World’s Worst Records – The Portsmouth Sinfonia


1001 Albums You Must Die Before You Hear

#104: The Portsmouth Sinfonia – The Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays The Popular Classics (1973)

MATT KELLY writes about a record and a project that is both diabolically awful and amazingly great and which everyone should get out there and hear.

Can you think an album is terrible and still give it a 4 or 5-star review? That’s the question I ask myself as I contemplate a release which is right up there with other masters of the lovably crap such as Mrs Miller and The Shaggs.

It has a fascinating premise. As a Portsmouth School Of Arts music teacher, Gavin Bryars heard plenty of individual examples of an instrument being played poorly by an untrained person, and in conversation with colleagues wondered what sort of noises could be made by an entire orchestra of such people. Amused and curious at the idea, Bryars arranged to supply instruments and rehearsal time to an orchestra for which the only entry criteria was enthusiasm. You could join simply by asking. Many members had never played classical music before at all, while those with experience were assigned instruments they were unfamiliar with – Brian Eno is somewhere in here on clarinet.

They were asked not to play intentionally badly; these recordings are not scripted comedic musical setpieces, but instead a genuine document of musical egalitarianism, to see what happens when classical music is placed in the hands of the people.

And what happens, as with anything the common people reckon they can do better than the experts, is hilarity. I challenge you to get through their spirited take on Rossini’s ‘William Tell Overture’ without laughing as the scale the violins are in modulates so much the listener risks seasickness, the cherry on top being the cymbalist for whom the concept of timing is but a dream, and who single-handedly makes more noises than the other 30 musicians put together every time their cymbals detonate.

It’s the brass who get the lion’s share of the disastrous moments due to both how naturally sonorous the instruments are and their having a higher entry-level difficulty. Just listen to the tuba soloist on Grieg’s ‘Morning Mood’, who seems like they’re doing well to get any notes out of their instrument at all, let alone the right ones. The entire brass section thrillingly melts down into slag at the finale of ‘In The Hall Of The Mountain King’, while the brass entering far too heavy and in the wrong key earlier in the same piece is one of the highlights of the album.

The strings get their time to shine on Tchaikovsky’s ‘Waltz Of The Flowers’ as they do a remarkable impression of a sleepy swarm of bees with laryngitis while the woodwinds falling down the stairs at the end of every measure of ‘Dance Of The Sugar Plums’ never fails to raise a smile, made even more funny by the fact that the glockenspiel player is nailing it.

There’s also a sense of revenge at play. Listening to the Portsmouth Sinfonia torture Bach’s ‘Air From Suite 3’ slowly to death will be satisfying for anyone who’s suffered one too many insipid performances of it at weddings.

The pick from the entire album may be ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ at the end of which the strings and woodwinds conspire to make an unbelievable sound sure to make any dog permanently run away from home, but it’s also hard to go past Beethoven’s ‘Fifth’ which devolves into an unrecognizable mush of noises that might be instruments in under a minute and then carries on for five more, even attaining the fabled “this genuinely sounds like a traffic jam” state briefly at the halfway point.

A release that literally made me cry laughing yet has appeal beyond comedy for its captivating punk rock approach to classical, TPSPTPC is a must for fans of music gone wrong gone right.


1001 Albums You Must Die Before You Hear

#105: The Portsmouth Sinfonia – Twenty Classic Rock Classics (1979)

A strange case of an album that is worse because it’s better, by 1979 many of the players in the experimental amateur orchestra had improved at their instruments to the point that they no longer made the glorious cacophony heard on the debut. They now sound like a bad Salvation Army band; poor, but not entertainingly so. The other issue is that whereas the debut saw approximately 30 musicians taking on grand classical music, TCRC sees about a third as many musicians performing contemporary pop tunes. With fewer musicians and less complex tunes, the potential for jaw-dropping train wrecks is significantly lower. If only they’d gone in the opposite direction and got 50 people to attempt the ‘Der Ring Des Nibelungen’ (with volunteer vocalists) or ‘1812’ (with non-experts manning the cannons of course).
But what we actually get is the band tootling its way through the likes of ‘Whiter Shade Of Pale’, their dreary quasi-competency turning the album into elevator music rather than a parody of it. Highlights are few, but the way they make ‘Rock Around The Clock’ sound like it doesn’t want to live anymore is amusing. Yet with the grandeur and chaos of the debut gone for the reasons described above, the Sinfonia isn’t that funny or interesting anymore.

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Matthew Kelly is the most important person in the music industry – the type of obsessive nerd without whom it would have no reason to produce box sets and nine-hour long documentaries.

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