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The Big O, adverts and other surprises

November 18, 2012

Looking back over my notes for the Autumn of ’12 (he began, in the manner of Dr Watson), I find that on a certain evening in the middle of November I was sitting with Mrs simonsometimessays in company with my in-laws in Suffolk. I mention this because – well you’ll see why.

We watched a recording of Roy Orbison and Friends. This was a show first broadcast at the beginning of 1988, the year in which Orbison died. If you have an hour or so – I recommend it: thrilling viewing.

1988 was also a year of nuptial significance for me, for which reason and for no other you can have a link to The Hollies – The Air that I Breathe.  Though since I have begun to digress, I may as well go on to mention that I spent much of 1988 pointing out that we chose that song as the first dance for our wedding before it was re-released. People needed to be aware (I thought) that I knew the song before the Hollies’ late 80s revival, a revival partly due to He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother being featured in a TV advert.

Television advertising is good for music – obviously – and vice versa. Whatever kind of music it is, television offers a near-captive audience who discover artists, songs, pieces and whole swathes of musical experience that would not otherwise have come into their orbit. Production companies are constantly fielding inquiries from folk wanting to know more about the piece they’ve just heard, and I should think they rub their hands every time that happens.

What’s more, I’m willing to bet that the number of people who know the wonderful Flower Duet from Delibes’ Lakmé is many times greater than it would have been if British Airways’ ad agency hadn’t made such an inspired choice. Similarly, O Fortuna from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana has for decades been known as the Old Spice music (as well as being used in various movies – most memorably, for me Excalibur), though I wonder how many know that it is only one part of a much larger work – a cantata consisting of a selection of profane mediaeval poetry. The precise numbers don’t matter – the point is that advertising has opened new avenues for more people to access more music, and they have done so.

And it has opened doors for music and musicians too. Meet You by The Molloys only existed as a sausage advertisement, but was developed and released as an independent single because of huge popular demand. That’s quite extraordinary, when you come to think about it: unknown musicians become an overnight success – how many get that lucky?

So where was I? Oh yes, Roy Orbison. The Big O.

I don’t think much of The Big O as a nickname; it doesn’t quite have the kick of ‘The King’, ‘The Duke’ or ‘The Boss’. Indeed, it could almost be an insult. (And speaking of The Boss, Bruce Springsteen was one of the Friends on stage with Orbison, happily playing a supporting role to a rock and roll deity.)

Orbison had surely one of the most distinctive voices across all genres, and a gift for writing inventive and enduring pop songs. Oh Pretty Woman, for instance, stands out in any era, and it went down predictably well in that concert. But my favourite moment was Leah, an unfamiliar song with some truly unexpected chord sequences. Take a listen, and you’ll see what I mean: the music doesn’t go where you expect; you might even think it doesn’t work. Then take another listen if you have time, and see if you don’t begin to wonder – as I did – how you can have doubted it.

While watching this I recalled a similar occasion, back in the early 80s when in-laws were prospective, watching, in largely the same company, Bette Midler’s television show accompanying her album No Frills. Hearing All I Need to Know for the first time remains for me one of the most moving experiences: the song touched me then, continues to do so, and later covers just can’t hold a candle to it. The Divine Miss M (much better nickname) sings not romantically but as if she is truly baring her heart (and I also like to believe she is singing directly to me). I remember being totally unprepared for just how good she was.

The power to take the listener unawares is a great musical gift, known for centuries. Haydn used it in his 94th Symphony, now known as the Surprise Symphony, thanks to a moment a little way into the 2nd movement. It’s not quite an edge-of-the-seat thing; I doubt whether warnings had to be issued before the premiere for those of a delicate disposition. But if you listen you may well find it familiar – perhaps it’s been used on an advert sometime. And you may be surprised how much you like it.


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  1. And so from the intellectualism of your blog to another innane comment of mine. I miss the Levi ads. No, not for the showcasing of hot totty. Hold on, let me rephrase. Not JUST for the showcasing of hot totty, but for the campaign’s ability to make the next Number 1 and bring ‘old’ music to a new generation.

  2. Not inane – the Levi ads were definitely on-point. In fact, there is a compilation CD of the tracks used in them – which is another remarkable thing. And of course they had the visual appeal to which you refer. However, since those adverts were aired I’m not allowed in the launderette any more.

  3. Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

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