I could easily have wondered why my family owned the “Rocky IV” soundtrack album, but the opening of James Brown’s “Living in America” answers that question very quickly. However, we also had a cassette named “The Power of Classic Rock,” and when that blinked back into my consciousness, I needed answers.
The track listing for this album befits the name “The Power of Classic Rock,” and its 1985 release date: “Drive,” by The Cars, “Purple Rain,” “I Want to Know What Love Is,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “The Power of Love” (by Jennifer Rush), and “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” But this album is not a compilation of recent hits: it is a covers album, the “artist” is The London Symphony Orchestra, assisted by The Royal Choral Society, and was the seventh album in a series that began in 1978.
The premise is simple: the “Classic Rock” series recreates popular music in a classical, symphonic style. The record label that instigated the series, K-Tel – yes, them of the cheap, quiet and groove-crammed “20 Original Hits, Original Stars” albums – would later instigate an inverse series from 1981, “Hooked On Classics,” presenting a medley of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s usual repertoire against a Linn drum machine. From 1985, the “Classic Rock” series had moved to CBS Records, under Sony, beginning with “The Power of Classic Rock,” but The London Symphony Orchestra remained at Studio 1 at Abbey Road, having played the inaugural recordings there in 1931, when Sir Edward Elgar conducted them in performances of his compositions.
The judder in my memory of this album came from my having realised I first heard these songs on this album as a small child, only hearing the originals much later. Fortunately, there isn’t much of a jump from one version to another, as the “classical” adaptations of the songs simply amount to their being played by an orchestra, extrapolating the vocals, guitars and keyboards to brass, woodwind, strings and percussion like they were tracks on a mixing deck, with added choral and synthesiser sections when needed. No-one is trying to make Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” sound like Beethoven, or making Shostakovich out of Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” and there are few extraneous flourishes. There is a faint whiff of Muzak about the enterprise, and easy-listening LPs released by orchestras in the 1960s and 70s by the likes of James Last and Bert Kaempfert, but this time there is no intention of providing an experience that replaces the original songs: the integrity of the original compositions is preserved, and their original arrangement remains unchanged, just played on different instruments this time around.
For the record (literally), the most forceful performances on the album come from medleys of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” and “Relax,” and Brice Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” and “Dancing in the Dark.” Both these medleys, and “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” were arranged for the album by the prolific composer and performer Richard Harvey, at the time responsible for the synthesised soundtrack for Gerry Anderson’s puppet series “Terrahawks,” and for having two of his library music pieces, “Water Course (a)” and “Exchange,” used to illustrate a “Sesame Street” film about how crayons are made. Harvey is a frequent collaborator on film scores with Hans Zimmer, and his 1984 classical piece “Reach for the Stars” has been used as the definitive heroic music used on everything from film trailers, TV shows, amusement park rides and adverts to “The Ren & Stimpy Show” and “SpongeBob SquarePants.”