Yesterday I completed my latest entry for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The subject was the orchestrator and arranger Paul Buckmaster who died in 2017. Researching his life for this it was startling to discover how many famous songs he had been involved with; in particular, his contribution to enromous hits like Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, Elton John’s ‘Your Song’, Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’, and Harry Nilsson’s ‘Without You’ (an interesting arrangement comparison to be made in that last case with the Badfinger original). I would also add a personal favourite, the 1970 hit ‘I Will Survive’ (not the Gloria Gaynor song) by Liverpool group Arrival, which has Buckmaster’s trademark dramatic strings. (Decent audio for this song is hard to find – this is a nice tribute)
Buckmaster was not merely arranging in the limited meaning of working only within what was written by his clients. The harmonic and instrumental simplicity of the unadorned songs meant an orchestrator often composed significant additional melodic material, adding to the musical richness of the final mix. Nowhere is this more true than his handling of ‘Moonlight Mile’, from the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers (1971). Around the droning, open-tuned G major pentatonics of the acoustic guitar and Jim Price’s crystalline piano, Buckmaster created a gathering surge of string melody. It lifted ‘Moonlight Mile’ from prettiness into soulful grandeur, giving the Stones’ music a rare moment of redemption from their usual satanic and hedonistic energies.