Scene Spotlight: ’70s Pop Classical Covers

This might not be a scene per se, but it’s more than just a coincidence. Musicians across the pop music spectrum chose to play 17th and 18th Century compositions on modern instruments in the 1970s, and did so with growing popularity. This phenomenon required the convergence of a few different factors: the development of increasingly sophisticated synthesizers; the willingness of audiences to tolerate prog rock; the exploration by jazz musicians into genres like fusion and funk; and the rise of disco. It was a perfect storm, possibly good, possibly bad.


Classical music in the pop world was not a new thing in the 1970s. As far back as 1937, big band leader Tommy Dorsey recorded a version of “Song of India,” whose melody was lifted from an aria in Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1896 opera Radko. The 1960s pop hit “A Lover’s Concerto” is actually a reworking of Petzold’s Minuet in G Major, which at the time was attributed to Bach. You probably know the Supremes’ version best:

Elvis Presley had several hits that were taken from traditional songs, such as “It’s Now or Never,” based on the Italian song “O Sole Mio”; and “Love me Tender,” whose melody comes from the Civil War-era ballad “Aura Lee.” The most classical-inflected of these is “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” based on the 1784 romance “Plaisir d’amour,” by French composer Jean-Paul-Egide Martini.

In the jazz world, Duke Ellington’s versions of Grieg’s Peer Gynt opera and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker are probably the closest to what we’re looking for here. Both are from 1960.

The Spark that Lit the Flame


My mother is a classically trained pianist, and she still groans if I mention this record in front of her. Whatever, Mom! Switched-on Bach changed the course of modern music. It sold more than a million records, won three Grammys, and more to the point, proved that synthesizers could be used for popular music and not just sound effects in sci-fi movies. Rock bands were already experimenting with the Moog synthesizer when Wendy Carlos’s epic came out, but the synth hadn’t taken center stage yet.

Here is the only link I could find to listen to it free online. The many YouTube versions all appear to be imitators. The first piece is “Sinfonia to Cantata No. 29,” which Bach composed in 1731.… target=”_blank”

This record had several immediate impacts on popular music. It made synths much more popular, especially the Moog, which after this figured prominently on several tracks from the Beatles’ Abbey Road. It also made Carlos a star. You may remember her contributions to the soundtracks for A Clockwork OrangeThe Shining and Tron. And, it convinced a handful of artists that classical music can be reworked for popular audiences.

The ’70s

“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” is the last movement of a cantata that Bach composed between 1716 and 1723. It is also the subject of an odd fascination among twentieth century pop musicians. You have undoubtedly heard it. Carlos included it on Switched-on Bach, and in 1971, the Modern Jazz Quartet put it on their record Blues on Bach. British pop group Jigsaw released a rock version that same year, featuring organ, guitar, drums, and saxophone. A year later, studio act Apollo 100 did an even more modern take, amping up the backbeat and rock instrumentation. Their recording, called simply “Joy,” charted in the US and UK, and has been featured in a few movie soundtracks, like Boogie Nights and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

An instrumental band, Apollo 100 recorded several reworked classical songs, ranging from the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony to Camille Saint-Saëns’s “Dance Macabre.”

However, like most acts who scored a hit with classical music, lightning only struck once. Apollo 100 never made it onto the charts again and broke up — if that’s what you can say about a bunch of session guys who just happened to record together — in 1973.

That same year, Brazilian autodidact Eumir Deodato released his first U.S. record, Prelude. Recorded with an all-star lineup of jazz musicians for Creed Taylor’s CTI label, it features a modern version of Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” and an awesome funk take on “Also Sprach Zarathrustra,” which by now we all know as the music from 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’m not the only one who digs this recording. It hit No. 2 on the U.S. charts and won a Grammy.

Deodato has had a long career, producing and arranging for acts as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Björk. He also writes his own music, so the fact that he did funk-jazz versions of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess” on his follow-up album shouldn’t be a mark against him. (Naturally, he also did “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”) His original song “Super Strut” can be heard in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

Around the time that Deodato was blowing up the airwaves and Grammy voters’ ballots, Walter Murphy was writing commercial jingles and TV library music, waiting for his big break. A producer he was working with on a jingle in 1976 suggested he do some “updated” classical music, which “nobody had done lately.” Apparently, that producer did not read this Artist Spotlight. Anyway, Murphy was at this point well-versed in the sounds of disco, and he recorded this little earworm, which caught a record company’s attention, got released, went platinum, etc. etc.

“A Fifth of Beethoven” was a massive hit, and then got another bump the next year from its inclusion on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Murphy released a few additional modern classical pieces over the next couple of years, but they performed modestly at best, and his pop star wave crashed on the shore. Today, he suffers the ongoing indignity of composing music for Seth McFarlane’s television empire. At least he got an Emmy out of it.

Jazz flutist Hubert Laws cut his teeth on classical, starting with his 1971 record The Rite of Spring. It includes mostly straight-ahead classical tracks; his lightly swung version of the second movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 is the best cut. Flash forward to 1977, and Laws recruits a full orchestra for a badass record featuring this funked-up version of Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

Just think, this whole time I’ve been going on about jazz, funk, and disco acts, and ignoring their prog-rock brethren. Yes jumped into the classical-rock fray in 1971, with the unnecessary “Cans and Brahms,” in which Rick Wakeman plays portions of Brahms’s 4th Symphony in E Minor on electric piano.

Perhaps the ne plus ultra of this genre came with the 1975 film Lisztomania, which starred Roger Daltrey as the 19th Century composer and blistered your ears with Wakeman’s synth performances of Liszt and Richard Wagner compositions, some of which had Daltrey singing new lyrics over them. I would say it’s like listening to Wendy Carlos turned up to eleven, on acid.

Even perennial children’s favorite “Peter and the Wolf” got the ’70s rock-classical treatment. Legit rock stars Gary Brooker, Phil Collins, Brian Eno, Manfred Mann, Gary Moore, and Cozy Powell played on this unnecessary record, as did legendary jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli. I included two videos here, because they’re both short.

But it was Emerson, Lake & Palmer who really dug into this classical-as-rock trend. From the first track on their first record — “The Barbarian,” a reworking of Bela Bartok’s 1911 “Allegro Barbaro” — this prog supergroup was fascinated with turning dusty old orchestral tunes into whatever it was they did. Across nine albums in the 1970s, ELP recorded 13 classical songs. While some were recognizable, the band also recorded unfamiliar obscurities that made for more challenging listening, such as “The Enemy God Dances With The Black Spirits,” a take on the second movement of Sergei Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite.

Their biggest hit among these was “Fanfare for the Common Man,” an Aaron Copland composition that has stirred your heartstrings a hundred times before, often in football-related television commercials where the sun rises over fields of wheat, and hard-working Americans wipe sweat from their brows, anticipating another day of godly labor and honest living. Copland personally approved of ELP’s rockin’ version, since he was still alive and the copyright not yet expired on his work. He was a little confused by the middle section, but so were a lot of people, I assume.

1980 and Beyond

With the decline of fusion, jazz, disco, and progressive rock, and the return of pop rock, instrumental covers of classical music faded from the charts. It’s possible that these 1970s recordings, especially the ones based on more challenging pieces, paved the way for new age synth artists-turned-symphonic composers like Yanni and Vangelis to become stars based on their own original work in the 1980s.

If you really stretch the definition of “classical,” you could say the 1994 novelty album Chant, which sold six million units worldwide, counts as an entry in this category. But classical music didn’t reappear on the pop charts in any significant way until performers like the Three Tenors, Andrea Bocelli, and Andre Rieu repackaged it as highbrow pop music, and when hip hop artists began using orchestral tunes as samples. See, for instance, the time Nas and Puff Daddy used Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” on 1999’s “Hate Me Now,” or when Mobb Deep borrowed “Fur Elise” from Beethoven for their 2002 bootleg track “Snitch.” In fact, samples are probably the most common use of classical music in the pop world today — but that’s thankfully a topic for another Spotlight, because this one is too damn long already.