Some songs have become famous as much for the inclusion of a particular instrument as for the quality of the composition, vocals, performers, etc. The addition of an out-of-the-ordinary instrument for the genre can (but doesn’t always) help to transform the song into something transcending its peers, making it stand out from the pack. When it works, it can become iconic, as it did with the four examples I’d like to offer this morning.
The first is “Norwegian Wood (This Bird has Flown)” from The Beatles, featuring the sitar. George Harrison first encountered the instrument in April 1965, while filming the Beatles’ second move “Help!” He bought a cheap sitar, and the band used it when recording the song (on their album “Rubber Soul“) later that year. It required several attempts to get the recording to work with the new instrument, as the sitar’s sound was hard to capture accurately using then-current technology.
Next, from 1978, we have Gerry Rafferty‘s song “Baker Street” from his album “City to City“. It’s famous for its inclusion of a saxophone riff. According to the saxophonist, the inclusion of his instrument was almost accidental. The Telegraph reported:
… the solo was played by Scottish musician Raphael Ravenscroft, who was in the studio to record a brief soprano saxophone part and, when he heard that the guitarist would not be available to play the solo, suggested that Rafferty record it using the alto saxophone he had in his car…
Rafferty later said that he composed the saxophone melody but Ravenscroft – the author of The Complete Saxophone Player and a former tutor of music at York College – claimed he was presented with a song that contained “several gaps”.
Ravenscroft said: “In fact, most of what I played was an old blues riff. If you’re asking me: ‘Did Gerry hand me a piece of music to play?’ then no, he didn’t.”
Ravenscroft’s fee was, reportedly, a cheque for £27, which he said bounced anyway and was framed and hung on his solicitor’s wall. He received no further payment for his session-playing, adding: “If I had received pots of money, I wouldn’t have known what to do. It might have destroyed me.”
However, Ravenscroft still did very well out of the song. Demand for him and his saxophone as a session musician skyrocketed, enabling him to increase his fees very considerably, and he went on to record with big names like Pink Floyd, Robert Plant, Mike Oldfield and many others.
Finally, also from 1988, here’s Tanita Tikaram‘s song “Twist in My Sobriety“, from her debut album “Ancient Heart“. Its use of the oboe broke new ground in pop music, and was one of the talking points most discussed by reviewers.
The song remains Ms. Tikaram’s biggest hit, and has been covered by many other performers. I think it reflects her eclectic mixture of genetic and cultural heritage, which has endowed her with a secular sort of mysticism that’s sometimes impenetrable, but definitely appealing.