This week is the anniversary of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’ hitting the top spot in the UK in 1969. Sure it’s magnificent, but it’s surprising that an instrumental piece – by definition, a ‘song’ must have words – was their only number one in this country. There have been other instrumental #1s, however: Mr Oizo’s ‘Flat Beat’, Doop’s ‘Doop’ and four by The Shadows.
Without words in its artillery, a track needs to be exceptional to prevent disappointed blank stares from fans used to lyrics and a voice. Rarely can bands get away with ‘doing an Eno’. I asked NME office staffers and my Twitter followers for suggestions. Here’s 17 of the best – and you can listen to them in a handy Spotify playlist below. What’s your favourite?
Link Wray – ‘Rumble’
‘Rumble by Link Wray is the only instrumental song to have been banned from the radio airwaves. Station controllers in the United States feared its menacing tone would incite gang violence. Even so, the track got to #16 in the charts. Bob Dylan once referred to it as the “finest instrumental ever” and it’s hard to argue with him.
Metallica – ‘Orion’
From their third studio album ‘Master Of Puppets’ (1986), ‘Orion’ is an epic symphony in three parts: a thrash-heavy beginning, a spaced-out middle section and a final intense burst. The song was named after the star constellation, inspired by the spacey bridge. Features a whopping six guitar solos.
Booker T. & The MGs – ‘Green Onions’
Without lyrics, it’s unclear as to what instrumental song titles refer to. There are three theories about Booker T & The M.G’s incredibly successful 1962 hit. Does it, simply, refer to scallions? When asked what it meant, Booker once explained: “because that is the nastiest thing I can think of and it’s something you throw away”. Or does it refer to da ‘erb? Bandmember Steve Cropper said it was named after the cat in the cartoon Green Badger. One thing we know is this: it’s wig-flip material.
The Commodores’ Machine Gun
The opening track of ‘Machine Gun’, Lionel Ritchie’s erstwhile band The Commodores’ 1974 album, is two and a half minutes of funking Motown genius. Berry Gordy named the song after Milan White’s bullet-hard clavinet playing because it reminded him of gunfire.
Pink Floyd – ‘Interstellar Overdrive’
No one does space rock like the Floyd. This track from their 1967 debut album ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ fuses psych with jazz, acid with free-form rock. It’s easy to get lost in the organs, weird guitar crunks and clamouring improvs. Apparently the riff was inspired by manager Peter Jenner trying to hum a song he couldn’t remember that turned out to be Love’s cover of ‘My Little Red Book’. Can you imagine seeing it live?
Beastie Boys – ‘Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament’
‘Hot Sauce Committee Part Two’, Beastie’s eighth studio album and the final one before the tragic death of Adam Yauch, was one of their finest and did pretty well in the charts too (#2 in the US). Nestled in the album towards the end is this bass-led earworm of an instrumental.
New Order – Elegia
‘Elegia’ a hypnotic, cyclical waltz from the 1985 album ‘Low-Life’ was written as an elegy to Ian Curtis. As is often the case with instrumentals, their original version is longer than what’s released. Stephen Morris told Select in ’93 that the track on the album was a five-minute highlight of a recording 17 and a half minutes long.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – ‘Blue Turning Gray’
Shout out to Gus from Alt-J for reminding me of this one. From the Brooklyn band’s debut album, it’s a short, gentle, guitar-led piece that provides a pause and breath.
Pixies – ‘Cecilia Ann’
Pixies’ third album ‘Bossanova’ opens with a two-minute garage-grunge blast that could soundtrack a rock Western. While sounding unmistakeably Pixies, it was actually written by Frosty Horton and Steve Hoffman. There’s great breakdown at 1.23.
Led Zeppelin – ‘Moby Dick’
John Bonham once played the drum solo in ‘Moby Dick’ so hard at a live show that he drew blood. He was using his hands at the time because his sticks had broken, which would often happen if he’d playing it 30 minutes. What a legend. Witness the sheer genius of Bonham:
‘Oscillate Wildly’ – The Smiths
The B-Side to ‘How Soon Is Now?’ is strange. You always expect Morrissey’s voice to come in at some point. It feels like an instrumental in the sense the vocals have been stripped away. Still, it’s a diverting piano-led, almost-jazzy jewel. Find it on 1987’s ‘Louder Than Bombs’.
Pavement – ‘Heckler Spray’
The first track on Pavement’s ‘Perfect Sound Forever’ EP is a riot of guitar feedback and one riff holding its own like a lone snow leopard. It was released in ’91, the year before ‘Slanted And Enchanted’.
Radiohead – ‘Meeting in the Aisle’
It was a pleasant treat for Radiohead fans to hear this obscure instrumental track brought out at Radiohead shows during their world tour last year. Sadly, I didn’t get to hear it, but was glad to dust it off and bring it out again. From the ‘Airbag/How Am I Driving’ EP, it’s a trippy, almost Asian-sounding groove based around three sliding chords.
Elliott Smith – ‘Kiwi Maddog 20/20’
The closing track on Elliott Smith’s ’94 album ‘Roman Candle’ is one of his sweetest. Warm, luscious guitars meander and blur; songs like this don’t need lyrics. He didn’t plan to release this album but thank goodness it happened.
The Who – ‘The Ox’
‘The Ox’ is on ‘My Generation’, The Who’s debut. It’s an unholy racket of improv, spicy guitars, keys and galloping drums. Sadly for people my parents’ age, they rarely played it live.
The Beach Boys – ‘Pet Sounds’
The penultimate song on one of the most influential albums in the history of modern music is the title track from the Beach Boys’ 11th album. It was written, produced and played live by Brian Wilson, who intended it to be used as the theme of a James Bond movie. The weird percussion sound is drummer Ritchie Frost playing two empty Coca-Cola cans.
Mr Bloe – ‘Groovin’ With Mr.Bloe’
‘Groovin’ With Mr.Bloe’ almost hit the #1 spot in the UK in 1970. It was performed by a motley crue of motley crew of musicians, headed up by Zack Lawrence. It’s one of Morrissey’s favourite songs.
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