Whatever Happened to The Big Instrumental?

Once upon a time, the instrumental was a significant player on popular music charts.  However, ‘round about the mid-1980s, the sans-singing genre went the way of the Quadraphonic 8-track tape (shout out to you Pink Floyd fans).  We take a look at some of the biggest instrumentals of a bygone rock era.

“Green Onions” (1962)

Never has a piece of pop music ever kicked off so cool as the early rock ‘n roll standard “Green Onions.”  The stone-steady Hammond organ beat brought by keyboardist king Booker T. & the M.G.s draws you in from the opening note. Legendary electric guitarist Steve Cropper (The Blues Brothers) scorches the sound with some killer reverb lead work.  And heads shall forever bob all the way to a fade-out flurry.

Remarkably, “Green Onions” was ostensibly improvised on the spot.  Cropper himself has conceded, “It was pretty much an accident.”  The musicians were actually gathered in a Memphis recording studio to lay down a commercial jingle.  The instrumental would soon become the centerpiece of the first ever formally released LP on the iconic Stax record label.

Many of us were first introduced to “Green Onions” as a key component of the soundtrack driving the George Lucas semi-autobiographical film classic American Graffiti.  Literally.  The tune was the backdrop for a heated drag race run beneath the early morning southern California sun.

“Green Onions” cooked all the way to #3 on the United States Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1962.

“Classical Gas” (1968)

Composer Mason Williams was a co-writer (with comic legend Steve Martin) for the politically charged late 1960s TV variety show The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  Williams injects this rousing production with moving acoustic guitar-playing wizardry.  Starting almost meditatively, the performance suddenly explodes upon the listener. Drums, strings, and brass all join forces on a rollicking ride that never takes its foot off the accelerator.  Among the musicians contributing were members of the fabled studio backing band, “The Wrecking Crew.”

Williams then leaves us just as he greeted us, with another gentle piece of master string work.

In the states, “Classical Gas” powered to #2 on the chart in ’68 and garnered three Grammy Awards.

“Autobahn” (1974)

Though heavily edited for radio, “Autobahn” was in 1974 far ahead of its era.  The avant-garde synth group Kraftwerk’s epic album version clocks in at a musical marathon 22 minutes and 47 seconds.  Along the mind-bending journey, we are beckoned to have fun on the German superhighway that has no limits on vehicle velocity.  And so, we abide.

Listen and lose yourself in this myriad of tempos, tones, and trippy touches of non-stop aural amusement.

American chart-wise, “Autobahn” ultimately motored to the 25th position.

“Axel F” (1984)

 It was the last of a dying breed.  “Axel F” furnished the electronic instrumentation movie theme for the 1984 Eddie Murphy comedy hit Beverly Hills Cop.  From the fertile mind of acclaimed musician, composer, and producer Harold Faltermeyer sprang this propulsion of pulsating power.  A lower register backbeat blends beautifully with the catchy recurring synth hook.  It’s practically mandatory practice that we “Do-do-do-duh-do-do-do” along.

“Axel F” copped a #3 ranking at its highest point on the 1984 U.S. pop/rock chart.

-John Smistad

Photo: Booker T. & the M.G.’s. Stax, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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John Smistad is a multi-published author living in the sensational south Puget Sound area of Washington state with his fabulous family. He is passionate about music, movies, sports and his Norwegian heritage. Uff da! John has enjoyed concert performances ranging from Paul McCartney to Melissa Manchester, The Stones to Barry Manilow. Rock on, man. Fun facts: John has no middle name (really) and once rode in a DeLorean he swears flew to the future. And back again. Hey, you don’t know.

21 comments on “Whatever Happened to The Big Instrumental?

  1. Gregg Porter

    Excellent choices, all; thanks for this piece, John. I like how you picked from different eras and styles. You could definitely do a series on these, including ones like “Outa-Space” (Billy Preston), “Frankenstein” (Edgar Winter Group), “Tequila” (The Champs – also featuring many of The Wrecking Crew), and countless others.

  2. John Smistad

    Thanks, Gregg. These tunes you mention are all terrific. This’d be a really fun series or even book!

  3. The Ventures had some big hits like ‘Telstar’. Also, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass had some nice tunes, and then we had that big ‘Hawaii 5-0’ TV theme song. There are a lot more I could name.

    • Requisite anal rock fan chiming in here. The hit version of “Telstar” was by The Tornados from the UK. While it’s true that The Ventures recorded “Telstar” and even titled one of their albums after it, they recorded their own versions of “the hits of the day” innumerable times. So they really shouldn’t receive any credit for “Telstar.”

  4. John Smistad

    Absolutely there are, our friend! Thought about including Herb & TTB but there are SO many hits from the band. Maybe next time that infectious melody that started it all for ’em in ’62, “The Lonely Bull”…

  5. Kendall McCarty

    Rumble by Link Wray. Nuff said.

  6. John Smistad

    TOO cool.

  7. Larry Lewis

    Neat article…..but lacking any thoughts as to “why” instrumentals have expired as a chart item. Might also be interesting to speculate in which music chart(s) or genres an instrumental would have some legs.

  8. John Smistad

    Great point. Larry.

    There exist several schools of thought as to why instrumentals stopped making the charts. I’m partial to a growing lack of imagination and requisite attention on behalf of “over-digitized” and “distracted” listeners.
    Not unintelligent.

    Simply unappreciative.

  9. Essanay Paul

    I was also misled by the title of the article. “What happened to..” any analysis of the topic?

    • John Smistad

      And certainly, fair enough. More of a rhetorical interrogative, yet duly noted and understood.

  10. Essanay Paul

    “Popcorn” must be a part of this article https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NjxNnqTcHhg

  11. John Smistad

    Ohhh…FUN tune! Next time…with some Hot Butter!!

  12. John DuVal

    How can you do an article like this without any mention of the true pioneers of the genre that had big hits in the late fifties/early sixties that laid the groundwork for the bands mentioned here. These omissions are just sad. To name just a few; The Viscounts (Harlem Nocturn), Johnny & The Hurricanes (Red River Rock), The Ventures (Walk Don’t Run), The Tornados (TelStar), The Fabulous Wailers (Tall Cool One) and the solo instrumentalists like Jorgen Ingmann (Apache) and Duane Eddy (Rebel Rouser).

    • My wife always cracks up laughing at me when Apache shuffles up on my playlists, and I “sing” along with the shwe-shwe-shwe-shwe sounds.

    • Barry Baddams

      The article is obviously from an American perspective but your mention of Apache has reminded me that the Jorgen Ingmann version was rather tepid in comparison with the recording by The Shadows from England in 1960, which was a hit just about everywhere except the US. https://youtu.be/7TwULx_wDiI

  13. John Smistad

    Great choices!

  14. Seriously some great instrumental tunes in those days. Someone should put out a playlist on Prime or Spotify

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