The Artistry of Paul Buckmaster

Paul Buckmaster’s first venture into the world of arranging started with a big bang. As a cello student he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he did not take any composition or orchestration classes. His ambition was to become an international concert cellist. After failing an audition with a French chamber orchestra, he started playing gigs in small orchestras backing rock and pop groups, including the Bee Gees. Through a trombone player in one of these touring groups he was introduced to producer Gus Dudgeon who was working on a lead single for an album by one David Bowie. Producer and arranger Toni Visconti, who already worked with Bowie, was assigned to produce the upcoming album but relinquished producing responsibilities to Dudgeon on that single. Visconti saw it as a novelty attempt to cash in on the imminent Apollo 11 mission to the moon. The song was, you guessed right, Space Oddity. It was first released in February of 1969 as part of a promo film called Love You Till Tuesday, with a stripped down arrangement. Dudgeon was looking for a grander production. In need of an arranger, he asked Paul Buckmaster to fill that role. The young musician has dabbled in minor arranging tasks thus far and this was a major leap for him, but he rose to the task. Appropriately for a song that has a character of a mini dramatic radio play, he created an arrangement that serves as sound effects for the liftoff and during the bridge at 2:12. Don’t confuse the orchestra with the dominant strings sound that comes from a mellotron played by a young Rick Wakeman.

The same day that Space Oddity was recorded, June 20th 1969, Bowie recorded a B-side as well, an acoustic take of a song called Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud. Paul Buckmaster’s abilities as an instrumentalist came handy here, playing an acoustic bass with a bow, along with Bowie on acoustic guitar. This is a great song that remained quite forgotten until its release on the Sound+Vision box set in 1989. David Bowie said of the song: “It was about the disassociated, the ones who feel as though they’re left outside, which was how I felt about me. I always felt I was on the edge of events, the fringe of things, and left out. A lot of my characters in those early years seem to revolve around that feeling. That, for me at the time, was the most fully developed song that I’d written. It had the narrative form, a loose mythology – it was a portent of what I was going to be doing later on.” Buckmaster remembered those times: “During that period I hung out with David a lot. We had a very great enthusiasm for the classic science-fiction authors, which we spent hours talking about.” A few years later they would cooperate again on another sci-fi related project.

In 1976, after the release of Station to Station, Bowie and Buckmaster worked on music to accompany Nicholas Roeg’s movie, The Man Who Fell to Earth. However the music was deemed unsuitable for the movie and was not used. The collaboration was precursor to Bowie’s next album, the influential Low, and yielded an early version of a track from that album, Subterraneans.

A few more projects followed in 1969 for Paul Buckmaster, including contributing cello to Kevin Ayers’ debut solo album Joy of a Toy and writing arrangements for the Liverpool band Arrival. Two singles by the band, Friends and I will Survive (not the Gloria Gaynor disco anthem) charted well in the UK, prompting an invite to play at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. Both of them featured arrangements by Buckmaster.

The night of November 2, 1969 was a watershed event in Paul Buckmaster’s life. On the invitation of his manager Tony Hall he found himself seated at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London. Hall had a friend who was to perform that night, none other than Miles Davis, bringing his “lost” quintet with him, a group consisting of saxophonist Wayne Shorter, keyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette, who toured with him but never entered the studio to record an album. We will hear more about Miles later in this article, but amazingly this is not the reason for the significance of that event, for another giant of music, or soon-to-be, was in attendance. Enter Elton John, who at that point was looking for an arranger to write orchestrations for a number of songs on his second album. As Paul Buckmaster quickly found, one popular recording leads to the next. Elton John later recalled: “When I heard Space Oddity, I thought it was probably the most incredible record I’d ever heard, and for a long time after that point. And the production and arrangement of that song…I said, ‘Whoever did that, I really want to work with them.’” He gave Buckmaster demos of three songs, Your Song, Sixty Years On and Take Me to the Pilot. What followed is a long-lasting musical relationship with songs that are now part of the pantheon of pop and rock history.

Buckmaster later said about his work on that album: “I started as an arranger with no experience and I just had to learn on the job. I never trained for it and all of a sudden I was writing pop arrangements for small string sections…a little brass, percussion, or whatever. But never symphonic. When I started working with Elton, his style is so based on a kind of classical theme – ranging from overtones to full-blown gospel/R&B and of course his fast rock, kind of honky-tonk, style. But so much of that first album was very classically oriented, his writing and piano accompaniment. So that just naturally dictated what I did.” The first demo that grabbed his ear was to become the album’s signature tune: “It only took the first hearing for me to call Steve (Brown, Elton John’s then-producer) and express my enthusiasm. I had already begun to hear what I was going to write on Your Song, for a start. It was the sort of thing that I was dying to have a go at, in that context. Give me a song like that and that’s what I wanted to do with it.” Multiple layers of strings make an appearance at 0:40, and the acoustic bass and guitar are now classics.

The process of arranging a song has a lot to do with how the song affects the listener, similar to the process of editing a film. The buildup of the instrumentation, bringing layers of sounds in and out of the tune is akin to the pacing and ordering of film cuts. Buckmaster recalls his work with producer Elton John’s producer Gus Dudgeon: “Gus and I would meet in his office and sit at his table, listen to the demos, follow the songs on the lyric sheet and make notes next to the relevant lines. We went through every song in two sessions in his office. We would discuss where we would like the first string entry, if that was the case. Say it was a song where the piano started, for example, Your Song. We would say, ‘Okay, we will start with strings in the first verse. We won’t bring the drums in until the second verse.’ Stuff like that. After having done the routining (that’s what this process is called), I would take the notes home with me and start scoring and let my imagination have full rein.” On another occasion Buckmaster added: “The delayed entry of the rhythm section makes it more dramatic, and serves to lift the piece into a more propulsive mood. One general rule is to hold back as much as possible, to give the listener the chance to let the song grow and unfold, introducing new sonic elements, such as new instruments or sectional groupings. If you use everything from the beginning, you have nowhere to go.”

Sixty Years On is another magnificent showcase of the orchestra on that album. This time the orchestra starts the song with a dramatic opening, sounding like a modern classical composition: “There was some downtime in the studio during a string session. Having finished early meant that we had time on our hands to do anything we like with the string section because they were being paid to be there. So, just out of a sense of fun I dictated a set of notes to the string section, which they wrote down. Very simple – maybe one or two notes to each group of three or four players. We had 21 strings on that date. I proceeded to conduct them after having told engineer Robin Cable to start recording. This was off the top of my head; there was nothing planned about this. The first entry was, say, a viola note. Two of the violas started with the first note. And as I wasn’t conducting to a beat, I would then point to the next two violas that came in with the next note. Then two of the second violins would come in with the next note. And so on until the whole section had joined in. I had also indicated where I wanted certain kinds of vibrato (wide or narrow), which helped to create that effect. So we recorded that…and there it lay. And Gus went on to add that to the front of Sixty Years On. I hadn’t conceived the arrangement that way.”

The collaboration with Elton John continued in 1970 on the album Tumbleweed Connection, the country and western/Americana-inspired album, for which Paul Buckmaster wrote arrangements to Come Down In Time and Burn Down The Mission. The following year his work contributed to one of the singer’s most memorable and loved songs. The opener to Elton John’s fourth album Madman Across the Water, Tiny Dancer is a work of art for so many reasons – B.J. Cole’s pedal steel guitar, Elton John’s piano work, Bernie Taupin’s lyrics. But for me the most prominent aspect of the song is the orchestra and how Buckmaster was able to weave it around Elton John’s piano and vocal parts. He later said how important the art of the song was at that period: “Our approach at that time was to work for the songs; the song came first above all else; any consideration of the singer — apart from obviously working to make the song sound as good as possible — was secondary. The principle was: The song comes first! That was our approach to the art of recording music back then. We treated each song as an individual personality and character.”

Paul Buckmaster went on to arrange 52 songs for Elton John, collaborating on eight studio albums and the Soundtrack for the film Friends.

In 1970 Buckmaster lent not only his arranging skills but also his excellent abilities as instrumentalist to another singer songwriter, playing cello on Michael Chapman’s second album, Fully Qualified Survivor. The folk singer, influenced by the booming folk-rock scene, added rhythm instruments with bass player Rick Kemp, later with Steeleye Span, and a new guitar talent. Chapman recalls: “They said we’ve got you some really great London guitar players and I said ‘sack ‘em I’ve got a gardener in Hull who can just take e’em all to the cleaners’. That was Mick Ronson, soon to join Bowie and his backup band Hype. That band will become The Spiders from Mars. The opener to Michael Chapman‘s album is The Aviator, and you can hear Buckmaster’s wonderful Cello accompaniment along with violinist Johnny Van Derek throughout the song.

1971 was another stellar year for Paul Buckmaster with a number of projects collaborating with high profile artists. First is Harry Nilsson, who had some chart success with his rendition of Fred Neil’s song Everybody’s Talkin’ in 1968 after the song was featured on Midnight Cowboy , one of my favorite movies of that period. Nilsson was about to hit the big time with his next album Nilsson Schmilsson, working with producer Richard Perry. The signature track from the album is a song written and first performed by the band Badfinger. Nilsson took the song to a whole new level, assisted by Gary Wright (who worked with Badfinger on George Harrison’s projects) on piano, Klaus Voormann on bass and Jim Keltner on drums. But there is no doubt that the power ballad was able to top the charts for a number of weeks due to the emotional strings arrangement that Paul Buckmaster wrote for it.

Continuing his streak of collaborations with singer-songwriters, in 1971 Buckmaster wrote arrangements for Songs of Love and Hate, Leonard Cohen’s third album. The Canadian singer was working with producer Bob Johnston of Bob Dylan fame (Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding). After listening to the songs, Buckmaster found Cohen’s songs almost unarrangeable and decided to go for a very subtle accompaniment: “I could have written more, developing the string orchestral compositions more extensively. Perhaps I was too careful not to interfere with the raw vocal/guitar. Listening to Leonard’s songs today, they are more powerful and deeply moving now than I perceived them at the time – and they had a powerful effect on me even then, a testimony to his skill and inspiration as an artist and song-craftsman.” Indeed the song Famous Blue Raincoat has minimal but effective contribution by Paul Buckmaster. Sometimes less IS more.

Also in 1971 Paul Buckmaster found himself working with the bad boys of rock n’ roll, contributing two arrangements to songs written by Mick Jagger. The resulting album, Sticky Fingers, is famous for some of the Rolling Stones’ best known songs such as Brown Sugar and Wild Horses, and of course for its iconic and suggestive front cover and that zipper. But one of my favorite pieces on the album is Moonlight Mile, a song about the weariness from life on the road Jagger wrote during the band’s tour in the summer of 1970. The song, originally titled “The Japanese Thing” for its use of an Eastern scale, gets a matching arrangement from Paul Buckmaster, coming in at 2:15 into the song. In 2015 Jagger said of Moonlight Mile: “It was my idea to use Paul Buckmaster to arrange the strings. I had used him before, on the end of Sway. For this piece, we thought it would be nice to build the song with strings and have those hinted quarter-tones Paul’s so good at. His orchestration echoes what I’m singing and builds into the coda, so it amplifies all the stuff you heard before in a rather subtle way. Then he has a really nice edit that mellows when I sing, Yeah, I’m coming home.”

Beginning in 1969, Paul Buckmaster met a few musicians he enjoyed playing improvised jams with. They started rehearsing regularly, with Buckmaster playing cello and bass guitar. That band then became The Third Ear Band, an experimental folk rock outfit that was signed to the progressive-minded Harvest label, no doubt one of the strangest groups on that label. Paul Buckmaster was on and off with the band, given all his other activities during that period. In 1971 director Roman Polanski took on adapting William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth into a film and hired the Third Ear Band to write the score. The music they wrote matches the moral decline depicted in the film. One uncharacteristic piece of music is a beautiful mediaeval tune called Fleance, sang in the movie by a young Keith Chegwin. The scene from the movie gives us a rare glimpse of the band with Paul Buckmaster.

1972 rolls in with one of the biggest hits that Paul Buckmaster was part of. After hitting some chart success with her 1971 album Anticipation, Carly Simon’s record label Elektra brought in producer Richard Perry to create a slick album with the intent to climb to the top of the charts. The plot succeeded with the mega hit You’re So Vain. It is amazing how many pages around the ether are wasting words about who the song is about and such nonsense, when there is much more to discuss about the musicianship. Stellar cast here with Mick Jagger singing backing vocals, Klaus Voormann on bass, Jim Gordon on drums and the guitar solo by Jimmy Ryan is great. Ryan later remembered the recording session: “You’re So Vain was a long recording session, with Richard Perry as a producer. He was a real drum stickler. He kept changing drummers and ultimately settled on Jim Gordon. I played guitar and Klaus Voorman played bass. While we were hanging around, Klaus was playing a guittarone, which is a six string deep acoustic bass, played in Mexican mariachi bands. Richard liked what he heard, and that became the opening for the song.” Carly Simon called on Buckmaster after hearing his arrangement for The Moonlight Mile, and his string arrangement is perfect for the song, which topped the charts for three weeks and became Carly Simon’s biggest hit.

1972 saw the release of another album by a female singer-songwriter, much less successful than Carly Simon, but a more rewarding listen in my opinion. Claire Hamill was only 17 when she recorded her debut album, One House Left Standing. Island records was looking for an English version of Joni Mitchell, who was a huge influence on Hamill. Label owner and producer Chris Blackwell realized the potential but was worried about her young age. She remembers: “He tried to convince me to wait and pointed out all the bad things about the music business. He saw how naïve and ingenious I was and was scared about the responsibility of introducing someone so young to a business steeped in sex and drugs! I turned all my girlish charm and even made him laugh when I asked if I could have shares in Island as part of my contract.” Shares where not forthcoming, but Blackwell got her a number of top notch musicians to play on that album. Paul Buckmaster was hired to arrange a couple of songs, including The Man Who Cannot See Tomorrows Sunshine, where he also plays the cello and John Martyn plays guitar.

What is intriguing about Paul Buckmaster’s career is the eclecticism and wide-range of styles he was able to work with. Miles Davis, who kept in touch with him after their meeting in 1969, has since then released the hugely influential album Bitches Brew and in 1972 was looking for yet a different direction in his music. Remembering a piece of improvised music Buckmaster played for him in 1969, a recording the cellist made with a few musician friends, he made a transatlantic call. Two days later Buckmaster was at his doorstep in New York City, carrying in his suitcase LPs by modern classical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Miles, immediately transfixed, started arranging music together with Buckmaster: “Miles Davis and I collaborated on many ideas, some of which he developed further, and others that were exactly what we worked out together. This process, the art of conceptual collaboration which is familiar to musicians, resulted in the sessions which took place in June 1972. Most of the basic thematic ideas we worked out were scored by me in a simplified form. I arranged the parts, the melodic phrases, and chordal keyboard ideas, and some of the main drum patterns.” Miles took these arrangements to the recording studio and gave them to his band, directing them to play long uninterrupted segments of 30 minutes, after which were edited by producer Teo Macero. The results appeared on the album On the Corner and later on Big Fun: “When the record was released, I noted that there were some very interesting overdubs and crossfades, in which the long single takes of the original recordings are broken up into individual titles. I particularly like the crossfade intro and outro on Black Satin.” I can’t think of too many musicians who could move so easily across such differing genres as Paul Buckmaster did in 1972. From a slick pop arrangement like You’re So Vain to experimental music like Black Satin within 3 months.

We jump to 1976 and one of my favorite musical projects of that decade, Stomu Yamashta’s Go. I dedicated another article to this project, so I will focus here on Paul Buckmaster’s contributions. The band, a super group founded by Japanese percussionist and composer Stomu Yamashta, included drummer Michael Shrieve of Santana fame, Stevie Winwood on vocals and keyboard, Al Di Meola on guitar and Klaus Schulze on synthesizers. As eclectic a group of excellent musicians as was ever formed. Short-lived, of course, as what are the chances you can get such a diverse group of that caliber to commit for a long time? Still, within a span of less than two years, they managed to release two studio albums and one live album. The debut album, simply named Go (Japanese word for five), starts with one of the most beautiful opening sequences I know, combining the tracks Solitude and Nature. Buckmaster is featured here with a score for strings and woodwinds, and solos for oboe and piccolo.

Paul Buckmaster (right) with Go

Buckmaster was actually not the first option as an arranger for this project. That honor goes to Michael Gibbs, an excellent choice who unfortunately was busy with his teaching job at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Lucky break for Paul Buckmaster. A Melody Maker article from April 1976 reads: “Nobody’s complaining about Buckmaster anyhow. Apparently Yamashta sang the parts to him, and Paul got it all down right off, actually extending the composer’s ideas in a couple of instances.” Here is one more from that album, Time is Here, with an uncharacteristic funky strings arrangement complimenting Stevie Winwood’s vocals.

One last musical piece to close this article, this a controversial one but in my opinion also one of Paul Buckmaster’s greatest achievements. At the end of 1976, weary of running their own record label, Grateful Dead signed up with Arista Records. Label head Clive Davis was looking for a more commercial output from the group and brought in young producer Keith Olsen, hot at the time after producing Fleetwood Mac’s eponymous 1975 album, which reached No. 1 in the US. One of the pieces of music intended for the album was a 16-minute suite written by Jerry Garcia and long-time band lyricist Robert Hunter, who Garcia described as “the band member who doesn’t come out on stage with us.” Those where the days when commercial albums could still be considered by record labels with one side made up of a long continuous piece of music. The ambitious Terrapin Station Part 1 was recorded early in 1977, after which the band went on tour in the US east coast. While on tour, Olsen got together with Paul Buckmaster to write orchestrations for the long suite: “The orchestrations were written after the vocals were done because I wanted to complement the Dead instead of have the Dead complement some orchestration. So I took the tape and went over to England. Buckmaster, quite well-to-do for a string player, owned this house in London but he had put no furniture in it. So we had a tape deck on one side of the room and a remote control and charts all over the floor, and we were on our hands and knees on the floor writing out this part and that part.” What came out is one of the best meldings of a large orchestra with a rock band, although miles away from what a band like Grateful Dead was expecting. When Olsen came back and played the results to the band, they were shocked. In a number of interviews the band members pointed out issues such as the orchestra being very high in the mix, missing instrumental tracks they recorded earlier, a wrong sense of rhythm in the orchestral parts. Bob Weir, however, did have positive things to say: “They’re kinda nifty parts, anything but 101 strings. It’s off in a particular direction. I think what it sounds like is English court music, but it serves the song well, that particular grandiose conception of how the orchestration would be done.”

Here is the full suite, you be the judge. I like it a lot. It’s a great piece of music with wonderful instrumental passages by the Dead regardless of the orchestration, but Buckmaster’s arrangement makes it the more special. The orchestra comes in at the 4:00 mark, and it gets really interesting at 6:40.

Paul Buckmaster’s discography is much wider than the pieces I chose in this article. Other highlights include electric cello with Caravan on the album For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night, arrangements for singers Chi Coltrane, Shawn Phillips and Judy Tzuke, and the soundtrack to the cult movie Twelve Monkeys. Many obituaries were written about him after he passed away in 2017. Perhaps better than anyone, Nancy Wilson of Heart summarized his talents: “I grew up on headphones in my bedroom late in the night with his amazing orchestrations written, arranged and conducted for Elton John. Songs like Your Song, Take Me to the Pilot, Tiny Dancer, Levon, Come Down in Time, My Fathers Gun, Ticking, Madman Across the Water, Indian Sunset…He did David Bowie’s Space Oddity… He created the generous and genius landscape of Moonlight Mile from the Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers album. And the gorgeous Four Moods and Seasons on Elton’s ‘Friends’ soundtrack album. These were brilliant orchestrations where rock and classical came together in a brand new naturally unpretentious way. Paul knew the intervals registers and voicings that could coexist in a rock context. More open cords and careful movement leaving room for guitar vocal and piano. Like score music supporting the actors. From the vast symphonic glut of possibilities he carefully extracted and cooked it all down to the essence of the shapes and sounds that would resonate inside real rock music.

Bravo Maestro Buckmaster.”


The following sources were used during the writing of this article:

Elton John’s Web Site, with an extensive section about Paul Buckmaster

Paul Buckmaster: Remembering Miles and On the Corner, from the Complete On the Corner booklet.


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