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Pop music’s classical inspiration

About the author

Rebecca Laurence is the deputy editor of BBC Culture.

(Getty)

(Getty)

If you believed that concertos and chart hits were entirely separate beasts, think again. BBC Culture picks five pop songs that betray their classical origins.

Pet Shop Boys – Go West / Pachelbel – Canon in D

Composed around 1680 for three violins and a cello, these eight bars – repeated a hypnotic 28 times – form one of the best-known pieces of classical music in history. The instantly recognisable chord progression pops up everywhere from The Farm’s 1990 hit, All Together Now to Coolio’s C U When U Get There (1997). Pop svengali Pete Waterman admitted to the BBC's Music magazine that it was the inspiration for Kylie Minogue’s bubblegum breakthrough, I Should Be So Lucky. And electro-pop duo, Pet Shop Boys – who recently premiered a piece on the life of Alan Turing at the BBC Proms – are demonstrably fond of the classical back catalogue. One Phd student has compiled a list of classical melodies they’ve used in their songs, which includes Pachelbel’s Canon. Both the melody and chord progression of their Village People cover, Go West, hark back to 17th Century Germany.

Procul Harum – A Whiter Shade of Pale / Bach – Air on a G String

“We skipped the light fandango/Turned cartwheels cross the floor/I was feeling kind of seasick/The
crowd called out for more…” The 1967 debut of the psychedelic British rock group – with its meandering Hammond organ and opaque lyrics – became an instant hit on both sides of the pond. Though it rightfully became one of the anthems of the Summer of Love, Procul Harum have to assign at least some of the credit to JS Bach. The Air from the composer’s Suite No 3 in D major BWV 1068, did it first around 1730.

Barry Manilow – Could it be Magic / Chopin – Prelude in C Minor

Before he became a global superstar, Barry Manilow cut his teeth writing commercial jingles, composing and arranging for radio and TV as well as for other artists – including Bette Midler. Manilow was upfront about the influence of Chopin’s Prelude in C Minor – Could it be Magic opens with the piano work’s sombre, majestic chords,creating an unusual effect for a syrupy ballad. Donna Summer had a hit with her version of it, in 1976 – retaining Chopin’s chord progression underneath her customary breathy vocals and disco beat. But by the time of UK boyband Take That’s upbeat cover in 1992, Chopin’s trademark chords were buried under a ton of synthetic production.

Muse – Plug in Baby / Bach – Toccata and Fugue in D minor

They’re a rock band hardly known for understatement – in fact, Muse’s philosophy seems to be, why use one note when three will do? The early 2000s prog-rock revivalists broke through with the lead single from their second album, Origins of Symmetry, which demonstrated all the musical bluster and histrionics for which they’ve become known: operatic vocal flourishes in the vein of Freddie Mercury and ambitious instrumental noodling. Matt Bellamy’s lead guitar riff was inspired by Bach’s austere organ work, Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Pilfering from the master proved to be a clever trick: readers of Total Guitar magazine voted it the number one riff of the 2000s.

Elvis – It’s Now or Never / Eduardo di Capua – O Sole Mio

O Sole Mio, written in 1898 by Eduardo di Capua is a classic Neapolitan song in the operatic tradition that has been recorded and performed by many of the great tenors, Enrico Caruso, Mario Lanza and Luciano Pavarotti included. But the distinctive melody entered the popular music canon when Tony Martin recorded the song in English, called There’s no tomorrow (borrowing the melody). Ten years later, Elvis Presley heard Martin’s version while stationed in Germany with the US army. When he returned home, he asked his record company to write an English translation, which became It’s now or never.

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