Perfect Sound Forever


Who or What Were They?
A Blast of Orchestral Pop-Rock from 1970
by Kurt Wildermuth
(February 2021)

Here's a pop-rock trivia question: In 1969, The Who released its so-called rock opera, Tommy. The next year, the "Overture" from Tommy became a Billboard Top 20 single. However, the hit version of that instrumental was not by The Who! Who was it by?

You're forgiven if the name doesn't come to you, or if the answer doesn't ring bells. Over the decades, The Assembled Multitude has gone from having its moment to being adrift in time.

In 1970, Atlantic Records released the self-titled debut, the only full-length work, by this group of studio musicians. The album opens with "Overture from 'Tommy' (A Rock Opera)" and includes orchestrated instrumental versions of 1960s pop and rock songs and some originals. Wounded Bird Records reissued the collection on CD in 2008, but critics have differed as to the music's merits, and I'm not about to claim it's a bucket-list blast of brilliance. The whole effort is interesting enough to merit your attention, however, as a historical artifact and if you like your classic pop-rock mixed with orchestral fortitude.

The multitude was assembled for this project by Tom Sellers, a Philadelphia musician, songwriter, arranger, and producer. Until his accidental death at age 39 in 1988, Sellers seemed to try a bit of this and a bit of that. According to the brief bio at Discogs, "he received four Clio awards, six gold records, and two Grammy nominations." If you've heard Electric Indian's novelty "Keem-O-Sabe" (1969), The Hues Corporation's soul/disco classic "Rock the Boat" (1974), or Glen Campbell's country-pop hit "Rhinestone Cowboy" (1975), you've experienced Sellers's touch as an arranger. But his biggest year for efforts under his own name was 1970. And his two projects that year bore heavy influences from a group you might have heard of, The Beatles.

That merry band had broken up in 1969, of course, and in between bouts of hoping for a reunion, fans and acolytes were searching for more forms of its magic. Good luck with that! The secret ingredient in The Beatles' recipe was their lack of formula. They simply made things up as they went along, sometimes missing the mark and sometimes hitting it gloriously.

By contrast, the rock band Gulliver was assembled by music-biz pros rather than gathering organically. In bringing together Tom Sellers on bass and keyboards, the drummer Jim Helmer, the guitarist Tim Moore, and the keyboardist Daryl Hall (the latter having been one-third of Electric Indian), the goal seems to have been creating faux-Beatles magic. Gulliver's one, self-titled album, released by Elektra and reissued on CD by Collector's Choice about twenty years later, bears the heavy influences of '60s forebears: The Kinks, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, and especially The Beatles.

After Gulliver's one-shot deal, drummer Helmer went on to some session work. Most notably, he played on two albums. One was Laura Nyro and Labelle's Gonna Take a Miracle (1971). The other was Whole Oats (1972), the debut from his former bandmate Daryl Hall, together with John Oates. Yes, as you might have guessed: Gulliver is best remembered as a footnote in the history of the eventual pop-soul superstars Hall & Oates.

Gulliver's Tim Moore also did some early session work with Hall & Oates. His own albums are highly regarded by '70s soft-rock fans. His song "Rock and Roll Love Letter" was covered by the Bay City Rollers in 1976, and his "Second Avenue" was done by Art Garfunkel in 1979. Before all of these achievements, though, Moore was part of (here we come full circle) The Assembled Multitude, together with his Gulliver bandmate Tom Sellers.

I've assembled this mildly tangled chronology through web research, because the vintage Assembled Multitude LP doesn't include credits. The cover does bear fine art, however--hearts rendered by Jim Dine--indicating that the package wasn't simply tossed together.

The music was recorded at Philadelphia's Sigma Sound Studios. The studio musicians who played on it later became known as MFSB, and from 1971 until 1985, they created the sounds lovingly remembered as "Philly soul." They backed Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the O'Jays, the Stylistics, and the Spinners for example. But don't look to The Assembled Multitude for classic rock interpreted as soul, a la George Benson's The Other Side of Abbey Road (1969). Instead, go for a listen that's challenging--not in the sense of pushing you into perception-testing sonic territory but in the sense of sitting precariously on the fence between taste and kitsch.

Of the album's 11 tracks, three are Tom Sellers originals- "Where the Woodbine Twineth," "The Princess and the Soldier," and "Mr. Peppercorn" with each lasting exactly or slightly longer than two and a half minutes. They sound not like their titles but like string-laden heavy rock, with their big orchestral sounds propelled by powerful drumming. Some effects, such as the intense swirling on "Woodbine," bear a clear Beatles influence.

Sellers chooses not a favorite Beatle but a selection of highlights from the band's three principal composers. "Singalong Junk" was a bold choice, being brand-new. Paul McCartney's original appeared on his first full-fledged solo album, McCartney (1970), where it was an instrumental version of a song with vocals called "Junk." The Assembled Multitude's cover, which doesn't reach the two-minute mark, treats the instrumental as a (relatively) serious composition rather than music lacking vocals. George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," from the Beatles' 'White Album' (1968), receives the kind of slinky groove, overdriven with guitar and horns, that John Lennon explored on his solo albums in 1973-74. So in addition to being a dignified treatment, Sellers's rendering could be seen as a prescient reading of music lurking within the "Beatles sound." His choice of Lennon-McCartney's--but really Lennon's--"I Want You (She's So Heavy)," from Abbey Road (1969), is fascinating in that Sellers finds compositional merit where less adventurous listeners have heard raw rock and noise. The Assembled Multitude's version sounds pretty much like the original's backing track minus vocals, with some dramatic stops and starts until horns and strings take over by the end, where it fades rather than cutting off as the original does.

In addition, Sellers chooses five well-known pop-rock songs that now represent major works in the '60s canon. "Overture from Tommy (A Rock Opera)" interprets the original with dignity in two and half minutes--if you're thinking Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band's disco novelty "A Fifth of Beethoven" (1976), fear not. Funky percussion adds soul music to Joni Mitchell's soulful "Woodstock." Martial drums, strings, and horns pump up the drama in Neil Young's "Ohio." String parts in Jimmy Webb's "MacArthur Park" bear an uncanny resemblance to what McCartney and producer George Martin would bring to "Live and Let Die" three years later, and this version's speed and intensity prefigure Donna Summer's disco hit version from 1978. Burt Bacharach's "Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa" (originally recorded by Gene Pitney) clearly evokes the opening themes from Westerns, but its thumping drums indicate that disco was in its formative stages, at least at Sigma Sounds, as early as 1970.

These pieces add up to about a half-hour of music. So even in terms of running time, this album is a time capsule from analog days. It's hard to imagine anyone creating similar instrumentals in the twenty-first century and cutting them off at, say, two and a half minutes. The CD format would have encouraged stretching this material out to at least an hour, and online storage capacities mean that each track would now have to last about an hour.

But speaking of time capsules: suppose you're not already familiar with '60s pop-rock. Would any of this music signify for you? Based on these stately yet not stodgy, portentous yet not pretentious renderings, would you identify these songs as classics? For that matter, suppose you now had to select songs from the past decade and translate them into orchestral terms. Would you have the foresight of Tom Sellers and choose ones that hold up as compositions fifty years later? Sellers's baby is worth revisiting if only because it prompts you to ask questions of this kind, even while you're having fun listening.

Also see Kurt Wildermuth's website

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