Rock ‘n’ roll is usually characterised as a guitar and drum-driven sound that’s rooted in the blues. This stereotype might be taken a little further and could involve heavier music with the introduction of power chords and long-haired gentlemen headbanging. Rock music was truly born in the 1950s, with artists like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard emerging from the murky cloud of the second world war era with youthful confidence and guitar in hand. Since then, the genre has exploded into a plethora of subgenres that appear a far cry from what many will view as traditional rock ‘n’ roll.
Throughout the 1960s, recorded music swirled with the burgeoning counter culture of Vietnam war protesters calling for love and peace, defying the worn-out ways of their parental generation. The hippies had been an integral link in the chain of rock music with musicians of the era, more often than not, jumping on the bandwagon to preach for peace and love whether it was from a stage in Woodstock or in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco.
This new cultural wave injected something of a catalyst into the creative development of not just music, but the arts as a whole. This creative dynamism appeared to prevail long after the hippie dream had been lost to the sands of time. By the 1990s, we could already look back on an incredibly vast musical landscape with a mindboggling amalgam of sub-genres and sub-sub-genres.
Purists will say that much of modern music that is labelled rock is nothing of the sort, and in many respects, I would tend to agree, in part. Rock dominated popular music for the second half of the 20th century; as it did so, it engulfed strands of other musical influences as it became the apex predator in the food web of genre classification.
As a result, rock music in the modern-day covers most of the music we know and love. Many of the songs will incorporate influences from other major genres such as jazz, classical, folk, and soul. We use the crude blanket term “rock” to make things easy, and I apologise if that sticks in anyone’s craw.
Today, we explore ten of the greatest uses of the violin in rock music, a happy marriage of rock to classical music.
10 best uses of the violin in rock music
‘Bittersweet Symphony’ – The Verve
The Verve found themselves in hot water after releasing their single ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, which appeared on their landmark 1997 album Urban Hymns. The hit reached number two in the UK charts but fell under the nose of a very unhappy Andrew Loog Oldham.
Oldham was the famed manager and producer of The Rolling Stones between 1963 and 1967. The Verve based the string arrangement in ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ on a sample from the Andrew Loog Oldham orchestral cover of The Rolling Stones song ‘The Last Time’. Following its release, legal proceedings were pursued on plagiarism accusations, resulting in Mick Jagger and Keith Richards being added to the songwriting credits, with all royalties from the song going to former Rolling Stones manager Allen Klein. In April 2019, Jagger and Richards returned their rights to the song to The Verve’s songwriter Richard Ashcroft.
‘The Universal’ – Blur
Blur’s ‘The Universal’ is the song that those not so fussed about music will remember from the old British Gas adverts. For those of us who are fans of the London Britpop group, we remember it as the gem in the crown of Blur’s 1995 album The Great Escape.
The powerful ballad charted as the highest single from the album at number 5 on the UK album charts surpassing the lead single ‘Stereotypes’. Its success was mainly attributable to the perfectly placed orchestral string arrangement that compliments the anthem throughout.
‘Venus In Furs’ – The Velvet Underground
In 1967, The Velvet Underground released their seminal debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico. The album was a strange mix of psychedelic rock that appeared to counter the hippie counter culture that was blooming in the late ’60s. The music mainly covered the darker themes of drug abuse and salacious behaviour.
Of all the weird and wonderful tracks on the album, ‘Venus In Furs’ stands out as one of the strangest. John Cale’s dominant avant-garde presence in the song brings in the shrill and intense violin section while Lou Reed sings of sadomasochism and bondage. Thanks to Cale’s eccentric musical ideas, the song was way ahead of its time and exemplified the prevailing importance of this trailblazing album.
‘Eleanor Rigby’ – The Beatles
The Beatles released but one of their masterpieces in Revolver in 1966. ‘Eleanor Rigby’ is one of the most memorable and thought-provoking songs from the album. Amongst George Martin’s beautiful double string quartet arrangement, the song tells the mystical story of the elusive characters Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie.
The song’s story was inspired by an old lady whom Paul McCartney used to help with her menial house chores in his youth. As he once recalled: “I found out that she lived on her own, so I would go around there and just chat, which is sort of crazy if you think about me being some young Liverpool guy.”
‘Broken Heart’ – Spiritualized
Spiritualized released their seminal third studio album, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, in 1997. Creative lead Jason Pierce looked to create an album that could bring a unique sound that effectively provided therapy for the listener. The packaging aesthetic was made to look like a box for prescription pills.
Traversing a range of genres, from classical to gospel, the music studies feelings of melancholy and loneliness, reflecting Pierce’s mindset at the time of recording. In ‘Broken Heart’, one of the most emotional songs on what is a pretty darn emotional album, the orchestral string arrangement performed by the Balanescu Quartet gives it its unrelenting and heart-jerking power.
‘Hurricane’ – Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan released Desire, the well-received follow up to his 1975 classic Blood On The Tracks, in 1976. The album rose to the top of the US Billboard Albums Chart and remained there for five weeks, mainly thanks to its blinding lead single ‘Hurricane’. The song is given its characteristic and catchy pace from Scarlet Rivera’s fiddle section.
The eight-and-a-half-minute protest epic tells the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a boxer from New Jersey who was falsely tried for a triple murder at the Lafayette Grill in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1966. The wrongful conviction was later deemed as an act of racism, and he was granted a retrial and was finally released from prison in 1985.
‘We Will Not Be Lovers’ – The Waterboys
Scottish folk-rock group, The Waterboys, released their classic album Fisherman’s Blues in 1988. The album is full of violin and fiddle arrangements, as expected from a band inspired by traditional Irish and Scottish folk influences.
None of the violin contributions in the album are quite as immersive and dominant as those head in ‘We Will Not Be Lovers’. The string arrangements throughout the album were conducted and performed by, a longstanding member of the group, Steve Wickham, who also worked with U2 on their classic single ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’.
‘Kashmir’ – Led Zeppelin
In 1975, Led Zeppelin released one of their most refined and intriguing albums in Physical Graffiti. Of the album’s impressive arsenal of prog-rock gems, the most memorable track was ‘Kashmir’. The song moves with a stern, almost militant rhythm that builds with the pace of the drums and the repeated string arrangement.
The song began as a demo recorded by guitarist Jimmy Page and drummer John Bonham in 1973 while John Paul Jones was running late for a recording session. Robert Plant later contributed some lyrics to the idea, but the song really took its recognisable form when the group invited an orchestra of Indian string players to give it that unforgettable sound.
‘Vapour Trail’ – Ride
Oxford shoegaze group Ride rose to prominence in 1990 with the release of their seminal debut album, Nowhere. The album was buoyed by its closing track, ‘Vapour Trail’, which served as its lead single. The Cure’s Robert Smith once described the track as one of his favourites of the shoegaze sub-genre and claimed: “‘Vapour Trail’, it’s one of the best fifteen-second intros of all time.”
But today, we aren’t looking at the guitar-driven intro to ‘Vapour Trail’, but rather the outro to the song. The guitars, bass, and drums gradually fade out in the track’s final moments, leaving only the repeated violin and cello progression – a perfect close to a beautiful album.
‘Whatever’ – Oasis
‘Whatever’ was released as a Christmas single in 1994 by the Manchester Britpop giants. The single was never included in any of Oasis’ studio albums. Still, it became a big hit during the period bridging the debut album Definitely Maybe with its seminal follow-up, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?
The beauty in ‘Whatever’ indisputably comes from the arresting string arrangement that winds off into a brilliant two-and-a-half-minute outro. The London Session Orchestra performed the string section, which featured former Electric Light Orchestra violinist Wilfred Gibson. Nick Ingman and Noel Gallagher were responsible for arranging the orchestration for the anthem.