Chuck Berry knew all along.
Remember in "Roll Over, Beethoven," when he announced it was time for ol' Ludwig van to "tell Tchaikovsky the news"? Most of us thought the song was saying that rock and roll records were going to push classical music off the airwaves, but Berry's actual meaning went deeper.
What he saw was a day when even symphony orchestras would be "rockin' in two-by-two."
And he was right. The symphony scene is really starting to rock.
Granted, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky haven't quite been stricken from the symphony schedules yet. But that may be only a matter of time, as the number of symphonic rock albums grows from a trickle to a torrent.
Why, in just the past few months, CD buyers have been tantalized by such titles as "Fortress: The London Symphony Orchestra Performs the Music of Sting"; "The Queen Collection," with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Louis Clark; "Classic Moody Blues Hits" with the Frankfurt Rock Orchestra and guest vocalist Justin Hayward, as well as the similarly titled "Classic Toto Hits," with vocalist Bobby Kimball; and "Symphonic Music of the Rolling Stones," with the London Symphony Orchestra and singers Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull and Michael Hutchence.
This intermingling of the electric and the symphonic isn't an entirely new phenomenon. Rock musicians -- English rockers in particular -- have long aspired to Symphony Hall legitimacy. Whether this penchant for violins stems from a deeply felt desire to raise rock and roll's artistic standards or simply reflects the social inferiority complexes of ambitious middle-class musicians is hard to say, but there's no denying that it has led to some utterly dreadful music.
Who can forget (or would ever want to replay) such misbegotten megaworks as "Deep Purple and the Royal Philharmonic" or Procol Harum's "In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra"?
On the whole, most art-rock attempts to bring a sense of symphonic grandeur to the gritty world of rock and roll were overreaching embarrassments, be they as campy as the Electric Light Orchestra's semi-symphonic arrangement of "Roll Over, Beethoven" or as earnest as Emerson, Lake & Palmer's rocked-up rendition of "Pictures at an Exhibition."
Still, rockers weren't the only ones trying to rush rock and classical to the altar. In the '60s, when grown-ups wary of Beatlemania searched desperately for a way of dealing with their fondness for such tunes as "Michelle" and "Yesterday," the Boston Pops responded with an entire album of symphonic Beatles music. A decade later, after the phrase "rock opera" had gone from being an oxymoron to an actual genre, the London Symphony Orchestra lent its services to a fully orchestrated version of the Who's "Tommy."
But it wasn't until 1979 that symphonic rock truly came into its own. That was the year the London Symphony Orchestra's "Classic Rock, Volume One" was released, with its full-on renditions of such unlikely orchestral fare as Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love," the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black" and 10cc's "I'm Not In Love."
Alas, the LSO was a tad too far ahead of the curve with that one -- if a "Volume Two" was recorded, it wasn't released in this country -- but it definitely had the right idea. Instead of taking the usual route, in which the orchestra merely added string-and-horn "sweetening" to standard rock-band arrangements, the LSO seized the stage for itself, relegating the electric guitars to supporting roles behind the violins, cellos, clarinets and bassoons.
Amazingly enough, it worked. As hard as it is to imagine "Whole Lotta Love" sounding anything but silly without Jimmy Page and Robert Plant on hand, the arrangement Andrew Pryce Jackman created for the LSO credibly converted Led Zep's ominous bluster to orchestral terms. It wasn't a simple transcription, in which each of the original voices is assigned an orchestral equivalent; Jackman was smart enough to flesh out the tune's melodic and harmonic content so the piece seemed to fit orchestral mode without undercutting its rhythmic momentum.
Sadly, that's a lesson many latter-day orchestrators have yet to learn.
Take, for example, the arrangements conductor Darryl Way generated for "Fortress: The London Symphony Orchestra Performs the Music of Sting" (Angel 55344).
Although Way certainly makes the most of the music's melodic content, he doesn't seem much interested in expanding the compositional scope of Sting's songs. Most of his arrangements are straight transcriptions with only the slightest instrumental elaboration, like the monster-movie soundtrack flourishes sprinkled through "Synchronicity II" or the chirping strings that flutter beneath the verses of "King of Pain." That adds a bit of color, but never comes close to conveying the rhythmic energy of the originals, so selections such as "Invisible Sun" or "Every Breath You Take" chug along with the glib blandness of well-bred mood music.
"The Queen Collection," played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Hollywood 62006), fares better if only because arranger/conductor Louis Clark is a little more familiar with the milieu. Besides having worked with E.L.O., Clark is also the man responsible for "Hooked on Classics," and he brings a similar hook-heavy approach to the Queen songbook.
It's not as if songs like "Bohemian Rhapsody" or "Flash" pose any special challenge to an arranger, given the semi-orchestral sound of the originals. But Clark does as well or better with "Under Pressure," whose bass hook translates easily to the orchestra's lower strings, and "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," which moves from rockabilly to Rossini with astonishing ease.
Clark may be an old hand at this, but he and the Royal Phil are hardly symphonic rock careerists; not so the Frankfurt Rock Orchestra, which appears disturbingly eager to carve a place for itself in the genre. Unlike "Fortress" and "The Queen Collection," which attempt to broaden the audience for rock songwriting, both "Classic Moody Blues Hits" (MMS 903115) and "Classic Toto Hits" (MMS 903001) seem aimed squarely at those groups' original fans.
For one thing, each album tends less toward symphonic rock than a rock-band-and-strings approach; for another, both try to add a touch of authenticity by bringing in vocalists associated with the originals. "Classic Toto" brings in former Toto singer Bobby Kimball to reprise many of his original vocals, while "Classic Moody Blues" uses Justin Hayward on five of the album's 14 tunes, including "Blue Guitar." Unfortunately, the rest of the singing is left to such "friends" as Saga's Michael Sadler and ex-Atlanta Rhythm Section singer Shaun Williams.
In both cases, the move up to semi-symphonic orchestrations is an easy one, as most of the originals had a fairly lush sound to begin with (after all, how hard can it be to swap mellotron or string synthesizer parts for real strings?). But because the treatments are often no-brainers, there's a subtle somnolence to the performances, as if the FRO and its guests never quite woke up before recording.
That's not the case with "Symphonic Music of the Rolling Stones" (RCA 62526). Although this album includes vocals by Jagger, Faithfull and Hutchence, the arrangements carry the recording. Rather than try to get the London Symphony to rock out, these treatments reconfigure the songs in orchestral terms, so that instead of string-laden Stones tunes, we get totally new interpretations of familiar melodies.
Tellingly, all the arrangers here are rock vets (particularly Pete Townshend cohort Ted Astley and Killing Joke vet Jaz Coleman) and thus keenly aware of what an orchestra can't do.
"Street Fighting Man," for example, never even tries to emulate the jangly rage of the original, going instead for an approach that has more in common with Vaughan Williams; likewise, "Jumpin' Jack Flash" skips over the double-strummed intensity of Keith Richards' guitar in favor of sly, swirling ostinato patterns.
If the Symphonic Stones has a weakness, it's the singing. Hearing Hutchence ham his way through "Under My Thumb" is painful enough, but having Jerry Hadley treat "Sympathy for the Devil" as if it were some lesser work by Andrew Lloyd Webber is outright irritating.
If the idea is to raise rock to orchestral heights, why let the singers drag it down to the level of musical comedy?
To hear selections from these recordings, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6205 after the greeting.