There is something about a large orchestra backing a singer that appeals to me. I don’t mean the sugary over-melodramatic ones like the theme song for Titanic. I love the lush orchestrations Nelson Riddle created for Frank Sinatra’s Capitol recordings in the 1950s, or those behind Ella Fitzgerald in her American songbook series. In the 1960s many great popular songs like Nights in White Satin by The Moody Blues, Good Night by The Beatles and late 1960s Scott Walker albums leveraged an orchestra to enhance the mood of the songs in the best tradition of classical romantic music. The 1970s was probably the last great decade for orchestras backing up popular music, before the advent of sophisticated synthesizers and digitally sampled orchestral instruments. It is no coincidence that some of the best orchestrated songs from that period all share the tasteful arrangements of one artist. His name is Andrew Powell and his career is too wide in scope for one article, so I will focus on my personal favorites.
Andrew Powel recalled how his career as an arranger started: “I was walking across Trafalgar Square one day when I heard someone call my name: it was Robert Kirby. He was already a successful arranger – largely because of his work with Nick Drake (I had played on a couple of sessions with him and Nick). We chatted for a minute or two, then he said – ‘You must be able to do arrangements – you studied at Cambridge – I have taken on too many albums this month – would you like to do one of them?’ Thus started a career… The album I did for him was for a singer/songwriter called Roger Saunders (who was in the group Medicine Head) – a couple of months later Robert rang me again, asking if I could help out once more. He asked me to do the debut album for a group called Cockney Rebel.” Powell could not dream of a better project to showcase his arranging talents. On Steve Harley’s Cockney Rebel debut album The Human Menagerie two lengthy tracks are graced with Powell’s orchestral arrangement, in both cases elevating the songs to a completely new level. Steve Harley explained how the orchestrations came about: “Neil Harrison was an EMI staff producer/A&R man, and he came in as control, and was himself fearless as he allowed my imagination to run loose. Neil it was who suggested orchestra and choir for so much of the Human Menagerie. And Andrew Powell was brought in to write the arrangements. Andrew squeezed a pretty large symphony orchestra and choir onto the tracks. Such a budget for a new signing is pretty close to unthinkable today. I’m still not sure how Neil persuaded the money-men to sign such crazy big checks, but his nous and his charm (both of which he had in spades) helped turn those big tracks into epics.” Indeed Sebastian and Death Trip are epic songs. I dedicated a full post in a past article to Sebastian, so I will only add a quick Steve Harley quote about it here: “Sebastian is possibly a sort of Gothic love song, possibly not. I’m not really sure, to be honest. But I do know that it has just three chords and a couple of riffs and that I had been busking it in the London subways and on Portobello Road for many months before EMI offered the lads and me, the first Cockney Rebel, a recording contract. Andrew Powell’s enormous and wild arrangement for the classical bods and the choir turned the song into something different, of course.”
One of Powell’s great gifts is how he uses the full power of the orchestra to enhance the song. Strings, woodwinds and brass sections are used in different parts on the second epic on that album, Death Trip, with varying levels of dynamics. It is a great song, but it would not be nearly as good without the orchestra. Harley: “Death Trip, a more complicated piece, but still a song the five-piece band had been playing at live gigs, was also embellished with the full might of the Powell imagination and baton.”
Powell added a few anecdotes about working on the album: “I remember having a discussion with Steve Harley before the Human Menagerie sessions, when I said that I thought that two of the songs, Sebastian and Death Trip, needed a really large orchestra and a choir. He agreed – and later said that he wanted the choir to sing along with him on the long build-up section in Death Trip which begins with a piano riff, and ends with the choir singing along with Steve. I said this would build to a better climax if there were some words there – which there weren’t originally. Steve phoned me back a couple of hours later with the lines ‘All the boys say Run like a chicken, but…’.” Summarizing his work with the band, Powell fondly remembers: “I have always been proud of the work I did on the first Cockney Rebel albums: Sebastian and Death Trip were both arrangements which got me noticed in the music business. Steve’s lyrics are fascinating. I find that I respond best, and do my best work, when the lyrics interest me; I get a lot of musical ideas from good lyrics.”
Powell added: “The large orchestra sessions for these two songs went very well. The orchestra and choir sounded superb – no real surprise, with Geoff Emerick engineering.” Meeting Geoff Emerick left a strong impression on Powell. The legendary sound engineer and producer came through the Abbey Road ranks to work on the late 60s Beatles albums and later with Paul McCartney and countless other artists. Powell on Emerick’s sound engineering and production skills: “I first met Emerick in 1973, when I was working on Cockney Rebel’s debut album The Human Menagerie. It was both a pleasure and an honor to work with him – he really enjoyed the album, and did, of course, a fantastic job as engineer – the record still sounds great! Working with him as producer was even more fascinating – he gets sounds in a most unusual way sometimes – if you listen to some of his ‘close’ microphones (the snare drum, or the trumpets in the orchestra, for example) they sound very odd. But the overall sound is coming from somewhere else – these mikes just give top or attack to the sound – the full, round sound comes from distant overhead mikes.”
The next Cockney Rebel album, The Psychomodo, saw a similar studio personnel, with one major difference. Harley: “Alan Parsons came in as co-producer/engineer, and his own willingness to accept many offbeat ideas made life easy enough. More strings and horns, and again we had Andrew Powell, with his brilliant classical-rock thinking, to orchestrate.” Meeting Parsons was a serendipitous event for Powell from which many excellent projects in the 1970s and beyond would stem. The key orchestral track on the album is Ritz, another lengthy and complex creation with a wonderful vocal delivery by Harley. Powell on the song: “With regard to the second album, and in particular the song Ritz, I remember that I did ask Steve what he intended the song to be about, and he just looked at me and smiled, and said ‘That’s up to you…’ The song has a very distinct and unusual atmosphere, and I wanted to create an orchestral world for it which was as unusual as the track and the lyric. I think it worked… I just wish that the orchestra were slightly louder in the mix!“
In 1973 Alan Parsons worked as sound engineer at Abbey Road with Pink Floyd on their breakthrough album The Dark Side of the Moon. After experiencing the phenomenal success of the album, he built a parallel career of engineering and production projects. His first proper producer job was with Scottish band Pilot. Bass player and singer David Paton, an early member of the Bay City Rollers who left the band before the Rollermania craze hit England in 1974, formed Pilot in 1973 and got Parsons to produce their debut album ‘From the Album of the Same Name’. Parsons in turn brought Andrew Powell to do the arrangements. The first single was Magic, a major hit, although the string orchestration contribution on it is minimal. Their next hit January was an even bigger success, reaching number 1 in the UK in January (just a coincidence) of 1975. Powell’s arrangement on this song has a greater impact.
Alan Parsons was looking for more production work when a lucrative offer came from Pink Floyd to take the engineering seat again for their next album, what would become Wish You Were Here. Not many engineers would have passed on that opportunity, but Alan Parsons had a mind of his own: “They had made me a very attractive offer and it was a difficult decision to turn it down. Ultimately I made the right decision because I was already having some success with Pilot as a producer and Al Stewart was not far away either. So it was the right decision not to take up their offer because if I had done, I might have still been working for them just being an engineer.” The work with Al Stewart proved to be artistically and commercially successful, and the great albums the singer released in the mid-1970s also benefited from Andrew Powell’s arrangements. The first Al Stewart album Powell worked on was Modern Times, on which he wrote a powerful arrangement for the title track. Explaining how he goes about orchestrating a song, Powell said: “I listen to the tune, the harmonic structure (chord sequences) and especially the lyrics, which often give the main pointers to the mood I want to create to enhance the track – particularly in the case of a writer like Al, whose words are very good indeed! It’s important to remember that you are trying to enhance the track, and not take it over or overwhelm it. Then I start to think about what sort of forces are needed – in the case of Modern Times, a fairly large orchestra, with woodwind, brass and strings – for the Year of the Cat, just strings (and the sax solos).”
And that brings us to Al Stewart’s next album, the 1976 mega hit Year of the Cat. That album went platinum, made Stewart famous in the US and generated two big top 20 hits for him, both featuring Andrew Powell doing what he does best – arranging. On the Border is interesting in its use of long string notes contrasting the energetic rhythm and the Spanish guitar, played beautifully by Peter White. In a BBC interview Al Stewart mentioned that he brought White to the studio to play the piano and elaborated: “First thing he ever recorded on a guitar. First time he was ever in a studio. I hired him as a piano player and Alan Parsons, of course, produced the record and we were sitting around in the studio and he said, ‘I can hear some Spanish guitar on this.’ None of us could play Spanish guitar. And then Peter said, ‘Well, I can play Spanish guitar.’ And like, ‘Wait, you’re a piano player.’ He said, ‘Well, I can play it.’ I had this really cheap Spanish guitar, it cost I think £30 or something and I gave it to Peter. What you hear is I think either the first or the second take. He just sat down and just played it and we’re looking at him going, ‘Wow, I didn’t know you could do that’.”
The crown achievement of the album is undoubtedly the title song, one of my personal highlights from the 1970s, as chart toppers go. The song was born during a sound check, when Al Stewart’s backing band was jamming, and keyboard player Peter Wood came up with that beautiful piano opening melody. The backing track including the orchestra and solos were completed long before the final lyrics were written and vocals were recorded, almost a year in between. Al Stewart explained the song’s lyrics on the original album liner notes in 1976: “When I wrote it, that’s all I had, that one line. I then had to build it up from there, which was very difficult. As for the meaning of it, I wrote it last year which was the Year of the Cat in Vietnamese symbology. Finally, it ended up about a guy on a coach party to North Africa, on one of these buses with a one-way ticket. He stops in a town, Casablanca or whatever, and he finds this girl, who must be a California girl because she wanders about and talks about years of cats and things. So he spends the night at her place and then he wakes up, the bus is gone and he’s stranded. If you miss the bus, that’s it and so he just figures ‘Well, this isn’t really the way I’d planned my life, but I might as well stick around and make the best of it’.”
Sophisticated lyrics like that are nowhere to be found in today’s diluted pop songs, certainly not ones at the top of the charts:
On a morning from a Bogart movie
In a country where they turn back time
You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre
Contemplating a crime
Phil Kenzie plays the sax solo, one of the most recognizable solos on that instrument in a popular song. Invited to the studio by Alan Parsons, Kenzie told the story: “I arrived with my tenor sax and Alan was there in the darkened studio. There was this beautiful track with violins, but no vocal yet. Al was behind the newspaper in the corner, kind of hiding. I said ‘hi’, the newspaper came down and he said ‘oh. How do you do?’ I looked around the newspaper and said ‘fine’. I put the tenor down and Alan said, ‘You know something, this would sound really good on alto.’ I replied, ‘You’re really lucky, because I just happen to have one with me.’ That’s how it happened. I did that solo in twenty minutes in two passes!” The arrangement for string orchestra that comes in at 3:07 and remains to the end of the song leading to and accompanying all the amazing solos on acoustic and electric guitars and saxophone, is truly a work of art.
1976 was an important year in Andrew Powell’s career, as immediately after working on Al Stewart’s The Year of the Cat, Alan Parsons’ newly formed The Alan Parsons Project with Eric Woolfson and members from the bands Pilot and Cockney Rebel, needed his services for their debut album. Starting with Tales of Mystery and Imagination and throughout their progressively successful albums in the late 1970s and 1980s, Powell wrote wonderful orchestrations that fitted their concept albums perfectly. Their debut album, a musical setting for Edgar Allan Poe’s horror stories, required dramatic themes and performances by an orchestra. It went to the extent of including a track featuring only the orchestra, a rare occurrence on a rock album. The second side of the original LP included a 16-minute instrumental interpretation of The Fall of the House of Usher, in which the Prelude sounds very much like a romantic-era tone poem. And of course, having Orson Welles as narrator only increased the dramatic effect of this brilliant composition. Powell: “I think I showed Alan the line in the story which says that Roderick Usher could bear almost no music except for peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments. Alan and I decided (not because it’s specifically stated in the text, but it is said that Roderick Usher plays the guitar) to use only plucked string instruments – acoustic guitars, mandolin, string bass, kantele, harp and harpsichord – and cimbalom (technically a percussion instrument, but it has a lot of strings).”
There are too many examples of great orchestrated tracks by Andrew Powell in the catalog of the studio entity known as The Alan Parsons Project, so I picked a few favorites. From the 1978 album Pyramid the beautiful and melancholic closer Shadow of a Lonely Man. The lush orchestration combined with the rest of the instruments and John Miles’ powerful vocals are a great way to end the album.
And one more from the Alan Parsons Project, their 1980 album The Turn of a Friendly Card. On that album the song writing and overall sound started to feel more contemporary and in my opinion ended their classic period. They did have great success with the hits Games People Play and Time (another highlight for Powell), but they still maintained that concept album feel with the second side, again a 16-minute suite The Turn of a Friendly Card. The five part suite is book ended by two variations on the same beautiful tune, sang by Chris Rainbow. His vocals are great, the acoustic and electric guitar solos are spotless, and of course, that orchestra with the emotional strings and dramatic use of brass.
As usual, I saved the best for last. This is how Andrew Powell described the beginning of one talented lady‘s a recording career: “David Gilmour phoned me one day, and invited me for lunch at the Pink Floyd’s office in Bond Street, London. When I arrived there, he introduced me to Kate Bush (or Cathy, as she was then known.) She was a very quiet, but obviously thoughtful, young girl. He played me some of her songs, and I was impressed by her vivid musical and lyrical imagination. We talked about which songs to do – I took a tape away, and we had a further discussion a few days later. We agreed on 3 songs to record, and David handed the project over to me. I booked some time at AIR London Studios in Oxford Circus with the renowned Geoff Emerick as engineer (who, to my great embarrassment, wasn’t credited on the album), and booked a rhythm section consisting of Barry de Souza on drums, Bruce Lynch on bass, and Alan Parker and Paul Keogh on guitars. Kate would play piano, although I played both piano and electric piano on Berlin (later renamed to Saxophone Song). We had another session a few days later with the orchestra, who played on Berlin, and also played The Man with the Child in His Eyes – Kate played piano and sang live with the orchestra. If she was nervous, it didn’t show. Geoff, who was assisted by Peter Henderson, did great mixes of all 3 titles (the other one was called Humming – it was never released) and David took the tape to Bob Mercer at EMI, who signed her.” Kate Bush was 16 when she recorded these early demo tapes. The rest is history.
The Kick Inside, Kate Bush’s debut album, was the first major project for Andrew Powell as a producer, and he is all over that album arranging the orchestral tracks, playing bass on Wuthering Heights and keyboards on other songs. The album is wonderful start to finish, but the hits are the real winners and represent some of Powell’s best work as arranger. The Man with the Child in His Eyes, written by Bush at the age of 13(!), features her playing the piano, accompanied by an orchestra arranged by Powell. The interplay between the piano, orchestra and her vocals is classic. Powell said of her singing on that song: “I still rate it as the best vocal sound I’ve ever heard from Kate“.
The album’s big hit was of course Wuthering Heights, the song that created history in British music – the first song composed and performed by a female singer to top the charts. Kate Bush on the song: “I wrote it in my flat, sitting at the upright piano one night in March at about midnight. There was a full moon and the curtains were open, and every time I looked up for ideas, I looked at the moon. Actually, it came quite easily. I couldn’t seem to get out of the chorus – it had a really circular feel to it, which is why it repeats. I had originally written something more complicated, but I couldn’t link it up, so I kept the first bit and repeated it.” Powell brought rookie engineer Jon Kelly, who was assistant engineer for Geoff Emerick at AIR studios in London. Like his mentor who got his break with the Beatles about 10 years earlier, Kelly could not hope for a better initiation as a principal engineer: “I give full credit to Andrew Powell and the great musicians, who were very supportive, while Kate herself was just fantastic. Looking back, she was incredible and such an inspiration, even though when she first walked in I probably thought she was just another new artist. Her openness, her enthusiasm, her obvious talent — I remember finishing that first day, having recorded two or three backing tracks, and thinking ‘My God, that’s it. I’ve peaked!'”
The great musicians Kelly mentions were all very familiar to Andrew Powell. Bass player David Paton and guitarist Ian Bairnson were both in the band Pilot and later joined the Alan Parsons project. Paton worked extensively with the band Camel in the 1980s and 1990s. Bairnson had success with Paul McCartney’s Mull of Kintyre and played on David Sylvian’s excellent 1987 album Secrets of the Beehive. The drummer on Kate Bush’s debut was Stuart Elliott who was part of Cockney Rebel and later worked with Powell on Year of the Cat and many of the Alan Parsons Project albums. He continued to work with Kate Bush on four more albums and hits including Babooshka, Running Up That Hill, Hounds of Love and Cloudbusting. Elliott later recalled the recording sessions: “The album The Kick inside was not at all demanding in any sense. It is one of very few albums I have ever done where there was instant chemistry between the whole band in response to Kate’s brilliant music. Kate made it very easy for us in that she performed the songs live on piano and vocal during all takes so following her and adding our own interpretation to her songs was all that was needed. Thankfully it just fell together without any verbal guidance from either Andrew or Kate.”
Wuthering Heights is rather complex for a pop song, thus rarely covered over the years. The chorus has a rhythm that changes from 4/4 to 3/4, throwing off many unsuspecting listeners and musicians. Amazingly the vocals for the song were recorded in a single complete take without overdubs, a fit unheard of with today’s pop singers.
Andrew Powell produced one more album for Kate Bush, Lionheart, released later in 1978. For Powell it was somewhat a lesser achievement: “Kate hadn’t been allowed enough time off from promotion work to write new songs, so we ended up using some which had been short-listed for The Kick Inside. There were probably a couple of songs which, with hindsight, shouldn’t have made it onto the record.” Still, there are gems on that album and although it does not feature an orchestra as widely at the debut album, Powell’s services were needed on the energetic single Hammer Horror. Not as commercially successful as the previous hits, but a great song nonetheless.
When asked on his website about the methodology of creating an arrangement, Powell answered: “As far as a ‘methodology’ is concerned – I don’t really have one. Every song and artist is different, and needs a different approach. I have been asked before how I get my ideas for arrangements, and I can’t really explain it – it just happens when I absorb myself in the song – there is no set or pre-conceived method.” Method there isn’t, but the results are there. The arrangements Powell created in the 1970s for the artists mentioned in this article helped create some of the best songs of that decade.
Andrew Powell’s website is a great resource for more information about his multitude of activities and rich history in arranging and producing many artists from the 1970s and beyond.
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