Six of the best: pop songs that borrow from classical music
Deputy editor Jeremy Pound chooses six fine pop and rock songs with classical music at their heart
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Some people, on both sides of the musical fence, would like to see pop and classical music kept firmly apart. Others happily embrace both with equal affection. In the latter category, presumably, are the various well-informed pop acts who, over the years, have borrowed from their classical counterparts – sometimes stylistically, sometimes by clever reference, and sometimes by bluntly copying them. Hunt around, and you’ll find many pop songs that have been influenced by great classical works of the past. Here, our deputy editor Jeremy Pound presents six of the very best. Do feel free to email him and beg to differ…
1. Procol Harum
A Whiter Shade of Pale
Capturing the hippy vibe of the Summer of Love to a tee and complete with its floaty Hammond organ intro, Procol Harum’s 1967 classic is surely the most famous pop song to have borrowed from classical music. Exactly which bit of JS Bach it is derived from, however, is not as clear as one might think. Yes, there are elements of the Air on a G String in the ground bass there, but that famous intro is actually a canny adaptation of JSB’s ‘Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe’, BWV156. It’s certainly a song with a complex history as, in 2009, Procol Harum keyboard player Matthew Fisher won a landmark ruling in the House of Lords to receive his share of the copyright for the song. Pop critics, meanwhile, have spent many an hour in happy but pointless stroky-beard analysis of the real meaning of Keith Reid’s weird and wonderful lyrics…
2. The Beach Boys
The Beach Boys also felt the Bach bug when, in 1979, vocalist and guitarist Al Jardine’s pleasingly heart-warming ‘Lady Lynda’ was included in the album L.A. Unlike Procol Harum, Jardine quotes his Bachian sources explicitly from the outset: the song begins with the composer’s Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring played by harpsichord and strings. Rather touchingly, the Lynda of the title refers to Jardine’s wife. Alas, the two divorced three years later. Perhaps she didn’t like Bach.
3. The Korgis
If I had you
Next we move on to Rachmaninov, and two songs immediately spring to mind. In 1975, US singer Eric Carmen opened his epic weepie ‘All By Myself’ with a direct quote from the Adagio sostenuto second movement of the Russian’s Second Piano Concerto, earning himself a legion of new fans, a letter from the Rachmaninov estate’s solicitors enquiring about copyright infringement and, several years later, a splendidly over-the-top cover version by Celine Dion. Our choice, however, goes to British group The Korgis, who in 1979 took Variation 18 of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini to No. 13 in the UK charts when its famous cantabile tune formed the basis of their catchily optimistic ‘If I had you’. Admittedly, the Korgis didn’t do that much with said tune, abandoning it after the first phrase and thumping out eight repeated chords instead. However, we’ll forgive them, as music doesn’t get much more uplifting than this.
And while we’re on the subject of Russians, next up is Sting’s 1985 satirical song of that name, whose sombre melody and tramping bassline lean heavily on the surprisingly dark ‘Romance’ from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé. Sting was not the only pop act to find himself inspired by Prokofiev’s colourful suite, which was drawn from music he wrote for a 1933 film. Eleven years earlier Greg Lake – of prog-rockers Emerson, Lake and Palmer fame – had quoted the famous ‘Troika’ in his nearly chart-topping ‘I believe in Father Christmas’.
5. Strawberry Switchblade
Of all the various guises that Sibelius might have expected to hear his music presented in, having it set to a drum machine and synths and accompanying lyrics about a couple contemplating splitting up probably wasn’t one of them. However, this is exactly what happened when, in 1984, Glaswegian new-wave duo Strawberry Switchblade got hold of the famous horn motif from the third movement of the Finn’s Fifth Symphony and placed it at the heart of what would become their best known song. Nordic purists may have shuddered, but the song was a success, reaching No. 5 in the UK chart.
6. The Farm
Pop producer Pete Waterman described Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) as ‘almost the grandfather of pop’, referring to the way that the ground bass of Pachelbel’s Canon has, in one way or another, provided the starting point for a whole legion of songs – Waterman himself admitted that it had even been the spark for that very quintessence of Stock-Aitken-and-Waterman boppiness, Kylie Minogue’s ‘I should be so lucky’. The most famous instance of Pachelbel’s work being referenced lock, stock and barrel in pop came when Liverpudlians The Farm released their ‘Altogether Now’ in 1990. With lyrics telling the story of the Christmas Day truce in World War I, the song instantly caught on and, as rave culture took hold of the country, Pachelbel’s tune was soon a favourite with club-goers right across the UK. Pachelbel rocks.
Jeremy Pound is deputy editor of BBC Music Magazine. His pop music claims to fame include having played in a string quartet with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and regularly parking his car outside the Cheltenham birthplace of Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones.