Mozart and Michaelangelo

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(Pictured: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, stoned.)

What was the last instrumental to become a big hit? Has there been one since “Harlem Shake” in 2013? “Harlem Shake” was a streaming success as opposed to a radio hit, as I recall. Kenny G made the Top 10 around the turn of the millennium, but again, his “Auld Lang Syne (The Millennium Mix)” was a streaming hit. You have probably forgotten entirely about the Adam Clayton/Larry Mullen version of the “Mission Impossible” theme in 1996. (I know I have.) You have to go back into the 80s before you find actual radio hits, Kenny G’s “Songbird” and the Miami Vice theme and “Axel F” from Beverly Hills Cop and so on.

Instrumentals are another geeky niche interest of mine, but I’m not alone. A couple of years back I wrote a post about instrumentals that I didn’t think anybody would care about, only to see it generate a bunch of interesting comments and a reader-compiled Spotify list. So maybe you’ll indulge me if I dig into a couple more instrumentals I found down a rabbit hole one recent afternoon.

The group Michaelangelo (their spelling, different from that of the Renaissance sculptor) would likely not have been much different from a lot of other mildly psychedelic folk-rock outfits at the turn of the 1970s were it not for founding member and principal songwriter Angel Peterson’s preferred instrument: the autoharp. In 1971, Michaelangelo made an album, One Voice Many, produced by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind of Switched-on Bach fame. The whole One Voice Many album is up at YouTube, and it starts better than it finishes; the last couple of tracks fall into a hippy-dippy vibe that gets a little tiresome. Peterson (billed on the record as “Angel Autoharp”) sometimes takes a lead on her instrument that other bands might have given to a lead guitarist, which is a unique sound. She isn’t the strongest of singers, however; the best vocals on the album are sung by one of the two other male vocalists, Steve Bohn and Robert Gorman. I don’t know which one is which, but the better one sounds a little like Neil Diamond. He’s on the tightly rockin’ “Son (We’ve Kept the Room Just the Way You Left It)”.

For Michaelangelo, it was one album and done. One Voice Many didn’t go anywhere, allegedly due to friction between the producers and Columbia Records chief Clive Davis, who held back on promotion of it. As a result, within months of the album’s release, Michaelangelo disappeared from the pages of history. Unless you’re looking at the pages of Billboard or other music trade papers publishing record charts in the spring of 1971. The instrumental “300 Watt Music Box” rose to #18 on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart in April.

At the same time Michaelangelo was leaving its very light mark on history, another instrumental left a somewhat deeper footprint. Spanish composer/conductor Waldo de los Rios went to #5 in Britain in the spring of 1971 with a record officially titled “Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G Minor K.550 First Movement.” It would eventually cross the ocean and make #67 on the American Hot 100, but it was not the first version to hit over here. A group called Sovereign Collection, which I am guessing was made up of UK studio musicians, shortened the cumbersome title to “Mozart 40” and scratched onto Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart in April, at about the same time Michaelangelo did. The Waldo de los Rios record didn’t peak in the States until July 1971.

You will probably recognize the main theme of “Mozart 40.” It’s been frequently heard on TV and in the movies, and it was one of a handful of classical pieces that were often used as mobile phone ringtones in the 90s and early 00s.

If you need more and bigger instrumentals, friend of the blog Tom Nawrocki ran down 50 of the biggest instrumental hits at Cuepoint back in 2015, so go read.

9 thoughts on “Mozart and Michaelangelo

  1. T.

    Not only have Instrumentals disappeared from the Pop charts, but so have actual solos.
    You don’t hear a guitar or sax solo at all anymore. Just endless streams of say-nothing lyrics.
    I’ve tried to figure out why and can’t come up with a good reason. Maybe today’s Pop artists, in their blanket renunciation of Modernism and all it entails, decided it wasn’t cool to stop yammering for 20 whole seconds. Lord I need some Whiskey.

  2. Yah Shure

    ‘One Voice Many’ was a huge album at my college station, thanks to “300 Watt Music Box”, and especially “Son….” The latter was in heavy rotation locally on KQRS, and was covered by the local “supergroup” Golden Smog in the ’90s.

    The technical problem with the album was that it suffered from “Moby Grape Syndrome”: certain instruments – especially the autoharp – were intentionally mixed out of phase to jump out from the rest of the pack in stereo. But because we were an AM carrier current operation, virtually all of Angel’s harping canceled out when the songs were heard over the air. We got used to hearing “Son” in an 80% vocal / 20% instruments balance over the air monitor.

    Similarly, the stereo-only promo 45 for “300 Watt Music Box” broadcast over the mostly-AM MOR stations that would’ve played it, was only delivering 150 watts’ worth of punch.

    1. I wish I could cancel out all of my Angel’s harping. Heyooooooooooo!

      Moving on from the bad Paul Harvey humor, I am intrigued by the phrase “Moby Grape Syndrome.” I assume they did head-ish things to their mixes that did not play well on the radio, or at least on AM? That sounds consistent with their general ethos of self-sabotage.

      1. mackdaddyg

        Moby Grape had such bad luck. Releasing their first five singles at the same time was just not a good idea. They were a great band.

        This has me thinking….have there been other promotional goof ups that did more harm than good? I recall one album promotion (it might have been CCR’s Mardi Gras) where a bunch of critics were invited to a party with lots of food and weed. They listened to the album and still weren’t impressed.

      2. Yah Shure

        At least this one wasn’t due to self-sabotage; at least no purple orchids were involved. Simply put: if you ever hooked up a set of stereo speakers or a stereo phono cartridge and inadvertently switched the polarity on one speaker’s connections (“-” to “+” or the red connector instead of the white one), the result would be an out-of-phase experience. Some elements were difficult to pinpoint where they were in the stereo sound stage. And then, if you moved the “stereo/mono” switch on your receiver to the mono position, almost everything canceled out.

        Producer David Rubinson thought that reversing the phase of some instrumental and vocal components on the first Moby Grape album made them sound like they were floating in air. Spacier. Diffused. Nebulous. Ethereal. More psychedelic. And it *was* a trip… as long as you were listening to the stereo mix of the LP in stereo. I noticed the difference in 1967 because I had a mono-only Part 15 FM transmitter, and over the radio, my stereo Grape LP sounded nothing like it did when I simply played it on the stereo.

        Columbia was still releasing mono and stereo albums, along with mono 45s in 1967, and the rule there was that mono mixes were done from scratch, instead of merely combining the left and right channels into one. Rubinson’s conscious decision to push the sonic boundaries was exclusive to the stereo album; neither the mono LP nor the five simultaneously-released singles from the album involved any phase manipulation, so they sounded just fine in mono. Given that the mono and stereo configurations were both available at retail at the time, it wasn’t much of a problem. Any AM radio station likely to have played the album that year would have likely been serviced with the mono LP.

        If Rubinson erred, it was by not listening to a mono playback of the stereo mix before it went out the door. The Grape’s 1993 ‘Vintage’ CD compilation included this related paragraph in its liner notes:

        “David Rubinson also discovered, to his dismay, that when his stereo mix of the album was played back in mono, the widescreen panning effect of the vocal harmonies was cancelled out, particularly on ‘Omaha’ and ‘Indifference.’ This was especially problematic given the large number of people who then listened to FM stereo underground rock stations on mono radios. Anyone who only heard the Grape on the radio at the time probably never heard the band in its true vocal glory.”

        The problem with Michaelangelo on mono radio is that we DID hear Angel in her true vocal glory. And now you know the ressssst…..

  3. Very late getting to this one; it slipped past me. I’ve heard the Waldo de los Rios version of the Mozart movement many times; in fact, I have a couple of his albums on the digital shelves. Never heard “Mozart 40” before, though, so thanks for that. (It turns out that the Michaelangelo album is here, too, though I’ve not paid it much attention. I might — indecision based on your assessment — remedy that.)

  4. hockeycoach24

    How many times, back in the day, would you hear the DJ fade out on the instrumental to hit the top of the hour news?

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