When strings are the thing
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.
Brubeck and the Stones
The Rolling Stones have enjoyed much coverage recently with the band’s 50th anniversary being marked with concerts and a documentary film Crossfire Hurricane shown on BBC2. I must confess that I have never been much of a fan of the Stones. I enjoy many of their mid-60s-early 70s singles (always had a soft spot for ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’), and was very impressed with the guitar interplay on ‘Start Me Up’ when that came out, but never cared much for the dark and decadent vibe the Stones projected, which always struck me as joyless. I also feel that the emotional range of their music is considerably narrower than say the Beatles, too earth-bound and self-obsessed to match the sublimer moments of the Who. But they had their moments: any 1968 compilation that wants to reflect that year has to have ‘Street Fighting Man’, for instance, and the fabulous groove of ‘Tumbling Dice’ seems to translate emotion into rhythm.
The documentary reminded me of one of my favourite Stones songs – ‘Moonlight Mile’, the closing track on 1971’s Sticky Fingers. Guitarist Mick Taylor apparently had a big part in its composition, which may explain why it goes into very different expressive territory for the Stones. It’s a haunting nocturne with an oriental feel created by the open G tuning and the pentatonic major melody. Piano and strings add to the atmosphere, and like ‘Tumbling Dice’ it has one of those wonderful build-ups starting around 3:30 before the song climaxes on one last extended chorus. If you don’t know it, seek it out.
I must also note the death a couple of days ago of the pioneer of 1950s cool jazz man Dave Brubeck. Jazz really isn’t my thing; I only own a handful of jazz albums. Among them are the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out and Time Further Out from around 1960, the former containing the hit single ‘Take Five’. These albums have a melodic sunny inventiveness, as the four musicians play with various odd time signatures, which always lifts the mood.