Paul Buckmaster, Essential Arranger for David Bowie and Elton John, Dead at 71
Just as pop singing wasn’t the same after Elvis or the guitar didn’t recover after Hendrix, neither was rock orchestration the same after Paul Buckmaster, the half-British, half-Italian string arranger who died Tuesday at age 71 of undisclosed causes. Even if his name doesn’t ring any bells (or, more appropriately, triangles), the records Buckmaster arranged and orchestrated will. Starting with his work on David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” Buckmaster’s alternately lush and brooding string arrangements enriched, deepened and darkened pop records for nearly 50 years.
If that sounds like an exaggeration, consider just some of the records featuring his arrangements. In Buckmaster’s hands, string sections on rock records weren’t schmaltzy. They were trippy and panoramic (the Rolling Stones’ “Moonlight Mile”), dark and brooding (Elton John’s “Madman Across the Water,” the Stones’ “Sway”), stately (Harry Nilsson’s “Without You,” John’s “Levon”), high-stepping (Simon’s “You’re So Vain”), and lush without being overbaked (Taylor Swift’s “Back to December”). The muted French horns and other woodwinds that underscored Guns N’ Roses “Madagascar” made that the moist listenable song on the messy Chinese Democracy.
By his own admission, Buckmaster wasn’t the most obvious candidate for arranger to the (rock) stars. His mother was a concert pianist, and as a child, he studied cello in private school in London. He didn’t even learn how to arrange records until after his schooling. But accidental or not, his timing couldn’t have been better. By the mid-1960s, rockers were eager to stretch out the music as much as possible (or as much as could fit onto a side of an LP), and layering strings atop guitars and rhythm sections suddenly didn’t seem as anti-rock an idea as a decade before.
First as a touring cellist with the Bee Gees and former Manfred Mann singer Paul Jones, Buckmaster found himself drawn into a very different musical world, and his ghostly work on “Space Oddity,” followed a year later by his orchestrations on several tracks on the Elton John album (particularly “Your Song” and “Sixty Years On”), established Buckmaster as the stringman of choice.
From that point on, Buckmaster seemed to be everywhere. “I don’t think Paul has gotten the credit he deserves,” John told Rolling Stone in 1973. “He’s influenced so many string writers, especially the Elton John album; everybody pinches off Paul Buckmaster. Like Lennon on Imagine, I’m not saying he pinched it, but he used a lot of strings on ‘How Do You Sleep?’ I think nobody really used strings until Buckmaster came along and showed them you can use strings without having them being sugary and awful.”
Not everyone agreed: To the Grateful Dead’s grousing, Buckmaster was recruited to orchestrate the title song suite of the band’s Terrapin Station, which managed to turned those morsels of songs into the Dead’s most glorious shot at prog. And who else could have bathed Stevie Nicks in strings the way Buckmaster did on “Beauty and the Beast” from The Wild Heart?
Although he was largely associated with the classic rock era, Buckmaster hardly slowed down; in recent years, he worked with not only GNR and Swift but Train, Brandi Carlile, Faith Hill and others and moved into movie scoring with Twelve Monkeys.
But it will be his rock work for which he’ll best be remembered, and rightly so: In his hands, and those of his violinists and conductors, Buckmaster made the possibilities of rock seem even more infinite.