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Symphonic Swinging London
The London Philharmonic moonlights as the Hyde Park Ensemble for an album full of Baroque pop covers
The relationship between classical and pop music has been weird for about as long as classical music has not been pop music. So, you know, like, Amadeus times. But in a nutshell, pop music (take your pick of styles) always starts out kind of basic and stripped down. Then it develops and it evolves, and eventually, it gets kind of bloated and bombastic and someone inevitably starts wanting to bring in grandiose symphonic elements (from Buddy Holly to Rush). Meanwhile, classical symphonies, once powerhouses but now struggling to remain relevant and funded in the face of growing apathy, will try to make some money by playing a concert of pop music hits. Metal bands start performing with symphony orchestras, while symphony orchestras are doing Legend of Zelda music.
In the late 1960s, relatively simple pop started adding elements that eventually became baroque or symphonic pop. This hit its popular apex with the release of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (followed closely by the Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request). French horns and harpsichords abound, among other classical instruments. It's only fair, then, that actual orchestras should get to take a crack at the style and, with some luck, earn a few dollars for the session.
Enter the enigmatic Hyde Park Ensemble. On first search, and second, I could find no information about them. I thought, given the name, that it was cleverly referencing Dick Hyde, a trombonist and member of the legendary collective of studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, but that wasn't the case. Solving this little mystery eventually boiled down to searching through a number of albums titled Swinging London until I found one with the same tracklist. And it turns out I had been barking up the wrong tree. The Hyde Park Ensemble isn't a group of session musicians recording a quickie cash-in album. It's a group of classical musicians recoding a quickie cash-in album. Australian conductor Douglas Gamley steps in front of at least a portion of the London Philharmonic Orchestra for Swinging London, and with that piece of the puzzle, everything falls into place.
In the late 1960s, pretty much every studio musician and arranger was putting together at least one album of baroque pop influenced by Sgt. Pepper. Some were pretty good. Some, less so. A lot of them were hopelessly square in the 1960s but are pretty enjoyable in retrospect. Even though these albums were often cranked out quickly to make a buck, to confuse the old folks who were asked to buy a Beatles album for their grandchild's birthday, or just because the musicians were bored and thought it would be fun, they could still often be wildly inventive and strange, and the musicians on them were usually creative and very talented. So, looking back, even the most transparently goofy of them almost have something to offer.
Case in point, members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra are very talented musicians. And because, even in ye olde Englyndde (spelling 100% correct), making a living as a classical musician was and still is tough, a lot of them moonlighted (moonlit) at studios, backing whatever rocker thought their song needed some cellos. It's not surprising that a group of them would be up for recording an album full of breezy psychedelic pop covers. As for who participated, I'm in the dark beyond Australian-born composer Douglas Gamley.
The Melbourne native took up the piano at a young age and excelled, attending the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. He relocated to England and soon got work composing for film and television as far back as the 1950s. He did music for Monty Python's And Now for Something Completely Different (1971) and a ton of Amicus Productions horror and fantasy films, including Tales from the Crypt (1972), Vincent Price's Madhouse (1974), and one of my personal favorites, The Land That Time Forgot (1974). He also reportedly wrote music for the BBC television library, and he composed and conducted the version of the music from TRON (1982) that was recorded by the London Philharmonic rather than Wendy Carlos (whose electronic compositions are the ones that appear in the movie). So the chap knew his way around a studio and around a lot of styles.
With members of the London Philharmonic involved you'd think this would lean very much on the symphonic side, symphonic being quite a defining aspect of bombastic baroque pop. Many of the songs do indeed sound like classical musicians gearing up for one of those concerts where they have to play pop tunes (not to imply that classical musicians are all snobs about playing pop—I’m sure it was a lot of fun for many of them, just as I’m sure there are plenty today who love doing concerts of Harry Potter and video game music), but then some crazy cat with a guitar shows up to crash the party. But not like a cool guy, exactly. More like Frankie Avalon playing Potato Bug in Bikini Beach—and who knows cool more than someone who makes a Potato Bug reference?
Nothing on Swinging London is stand-out, but none of it is bad, and few of the arrangements are quite beautiful, in a "pop music if it was part of the Peyton Place soundtrack" sort of way. There’s a problem with the mix on some tracks, on which the drums and bass are overpowering and the rest of the instruments a bit muddy and in the background. They lean heavily on the brass section, which lends a number of the tracks a very Herb Alpert (or Ray Davies and the Button-Down Brass, if you’re British) sound. Gamley's arrangement of the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" isn't particularly great, but the lush version of "Something" comes out much better. Petula Clark's "Downtown" is great. That song seems imminently adaptable to any style. Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade Of Pale" is already halfway to classical (or at least Lawrence Welk style easy listening), so it adapts well to the Hyde Park Ensemble's groove.
Also good is the version of the Stones' "Ruby Tuesday" and Tom Jones' "Delilah," which really lends itself nicely to a bit of symphonic bombast. They also cover the eternal classic "It's Not Unusual," which is pretty much a sure thing. Engelbert Humperdinck's "Winter World Of Love" gets a lovely treatment that would fit perfectly as a track accompanying mid-century scenes of skiers. Jones' "Without Love" gets covered as well, but it's not my favorite, despite some epic orchestral swells. Finally, two tracks—"Big Ben Blues" (nothing to do with Chuck Berry) and "Swing Britannia"—remind you that you're in London, doll.
In the world of obscure studio session albums, Swinging London is not a forgotten gem. The orchestra lends a nice layer of sound, but none of the arrangements are that inventive. If you miss this happening, you're not missing a lot, though if you happen upon it and are predisposed to appreciate this sort of thing, there's no harm done, and you'll probably enjoy yourself, as I did.