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Weekend LISTening: Rock Goes To The Symphony

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Paul McCartney conducts a 40-piece orchestra during recording sessions for <em>Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band</em>.
Larry Ellis, Getty Images

On Friday, the Los Angeles indie rock band Foxygen released a theatrical, bombastic new record called Hang, which features a 40-plus-piece orchestra. Since Foxygen is certainly not the first band to take classical musicians on a field trip to the local dive bar, we figured this was a perfect chance to revisit some of the most magical moments when symphonies have starred in rock recordings. Check out a dissection of each song here, plus a Spotify playlist to take with you on the go.

 

Hear The Songs

 

Procol Harum, "Conquistador"

Hey kids, put away your instruments. According to this orchestral tale, "no practice" makes perfect. "Conquistador" was already a hit for psychedelic prog rockers Procol Harum before the band made a last-minute decision to add it to its set for a concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in 1971. How last-minute? Procol Harum's Gary Brooker wrote the arrangement during his flight across the pond from England and handed it to the musicians when he got off the plane, with no time for rehearsal. Still, the first-time performance was so exceptional that it became a massive hit and the stuff of prog-rock legend.

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Sufjan Stevens, "Come On! Feel The Illinoise!"

When drummer James McAlister finished recording his parts for this rambunctious ditty, he looked at Sufjan Stevens and said "Good luck with that — I don't know how this is going to go." McAlister wasn't convinced his rolling drums would mesh with the flighty flutes and weighty oboes, or where the triumphant trumpet parts would fit, especially since they were being improvised by Stevens' bassist, who had not played brass since high school. Nobody's parts were written on a page, nothing was linear and no, this song doesn't feature a real orchestra. But it is a triumphant marvel, entirely born of the symphony Stevens holds in his head.

 

John Cale, "Paris 1919"

It is unclear whether the UCLA Symphony Orchestra brought its own chorus of chirping birds to the Paris 1919 sessions with John Cale, or whether the sheer beauty of this song attracted an independent flock to burst through the recording-studio windows and lend a trill or two. Either way, somewhere between the ascending birdsong and descending string line, you can probably find Cale smiling through his lonely lyrics at his very orchestral triumph.

 

Björk, "It's Oh So Quiet"

It's probably safe to say not many groups of classical musicians have ever had more fun than the one recruited to zing, boom, whisper and wail along with Björk in this explosion of pure joy — except maybe the orchestra that played along to Betty Hutton's original.

 

The Beatles, "A Day In The Life"

You can just imagine the look on the timpani player's face when George Martin asked a 40-piece orchestra to ignore the cardinal rule of playing in an ensemble by instructing, "Do not listen to your neighbors." Instead, Martin wrote a really low note on a piece of sheet music. He wrote a really high note 24 bars later. He drew a squiggle between the two. And then he simply asked a stellar ensemble of classical musicians to get from low to high, and get louder along the way. The rest is history, a crescendo so nice The Beatles used it twice — once in the middle and once at the end of this seminal song in symphony rock.

 

Stars, "In Our Bedroom After The War"

Don't be fooled by the gentle opening piano chords of this "love as war" anthem. Stars recruits an army of strings that marches you straight to the front lines of heartbreak and uses symphony to create a tumultuous, stunning battle. When it's over, you rub your eyes, look at the pile of rubble around you and wonder who won. The answer? Stars won.

 

Electric Light Orchestra, "10538 Overture"

Talk about making an entrance! "10538 Overture" was originally conceived as a B-side for Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood's previous band, The Move. But this incarnation, featuring Wood's love affair with a cheap Chinese cello and a series of massive overdubs, became the pair's debut as the Electric Light Orchestra. On the remastered version of the record it appears on, 1972's No Answer, Wood expresses his eternal gratitude to Lynne for turning his stacked-cello dream into a reality and for opening the creative door that allowed them to assault chamber music with rock 'n' roll as ELO.

 

The Moody Blues, "Days Of Future Passed"

An orchestra is a terrible thing to waste. And so when Decca Records' plans for The Moody Blues to reimagine Dvořák's New World Symphony through rock didn't pan out in the studio, the band convinced the on-hand orchestra and arranger and conductor Peter Knight to tune their talents to a different key: an original "day in the life" concept album. The result, 1967's Days Of Future Passed, is now considered one of the landmark works of prog rock.

 

Chris Farlowe, "Out Of Time"

The same year The Rolling Stones released Aftermath, their fellow Englishman Chris Farlowe gave a symphonic string treatment to one of the catchier songs from the album, "Out Of Time." It became a hit — and it's a good thing the cover was produced and therefore sanctioned by the Stones' Mick Jagger, or Farlowe might have suffered a fate similar to The Verve's (see below).

 

The Verve, "Bitter Sweet Symphony"

The bitter legal battle between The Verve and The Rolling Stones over the rights to this song may as well be the introductory chapter to "Publishing Heartbreaks 101." The short version of this famous cautionary tale is that Decca Records granted Richard Ashcroft and The Verve permission to lift a sample of strings from an instrumental version of the Stones' "The Last Time" that appeared on an album by the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra. The Verve laced those swelling strings over syncopated drums and created an original song called "Bitter Sweet Symphony." Ultimately, the band was legally ordered to relinquish the song's extremely lucrative publishing rights to The Rolling Stones' publisher. The Verve made one of the most memorable musical moments of the '90s, and a thousand dollars.

 

Arcade Fire, "No Cars Go"

As the old adage goes, "more is more." Pounding drums, stirring strings, horns, aggressive accordions and vocalists Win Butler and Régine Chassagne all have equal sonic footing, making this single from Arcade Fire's expansive Neon Bible the titanic opus it is.

 

Rock Goes To The Symphony On Spotify

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