It’s no secret that throughout the centuries, musical genres borrowed and expanded upon each other. It was, and is, no different in rock & roll. In boomer-era rock, classical references could be as simple as assigning a title and featuring the style of a classical instrument, like Classical Gas, the 1968 hit by Mason Williams, or be as complex as incorporating whole sections of classical compositions within a modern interpretation. Some boomers did not know that there were songs of the 1950s and ’60s that had their origins in music that was, in some cases, hundreds of years old. Rock & roll had its detractors right from the start. So some people think that by adding a dash of classical — “real music” — rock & roll might gain a measure of acceptability. Mister Boomer thinks that in the feel-good Boomer Generation, it was more likely a case of, “if the tune fits, record it.” Here are a few songs that either “borrowed” classical melodies or were inspired by them. Some you may recall, and some you may not have known had classical origins:
A Lover’s Concerto – The Toys (1965)
The catchy melody to this hit by the Toys was actually known in its day to be a faithful interpretation of Minuet in G Major, by Johann Sebastian Bach. Yet we now know that Bach himself had borrowed the melody from Christian Petzold, who wrote it as Minuet in G Minor in 1725.
Catch A Falling Star – Perry Como (1957)
The song was a big hit — and also Perry Como’s last hit — but the music originated in Johannes Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture (1880).
Pop Art Goes Mozart – The Tornados (1966)
The English band that brought us the classic Telstar instrumental in 1962 recorded this classical rock interpretation of a Mozart tune a few years later.
Bumble Boogie – B. Bumble & the Stingers (1961)
Based on Flight of the Bumble Bee by Rimsky-Korsakov (1899-1900), this rock/boogie woogie piano version reached number 21 on the Top 100. The band followed up on this classical amalgam with Nut Rocker a year later. This time, the song was inspired by Tchaikovsky’s 1892 Nutcracker ballet. Emerson, Lake & Palmer released a version of Nut Rocker in 1970.
Switched-on Bach – Walter Carlos (1968)
Walter Carlos was in the process of becoming Wendy Carlos when he began working with Bob Moog, the inventor of the Moog Synthesizer. Mr. Moog’s invention wasn’t exactly selling well, in no small part because it was not considered a valid musical instrument, and was extremely expensive. Walter Carlos had been experimenting with electronic music, and since he could not afford a Moog, struck a deal with Bob Moog. Carlos recorded classical music to showcase the instrument’s capabilities, and after a number of sample songs were released, Moog gave Carlos an instrument. In 1968, the result of Carlos’ experiments was Switched-on Bach, which, ironically, became the largest selling classical album up to that point. On the pop charts, it reached the number 10 spot.
Wendy went on to compose the soundtracks for A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Shining (1980) and Tron (1982).
The 1970s was a particularly good decade for the influence of classical music in rock, most notably with the growing popularity of progressive rock bands like King Crimson, the Moody Blues, Procul Harem and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
American Tune – Paul Simon (1973)
On his third solo album after splitting with Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon took inspiration from Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (1727). Bach’s version was in turn inspired by the German hymn, O Sacred Head, Now Wounded, which itself came from an earlier secular song by Hans Leo Hassler.
Could It Be Magic – Barry Manilow (1973)
Manilow released the song three times, first before he became famous in a group called the Featherbed. In the 1973 version, Manilow begins his version by playing Frederic Chopin’s Prelude in C Minor on the piano, which itself becomes the prelude to his lyrics (co-written with Adrienne Anderson) that makes use of the Chopin melody to complete the song.
Pictures At An Exhibition – Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1974)
It was Keith Emerson who pitched the idea of the trio arranging and recording Modest Mussorsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition (1874). It reached number 10 on the U.S. charts that year, but was not originally supposed to be released as a rock album at all. Fearing a lack of rock radio airplay, Atlantic Records wanted to release the record, which had been recorded from a live performance, on their classical label, Nonesuch. The band, in turn, feared it would disappear in the classical realm and shelved the project until the success of their second album, Tarkus, gave the record company enough confidence to sell it as a rock interpretation.
In 1976, the band released Works Volume 1, a double album, that contained several classical cover-interpretations. There were two each by Prokofiev and Bach, and an impressive version of Aaron Copland’s, Fanfare for the Common Man. Copland himself gave the band permission to release it. As a single, it topped out at number 12 on U.S. charts.
Of course, there were many, many more. How about you, boomers? Did you like a little classical mixed in with your rock?