❉ A fascinating sampler of the music that inspired the Beatles, Barrett, Bowie and Zappa.
Popular music is a very strange beast. Rarely pure-bred, at its best it’s a veritable mongrel: absorbing bits and pieces of its previous DNA like some artistic version of the Thing, grabbing a few notes here, an overall ethos there, and then cobbling these disparate parts together to form an identity of its own. An identity which, while not exactly new, will always be different.
Long after they’ve passed away, whether simply from public view or from this life itself, those decomposing composers, contrary to what Monty Python told us, can still speak to others. Their voices, their spirits, shiver in every plucked string, every blare of brass, every thump of drum, every note of song and speech.
Cherry Red’s recent three CD box-set release, I’d Love To Turn You On, is a beguiling, intriguing, and fascinating account of the influence of classical and avant garde composers and musicians on the work of many major musical figures of what has come to be conveniently known as the counter-culture. And, given that this movement came to real prominence during the 1960s, it is on that decade that this collection focuses, and then follows the trail of influence backwards, in a fascinating exercise in musical archaeology.
A common saw has it that talent borrows, but genius steals. This was highly apparent during the 1960s, as all aspects of popular culture – music, yes, but also cinema, television, art of all kinds – fell prey to a sort of gleeful magpie syndrome, casting their beady eyes over all manner of tempting, glittering trinkets of the past, snatching up the ones that appealed, and then incorporating them into their works under construction.
To tease just one thread, consider the Beatles. The shadow they cast over popular music to this day is truly colossal, but the edifice was built on a foundation of material that was ready made and waiting. Not just in the obvious roots of blues and rock and roll, but in the works of more esoteric, high-brow sources. Sources which were absorbed, transmuted, and became keystones of some of the most memorable of the Beatles’ substantial canon. This gathering of others’ works to bolster and (more crucially) transform their own came from multiple sources: John’s fascination with musique concrete, George’s introduction to Indian classical music – and perhaps most importantly from their long-time collaborator and producer George Martin, a man whose role in the Beatles’ success cannot be overstated.
While Lennon and McCartney were ranging into what almost amounted to musical variants on William Burroughs’s notorious ‘cut-up’ technique, incorporating a sizeable chunk of a radio broadcast of King Lear into the prolonged, chaotic closure of ‘I Am The Walrus’, Martin nudged them slyly towards a wide range of composers to enhance their songs, adding musical quotes and echoes ranging from the brassy cheer of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 underpinning the happy bustle of Penny Lane to the anxious, stabbing strings of Bernard Hermann’s The Murder from Psycho providing a suitably relentless drive to the mundane tragedy of Eleanor Rigby. While the four lads made their own little musical jokes by weaving Frere Jacques into the backing vocals of Paperback Writer or adding a self-mocking ‘oompah, oompah, stick it up your jumper’ mass refrain to I Am The Walrus, Martin added little touches of musical class of a more respectable kind, and these disparate ideas created a new and wonderful hybrid, with an identity very much its own. Suddenly, the Fab Foursome wasn’t just another purveyor of enjoyable, lively, but somewhat identikit R ‘n’ B. Suddenly, Beatles records didn’t sound quite like anybody else’s.
Of course, equally suddenly, they weren’t the only game in town when it came to re-purposing the music and sounds of others. Whether it was done on as cheekily blatant a level as the likes of The Temperance Seven and the early Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band covering old novelty tunes from the 1920s, which in turn fed into the genuinely crazed inventiveness of the likes of ‘Professor’ Bruce Lacey and The Alberts, or on a more refined, more precise plane.
The mad genius of Pink Floyd, the crazy diamond himself, Syd Barrett, drew on a multitude of influences to shape his work with the band, and thus the direction of their music in general. Sources as diverse as Thelonious Monk and Handel fed into his compositions and his performance style. A particular favourite of his was Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring, whose grand flourishes and deranged yet intricate phrasing made its mark on many Floyd recordings, as well as being much loved by a certain David Bowie, who declared Stravinsky’s work to be ‘as powerful as anything in rock’.
Elsewhere in the musical world of 1960s Britain, Robert Wyatt found inspiration in the delicate operatic work of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Nick Drake brought the genteelly blissed-out rural romanticism of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis into his intimate, delicately-beautiful songs, and the more obviously impassioned Scott Walker took cues from, and sometimes outright covered, the likes of Sibelius, Delius, and Jacques Brel. And such instances were merely the tip of a creative iceberg that produced outcroppings anywhere that you’d care to look in the British musical scene of the decade. Not to mention overseas, where the dramatic soundscapes of Edgard Varese both delighted and influenced Frank Zappa and his work with the Mothers of Invention.
This box-set from Cherry Red is a wonderful conceit, and a most welcome one. You’ll find many of those inspirational pieces that I’ve mentioned included, and, better still, it encourages us to return to tunes and songs, many of which will be much-loved through heavy repetition, many of which we may have almost forgotten about, and to listen to them with fresh ears. To appreciate not just the genius of our favourite artists, but of the other artists who came before them, and provided such fertile soil in which to seed those later ventures. In the end, it should inspire any listener to seek out those musical forebears, begin to comprehend how the whole huge, glorious, centuries-spanning web is woven – and, maybe, to find some new musical avenues to explore, new favourites to discover.
Do you think that I’m exaggerating? Then let me leave you with one example, a well-known record which maybe is too well-known. So much so that some things about it are taken for granted. One of the Beatles’ and Martin’s best-known tracks, All You Need Is Love. You think that you know it. A sunny, joyous paean to the power of said emotion. And yes, it is that. But it’s so much more. Listen to it again. Hear how it starts with La Marseillaise. Note the echoes of Bach in the verse melody. And, as the whole thing swirls into cheery chaos at the end, pay attention, and in short order you’ll pick out Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia On Greensleeves, Glenn Miller’s In The Mood, and the Beatles themselves cheerily guying their own past image with a quick snatch of She Loves You. All those influences, hiding in plain sight.
So, let me suggest that you acquire this set. Consider it an invaluable primer of your education in musical archaeology. And then get digging.
Turn me on, dead man.
❉ ‘I’d Love To Turn You On – Classical and Avant-Garde Music That Inspired The ’60s Counter-Culture’ 3CD (ACME351CDT) is out now from El Records, part of the Cherry Red Group. RRP £12.99. Click HERE to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ Ken Shinn is a lifelong fan of all things cult and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. His 55 years have seen him contribute to works overseen by the likes of TV Cream and the British Horror Films Group, as well as a whole batch of short stories of the fantastic, with his first novel on the way. Whatever the field, he intends to enjoy Cult in all its forms for many years to come.