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orchestral pop? it's not music to my ears

WHEN a rock or pop act wheels out an orchestra, the results can go either way. This is usually a sign that they want us to think that they're all grown up and are capable of being regarded as 'proper' music when quite often it was the dumb and funny early stuff that captured the public's imagination in the first place.

For his latest tour George Michael has gone down this particular route and, thus far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Last time out he received rave reviews for a more traditional greatest hits show so one can't really have too much cause for complaint if he decides to do something different in order to stretch himself.

His solo work does show an artist with a feel for melody and arrangement which would easily merit a more ornate setting and, despite his much-publicised lapses of judgement when it comes to drugs, cars and shopfronts of photoprint outfits, when it comes to matters musical, Michael's instincts have been pretty much spot-on.

Would that others had been so astute in the past. Orchestras had featured on mainstream pop records as a matter of course since the early 1950s without anyone batting an eyelid but it was only in the mid-60s that the 'look, we've got an orchestra!' trend began to emerge.


On the Beach Boys' classic Pet Sounds, for example, the majestic arrangements didn't feel at all forced whereas on something as grandiose and bombastic as Deep Purple's Concerto for Group and Orchestra it was all too easy to see how things could go horribly wrong when people got ahead of themselves.

The prog rock era gave free rein to such madness, the nadir coming when Emerson, Lake and Palmer went on tour with a full symphony orchestra in tow and all but bankrupted themselves in the process.

And let's not forget jolly old Rick Wakeman who, having explored a blend of classical rock on The Six Wives of Henry VIII, went completely round the bend and roped in the strings for a concept album about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table ... which he then had performed on ice. Great days indeed.

The hideous Classic Rock concept of the late 70s was probably the worst example of trying to shoehorn grandiose arrangements on to tunes which couldn't really take the strain and there's barely a car boot sale you'll attend that doesn't feature at least one discarded reminder of the crimes the LSO perpetrated on some much-loved songs.

Given the choice between spending an evening with Sting warbling away in front of a full complement of classical players or the same time spent at home revelling in the subtle strings of, say, Colin Blunstone's wonderful One Year album, I certainly know which I'd plump for. >george byrne

George Michael performs at the O2 on Tuesday and Thursday