Saturday, July 3, 2021

Joy - Apollo 100

Apollo 100
Mega Records M31-1010

I have a long history with this ridiculous record.  When I was a kid my sister took ballet classes and my mother would force me to go to her dance recitals which I regarded as torture.  At one of them however the girls danced to the title track of this album, "Joy" which is a rock version of J. S. Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring."  I was not into music back then but the song absolutely enthralled me.  The song was a top ten hit in the U.S. so I began to hear it occasionally on the radio although I failed to catch the artist.  You couldn't just whip out your phone and ask it what you were hearing back then, you couldn't even whip out your phone since it was hard wired into the wall of your home.  The years went by and I became obsessed with the Beatles and other 1960s bands and I lost interest in tracking down this record.  By the time I was in college I was into Bach and had acquired multiple copies of his arrangement of the song.  I didn't think I needed this version but occasionally I would hear it on the radio or in a movie and realize that it still appealed to me.  Eventually more than thirty years after I first heard the song as a child I finally bought this album.  I have to admit that even now when I put it on the turntable and hear the harpsichord riff for "Joy" fading up, I still get a little excited.  The song is so kinetic and engaging I can't resist its allure.  Unfortunately that is not true for the rest of the album, in fact none of it even comes close.  Apollo 100 was a bunch of studio musicians led by keyboardist Tom Parker who seems to have specialized in instrumentals and pop arrangements of classical music.  "Mad Mountain King" is a stiff arrangement of Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King" which is in total contrast to the effervescence of "Joy."  The song picks up steam in the end but I've heard symphony orchestras rock more convincingly than this.  "Mendelssohn's 4th" is taken from the second movement of his "Symphony No. 4 in A Major."  It is a ludicrously jaunty arrangement that is a vulgar travesty of the original work which I suppose you could argue is the most rock and roll approach one could take to this but I still don't like it.  "Evil Midnight" is an arrangement of Saint-Saëns' "Danse Macabre" that sacrifices much of the mood and atmosphere of the original for energy.  It sounds like something you would hear in Disneyland aside from the dumb drum solo.  Parker returns to Bach for "Air for the G String" which was adapted from the second movement of his "Orchestral Suite in D Major."  The beginning of the song follows the Bach model but then Parker takes it in a jazzier direction complete with a sax solo and vibes.  My fondness for the Bach original prevents me from endorsing this, but I give Parker points for trying something different.  He also has an arrangement from a more modern composer namely Leroy Anderson and his "Jazz Pizzicato" although that piece is already so pop music oriented that Apollo 100 essentially plays it as written.  Parker contributed a few of his own songs to the record.  I think the most interesting one is "Tamara" which he co-wrote with Brian Hunter and Tony Ritchie.  For the most part it sheds the classical pretentions for a pop melody and a heavy section in the middle.  Its chamber pop style suits Parker extremely well and I wish more of the record sounded like this.  His other songs are less successful.  "Exercise in A Minor" sounds like a classical pianist jamming with a samba band.  The pretty but vapid "Classical Wind" could be the soundtrack to a TV commercial.  There are two other original songs on the album not written by Parker.  "Reach for the Sky" was written by Tony Ritchie and Del Spence.  It comes closest to replicating the euphoric sound of "Joy" although it is too derivative to be truly memorable.   "Libido" was written by Apollo 100 guitarist Vic Flick and Reg Leonard and it features a pleasant melody with catchy guitar lines and a tasteful string arrangement.  It sounds like a cross between a European film soundtrack and a Belle and Sebastian outtake.  I have no regrets about buying this album but I wish more of it sounded like "Libido" and "Tamara" and less of it featured "rock" versions of the classics.  When I was younger I was into prog-rock and appreciated the idea of classical-rock fusion.  I have less tolerance for it now, but even back then I think I would have found Parker's style to be insipid.  I prefer the audacious vulgarity that Emerson, Lake and Palmer brought to their heavy interpretation of "Pictures at an Exhibition" which seems like an experiment worth trying.  Parker's approach just sounds like he is dumbing down the music to me.  The exception of course is "Joy" which does fuse the dynamic quality of rock with Bach's original music.  Bach has always been the exception that proves the rule.  From Paul Simon to Procol Harum to the Toys to the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble, Bach's music has frequently been successfully transposed to rock probably because the strength of his musical motifs lends itself to rock melodies.  I can't unconditionally recommend such a silly record especially since you can just buy the single of "Joy" and likely have all the Apollo 100 you will ever need.  However if you love "Joy" as much as I do and you come across this album (which is generally pretty cheap), you will probably find stuff you like on it if you buy it.  I don't play it much but I enjoy it when I do.  Recommended to fans of Focus.

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