Hooked on Classics: how Mozart and drum machines took classics to the disco… and the bank

In the eighties, Hooked on Classics saw the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra dominate the pop charts and bring classical music to a mainstream audience...

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The venerable Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, founded by Sir Thomas Beecham, is actually younger than Noddy Holder and Freddie Mercury. As the RPO glided through its first rehearsal 75 years ago in September 1946, the future front men of Slade and Queen were already bawling at full volume, albeit as babies.

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Behind this pub-quizzable fact is a deeper truth. Pop is more established, and the classical establishment sprightlier, than some imagine. Indeed, the RPO’s Hooked on Classics – a medley of hook lines from popular classics overlaid by a drum-machine disco beat, sometimes treated as the reductio ad absurdum of crossover – is 40 years old this August. The 1981 disco prince is now a dad dancer. It’s a story of Art vs Commerce; paying respect vs paying bills; and Beethoven vs the Veg-o-Matic chip slicer.

The three-minute 45rpm pop song arrived in 1949. A new market boomed along with the postwar babies like Noddy and Freddie and peaked in 1974, when 200 million 45s were sold. Many artists explored combinations of long-form classical rigour with quick-fix pop exuberance. Switched on Bach, a 1968 album of JS’s music faithfully played but inventively on Bob Moog’s new synthesisers, won plaudits for its realiser Wendy Carlos (then under the name Walter).

The same year, Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance on blues guitar reached the UK Top 5. Waldo de los Rios’s setting of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, with electric guitar noodling over the orchestra, peaked similarly in 1971 (his reworking of Mozart’s Ein musikalischer Spass long served as the BBC’s Horse of the Year Show theme). Richard Strauss had a No. 7 hit in 1973, thanks to Eumir Deodato’s funky take on Also sprach Zarathustra.

Approaches varied. Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto Aranjuez made No. 3, unmodified, in 1976. The following year, prog-rock giants Emerson, Lake & Palmer reached No. 2 with a stadium-rock version of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. (After the composer’s record company refused permission, Copland overruled them with a bemused chuckle, having heard and admired ELP’s synth-drums-bass improv.)

The vice also went versa. In 1978, the London Symphony Orchestra released Classic Rock, an LP of orchestrated pop standards (Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody was a shoo-in)to great success. And Deutsche Grammophon or HMV this wasn’t: it was K-Tel, whose fast-talking saturation TV ads urged us to buy the Miracle Brush or Veg-O-Matic food slicer.

K-Tel had practical beginnings in 1960s Canada, when media-savvy salesman Philip Kives hawked non-stick pans. He spotted a gap in the music market: an LP-sized gap, fillable with relicensed compilations of different artists. A nod to his farm upbringing, 25 Great Country Artists Singing Their Original Hits proved a sellout. The formula was quickly and lucratively exploited across genres. K-Tel moved into Britain in the early 1970s, and its collections of charting singles padded the collection of every teen.

A force behind K-Tel’s ubiquity in 1970s Britain was Australian Don Reedman. He industriously generated compilations every few weeks, starting with 20 Dynamic Hits. Titles were now snappier than their 1966 country-music debut: Music Power, Disco Rocket, Star Party. Well, mostly: there was also Kenny Everett’s World’s Worst Record Show. The Classic Rock project was Reedman’s, and its cash-till bonanza showed there was money in orch-pop hybrids. In 1981, he and fellow conspirator Jeff Jarratt enjoyed a US concert of Walter Murphy’s disco reworking of Beethoven. (Clearly Wagner chose the wrong symphony when he dubbed the Seventh the ‘apotheosis of dance’: Murphy’s jive-friendly A Fifth of Beethoven charted in 1976.)

With Travolta and the Bee Gees, disco was booming – literally. After the Dutch production team Stars on 45 produced a big-selling disco-medley version of Beatles hook lines, re-performed and overlaid with that perpetual oom-cha, oom-cha, other genres followed: the Beach Boys, swing, Chas & Dave… and classical. Reedman and Jarratt hatched the idea on their plane back from Dallas: disco medley meets the great composers. By the time they touched down, Reedman – a classical percussionist at high school – had a shortlist of pieces familiar from TV ads and themes, starting big with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto. As arranger-conductor, they called on Louis Clark of classical-influenced pop band the Electric Light Orchestra: a self-taught rocker who then studied music and orchestration, who could combine pop’s energy with classical accomplishment.

The LSO weren’t available; enter the Royal Philharmonic. With scant public subsidy, the RPO has always been open to film scores, ad jingles and pop projects. Within six weeks of Reedman reclaiming his baggage at Heathrow, the album was in the shops: the hook lines of just over 100 classical staples, skilfully segued together over a drum machine.

American conductor Joseph Eger (1920 - 2013) conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with English progressive rock band The Nice, including drummer Brian Davison (1942 - 2008) and bass guitarist Lee Jackson at The Royal Festival Hall, London, UK, 6th March 1970. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
American conductor Joseph Eger conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with English progressive rock band The Nice at The Royal Festival Hall, London (1970) (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

There were medleys of Mozart, Bach, Mendelssohn, can-cans. The opening track, which romped through Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Rimsky’s Flight of the Bumblebee, Mozart’s 40th and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue within the first minute, became a single. It peaked at No. 2 in the UK charts in August 1981, kept out only by Shakin’ Stevens’s Green Door. Hooked on Classics and its follow-ups went on to sell over 15 million copies. Until the Three Tenors came along in 1990, it was history’s biggest classical sales phenomenon.

Not everyone was happy. ‘Infamous… entirely opposed in spirit to everything the RPO stood for, and without receiving much of the tidy sum the record made,’ harrumphed the 1982 British Music Yearbook. ‘A sad comment on the way the arts are regarded in English society,’ sniffed the Sunday Times. ‘Purists were outraged’ was an oft-repeated, though unsourced, newspaper claim.

The RPO were in dance mood, though. According to The Guardian, Hooked on Classics’s ‘huge record sales, combined with extensive world touring, rescued [them] from impending bankruptcy’. Clark ‘was broke and had to sell his lawnmower,’ recalls the affable Reedman. ‘We soon put a stop to that!’ Indeed, Clark’s career blossomed: in 1981 he played with ELO at Wembley Arena one night, and conducted the RPO at the Albert Hall the next. Further projects with the RPO covered the Beatles, Queen, ABBA…

Hooked on Classics’s notoriety did the RPO no damage. Indeed, James Williams, RPO’s MD, sees it simply as part of their open-minded output – a versatility that has helped them through the recent challenges of closed concert halls. ‘Our capacity to pivot, flex and respond has been fundamental’, he says. ‘We’ve seen that in terms of work on digital platforms, community education, health and well-being. We’re proud of diversity of repertoire, from core symphonic to video games, attracting people who wouldn’t consider themselves classical fans.’

Musicians join the RPO because of its diverse outlook, and often have talents beyond classical, says Williams. He points to a project running in Brent. ‘We’re building a long-term partnership in the local community – small scale commissions with local artists across dance, spoken word, carnival and more. Among our musicians we have dancers, visual artists, improvisers – skills that don’t get an opportunity on the concert platforms but which are invaluable here.’

Hooked on Classics’s breathless pace isn’t to everyone’s taste. I canvassed my social media circle. The core-classical half shrugged: not their thing, but if it made a few quid and introduced people, fair enough. The other half remembered their household’s copies fondly, and thought it great fun. For many, it genuinely had revealed music they’d never had access to.

Another view comes from composer David Bruce, no stranger to either ‘serious’ music (BBC Proms commissions, operas, international demand) or ‘popularisation’ (his witty, playful but musically insightful YouTube classical-music channel has 200,000 subscribers and 11 million views). For him, the idea of adding a beat to classical tracks – something any back-bedroom muso with basic tech could do nowadays – can be fun: he’s done it, turning Bach into stylish jazz-funk, and recommends the Carducci Quartet’s ‘fabulous’ Shostakovich quartet collaboration with a drummer.

‘I think this kind of mash-up can help people get beyond any sense of classical being stuffy and see it’s just really good music,’ says Bruce. ‘Having reminded myself of Hooked on Classics, I’m now tempted to make a “21st-century” version – although if I do, it will probably be in 11/8 time!’

Which pieces of classical music are featured in Hooked on Classics?

Though you can find the Hooked on Classics albums on several streaming services today, the five-minute opening track ‘Hooked on Classics Parts 1 & 2’ isn’t precisely what Radio 1 listeners would have heard storming the pop charts in 1981 (or while watching Legs & Co do their moves on Top of the Pops).

The album track includes snatches of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Bach’s Toccata in D minor, Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik and Rossini’s William Tell overture; however, the original single’s side-A line-up was, in rapid succession, as follows:

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1

Rimsky-Korsakov: Flight of the Bumblebee

Mozart: Symphony No. 40

Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue

Sibelius: Karelia Suite

Mozart: ‘Voi che sapete’ from The Marriage of Figaro

In BBC Music Magazine‘s survey of 172 singers, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro was voted the greatest opera of all time.

Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet

Clarke: Prince of Denmark’s March (‘Trumpet Voluntary’)

Handel: Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah

Grieg: Piano Concerto

Bizet: Carmen Overture

Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture

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Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (a very brief snatch!)