Roger Cox: Instrumental pop music is fighting back

Travel back in time with me, if you will, to the summer of 1960 – technically the start of the 1960s, but culturally and socially still very much part of the 1950s.

Pop music hasnt always been about singing. Picture: Robert Perry
Pop music hasnt always been about singing. Picture: Robert Perry

On 25 August, Apache by the Shadows twanged its way to No1 in the UK singles charts and stayed there for five weeks. Earlier that year, on 22 February, Percy Faith’s recording of the theme tune from the film A Summer Place hit number one in the US Billboard chart and remained there for nine weeks, subsequently reaching No2 in the UK. The point is: pop music hasn’t always been about singing, although for much of the last five decades it may have felt that way. There was a time, back before the Sixties really started to swing, when instrumental pop was something that people bought in their droves.

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It may no longer be the viable commercial proposition it once was, but the genre has kept on truckin’ in the meantime, and this autumn it has thrown up some particularly worthwhile releases.

A few days ago, I was sent a stream of a beautifully crafted new album from Sound of Yell, the alter-ego of multi-instrumentalist Stevie Jones, who played with Scottish Album of the Year winner RM Hubbert in his former band El Hombre Trajeado. Almost entirely devoid of vocals, it’s out next month and features contributions from members of Belle and Sebastian and Trembling Bells among others – which suggests there may be plenty of musicians from the vocals-dominated mainstream eager to explore the wide musical horizons that lie just beyond the constraints of the verse-chorus-verse-chorus song structure.

Malinky’s Mike Vass is best known as a folk musician, but his atmospheric new album In The Wake of Neil Gunn, released today and making judicious use of samples and other effects, could just as easily be described as instrumental pop.

Inspired by a voyage around the Hebrides, following the route of an earlier journey by Gunn, the album has a decidedly cinematic quality to it – which brings us to composer Craig Armstrong, who has worked on a number of big-budget Hollywood movies including Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet.

Armstrong’s new album It’s Nearly Tomorrow, out since last week, is a mixture of vocal tracks and instrumentals, but in spite of the singing talent involved (including Brett Anderson and James Grant) the instrumentals more than hold their own.

Will we ever see an instrumental track at No1 in the singles charts again? Actually, there were two last year. In the US, Baueer’s Harlem Shake became the first instrumental No1 since 1985, while in the UK Martin Garrix’s Animals was the first since 1999.

Not exactly a serious challenge to the stranglehold of the almighty rhyming couplet, but perhaps a glimmer of hope for anyone who’s become sick of turning on the radio and hearing “baby” rhymed with “crazy”.