Friday, 4 July 2014

Afflicted with a Medley

The early 1980s resounded with a Segue of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Louis Clark conducts the Royal Philharmonic orchestra - from a promotional video
for the 30th Anniversary concert of Hooked on Classics in 2013.
 It's too easy to be cynical about the early eighties - I strongly suspect that there is a strong core of affection and longing for the past beneath every 'run with the pack' sneer directed at this bygone age.  I learned recently that the much-overused term nostalgia actually means a painful recollection (nost(os): 'return home', algia: pain), and this means that using it here is going to be very appropriate.
I can't offer any meaningful social commentary about the year of 1981 as I was young and stupid. But I do recall having a mid-week lunch with my parents at home (College was just a short walk from my house) and first hearing a 'mash-up' of Beatles tracks on the radio.  A few lines of each song strung together and overlaid with a dance beat which somehow unified this patchwork of Lennon/McCartney mimicry.  We were listening to Dutch studio group 'Stars on 45' ; and the age of the medley had arrived.

Abandon hope all ye who click here

This single, also called Stars on 45 was a huge hit, reaching number 2 in the UK and knocking Kim Carne's Bette Davis Eyes out of the US number 1 slot for a week. Even my parents bought Stars on 45, on 45.  I dimly recall that similar pop blends were to follow featuring The Hollies and The Beach Boys.
In fact, there was something of a deluge of these records.  Stars on 45, (the group), released at least two more (including a Stevie Wonder medley!) while elsewhere even Presley and Hendrix were given the 'happy clappy' treatment.
My friends took their music very seriously: some clung to punk and the emerging new wave; others had taken piano lessons since they were foetuses and were prone to spontaneously combust at any hint of musical bastardisation.  One of these pubescent pianists might have felt a tiny bit conflicted when Hooked on Classics was released later that year.  On the surface it was more crass and vulgar than could be imagined in the worst nightmares - treasured classics from the great Composers disinterred, dismembered, stitched together like some musical Frankenstein's monster and then forced to cavort and stumble about to a disco-esque drum beat.  Oh, the horror, the horror...

It's exactly this kind of image which gives the whole thing a bad name...
Except... Hooked on Classics wasn't simply stitched together, it was meticulously arranged by one Louis Clark, who had done the same for the Electric Light Orchestra, a group which was much beloved by that same classically-trained friend, and probably remembered with at least affection by most if us.
 I had no musical knowledge whatsoever and literally didn't know any better, but I also knew what I liked.  In order to trigger what has been labelled 'disco-fied nostalgia', Clark had cherry picked the most recognisable phrases from a plethora of classical pieces and wove them together, and even I recognised key snatches of Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky.

The cassettes of Hooked on Classics volumes one and two became the highlights of my Christmas stocking haul for the next two years.  Friends recoiled as if I'd just happily admitted to pouring distilled excrement into my ears (in fact, that's exactly what they thought), but these two albums were educating me.  Under the beat track were brief samples of beauty and genius, glimpsed peaks of human artistic achievement and I wanted more.  The deceptively subtle and accomplished suture-work of Mr. Clark and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra became my index for exploring the great composers, and by the time I'd finished with volume 2, I was adding real Symphonies, Sonatas and Concertos to my record collection.  That airbrushed musical clef/fish-hook and I went our separate ways, and the Hooked On series continued for many years, most recently resurfacing for a thirtieth year anniversary concert.
Who, what and why I bought and listened to afterwards is a discussion for another time, but my introduction into this glorious world of classical music didn’t come from an inspiring teacher or a formative concert experience. And certainly not from any effort to learn an instrument: but thanks instead to a sequin-strewn, disco-frequenting pop tart with one overly made-up eye fixed lasciviously on the top of the music charts.  I'm happy to have been hooked.

Go on, click: you know you want to! Take it away Mr Clark...


  1. Stars on 45? Why does that sound familiar... oh, from my own musical history:

  2. Ummmm... thanks for that Jamas! At least I won't have to ask you what you're listening to if I ever see you with earphones on.
    With all that talk of classical composers this blog was becoming far too high-brow anyway :)