My life in music: Elizabethan Serenade

Andy Warhol said: “Every song has a memory; every song has the ability to make or break your heart, shut down the heart, and open the eyes. But I’m afraid if you look at a thing long enough; it loses all of its meaning” .

This will be true of some of the songs I write about, as years of familiarity will have drained them of the initial fascination, but not of this first song:

Elizabethan Serenade by Mantovani and his Orchestra, was the first piece of music I ever really listened to. It was played repeatedly on the radio while I was a very young child. While my mother was doing whatever she did in the livingroom I’d be lying in my bed absorbing this music. What intrigued me was that it arrived in sections – first the underlying rhythm, then the diddy-dum-dum-diddy-dum-dum ornamental bits, then the main sweeping melody. But you could pick them all up at virtually any point in the song. One time I’d focus on one and hang onto it all the way through, other times I’d follow another element. It fascinated me the way they all worked individually and together, meshing in sequence. I suppose if I’d been brought up on classical music this would have become the norm, but I wasn’t. The rest of what was played on, I guess it was the BBC Light Programme, was the pop of the day. This stood out in its stately elegance and has stayed with me to this day.

I heard echoes of it in James Brown calling for a drum, then a bass, then a little bit of guitar, building up a house which he then proceeded to burn; and in the interlocking melodies of Guitar Craft and some King Crimson pieces.

Elizabethan Serenade in ska

It wasn’t the kind of track I ever played to my friends once I got into ‘proper’ rock music, but I was delighted to discover the rough ska versions that came out of Jamaica in the late 70s.

According to Wikipedia, it was originally called Andante Cantabile by its composer, the wonderfully-named Ronald Binge, when it was first released in 1951. Then, to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, it was renamed and became a popular hit.

It’s all about the bass

When I was five we moved from our one-bedroom flat to a proper house with an upstairs and downstairs. Our huge gramophone, a four-foot high box containing a radio and a record player, was downstairs of course but when my parents played their Joe Loss and Lonnie Donegan records the bass carried upstairs leaving the rest of the sounds in a flaky mush. The bass was regular, firm, commanding. Of course I didn’t know what it even was. It would be years before I noticed that when bands played on TV one of the guitars had only four strings, and more years before I associated that with the deep, repetitive patterns I loved from downstairs.

Years later, at the age of 16, I was listening for the first time to Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water. There’s a short, calm interlude between verses two and three (about 3:09) when an unexpected bass slides into place. I was suddenly thrown back to the hours I would lie in bed listening to the bass patterns and imagining the rest of the musical piece around them.

Without being taught, I had learned that music is an arrangement of diverse parts, and that bass is, well, cool.


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