I like strings in things. From 1930’s dance bands to 1950’s pop, the singing of of strings in a song adds a texture that I like running my ears over. One of my first bands Friends of the Iguana was a three-piece with a cello, and The Goodbye Notes song ‘Envelope’ has a wee string section, so I feel like I have a sense of what it means to tie strings in to the heart of a song.
All this is, is a reeling through various things with strings that spring to mind today. I’m not sure If I can comment too comprehensively on the meaning of it all: certainly by the 1960’s there was a sense that as bands and songwriters began to want to be seen as artists rather than craftsmen and women, to bring an orchestra to your song lent it a lush seriousness. ‘It costs money to bring in strings, and they can even read music. This is art’, the strings say. George Martin and The Beatles were big on it. Here’s Paul playing ‘Yesterday’. But the orchestra’s still hidden in the pit.
So as the 1970’s wore out our Beatles best-ofs on the turntable and in the cassette player, strings were unwinding from the radio as well. Electric Light Orchestra were formed by Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood in the early 1970’s: they wanted to make pop songs with classical overtones. They were introduced on American radio by Casey Kasem as “The world’s first touring rock and roll chamber group.”
ELO toured at first with two cellists, but their string sections got bigger, especially once they learned how to amplify them for the rock and roll stage, which is tricky to do. Here in Telephone Line the strings speak back to the vocalist, the unseen partner in the conversation. As daggy as the song is, it’s perfect pop.
Thoughts of Mary Jane
In the mid nineties, pre-internet, there was a legal loophole that allowed a ‘CD library’ to pop up near my share house in Red Hill, before public libraries had much of a collection. It meant that for a couple of bucks I could borrow some music, explore it and return it. I found a lot of new music this way, and ended up buying heaps more than I usually did. Not knowing who it was, I borrowed a Nick Drake collection and was knocked out by the guitar playing; there was an (albeit hippy-dippy) mystique to his songs, but most of all it was the use of strings that made me swoon. I listened to Cello Song as the train pulled me unwillingly towards my prac teaching placement. Hazey Jane 1 soundtracked the sundown beers on the back landing (hear how Drake’s amazing guitar playing was the genesis of the string part here in his demo) but for some reason it was the stoney Thoughts of Mary Jane that made my heart leap – maybe it was because the string (+ wind) parts were simple enough for me to pick out and there was an intense pleasure in hearing how Robert Kirby’s arrangement coalesces at 1:33.
A Midlife’s Tale
When I first heard this song coming off a cassette in my kitchen I picked up my cat and danced with him. Friends of the Iguana would cover it often, at gigs, and when we drank and played socially. My Friend the Chocolate Cake were a major inspiration to my early bands, both David Bridie’s songs and the occasional chamber ensemble he still leads featuring the violin of Hope Csutoros and cello of Helen Mountfort
Contemporary artists often perform with orchestras, perhaps to relieve boredom on both their behalves, but mostly it ends up being a cake that’s all icing. The cinematic power of a full orchestra has now been hi-jacked by car ads and TV station promos, so the self-importance that orchestras assume for themselves is now pretty frayed. But then there’s Bjork’s Joga. She composed many string parts for the Homogenic album herself, but also worked with composer/arranger Eumir Deodato. “With this song, I really had a sort of National Anthem in mind. Not the National Anthem but certain classic Icelandic songs – very romantic, very proud.”
Amanda Brown’s relentlessly hooky string part in this Go-Betweens tune lifts the tune into its own realm. Happy strings.
Tonight We Fly
Neil Hannon’s The Divine Comedy are a bit of an acquired taste, but I love the ambition of the songwriting and arrangement. They progressed from chamber pop to full orchestra over four albums. Here the Nyman-esque strings perform a kind of energetic fugue as well as driving the thing along the runway. It’s busy as anything and I just really like it. This amateur video is a bit kooky, but it works. If you want to see The Divine Comedy play it live go here.
The Only One
Having played in a band with a cellist, I can attest to the sonorous solace of the instrument: what better way to evoke sadness? Some suggest that we’re attracted to the cello’s sound because of its similarity to the human voice. It’s similar to Billy Bragg’s I guess, but I think the strings=sadnesseffect is more inculturated than that. We used to play this song quite a lot early on.
Song for the Asking
This is the last tune off the Bridge Over Troubled Water album: it’s got a sweetly understated string section in it. My younger musical mind always grouped it with ‘Yesterday’ in its approach. I have loved the song since I was very young. Recently I found a copy of them playing it live in 1969 – just Paul and Art and an acoustic guitar: no strings at all, and what Art Garfunkel sings must have been the basis for the string part, which, lovely as it is, is no match for the two voices in harmony.
I’m a huge fan of Kings of Convenience: I describe them to folks who haven’t heard them as kind of a ‘Norwegian Simon and Garfunkel’. this is one of my favourite tracks of theirs. For the most part it’s guitars and voices, then the strings bleed in for the middle bit. (viola and double bass?) The part is minimal, but I love the grainy lowness of them. It’s perfect for the moment: like the gesture of the hand on the shoulder at the centre of this intimate and fey video.
Your Arms Around Me
Jens Lekman keeps a straight face through this gorgeous pop tune, which juxtaposes the dull domestic interior with the sweepingly romantic: the orchestration suspending the quirky, if somewhat lumpen backing track up in the clouds. Everytime I hear this song it makes me happy. It may be drawing a long bow, but it makes me vibrate.