The marriage between rock bands and large-scale symphonic orchestras produced interesting results during the golden age of rock between 1965 and 1975. An early attempt combined The Moody Blues with The London Festival Orchestra on Days Of Future Passed, with the orchestra providing segues between the songs. Deep Purple took it a step farther in 1969 with their Concerto for Group and Orchestra, written by Jon Lord and performed live with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Progressive rock with its heavy symphonic influences embraced the use of orchestras, and soon albums such as Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother, Procol Harum’s Live – In Concert With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, and Caravan with The New Symphonia followed. 1975 was a great year for that kind of collaboration, with two top progressive rock albums, interestingly both employing the same producer and symphony orchestra. One was Camel’s The Snow Goose, a peak in instrumental symphonic progressive rock. The other is in my opinion one of the best examples of how a rock band and an orchestra can sound as a single unit, performing a long-from melodic and emotional piece of music. This is the story of Scheherazade and Other Stories by Renaissance, with the London Symphony Orchestra.
The “Other Stories” part of the album is essentially the first side of the original LP, starting with one of Renaissance’s best songs, Trip To The Fair. Unlike many of the progressive rock bands classified as symphonic rock, Renaissance achieved the symphonic aspect of their music by focusing on acoustic sounds. The band did not use electric guitars and a large part of the keyboard work is played on a piano. Trip To The Fair is a fine example of that approach, starting with a dramatic piano introduction and almost four minutes of instrumental opening. The fair-like backing music behind Annie Haslam’s vocals works like magic, and the jazzy waltz exchange between vibraphone and piano at 6:40 make this song one of the most interesting in the band’s catalog. Drummer Terence Sullivan, influenced by other progressive rock drummers with a jazz feel like Bill Bruford and Michael Giles, shines here.
The lyrics to the song were written as usual by Betty Thatcher, who used to get the demos from the band’s main songwriter Michael Dunford and send the lyrics back by mail. In this case the song was actually about a date. Annie Haslam met Roy Wood, original founder of The Move and Electric Light Orchestra, around the time of recording the album and told DPRP about the origin of the lyrics: “My first date was with Roy, Dick Plant, who was our studio engineer, and his wife. We went to Trader Vic’s (Polynesian restaurant) at the Hilton, in London, Park Lane. We were drinking out of these giant glass bowls, a drink known as a Scorpion. It was like a fishbowl filled with white rum and gardenias floating on the top. I think I drank two, so I was a little legless. Then we ate the gardenias and we were all having a fantastic time. Then someone said, ‘Why don’t we go to Hampstead Heath? There’s a fair going on.’ It must have been around Easter 1975. Then we got to the fair at around 12:00. We’d been in Trader Vic’s until they closed. Eventually, we got to the fair, but there was nobody there. I called Betty from the studio the next day since she’d asked me to let her know what happened, so I told her, ‘We went to the fair and there was nobody there.’ Then she wrote Trip To The Fair.” The four-year relationship with Roy Wood resulted in a solo album Haslam made in 1977 called Annie in Wonderland with Wood producing. Annie recalls: “Roy taught me so many things about singing. He said, ‘Come on, let’s do some scat singing here on Nature Boy.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I want to do that.’ And he said, ‘Try it, please.’ So I learned a lot. It was wonderful. And ‘Let’s do some treble-tracking,’ because of course, Roy’s had so many hits in England, and a lot of his vocals have been treble-tracked.”
The first side closes with another song Thatcher wrote for Annie Haslam, the beautiful ballad Ocean Gypsy. In a 1977 interview keyboard player John Tout said of Thatcher’s lyrics: “Reclusive, almost. They’re not drawn from the normal sort of thing, that people write about in a rock band – if that’s what you want to call us.” On Ocean Gypsy: “I always thought the sun was the man and the moon was the woman…it’s like they’re lovers and they never really meet.”
Ocean gypsy of the moon
The sun has made a thousand nights
For you to hold
Ocean gypsy, where are you
The shadows followed by the stars
Have turned to gold, turned to gold
The orchestra makes its first appearance on Ocean Gypsy, playing a gentle backing behind the band and vocals. Even though the band tried to release a few short radio-friendly tunes such as Let It Grow, Carpet of the Sun, I Think of You and The Vultures Fly High, to me Ocean Gypsy always sounded as one of their most commercial tunes (in a good way), just the right balance of a sweet melody and mystical lyrics. I love the piano bridge with the band and orchestra, a nice way to lead into the song’s sad conclusion. Bassist Jon Camp said of pianist John Tout: “I would say that John’s expertise is in the arranging side of things. He doesn’t write much music, but we bring him ideas and he puts on the glossing, which because of his classical training, is much easier for him to do. It’s very difficult to arrange a Renaissance song on guitar. It’s a lot easier to do on piano.”
And we come to the crown jewel of the album, Song of Scheherazade. Progressive rock has no shortage of side-long epics and this has to rank among the best of them. The story is based on Arabian Nights, or in its original name One Thousand and One Nights. The band summarized the story for the layman on the LP album back cover: “Upon discovering that his wife has been unfaithful to him, the Sultan, convinced all women were similarly incapable of true fidelity and determined never to be deceived again, vowed to take a virgin bride every day and have her executed at dawn. This caused great distress to the people of the city as each day another beautiful girl was sacrificed to the Sultan’s pride, until Scheherazade was chosen as his new wife. In an attempt to end the slaughter, Scheherazade asked, as her last request, to tell a story to her sister and the Sultan until her execution at dawn. Drawing on her knowledge of poetry and Eastern legends, Scheherazade told a tale that totally enthralled the Sultan, but as she intended, did not finish before dawn. Faced with the dilemma of having her put to death or hearing the end of the story, the Sultan’s curiosity won and he delayed her execution until the next day. This continued for a thousand and one nights until the Sultan, by now deeply in love with Scheherazade and unable to face losing her, renounced his vow and she remained his wife for the rest of their days.” Annie Haslam told Songfacts about the origin of the piece: “I think that when it was conceived originally, Michael was looking ahead in hopes that one day it could possibly be something bigger, like a musical, which he did actually work on for quite a few years to try and get that off the ground.”
The 25 minute-long epic is made of nine shorter pieces weaved together masterfully, only three of them with lyrics and just two features for singer Annie Haslam. An odd ratio given Haslam’s angelic voice, so unique in the male-dominant progressive rock genre of the day yet so identified with the band. Unlike the first side of the album and previous albums, there is bigger participation of band members as composers, with writing credits for Jon Camp and John Tout. Jon Camp remarked on the writing process: “Micky [Dunford] used to come along with the sort of main body of the song and then I used to go and stay at his house in Surrey. We’d spend 2-3 weeks together and then we’d extend the song, we’d write some music to go into it and then we’d take it to rehearsals and put it in front of John [Tout] and then John would add his flourishes to it, and—it was very much co-operative situation, but it didn’t get credited like that.” Jon Camp also adds rare lead vocals on The Sultan, first since he sang Kiev on the Prologue album.
Camp also wrote Love Theme, a beautiful instrumental section that leads us towards one of the most beautiful melodies I know in music, one that in the progressive rock genre is on par with Soon (the ending of The Gates of Delirium) by Yes and Starless by King Crimson. The piece is The Young Prince and Princess as Told by Scheherazade, one of Annie Haslam’s peaks in a career of soulful vocals.
And you would cause the sun to see your light
And then be shamed
You cover darkness with a thousand secret flames
With your love, oh my love, oh my love, my love
And I would cause the winds to blow a hundred different days
And bring the perfumes of the gardens of the ways
Of your love, oh my love, oh my love, my love
One of the most impressive aspects of Song of Scheherazade is the orchestra. The band previously used an orchestra to accompany them on a few songs from Turn Of The Cards, such as Mother Russia and Running Hard, but the orchestra was used as a way to generate a bombastic ending for these tunes. Here the band and The London Symphony Orchestra play as one on pieces such as Festival Preparations, with a wonderful strings and brass arrangement.
This is the right time to introduce arranger Tony Cox, an unsung hero of the classic progressive rock and folk era, who wrote some amazing arrangements on many albums and tunes in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A small sample includes these: The psychedelic Mideastern strings on Summer 67 by Family from the 1969 album Family Entertainment, The beautiful textures on While the Iron is Hot by Trees from the 1970 album On The Shore, The lush strings behind Jon Anderson on Clear Days by Yes from the 1970 album Time and a Word, and the epic Lord of the Ages by Magna Carta by their 1972 album of the same name.
A few words about the people behind the production, recording and sleeve design are due. Producer on the album was the great David Hitchcock, with production credits to die for, including Mellow Candle – Swaddling Songs (1971), Genesis – Foxtrot (1972), Caravan – In the Land of Grey and Pink (1971) and Waterloo Lily (1972) and Camel – Mirage (1974) and Snow Goose (1975).
The album was recorded at the celebrated Abbey Road studios during May 1975 and the man behind the glass in the recording studio was John Kurlander, who started as assistant engineer on the Beatles Abbey Road album and specialized in classical music recording. His later credits include Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds and his claim to fame is his engineering and mixing work on the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
The album cover was designed by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell, known otherwise as the ubiquitous Hipgnosis design firm. No need to list their credits but out of curiosity I looked up what else they designed in 1975 and found albums such as Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here, Roy Harper – HQ, 10cc – The Original Soundtrack and Caravan – Cunning Stunts. What a run, and interestingly all these covers have photos on the front, where Scheherazade and Other Stories features an Arabic-themed illustration by Colin Elgie. The gifted illustrator collaborated with Hipgnosis on other iconic album covers and you can enjoy his work on Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat and Genesis’ A Trick of the Tail.
Renaissance did not achieve the same level of success as some of progressive rock’s top tier bands like Yes, ELP, Genesis and others. Even a major production as Scheherazade and Other Stories only scratched the top 100 Billboard LP chart. Still, in the second part of the 1970s they were able to generate a decent following in the US with a highlight of recording the full Scheherazade song cycle. This time they performed it live with the New York Philharmonic orchestra conducted by Tony Cox, at Carnegie Hall. You cannot get more respectable than that as a rock band. The audience’s enthusiasm and applause for the long-form piece is admirable given that the performance took place a month before the album release, so it was likely the first time they heard it. John Tout on that experience: “Oh playing with a symphony orchestra was absolutely incredible! It was probably one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. It’s a completely different approach. You have to follow the conductor. You have to be very aware of what’s going on around you. I enjoyed it, it wasn’t difficult because the orchestral arrangements were all done around us. I would play just as I normally would. It was just embellished and orchestrated around us. It was a very thrilling experience to play with an orchestra, definitely.”
The tour that ensued after the release of Scheherazade and Other Stories was a great success for the band, and a must-see footage of a performance at Capitol Theatre in NJ was released on DVD. It is interesting to see John Camp taking a much more visible role on stage with his Rickenbaker bass guitar. You cannot underestimate how important that bass, played almost like a guitar, was to the band’s sound. Replacing an orchestra with four musicians playing all the instrumental passages was no easy task, and on a few spots on Song of Scheherazade a playback of the orchestra can be heard to introduce the songs. John Tout: “I think we had recently acquired a synthesizer, the Yamaha CS-80 and a smaller monophonic synthesizer called a Pro-Solist which had some brass, flutes and woodwinds on it, which at the time I thought were quite authentic. We had also got a string synthesizer, so I was playing piano, string synthesizer, the Pro-solist and the CS-80. At one time we hired a Mellotron as well, for voices, for a choir. I got the scores and followed them as closely as I could. So rather than just holding chords down I would try and follow the string arrangements. I tried very hard to put in all the relevant parts. They couldn’t all be put in of course but I chose the outstanding parts and did the best I could to give the atmosphere of the orchestra.” Also noticeable is the vocalizing Annie Haslam applies to various songs. She commented on that: “It was to compensate for not being able to have an orchestra on every album. To use the voice as an extra instrument. And that’s why on stage I started singing more of the orchestral parts, because John couldn’t physically perform them all, because we didn’t have the technology then.” Remember the Roy Wood story from Trip to the Fair? Well, the song was not on the list that night, but its his pendant Annie Haslam is wearing.
For music aficionados who love romantic classical music and melodic rock, Renaissance provided just the right combination of the two, and Scheherazade and Other Stories is the epitome of it. Annie Haslam summarized it well: “The melodies, I think that’s what appeals to the people who love Renaissance, because the melodies are easy to follow. Beautiful melodies. And I think just the combination of the five of us was just incredible.” Asked the impossible question which of the band’s albums is her favorite, she answered: “I think Scheherazade is a masterpiece, that’s for sure. The Song of Scheherazade, the 25-minute suite, is brilliant.” I concur.
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