, and I'd put money on Rush's "YYZ" topping the mention list, probably running away. (Like certain other trout-people and The Boss, I gots ta stick up for my Canadians.)

b) It seems like there's an entire style where the voice is merely an additional instrument. Dance, electronica, hip-hop all incorporate this. Sure, there are lyrics, but they're not remotely the driving force of the song. Just one example is Moby's "Bodyrock". (Plus the video is funny.)

Bob said...

Sorry, billy, but your rush song didn't even make the top 250 on trout's random list, bested even by the theme from mami vice. Where is the love? Good call on wordless vocals.

Billy said...

(With mock rage but real sarcasm:) While I have the utmost respect for, who the f*#k are they, and why should I give a f*#k about their list? How about we reference something legitimate, like say SPIN MAGAZINE? While I hate lists, if we're gonna reference 'em, let's at least feel better that the folks who made 'em have a thin veil of legitimacy.