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Another Era

This weekend, I identified a familiar song. This is a harder task than you might think in the era of Google.

For starters, it’s an instrumental; there’s no lyrics to use in a text search, not even garbled Jimi-Hendrix-style lyrics out of which you can drag only a stray phrase or two, and definitely nothing like a chorus from which to pluck a likely title. Also, it’s mostly guitar, played in a faintly classical style, backed (in the most common version) by an orchestra. The ear can recognize it immediately, but the larynx can’t readily reproduce that kind of skipping counterpoint. So that new utility that takes a scrap of music and matches it to a huge musical database is out, too.

It was a pop chart hit around 1970—maybe a little earlier, maybe a little later. Which means I couldn’t simply search for “instrumental” and “’70s” and expect it to pop up; maybe it was from the ’60s. Not knowing the right decade complicates the search; it’s one more possible red herring to throw the search engine off. And around 1970, an awful lot of songs, like the bands that performed them, made a virtue out of non sequitur, so there’s no hope to guessing a piece of the title.

You know this song. Trust me. It’s a popular choice for movies and documentaries seeking to evoke the Woodstock-Vietnam-Watergate era. Without lyrics, producers don’t have to worry about conflicting messages, and the minor key and skipping melody capture the undirected national angst of the period. (That’s what got me looking for it in the first place: a mood setter for a political message.) In that respect, it’s a lot like the theme from M*A*S*H—the instrumental version on the television series, not the original movie, but more syncopated. Here, I’ll sing the instantly recognizable part: after the horns play a punchy rising scale in chords, the strings come in in parallel to the guitar lead: da, da, da—dee dee dee deet deet deeee! Dee dee dee deet deet deeee! Dee dee dee deet deet dee, dah daht-dah dah! dah! dah! dah! daht-daaah … Right? But how do you punch that into a search engine? And “It’s sorta like the theme song from the M*A*S*H television series (not the movie), but not really, and it was theme music for a bunch of period movies but I can’t remember which ones” isn’t going to help the search. It <i>could</i> turn up conversations <i>about</i> the song, but without hearing a sample, there’s no way to be sure the conversation is, in fact, about the right song.

Turns out the song is called “Classical Gas.” (See what I mean about titles in 1970?) I found it not through Google, or Bing, but via the Amazon search engine, which has a recording of positively everything. All it took was the patience to wade through a lot of wrong answers first. Very wrong answers. Instrumental music of the era was far more dreadful than I remember. “Nadia’s Theme” and “Music Box Dancer” were the <i>good</i> titles. “Classical Gas” isn’t that good, either, apart from that little bit that the documentaries use to evoke the era. That’s spot on.

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