’90s Flashback: When Orchestras ROCKED
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you miss soaring strings backing metal screams.
I got my first real stereo in 1991 (Does anybody still say “stereo”?). Among my very first orders of business: Acquire — by any means necessary — a copy of Use Your Illusion I by Guns N’ Roses. I didn’t know it then, but “November Rain” would go on to become a mainstay of my homemade mixtapes and playlists, a tune I’d sing poorly but with great enthusiasm in every car I’d ever own. And it is perhaps the best example of that oddest of ’90s rock ’n’ roll fads: the orchestral cameo. The rocking orchestra was rarely necessary, but when it did appear, its mission was obvious: to declare that the piece of music was oh so important.
The hoity-toity trend of featuring tuxedo-clad orchestras in hard rock music videos hit its apex in GN’R’s delightfully over-the-top power ballad. The nine-minute minimovie had it all, including a doomed bride with questionable fashion sense and a guy doing a face-plant into the wedding cake. But it’s the orchestra that’s stayed with me. I remember watching the stuffy-looking orchestra and thinking, without a hint of Ron Burgundy irony, that, hey, those old guys playing their cellos and violins next to Slash and Axl — that’s a classy touch.
“The Ballad of Jayne”
L.A. Guns, a lesser-known rock group than Axl’s merry band of maniacs, employed a similar tactic in its biggest hit, “The Ballad of Jayne.” And yes, the orchestra gamely wears tuxedos in the video. Classical violinists over the age of 60 apparently don’t own leather pants.
Symphony and Metallica
In 1991, Aerosmith gave one of its biggest hits — “Dream On” — an orchestral makeover in a live performance on MTV. And Metallica, one of the most successful and prolific rock groups of all time, released an entire live album that didn’t just include an orchestra as some kind of afterthought — it put the orchestra front and center, in all its tuxedoed glory.
These days, the orchestral cameo is largely a relic. The trend – and it’s been this way for a while – is to go simple, go raw. Bands like The White Stripes and The Black Keys strip rock to its basics. There’s no room for superfluous cellists. But down the road, who knows? Maybe instead of an orchestral backup, we’ll get something else, like Taylor Swift and a stage full of tuba players. You heard it here first.