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