Monday, October 8, 2012

Portsmouth Sinfonia's forgotten LP "20 Classic Rock Classics"

I had a college roommate who was into obscure and bizarre music (I can't remember if he was a music major, or pre-med).  Like most college kids, Rob didn't have a great deal of spare cash, but he was really into music and would come back to the dorm with some of the strangest stuff I'd ever heard (I'll readily admit that as an 18 year old my tastes were pretty mainstream and mundane).  I can clearly remember trying to study for a math exam while he was playing the first Portsmouth Sinfonia LP (1974's "The Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays the Popular Classics.")  I also remember thinking Rob had lost his mind, or gone deaf and clearing out for the library in order to get some peace and quiet.  So after all these years, blame Rob for introducing me to the lifetime of joys and frustrations associated with The Portsmouth Sinfonia.

For some reason the third Portsmouth Sinfonia release remains unknown to most folks (not that the first two releases were international hits).  You don't even find this one listed on most popular on-line discographies and good luck finding an online review - I've only seen one and it was in Japanese.  Shame since the album is just as entertaining and eccentric as their two prior classically-oriented releases.  

Released after a five year recording hiatus, the Martin Lewis produced  "20 Classic Rock Classics" (the title always gives me a Spinal Tap flashback) didn't stray far from the original concept ...  Apparently inspired by the London Symphony Orchestra's success riding rock classics like "Classic Rock" and "Classic Rock II" on the sales charts, the group reunited for a one-shot September 1979 concert at London's Rainbow club.  My initial fear was that the players were going to be more familiar with these popular numbers (as opposed to their earlier classical material), and it might have an impact on their patented sound.  While virtually all twenty performances were 'good ' enough for you to recognize the original melodies, to the group's credit their musical skills remained limited.  Yes, some songs came off more successful than others (I'm using that term broadly), but luckily none of these were going to make you forget the originals.  Among the highlights (again I'm using th term broadly), were their stab at ' Pinball Wizard', the vocal arrangement on 'Leader of the Pack'  and the sheer courage to take on The Beatles'  'A Day In the Life'.

-  I'm not sure I believe it, but Pete Townshend supposedly told the group that after The Who original, their cover was his favorite version of the song.  Could well be since they attacked the song with more enthusiasm than skill.  Once you got past the guitar introduction and the tubas and horns kicked in the melody became semi-recognizable.  Now seeing The Portsmouth Sinfonia tackle this one would have made for a truly memorable Super Bowl halftime performance.   rating: **** stars
- The squeaking clarinets and squawking strings provided 'Apache' with an interesting edge.  At least the drum beat was consistent.   rating: *** stars   

- With their cover of  'Leader of the Pack' the group introduced their first vocal performance.  With the vocals credited to The Sinfonettes, the end results were suitably ragged with the anonymous singers adding an interesting wrinkle to the song with their clipped English delivery.  Hopefully the singers kept their day jobs.   Interestingly, the vocals served to distract your attention from the instrumentation.   rating: *** stars

- One of my favorite performances, you could envision the group giving their all on this cover of Procol Harum's 'A Whiter Shade of Pale'.  About half of the orchestra actually came within earshot of the tune,  Pity the horn players on this one ...   Would have been fun to feature Gary Brooker handling the lead vocals.    rating: **** stars

- When I was in college the school pep band use to play The Kinks' 'You Really Got Me'.  It actually sounded quite a bit like this version.   For better or worse this was one of their more accomplished covers.    rating: ** stars

- It's doubtful many Americans have heard Althea and Donna's ' Uptown Top Ranking'.  In contrast the reggae tune was a big hit in the UK.  Maybe due in part to the fact the song structure wasn't too complicated, they did a nice job on it.  Actually quite listenable.  Not that anyone bought a Portsmouth Sinfonia album for that reason.   rating: ** stars

- I never liked The Dave Clark Five's 'Glad All Over' so this version didn't do anything for me.  Completely forgettable.   rating: ** stars

- There are simply so many covers of 'Heartbreak Hotel' that there's no way this one could make any difference.  It doesn't.   rating: ** stars

- I've always been a bug Joe Meek fan, but have to admit that the cheesy sound effects, mass clarinets, and group humming pushed this version of 'Telstar' to a new level of enjoyment.   rating: ** stars  

- I have to admit being dumbfounded the first time I heard their version of 'Bridge Over Troubled Waters'.  The anonymous keyboard player actually managed to play the opening section close to perfect.  Luckily a drunken gaggle of clarinets kicked in and things went downhill rapidly.  This was another one where the tune was surprisingly recognizable which may, or may not be a good thing (always loved the tubas and the unexpected cymbal crashes).   rating: **** stars

- Hats off to anyone doing a Kim Fowley cover.  Showcasing some jittery horns and cellos (shades of ELO), their version of 'Nut Rocker' was about as good as anyone else's.   rating: *** stars  

- Technically I'm not sure anyone would categorize this as a rock classical,  but the group's cover of ' Don't Cry for Me Argentina' started out on a surprisingly sensitive note.  Mind you, it took a minute or so for the song to uncover its  recognizable melody before briefly vanishing into a weird oboe solo.   rating: *** stars   

- Shame their Dramamine-soaked version of '(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock' was so short.  The band literally sounded like they were zonked out on some time of sleeping pill for this one ...  one of the funniest performances on the album.   rating: *** stars  

- The first time I played the album I did so without looking at the liner notes.  I basically wanted to see if I could recognize the songs.  This was one that puzzled me for a moment.  Luckily the horns marshaled their collective energy in time to hit the chorus.  Love the way they handled the little flourishes.   rating: **** stars  

- Their cover of Conway Twitty's ' It's Only Make Believe' actually sounded like something you might hear in a grocery store as background music.  Okay, I guess the fractured humming might be a little odd.   rating: *** stars  

- Ah, The Moodies ' Nights In White Satin' ... This was the tune that threw me for a loop when I first listened to the album.  I simply couldn't recognize the song until they hit the refrain and even then I wasn't entirely sure.   rating: *** stars 
- Personally I wouldn't consider 'My Boy Lollipop' to be a rock classic which might explain why I didn't think much of this one.   rating: ** stars  

- I guess it was a reflection of how great the original song was, but Brian Wilson's 'God Only Knows' actually survived the Portsmouth attack with most of its dignity intact.  The strings deserved considerable credit for trying so hard on this one.   rating: **** stars  

- Technically their cover of The Stones '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction' wasn't an instrumental since the Sinfonettes screeched the title chorus a couple of times throughout the song.  To be honest, the strings actually did a pretty good job on the song, but the standout performance came from the percussion section.  Whoever was handling the tambourine deserved special credit for having absolutely no sense of rhythm.  Very nice.  Jagger and Richards would have been proud.   rating: *** stars

- I'll admit I wasn't sure what to expect when they took on an elaborate composition like 'A Day In the Life'.  The first segment wasn't half bad, leading up to the famous string crescendo.  That left the horns and vocals under considerable pressure with respect to the mid-section.  They pulled it off.  Even better was the famous closing, extended piano chord.   They nailed it.   rating: **** stars  

Given my affection for their first two albums, I've always had mixed emotions with respect to this one.  Still, worth checking out ...   


For hardcore fans, the German release featured different artwork Philips catalog number 6308 315

"20 Classic Rock Classics" track listing:

(side 1)

1.) Pinball Wizard   (Pete Townshend) - 

2.) Apache   (Jerry Lordan)

3.) Leader of the Pack   (George Morton - Jeff Barry - Ellie Greenwich) -

4.) A Whiter Shade of Pale   (Keith Reid - Gary Brooker) - 

5.) You Really Got Me   (Ray Davies) - 

6.) Uptown Top Ranking   (Errol Thompson - Joe Gibbs - Donna Reid - Althea Forrest) - 

7.) Glad All Over   (Dave Clark - Mike Smith) - 

8.) Heartbreak Hotel    (Mac Buren Axton -Tommy Durden - Elvis Presley)

9.) Telstar   (Joe Meek) - 

10.) Bridge Over Trouble Water   (Paul Simon) 

(side 2)

1.) Nut Rocker   (Kim Fowley) - 

2.) Don't Cry for Me Argentina   (Andrew Lloyd Weber - Tim Rice) - 

3.) (We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock   (Max C. Freedman - Jimmy De Knight)

4.) You Should Be Dancing   (Barry Gibb - Maurice Gibb - Robin Gibb) - 

5.) It's Only Make Believe   (Conway Twitty - Jack Nance) - 

6.) Nights In White Stain   (Justin Haywood) - 

7.) My Boy Lollipop   (Johnny Roberts - R. Spencer)

8.) God Only knows   (Brian Wilson - Tony Asher) - 

9.) (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction   (Mick Jagger - Keith Richards) - 

10.) A Day In the Life   (John Lennon- Paul McCartney) - 

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