So you got a set of chimes (aka “tubular bells”) under the old Christmas tree? Congratulations! Perhaps these are your first chimes, or–if you’re Mike Oldfield–you finally wore out your original set and somebody got you replacements. Either way, you have years of musical enjoyment to look forward to. If you’re like me, you probably spent the holiday hammering out favorites like “Silent Night” or “Joy to the World;” or maybe you had some friends over for an impromptu sing-along with A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector or the Spector-influenced “All I Want For Christmas is You.” But a few days afterward, you may be saying to yourself, “That was fun, but what am I going to play the other eleven months of the year?”
Fortunately, record producers’ use of chimes isn’t limited to the Christmas season: here are a few pop and rock songs that make use of the instrument to tide you over until next December. (I’m leaving aside those songs that include the tolling of church bells, such as AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells”* or Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” You can imitate church bells on the chimes, of course, but it only takes one pitch. The songs that follow cover a wider range and sometimes–gasp!–even take the lead.)
If you’re feeling funky and futuristic, there’s electronic music pioneer Pierre Henry’s “Psyché Rock” (with Michel Colombier, 1967) and Jean-Jacques Perrey’s “E.V.A.” (1970). Both feature chimes prominently amongst the fuzz guitar and space-age sound effects. Henry’s composition, in particular, was the inspiration for Christopher Tyng’s Futurama theme (which also includes chimes, so learn all three and you can really make a night of it):
These guys know what I’m talking about:
If you still have a rhythm section at your disposal, consider Blondie’s 1981 mega-hit “Rapture,” the first single to contain rap to hit number one on the U.S. pop charts (and one of the first music videos played on fledgling cable outlet MTV that year). The sound of bells can be exuberant or mournful; in “Rapture” they complement the slinky bass line in creating an otherworldly nocturnal atmosphere. Along with Perrey’s frequently-sampled “E.V.A.”, “Rapture” can be heard as a spiritual forerunner of trip-hop.
Staying in the early ’80s, the British girl group Dolly Mixture is one of the most unjustly overlooked bands of the post-punk scene, but they are increasingly receiving their due. Most of their recorded output is from the (unsurprisingly) spare Demonstration Tapes; their single “Everything and More” from 1982 has a fuller sound reminiscent of Phil Spector’s style, including a rocking chime riff:
Working a similar vein of updated ’60s guitar pop were The Housemartins, whose 1986 hit “Happy Hour” prominently features our chosen instrument in the break:
Perhaps your tastes run toward alternative or indy music. May I suggest Throwing Muses’ “Mexican Women” (1988) or The Flaming Lips’ “The Abandoned Hospital Ship” (1995)? Both songs save the chimes for the big ending, giving you ample time to make a dramatic entrance.
It’s fitting that we conclude this list with They Might Be Giants, a group that has throughout its history explored varying styles of production, often using the signature sound of an era or artist to frame its songs, as if they came from a slightly off-kilter parallel universe of pop music. “Destination Moon,” from the 1994 album John Henry, draws on both the “wall of sound” of ’60s pop and the futurism of Henry and Perrey for a vision of outer (and inner) space travel that’s equal parts Heinlein and Dick.
That ought to do it. Happy chiming!
* Not to be confused with this “Hell’s Bells,” sung by Betty Boop in the 1934 cartoon Red Hot Mamma. Playing the chime part for this requires two pitches: Betty Boop 1, AC/DC 0.