From Doo Wah to Elgar: rockers go classical

While the likes of Jagger, Richards and McCartney are strutting on into their sixties, some historic British rock names have decided that classical sounds might be more in keeping with their advanced age.

Tomorrow, Manfred Mann, who had a string of hits in the Sixties before founding prog rock outfit the Earth Band, issues a collection of previously unreleased hymns by Elgar. Pink Floyd's co-founder and bass-player, Roger Waters, meanwhile, has written an entire opera.

The architect of Floyd's world-conquering album The Wall a quarter of a century ago is exploring the classical idiom with an ambitious work about the French Revolution.

Waters, now 58, said he is braced for a hostile reaction from the classical world.

"I think they'll demand my head. I think I'll be attacked from all quarters and given a savaging. I'll be accused of being pretentious, banal and inept as well as being a charlatan - and too old. Although I might be surprised - there's some great tunes in there, so people might accept it."

Manfred Mann's interest was ignited 40 years ago when he spotted the manuscripts for the Elgar hymns on sale in London's West End. "I found it difficult to believe that they were for sale or that no one had ever played them," said the South African-born musician, better known for "Pretty Flamingo", "Doo Wah Diddy Diddy" and "Mighty Quinn" - all number ones.

The hymns have now been recorded by the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, on the album O Perfect Love issued by Mann's label, Creature Classics.

Waters created some of the most mind-expanding music of the Sixties and Seventies but quit Pink Floyd in 1985, amid some acrimony, to concentrate on solo work.

He began working on the opera, called Ça Ira, in 1989 after an old friend, Etienne Roda-Gil, wrote the libretto. "It was a loose poetic and polemic history of the French Revolution - he wrote the words and his wife Natalie illustrated the text. It was 50 pages and was an extraordinary document.

"He said he wanted to borrow some tunes. I spent 30 days coming up with two and a half hours of demos for a potential orchestral piece."

The tapes were taken to France where they were heard by, among others, President François Mitterrand. "He listened to the demo and loved it," said Waters. They did not have time to finish the work for the French bicentennial celebrations that year, and a proposal to stage it in a Paris park was abandoned when Natalie died of leukaemia.

But Waters returned to the piece years later and set about orchestrating his sketches. A test recording impressed the Sony Classics label. "They were badgering me to translate it into English. I was kicking and screaming to keep it in French but we have now done it in English and French." The work, lasting 110 minutes, has now been recorded with soloists including Bryn Terfel, the star bass-baritone.

"Contemporary classical music has to some extent disappeared up its own arse - it's become so mathematical and clever, cerebral rather than emotional. It interests some but it goes over the heads of most of the population," Waters said. He expects the recording to be released later this year and talks are under way to perform the opera around Europe.

Roger Lewis, managing director of Classic FM, said he would be keen to hear the results: "We have been very supportive of musicians who have experimented with classical structures and forms. I think it's exciting for the genre.

"For many listeners it gives a modern relevance to our sector. Traditional critics are sceptical about such initiatives but the public are far more relaxed - for them, music is music."

It's not exactly a new departure - Deep Purple's Jon Lord started tinkering with an orchestra back in the Dark Ages of rock. More recently, Sir Paul McCartney tried his hand with Liverpool Oratorio and Standing Stone to mixed responses.

Classic FM this year took on, as its first "composer in residence", Joby Talbot of the arty Nineties rock band the Divine Comedy. Talbot has free rein to write one piece a month: "February's is inspired by my electric piano playing a startlingly loud low note all on its own as I was locking up the studio the other night."

But there's still some way to go before the pop world has repaid its debts: the producer Pete Waterman even claims he pinched Pachelbel's Canon - as the basis for Kylie Minogue's "I Should Be So Lucky".