What's with all the fiddling about?

Everyone from Meat Loaf to McCartney has called for the violins. Michele Kirsch says pop's entanglement with strings can sound ropey
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The Independent Culture
An all-female string quartet is on stage at the start of a Meat Loaf gig, doing classical arrangements of Meat Loaf songs. A guitarist struts on, wielding his instrument like a gun, and blasting out wild man rock riffs over the strings. The quartet storm off in a huff, having been told by Meat Loaf's people to do so. Hurrah: rock and roll! Boo hiss bah: music your parents listen to. The vibe is set, the audience is wild and Meat Loaf makes his entrance. Jocelyn Pook, viola player in the quartet, shrugs in a "things a girl's gotta do to make a living" kind of way, and decides to be more choosy next time she's offered a gig.

And here's the remarkable bit. She can afford to be choosy, because string sections are in - big time. String sections are the obligatory sax solos of the Nineties, providing a sometimes classy, sometimes inappropriate musical break for everything from the Britpop of Blur, Oasis, Pulp, Suede and Menswear to the dance orientated Robert Miles, rap of Coolio and soul of Seal.

From the often weird but always melodic PJ Harvey, Bjork, Kristin Hersh and Shakespear's Sister to the mega-mainstream Paul McCartney, George Michael, Annie Lennox and the Pet Shop Boys - where there's a will for a tune, there's a way with a string section. And Jocelyn Pook's Electra Strings, a classically trained core quartet which can expand into a 30- piece, all-female string orchestra, is doing very well out of it. It helps that they're flexible, professional and can always deliver the goods. It doesn't hurt that they are all female and good looking.

When they're told to dress a certain way (long, floaty nighties for Take That) or to do something theatrically sound but musically pointless (don blonde wigs and mime to synths for Enya), it's good to know that there's always a Mark Knopfler or PJ Harvey gig coming up, when they're an integral part of the band and not a fashionable appendage. Having busked in Covent Garden with one member dressed as a giant bee for "Flight of the Bumblebee", having played Vivaldi in leather gear, having mimed behind Roland Rat with the Communards, Pook has a well-developed sense of the necessarily absurd - not something you associate with classically trained musicians or session players.

"I hate to say I'm a session musician because it conjures up this image of old men who don't care what they're doing and are just waiting for the next tea break," says Pook, articulating a widely held but not-cool- to-admit belief. Anne Dudley, musician, composer, arranger and producer who was in the sample-drenched Art Of Noise, reckons this stereotype is a dying breed. "When I first started, string session players would behave in a certain way in the studio and would be very snooty and would walk out at one o'clock on the dot, even in the middle of a take, though none of these things ever happened to me. Now, it's different, and string musicians I've worked with are happy to use headphones and can play pop rhythms accurately. I think one of the reasons strings are so popular is because youget a lot more co-operation. And people are beginning to realise that even the best string samples and string synthesisers have nothing like the variety of expression you can get out of a string orchestra. They can be sweet, dramatic or threatening all in the course of eight bars."

Phil Spector knew this and incorporated lots of lush strings into his wall of sound in all those Brill Building-penned hits of the early Sixties. The effect was pure Wagnerian bombast you could dance to, all those lost- love lyrics blown out of all dramatic proportion by those epic strings. If you can remember the musical punctuation marks articulating the repeated phrase 'it's gone" on the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Loving Feeling", or the string echo of "All the lonely people" on The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby", or anything by the Walker Brothers or trouser-splitting- era PJ Proby, you're old enough to know that live strings in pop are nothing new, but have returned after a too-long period of cheap and cheerful synthesised sounds.

Jake Shillingford, songwriter and singer in the 11-piece string-soaked My Life Story, prefers the big cinematic pop sounds of the James Bond film score genius John Barry to the way Britpop uses strings. "A lot of the bands are using strings at the moment as a sort of backwash, to fill out the sound, almost like a keyboard pad. In My Life Story, we use the strings and brass to carry the main melody, so when you're walking down the street going 'lada da da da' you're singing the string line. There's no question that we influenced these Britpop bands. We headlined over Oasis. We supported Blur and Pulp and now they all use strings. Some of them think it's glamorous but they wind up getting four balding blokes in dickie bows on stage on Top of the Pops and it looks like they're playing a bar mitzvah."

The glamour factor aside, modern pop musicians' penchant for live strings, whatever the motives, throw up some glaring incongruities. What happens in the studio when you bring highly trained, musically literate session players to work with three-chord wonder-boys who operate more along the lines of the oral tradition ("play something like this, dah dah")?

For Justine Armatage, who plays keyboards and violin in the band Gretschen Hofner, doing a session for a band with big ideas but little know-how can be frustrating. "One band said 'we want a Mantovani string section - do you know what it sounds like?' And I don't think they did because there were two guitars and no space in the music for a strong section. They kept saying 'no, it can't go there, or there', so I said 'OK, so you want a two-bar break between the verse and the chorus and you want it to sound like Mantovani?'"

It can be frustrating for the band as well. Dave Bedford, A&R man for the Tindersticks, hired a 24-piece orchestra to play with the band for a few gigs. Though the Tindersticks had a fair idea of what they wanted the orchestra to do, there were a few holes that needed filling. "The biggest problem initially was when the band said 'Do something here'. The orchestra didn't know what to do. They put down their instruments."

Of course, big strings mean big money. For the first couple of orchestral gigs, the Tindersticks were paying out pounds 5,000 a night - peanuts for Michael Jackson or U2 but a fortune for an indie band early in their career. On the other hand, the financial rewards available to classically trained string musicians willing to do pop gigs are the subject of much scorn by purists. Pook, who joined the Communards after finishing at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1984, says: "When my viola teacher found out what I was doing, he was really pissed off. In the early Eighties, it just wasn't on, but it's all changed."

Perhaps not as much as she thinks. My Life Story were asked by their agent to do a tour of music schools. Shillingford listened to his band protest. "The whole string section said, 'Please don't put us under that pressure. They'll hate us'."