Thumb through a copy of Guinness's British Hit Singles & Albums, and the evidence is clear: instrumental hit singles are a dying breed. Indeed, pickings have been slim since 1985, the summer of Harold Faltermeyer's ubiquitous "Axel F." Though Norwegian dance duo Röyksopp's 2003 hit "Eple" proved some composers can still deliver the requisite ear candy, something in our cultural landscape has shifted. Has Crazy Frog sullied the word "instrumental" forever?
Great tunes without words were all over the charts in the '60s and '70s, making pop stars of some unlikely candidates. Among them were The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, who bagpiped "Amazing Grace" to the UK Number 1 slot in 1972. The Guards also took "Amazing Grace" to the Top 20 Stateside, where hit instrumentals have become a similarly endangered species. Consider this: The Ventures--the biggest-selling instrumental band of all time--had three Top Ten US hits in the '60s, yet there hasn't been a single US Top Ten instrumental hit by anyone for over a decade now (Kenny G's vapid 1999 remake of "Auld Lang Syne" was last in line).
Here are a dozen great instrumentals for your delectation. All of them made the Top Ten, whether in the UK, the US, or both. Please note that our stringent selection process discounted predominately instrumental tunes that have some words. Alas, this meant no to Isaac Hayes' "Theme From Shaft," and no to Van McCoy's "The Hustle..."
12 "Walk Don't Run"--The Ventures: Britain had The Shadows and America had Tacoma, Washington's The Ventures, another hugely successful act big on twanging guitars. George Harrison was a fan and The Eagles' Joe Walsh has praised "Walk Don't Run" to the heavens. One of the first surf music hits, the tune was a US Number 2 for The Ventures in 1960. When drummer Skip Moore was offered a quarter of future royalties or a $25 session fee, he opted for the latter, the rube!
"Oxygene Part IV"--Jean Michelle-Jarre: Where would stage illusionists be without this, the perfect backing music for sawing a lady in half? Jarre's cryptic mesh of analogue synthesizers cranks up the intrigue, and reached Number 4 in the UK in 1977--not bad for a work he recorded in his kitchen.
10 "The Crunch"--The Rah Band: For RAH, read Richard Anthony Hewson, the Stockton-On-Tees-born polymath solely responsible for "The Crunch." Built on an insanely catchy keyboard riff, the tune turned the spotlight on an arranger who had worked with everyone From The Fabs, to Fleetwood Mac to Cliff Richard. Here he is playing his UK Number 6 hit on Top Of The Pops in 1977:
"Popcorn"--Hot Butter: Listening to a popcorn machine in 1969, German-born electronic music pioneer Gershon Kingsley had a eureka moment. The delightfully evocative tune he subsequently hatched on his Moog synthesizer was a UK Number 5 for New York City's Hot Butter in 1972, and went on to shift two million units worldwide. Also a 2005 UK Number 12 for the infernal Crazy Frog.
8 "The Happy Organ"--Dave "Baby" Cortez: Detroit, Michigan native David Cortez Clowney would record for Chess Records in the early '60s, but this pukka mood-lifter topped the charts for him back in 1959. Originally recorded with vocals that the impressively pompadoured Cortez and his co-writer Kurt Wood opted to discard, it was the first US Number 1 to feature electronic organ as a lead instrument.
"Fanfare For The Common Man"--ELP: The accompanying video (featuring ELP performing in fur coats at The Olympic Stadium, Montreal) missed that common touch, but the trio's prog-rock reworking of Aaron Copeland's 1942 work has a kicking back-beat. The group had previously covered Copeland's Hoedown on their 1972 album Trilogy; Fanfare...reached Number 2 in the UK in 1977.
6 "Spanish Flea"--Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass: Smirk at the back if you will, but Alpert's fruity parping on this December 1965 UK Number 3 made for über-easy-listening. It was composed by Chicago-born marimba and vibraphone player Julius Wechter, who was also a session player for the likes of the Beach Boys and Phil Spector. Trivia factoid: no member of Alpert's Tijuana Brass was actually Hispanic.
"Apache"--The Shadows: Taking its name from a 1954 western starring Burt Lancaster, Apache was presented to the Shadows by its composer Jerry Lordan while he was on tour with the band. Hank Marvin's Stratocaster, tremolo bar and Meazzi echo unit gave the tune the "big twang" treatment, and voilà: a UK Number 1 slot for five weeks in 1960. Lordan soon gave up singing to concentrate on composition, also penning The Shadows' Number 1 instrumental "Wonderful Land."
4 "Love's Theme"--Barry White & The Love Unlimited Orchestra: Back in February 1974, no medallion-wearing Lothario of note was without White's silky-stringed 45, a lush seduction aid with "Theme From Shaft"-like wah-wah guitar. Orchestrated hit-wise, only 1973's Simon Park Orchestra smash "Eye Level" trumped it in the UK (Number 1 to White's Number 10), but there's no doubting which tune is the sexier.
"Green Onions"--Booker T & The MG's: The choice band behind Stax records' unique sound got alchemical on "Green Onions," turning a stock 12-bar-blues riff into 24-carat gold. Booker T's propulsive Hammond organ vamp; Steve Cropper's incisive lead guitar; a multi-racial band united under a groove--initially it meant so much more Stateside, where it reached Number 3 in 1962. The UK eventually caught up in December 1979, when "Green Onions" peaked at Number 7.
2 "Telstar"--The Tornados: Nothing before or since sounds quite like Telstar, Joe Meek's madcap paean to the AT&T communications satellite of the same name. Viewed through this end of the telescope, its crazed clavioline melody sounds magically anachronistic, but at the time it was fabulously futurist. A gift for London instrumental outfit the Tornados, Telstar reached Number 1 on both sides of the Atlantic in 1962. Also Margaret Thatcher's favorite single.
"Albatross"--Fleetwood Mac: A UK chart-topper in December 1968, Peter Green's soaring masterpiece remains the ultimate balm for the senses. At times the guitarist's sublime bends and deft vibrato sound like the product of divine intervention. Fleetwood and McVie's uncannily "felt" rhythm track is the wind beneath Greeny's wings; Danny Kirwan is on second guitar.