Instrumental Asylum

Swingin' Sting? Bluegrass Bruce? Rhapsodic R.E.M.? You'll do a double take now that CMH Records has given your '80s favorites a second look.

Music is supposed to be the universal language, but a swish pan across your CD collection and mine will only illustrate how much music keeps us apart. There's only a fraction of stuff we can both listen to without forcing infomercial smiles. Half of my enjoyment of music stems from listening without knowing whether I'm going to hate something or not, while most people are like radio programmers who just want the hits and shun music outside of the chosen format. And unlike most folks, I still own RECORDS. Lots of stupid ones.

Even I find many of my impulsive thrift-shop purchases indefensible. How can I explain this inappropriate fascination with albums like The Manhattan Strings Play Songs Made Famous by the Monkees? The London Symphony Orchestra's fatal stabbing of Classic Rock, Volume One? Or The Beatles Songbook as performed by the Hollyridge Strings -- an album that Capitol Records had the effrontery to flog on the rear sleeve of Beatles '65 and Something Newunder the wishful banner, "More Great Albums for Your Beatles Collection!"

Look closely at that old footage of Bible Belt kids burning Beatle records in bonfires following Lennon's "bigger than Jesus" remark and you'll see a copy or two of The Beatles Songbook catching fire. Even God-fearing kids got taken in by that Capitol shuck, probably thinking The Beatles Songbook was a greatest-hits LP. Yet in that defining Beatle-hating moment, even these teenage Jesuits could find no room in their hearts for the heinous Hollyridge Strings. Or moreover, the tasteless way in which a Stradivarius can be strong-armed into plucking out the melody of "And I Love Her" pizzicato-style or depreciate enough to groan the "da da da da da dum dum das" of "From Me to You."

Sting (far left) jumpin' and jivin' with his swingin' new buddies.
photo illustration by Garth Weber
Sting (far left) jumpin' and jivin' with his swingin' new buddies.
Greetings, from Hazzard County, Kentucky: The Boss is comin' to liberate ya, confiscate ya  --  with a banjo on his knee.
photo illustration by Garth Weber
Greetings, from Hazzard County, Kentucky: The Boss is comin' to liberate ya, confiscate ya -- with a banjo on his knee.

Call me a throwback, but I actually preferred the way the world used to work, when old people hated rock music as much as young people loved it. Not only loved it, but by dint of their "they've got the guns but we got the Arbitron numbers" convictions turned Clive Davis into a middle-aged hippie and pushed the entire middle-of-the-road music industry into a faraway ditch. Cheesed-off old people retaliated the only way they knew how -- by piping their senseless beatless renditions of pop-rock hits into every available elevator and supermarket.

This Us vs. Them standoff lasted for decades, leaving countless artifacts in its wake like Andre Kostelanetz Plays Chicago, the band not the city. Grandpa -- what smug liner notes you have! Who believed Maestro K was doing these young Stan Kenton wanna-bes a favor by devoting an entire album to their music when Chicago's first three albums were already receiving tons of airplay outside of elevators and airports? Mr. Mort Goode, that's who! About the young Windy City blowhards, he writes: "[Chicago's] work has impressed their world, the under-30's . . ." while "Andre Kostelanetz's work has impressed his world -- all generations."

No generations of any denomination uttered a word in Kostelanetz's defense when his ilk were banished to AM frequencies even ham radio operators laugh at. Sit in a dentist's chair or stand on a bank line now and it's not Kostelanetz but Chicago™; you hear blaring at teeth-gnashing volumes. I once asked a smiling Norwest teller how she could even count money correctly with Sting's "Fields of Gold" playing so mind-numbingly loud, and she said, "What? Oh, I don't even hear it." That clinched it. Rock, classic rock, classic rock played soft, soft rock played loud, it's all gonna be the official audio wallpaper of the next millennium. Suddenly, Puff Daddy's Sting/Christopher Cross dalliances make complete sense. You bet your ASCAP he's vying for the Muzak maestro crown next!

Guess when you've got Snoop dogging the oldies and rock-on-rock crimes like all-star tribute albums continuing to be perpetrated, there's not much clamor for radical instrumental interpretations of '80s favorites. I was resigned to playing the Boston Pops' Saturday Night Fiedler for the hundredth time when Mr. Postman delivered three strange but thoroughly enjoyable new CDs from CMH Records. Like a panacea for my weird instrumental mindjam, now I've got big-band instrumental interpretations of Sting and the Police, bluegrass renderings of Bruce Springsteen and string quartets attacking R.E.M. Background music has come to the fore to take its rightful place in the background once more. Hallelujah!

Lest you think this is a joke, I give you Picking on Springsteen, subtitled "A Bluegrass & Country Instrumental Tribute" that, according to the press release, is "guaranteed to keep you 'Dancin' in the Dark' all night long!" Since CMH Records has been a specialty bluegrass label for 24 years, home to every picker from Grandpa Jones to Lester Flatt, it seemed natural that once everyone with a Dobro and five-string banjo recorded a version of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" for posterity, the titans of twang would turn their musical antennae elsewhere. Like Asbury Park.

CMH is to be commended for filling this unforeseen cultural void. When I rang up their office to do just that, CMH's media coordinator seemed a tad surprised that anyone could be this interested in CDs intended as novelty gifts or (God willing) kick-ass in-store background music. After convincing her my euphoria was genuine, she took my name and number. Thirty minutes later, I'm chatting with David Haerle, the brains behind all three releases and the president of CMH. Okay, so it's not exactly like talking to Victor Kiam, the former Remington president who loved their microshaver so much he bought the entire company, but heck, I'm thrilled as pie to be talking to the creator of Pickin' on Springsteen, and I'm sure if someone were to play it for the former razor king, he might opt to buy out CMH Records too.

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