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1988 – 1994: When The Rock Instrumental (Kind of) Ruled the Airwaves

July 8, 2011

Most of us remember December 1999 as the final year of the Millennium, temporal accuracy be damned. Billboard chart obsessives, however, view it as the last month an instrumental piece of music cracked the pop charts. Residents of what The Awl affectionately refers to as Knifecrime Island[i] may take issue with this claim, for in 2005, residents of Ol’ Blighty handed the #1 spot to a criminal enterprise masquerading as a cartoon frog. Luckily, Americans were spared any suffering in said advertisement against Anglophone hegemony.

From the late 1950s through the Kekich-Peterson weirdness of 1973, the instrumental pop song was a regular feature of the Top 20. Several artists, most notably Booker T. and the MGs, “Fifth Beatle” Billy Preston, and the Bar-Kays, found chart success without saying a word. As the era came to a close, non-vocal hits became more and more associated with either TV programs or major motion pictures. The rock and roll instrumental “for its own sake” began to decline, as the Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirius” snuck in at #19, right as MTV was beginning its climb towards significance. The next five years featured nary an instrumental hit, outside of – you guessed it – two tunes affiliated with films (the themes for Beverly Hills Cop and St. Elmo’s Fire) and one based upon a television show (Miami Vice). The rock instrumental was, in the words of the inaccurate cliche, deader than disco.

Then, as if this self-indulgent decade needed another self-fulfilling cliché, the instrumental re-emerged, but as a solo exercise in virtuosity, rather than a group effort. First was Kenny G, whose “Songbird” gave Wall Street-types a last gasp of mellow before watching over a historic crash a few months later. As Winter turned to Spring in 1988, a young hot-shot named Joe Satriani hit #7 on the Rock Chart with a tune called “Satch Boogie“, which featured more whammy than a Champ Kind sportscast. Those who recall those monster Van Halen tracks sans Diamond Dave or the Red Rocker (“Eruption”, “Spanish Fly”, “316”) should be fairly familiar with this one. Over the next five years, Satriani recorded six more Top 20 hits, with “the Crush of Love” and “Summer Song” cracking the Top 5. And he was not alone in spearheading the Instrumental (read “Electric Guitar”) Renaissance, as future tourmate Eric Johnson hoisted three Top 15 hits from his essential 1991 release Cliffs of Dover. A major motif within the title track (about 2:49 into the linked video) became so ubiquitous in talk-radio bumpers (the industry term for “the music we play before and after commercials”) that it somehow rose again as the basic melodic line in a song taken to #1 in 1998 by K-Ci & Jo-Jo.

From 1988 until 1994, a few other guitarists scored Top 20 instrumental hits, albeit via covering classic tunes: Gary Hoey (“Hocus Pocus” and “Low Rider”) and Stevie Ray Vaughn (“Little Wing”). These six years had the structural backing of wildely-available publications such Guitar World, Guitar for the Practicing Musician, Wolf Marshall’s Tablature, Sassy, and Yngwie Malmsteen’s Could You Please Sterilize My Guitar Afterwards You Wanker Magazine. Then, the Electric Guitar Instrumental Renaissance ended, and songs without vocals were relegated to tie themselves to a release from a major film studio if they sought the glory of the pop charts. That, or by trading places with Kenny G.[ii]

If I may quote Fred Willard from A Mighty Wind, “Wha’ ‘appened?” Was the instrumental guitar workout a generational thing, loved solely by late-period Xers, then tossed aside when they discovered Radiohead? Was it the lack of accolades provided to the guitarist that most deserved a Top 20 instrumental hit or two (this being Steve Vai)? Did America decide to rediscover artists like Billy Preston, realizing that no axe, regardless of the effects, can match a killer organ sound? I think we’re forgetting one of the obvious reasons for the fall of instrumentals – and I don’t mean the self-indulgence. For the aspiring guitar showoff, there’s the awkward obligatory nature of titling your tunes. I always appreciated the artists that acknowledged the weirdness of our expectations that every piece of music has to have a title, whether expository, clever or absurd. Ben Bridwell from Band of Horses addresses this phenomenon with monikers like “The First Song”, “I Go To The Barn Because I Like The”, and “The General Specific”. For instrumental artists, it’s even more of a conundrum, leading to head-scratchers like Bela Fleck and the Flecktones’ “Sex in a Pan”, or basically anything of Drukqs by Aphex Twin (my favorite: “Jynweythek Ylow”, which looks like something that you’d see on an Enya tracklist after placing it in a blender[iii]). Satriani is the main source for easy snapping, due to the sin of employing a nickname in a title. “Satch Boogie”? I guess the spelling of his name requires the new letter choices (“Satr-minus-the-“ruh” Boogie” doesn’t work as well), but if you are going to use your name in the song, as Bo Diddley would say, use your name in the damn song.[iv] Tell me that your enjoyment of “Satch Boogie” would not increase if it was actually called “Joe Satriani”. Hell, Diddley not only released “Bo Diddley”, he also added “Hey Bo Diddley”, with both songs making the Top 10. But “Satch” had a few other silly titles. “Surfing With the Alien”? Here’s hoping it was a statement of support for the undocumented immigrant community that staffs the service industries of southern California beaches. Should I be afraid of “The Mystical Potato-Head Groove Thing”, or merely be making sure I didn’t lose any of the necessary plastic ears or eyes? Did Glenn Danzig provide consultation for “Hill of the Skull”? And, most importantly, “The Bells of Lal”? More like “The Bells of LOL”.

While all of the big names from the Instrumental Era are still recording and releasing records, we are now midway through Year 12 with no Top 20 hits. Interestingly, the massive crash in record sales that has rocked the industry since 2006 has enabled a wildly-diverse set of artists with the opportunity to leap into the Top 20, if they can net at least one hot week of decent (40,000 units) sales. Look at all of the indie bands that have crowded the charts in the past few years: The Shins, Modest Mouse, Bon Iver, The Arcade Fire… Perhaps one of the Original Guitar Heroes will follow suit.

[i] Notice the subliminal admittance of defeat in that term – they’re not claiming that England is a more violent society than ours; rather the ribbing pertains to the choice of the weapons utilized within their ASBO chavvery.

[ii] In July of 2000, Moby hit #11 on the Rock chart with “Porcelain”. This, of course, preceded the era where “nobody listens to techno”.

[iii] Richard D. James explains it all here.

[iv] I get the irony that his actual name was Ellas Bates. Still applies, though.

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