Instrumentally speaking

How many words can there be in an instrumental song before it stops being an instrumental? Purists might say zero, but I think that’s wrong.

There were a lot of big hits in the mid-1970s that pushed the instrumental envelope. Seems that folks wanting to record an instrumental just couldn’t resist throwing a few words in there for good measure. It’s a disco thing:

Silver Convention

  • TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)” by MFSB (#1, 1974) has 8 or 9 different words, depending on if you count the “doo”s, and they come at the very end of the song. The Three Degrees, who sing those words, do get credit on the record label, though, so I’d say this is a borderline case.
  • Similar are the two huge Eurodisco hits by Silver Convention: “Fly Robin Fly” (#1, 1975) and “Get Up and Boogie” (#2 [and #1 in Canada, for what it’s worth], 1976). Each only has 6 different words — 11 between them since they both say “up,” which, coincidentally, is also the number of dance moves known by the group’s members — though they’re interspersed throughout the two songs, so they actually feel less “instrumental” to me than “TSOP” does. (The videos are both to die for, though. Be sure to watch! Who knew “Fly Robin Fly” was about motorcycles?)
  • The Ritchie Family’s “Brazil” (#11, 1975), which just might be the quintessential disco hit, has 7 to 10 words, depending on whether you count the various exclamations of “whoo,” “ooh,” and “d-d-dit.”
  • Pick Up the Pieces” by Average White Band (#1, 1974), has just the 4 words in the title, unless you count “uh-huh” as well. I think we’ve crossed the line here into undisputed instrumental territory.
  • And, let’s not forget the 98% word-free “The Hustle” by Van McCoy and the Soul City Symphony (#1, 1975). Do it!

I think this may help explain in part the backlash against disco that came a bit later: these songs have words, but, with the possible exception of “Get Up and Boogie,” they’re not really saying anything. Come to think of it, you could say the same about most other big disco hits having more words: KC & the Sunshine Band’s entire repertoire comes to mind. (I love them, mind you.)

To come up with big hits having fewer than 3 words, which I think you’d be hard-pressed to call non-instrumentals, we need to reach farther backward or forward in musical history:

Pee Wee's platforms

  • Wipe Out” by the Surfaris (#2, 1963), as we all know, just says “wipe out.” Grammatically, it could even be 1 word if used as a noun, but we’ll count this as 2 since that’s how it’s written on the record label. And they only say it once, right at the beginning of the song, after a maniacal laugh that I don’t really know how to count. This wins the prize for getting all the words out of the way the fastest: 4 seconds.
  • The most famous song with just 1 word in it has got to be “Tequila” by the Champs (#1, 1958). They say it 3 times.

Much as had happened a decade earlier, synthpop in the 1980s (and electronica right after) ushered in a whole new crop of near-instrumentals. I’m sure there are lots more, but here are a couple of my favorites:

Cuna de Lobos

  • Legs” by the Art of Noise (1985) has just the one word, and it’s a short one at that. What a good song! Their “Moments in Love” (1983) has only the 3 words, and they’re pretty indistinct. That one resurfaced later in a Mexican soap opera — I want to say Cuna de Lobos, but don’t quote me on that.
  • I was thinking the 1-word song with the shortest word was “Go” by Moby (1991). They say it quite a few times — how many varies depending on which of the dozens of versions of the song you’re listening to. Did you know he’s got a whole album with nothing but versions of “Go” on it? I generally like Moby, but I gotta tell ya, it’s not easy listening to that whole thing. Anyway, then I remembered it also says “aaaya” about 100 times, so never mind. I’d still call it an instrumental though.

That leaves just one question: what about yodeling?

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4 thoughts on “Instrumentally speaking

    • Thanks. I’m a little strange that way. When I was young, I used to count the words in all kinds of songs…songs that had a lot of words. I think “American Pie” had the most, but I can’t remember how many offhand… ;-)

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