When Rock Goes Classical, Greatness Ensues

Guns N' Roses, along with many others, have proven that hard rock and classical music can make for one mighty fine marriage.
Guns N' Roses, along with many others, have proven that hard rock and classical music can make for one mighty fine marriage. Photo courtesy of Katarina Benzova

Certain things just go together. Peanut butter and jelly. Fried foods of all kinds at the Rodeo. Houston and humidity.

Certain things, on the surface at least, very much do NOT go together, but after further analysis, do work well in tandem. Salt and chocolate. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito as “twins.” Whatever the hell Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton have going on.

Rock and classical music, working in unison, aligns much more with the latter than the former. Sure, rock (at least in the past) is the working man’s genre, whereas classical always skewed more toward the elite, high-brow types. But, hey, opposites attract.

The Houston Symphony gets this, which is why it has three performances this month dedicated to that very marriage – “The Music of Pink Floyd” at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion on June 26 and “The Music of the Rolling Stones” June 28-29 at the Hobby Center.

Rock and classical have quite a history, one that – for the most part – has produced stellar results. We will revisit some of those.

And what about the future? Are there any more semi-modern-day rock-classical matchups we’ve yet to see live and in person?


Metallica, S&M Vol. 1 & 2

Let’s just start right at the top. Metallica teamed up in 1999 with their hometown San Francisco Symphony for a multi-platinum live album that featured classical covers of such hits as “Master of Puppets,” “The Memory Remains” and “Enter Sandman.” It was as surreal and awesome as you’d expect. But the unquestionable highlight of the collaboration is the original track, “No Leaf Clover,” which begins with full symphonic accompaniment and ends with frontman James Hetfield wailing in his classic growl. Twenty years later, the band and symphony teamed up for a follow-up that is not quite as novel but is equally accessible. When one of America’s greatest orchestras teams up with arguably its greatest-ever hard rock band, magic is to be expected; these two did not disappoint.

Led Zeppelin, “Kashmir”
Speaking of bands with claim to “best ever,” Led Zeppelin was never a band for complacency. A few years after Led Zeppelin IV cemented the band as arguably the biggest and best on the planet, thanks in part to the insanely ambitious “Stairway to Heaven,” the band decided to give it another go. The result was “Kashmir,” which features string and horn sections that go step for step with Jimmy Page’s breakneck guitar pace, an orchestral song caked in rock makeup. “Kashmir” is not only one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded; it is easily among the most progressive and genre-bending.

Guns N’ Roses, “November Rain”
Axl Rose was never one for subtleties. He went big for GNR’s massive debut, Appetite for Destruction, which made Rose and bandmates stars, controversy magnets and, let’s not forget, commercial juggernauts. That last part gave Rose the capital to record a double album – Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II, to be sold separately, because, again, commercial juggernauts – for the band’s proper follow-up to Appetite. The Illusion double-set (which is kinda underrated, some 30-plus years later) featured a run of hits, but it only featured one track like “November Rain.” The nearly nine-minute opus (composed by Rose himself) is distinctly symphonic, which actually alienated his bandmates, who preferred a more traditional rock approach. In any event, “November Rain” is perhaps the best and most grandiose song ever recorded by one of the best and most grandiose bands in the annals of rock. The band later recorded “November Rain” alongside a 50-piece orchestra, and you should listen to it. Say what you will about Axl Rose, and many have, but in his prime, few did it better.
Smashing Pumpkins, “Tonight, Tonight”
Hey, another egomaniacal frontman! Billy Corgan and humility went together about as well as any couple that had no business being within 100 feet of one another. This has yielded breakups, reunions and enough tumult for a “Behind the Music” 10-parter. But arrogance does sometimes have its benefits, and Corgan’s – coupled with his outsized ambition – did just that with “Tonight, Tonight.” The fourth single from 1995’s 28-track double album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, “Tonight, Tonight” was recorded alongside Corgan’s hometown Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the chemistry was palpable. In later years, Corgan’s ambition and control-freak ways would be the band’s undoing; in this era, it would catapult the Pumpkins’ ascent.


Korn, “Freak on a Leash”

Once thought to be a dangerous band that catered to an under-served group of outcasts, Korn has mellowed in recent years. They grew up, slowed down and have quietly recorded some of their best music in recent years. So why not take their most commercially successful track – which features a killer musical interlude that is ripe for symphonic accompaniment – and blow it out before a live audience? “Freak on a Leash” is kind of sneakily made for an orchestra, the results would be (worst case) interesting, and who knows, it might just open up one of the biggest bands of the 90s to a whole new audience.

Foo Fighters, “My Hero”
“My Hero” is about an anthemic as anthems get, and big arena/stadium rock (see Metallica above) can mesh quite well with classical accompaniment. Can you imagine the legendary opening guitar riff of this classic track with a full orchestral background? You can. And you should.

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Clint Hale enjoys music and writing, so that kinda works out. He likes small dogs and the Dallas Cowboys, as you can probably tell. Clint has been writing for the Houston Press since April 2016.
Contact: Clint Hale