Orchestral manoeuvres - six great string performances in pop

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The Beatles: Eleanor Rigby

Paul McCartney had apparently wanted something Vivaldi-esque to accompany his vignettes of suburban loneliness, but George Martin fortunately came up with something much more dramatic. Self-consciously imitating Bernard Herrmann, his strings stalk their enigmatic subject with the obsessive fascination of James Stewart trailing Kim Novak in Vertigo. Stiff as stair- rods, the insistent violins cast the sternest of gazes over the sad industry of Father MacKenzie and his parishioner, melting into sympathetic tears only on the final chorus.

James Brown: It's a Man's Man's Man's World

The spare, bleak lines of James Brown's pre-PC testament to the supportive properties of women are inhabited by only a lonely, stalking pizzicato, building tension toward the chorus, where the high string part provides a vaulted blue ceiling for Brown's squawked "Nothing!". It's a brilliant manipulation of pressure, releasing the pent-up energy to afford a glimpse of the power and freedom which can never be a man's, according to Brown, without a woman or a girl; as women are supposed to do to men, so the strings do to his passion.

Al Green: Free at Last

In 1973, soul music's most gifted comet was just starting to register the tug back toward the church. On this track from 1973's Living For You, the Memphis Strings articulate Green's situation, stranded between the sacred and the secular, in remarkable fashion. Initially, the low moan of cello acts as a curtain, from behind which Green murmurs the old gospel refrain "Free at last, free at last"; then as the spirit takes him to more excitable heights, the strings add a sceptical raised eyebrow at his ecstasy, as if questioning the origin of his passion.

Love: You Set The Scene

Love's Forever Changes is the high-water mark of orchestral rock, David Angel's almost easy-listening arrangements (which the group initially hated) adding untold depth and colour to Arthur Lee's folk-rock material. "You Set The Scene", one of the great hippy anthems of awakening possibilities, opens with a fast stroll of acoustic rhythm guitar and initially just one low cello note; then as the mood moves from uncertainty to resolution, the string arrangement swells its chest proudly and carries the song aloft to its conclusion, marching side by side with fanfaring trumpets to a glorious new dawn.

Curtis Mayfield: Right on For The Darkness

In an extraordinary conceit, Mayfield offers a blind man's relief at not having to witness the evils of the world: "I am blind, and I cannot see/ You are there, your petty evils don't bother me". Building upon bleakly strummed guitar and vocal, the song crystallises into a groove when bass, drums and strings come swooping in after the first verse. Rich Tufo's string arrangement holds the song together, adding increments of melodrama to deepen the darkness with each verse, eventually overwhelming it to conclude the song with a two-minute string suffix of quite chilling intensity.

Van Morrison: Sweet Thing

Van's Astral Weeks remains one of the most singular records in all of popular music, not least for the string arrangements with which Larry Fallon embellished Morrison's remarkable folk-jazz-soul performances, ranging from the dramatic rococo flourishes of "Madame George" - as theatrically camp as its subject - to the subtler approach of "Sweet Thing". Here, chafing urgently against the double-bass, the strings appear gradually from the song's soft underbelly to whip along the horses when Van gets to the part about driving his chariot down your streets. The song seems to swell with the warm glow of recollection.