Recorder in pop and rock
Recorders are only occasionally used in pop and rock music.
Sometimes they are used for their clear connotations of being simple or rustic. That is certainly the case in The Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill” and the Carpenters’ “Sing a Song".
Next, there is the psychedelic/hippie strain of music, see the Jefferson Airplane examples below. Across the pond, British progressive rock of the 1970s had lots of folk music influences, so groups such as Gentle Giant and Gryphon used recorders amony many other non-traditional rock instruments. In the British case we should not forget the early music revival in England: some British folk groups were explicitly influenced by this, recording various renaissance tunes.
In other cases the recorder is used as just another wind instrument, taking a solo spot in a song. See David Cassidy’s “Daydreamer” and Billy Joel’s “Rosalinda’s Eyes”. Unfortunately, in such cases the instrument is usually played by a flute or sax player, and the performance leaves a lot to be desired. That is certainly the case in those two aforementioned examples. There are better examples, see below.
Finally ,sometimes the recorder is used for providing a textural element. See for instance The Undertones’ “Hannah Doot”.
Songs that do not have a recorder despite some people claiming they do:
Indigo Girls: Closer To Fine has a charming penny whistle solo.
King Crimson: Dance of the Puppets. There is some good flute playing, but the recorder-like sound is clearly an organ.
Kraftwerk: Autobahn. The 20 minute version has nice flute playing. No recorder.
Vampire Weekend’s “A-Punk” uses sampled recorders. They sound halfway convincing but the looped vibrato and unnatural attack are a giveaway.
Bus Driver: Imaginary places. Flute and clarinet. Impressive rapping. For once the rap actually connects to the “beats”.
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The Association - Along comes Mary
The player from “Windy” looks a lot more confident on what is definitely a recorder here. Note the impressive breath pressure on the low notes.
The Beatles - Fool on the Hill (1967)
A song about a fool who is actually wise. In keeping with the depiction of a simple mind is a deliberately clumsy recorder solo, made extra charming by no-tongue articulation, and some slides. The solo is played by Paul McCartney. The rest of the song features quite a bit of flute harmonizing, which in fact goes on under the recorder solo. Wikipedia claims the presence of a penny whistle in addition to the recorder.
Janet Beazley - the Silver Swan
On an album of bluegrass music can be found this setting of a madrigal by Orlando Gibbons. It features a duet between recorder and a dark sounding flute, maybe an Irish model?
The Carpenters - Sing a Song
This track starts in the very first second with a recorder playing the melody. But more interesting, later there is some excellent two-recorder harmonizing against Karen’s voice. Well arranged and well played by some players who really knew what they were doing. Clean and great breath control.
Cream - Pressed Rat and Warthog (1968)
This psychedelic narration from the Wheels of Fire album by power trio Cream features violist Felix Papalardi on trumpet, and bass player Jack Bruce on recorders. Both instruments play a slow line behind the vocal.
The Forester Sisters - We will not pass this way again
This country quartet of sisters, among my favorite 90s stars, have some beautiful compositions to their name. This charming song features a short soprano recorder solo. The player is clearly very skilled, possibly with a background in Irish flute or whistle. Check out the slide, tasteful ornamentation, and complete control of vibrato. Bravo!
Fraternity - Seasons of Change (1971)
Fraternity is the Australian band fronted by the subsequent singer of AC/DC. Yet their music has no hints of that later rock combo. Similar to English prog-rock groups they sometimes used very un-rock instruments. This track has two recorders in the beginning, of which one seems to have a slide?! Pretty rare, the singer is seen (but not so much heard) playing a bass recorder later in the song.
Frente - Labour of Love (1994)
A very acoustic song — just a female voice and one guitar — features a quite decent and probably entirely improvised alto recorder solo.
The mystery here is how this solo sounds so natural on an alto, while the guitar is clearly playing open chords. Alto in F, guitar in E? Indeed, this solo is unplayable on a regular alto, but quite doable on a 415 baroque alto. So does your average rock band have 415 instruments? Or did they shop for a player who came up with the creative notion of using such an instrument to better gel with the guitar? Mystery…..
Gentle Giant - Advent of Panurge (1974)
Gentle Giant was another British progressive rock group. Most members were multi-instrumentalists, as can be seen here when we have 3 recorders being played live. (This is the end of a much longer recorder segment.)
Adam Green - Baby’s gonna die tonight
Apparently Adam Green was part of the “anti-folk” genre, which protests and parodies the earnestness of folk music. I guess. The whole song production is pretty crude here, so having the worst recorder playing ever probably fits the aesthetic. A parody of the earnestness of folk recorder playing?
Grand Funk Railroad - I’m your Captain (1970)
Rock band GFR used a recorder on the transition between the rock and the orchestral half of their song “I’m your Captain (Close to my Home)”. The recorder echoes the vocal “I’m getting closer to my home” giving a lovely melancholy feel.
The playing is suspiciously smooth, but the vibrato makes me suspect a real instrument rather than a synth.
Jefferson Airplane - Martha (1967)
Jefferson Airplane was another San Francisco psychedelic band. The recorder fit right in with that. The instrument is used here as just another color in the mix, never prominent, but also hardly ever absent. The mediocre technique of the player, and the bad intonation, does not really bother me.
Jefferson Airplane - Comin’ Back to me (1967)
This very melancholy song starts off with a tenor recorder solo, maybe by Grace Slick, who is seen holding an alto recorder on the album cover. I gladly forgive the somewhat busy vibrato because it’s such a lovely solo, hitting the lowest notes of the instrument. There is a Live-at-the-Filmore version where she plays an extended solo. With some doubtful fingerings. Btw, I found no actual videos of either version, only fan productions over the recorded track, but the track is well worth listening to in its entirety.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience - If 6 was 9 (1967)
Jimi Hendrix is universally known as a guitar god, with no evidence that he has any schooling on wind instruments. That didn’t keep him from picking a soprano recorder and freaking out on “If 6 was 9”. The video here is taken from the studio engineer recalling this episode. Wild, baby, wild!
Jimmy Buffett - Margaritaville (1977)
Could this be the most famous song with recorder parts that no one every remembers as such? The air of simple fun-in-the-sun is here created by a recorder (ably played by Billy Puett), doubled with a marimba, maybe a guitar line, and if my ears don’t deceive me a melodica. A deceptively simple part but oh so effective.
Joe Jackson - Wild West (1986)
Songwriter, vocalist, pianist Joe Jackson turns out to have a clean command of recorder playing on the opening song of his Big World album. He plays basically a take-off on the Ennio Morricone theme of “How the West was won”, but not exactly, probably to prevent copyright problems.
Josienne Clark & Ben Walker - Dawn of the Dark (2016)
This duo have a somewhat symphonic approach to folk music, featuring synths, strings, and here two recorders, concluding the song. The simple lines and the sparse sound give a nice melancholy atmosphere. In a way this harks back to Baroque-era associations of recorders with death. Unfortunately I get the impression that the recorder lines are all improvised, leading to a several clashes further into this segment.
Led Zeppelin - Stairway to Heaven (1971)
The quiet part of this song has a great recorder intro, which is repeated to harmonize under the vocal melody. It seems a soprano and alto or tenor. The light vibrato is pleasant, and the whole thing is charming.
Kenny Loggins - I believe in Love (1977)
This song has a samba beat over which two recorders (by Jon Clarke) play a rhythmic riff in the intro, vaguely reminiscent of how flutes where used rhythmically in old style Latin orchestras such as Orquesta Aragon. In this live video you see that the recorder parts are remarkably played simultaneously by one player (again Jon Clarke?). Later in this live performance there is another brief but excellent recorder solo.
Giorgio Moroder - Action Man
Under the moniker “Spinach”, synthesizer pioneer Giorgio Moroder (see: Donna Summer’s “I feel love”) released some straight sounding 70s pop songs. “Action man” doesn’t seem to be related to TV series by the same name. Somewhere late in the song there is a nice flute solo, and in the outtro some not-too-technical recorder noodling, fortunately mixed pretty far back, but still clearly audible. I have no idea what he was going for.
Mary Hopkin - Streets of London (1971)
This cover of Ralph McTell’s hit has a tenor recorder phrase in the outtro. It’s part of the acoustic soundscape, which earlier in the song features a cello and other bowed strings, and of course the acoustic guitars without bass or drum. Before the outtro solo, in the last verse, the recorder does a bit of subtle harmonizing too.
Mary Hopkin - The Game (1969)
The intro to this song has 3 or 4 recorders, which reappear in multiple places later in the song. Like “Streets of London” this is a completely acoustic song, which fits the recorders beautifully, even if the playing is not quite top-notch. (Probably players: Jeanne and Marguerite Dolmetsch, Brian, Christine, Paul and Peter Blood.)
Mike Oldfield - In Dulce Jubilo (1975)
Mike Oldfield, of Tubular Bells fame, recorded this Christmas traditional with screaming guitars, and Leslie Penning playing two recorders and (usually unremarked) a kortholt. The recorder playing has a very busy vibrato, which makes some players recoil in horror, but which is probably in keeping with Oldfield’s folk music influences. The winds are largely playing the melody in unison or at the octave, with only a little bit of thirds harmonization towards the end.
Alan Parsons - Winding me up
A nice and short recorder solo from studio wizzard Alan Parsons. This recorder is played through a chorus effect, but the changing tone quality and the articulation convince me that it’s a real instrument.
Rolling Stones - Gomper (1967)
This is one of their more psychedelic compositions. Jangling guitars evoke a Sitar, but the Tablas seem real enough. Somewhere halfway Brian Jones starts a very “out there” solo, with lots of flutter tonguing.
Simon and Garfunkel - El Condor Pasa (1970)
A Peruvian tune, not a folk melody as sometimes assumed, but composed in 1913 by Daniel Alomía Robles, based on Andean folk music. This version by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel evokes the folk antecedents by its instrumentataion. So the extremely busy vibrato in the recorder parts is totally in character.
Toto - Africa (1982)
Toto is a band of studio musicians, as you can tell by their technical competence, and by the immaculate production. In this very silly song many people will not have noticed that the harmony line in the second verse is a recorder, as it’s pushed pretty far back in the mix, giving just a subtle color to the sound. At some places you can’t even tell if the instrument is still playing.