Jethro Tull – “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day” (1974)
The first track on side two of War Child, Jethro Tull’s followup to their pair of landmark prog-rock albums Thick As a Brick and A Passion Play, the delicate “Skating Away” leans heavily into their folk-rock past. Regular keyboardist John Evan’s accordion channels prog heaviness against Ian Anderson’s flute, supplemented by judicious riffs from Martin Barre’s electric guitar.
Richard & Linda Thompson – “Calvary Cross” – Live at the Oxford Polytechnic (1975)
Button accordion master John Kirkpatrick has been a mainstay on the British folk and folk-rock scene since 1959. He has played and toured with Richard Thompson on and off since 1972, and he played with folk-rock titans Steeleye Span from 1977 until the mid-1980s. No other accordionist has so effortlessly moved between traditional and rock music. In this stunning jam on one of Richard’s greatest songs, the marriage of guitar and accordion is so perfect it’s hard to believe they’re still one of the few bands ever to have tied the knot.
The Who – “Squeeze Box” (1975)
The Who’s only international #1 single, “Squeeze Box”, is an accordion rock song with not much of an accordion sound. But its music-hall double-entendre makes it pretty much the only rock song actually about an accordion. Or about sex with accordion as a transparent metaphor. Pete Townshend has always been dismissive of the composition and the instrument: “I had bought myself an accordion and learned to play it one afternoon … The accordion gave the song a polka-esque rhythm, and the lyrics, which I wrote for fun, were intended as a poorly aimed dirty joke. I had no thought of it ever becoming a hit but amazingly recorded by the Who, to my disbelief. Further incredulity was caused when it became a hit for us in the USA.” On the other hand, Roger Daltrey loves it, as do many fans.
Elton John – “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” (1976)
Given that his piano is in the middle of just about every Elton John composition, it’s not surprising that John’s arrangements seldom add an accordion. On the 1971 “Razor Face”, it’s there to conjure honky-tonk and country. On this number one single it’s part of the overkill of instruments aimed at the soft heart of our emotions. That’s old friend Carl Fortina putting it over the top, tapping inspiration from his more than 500 movie soundtrack recordings.
Billy Joel – “Vienna” (1977)
My 14-year-old self wore out this album the year it was released. Unlike some albums I wore out, this is one I no longer have and have never listened to since. But it is full of great pop songs, and the accordion in “Vienna” and “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” effortlessly summons an exurban world not so distant from Springsteen’s “Sandy” or Mink DeVille’s “Love and Emotion.” Unlike those songs, “Vienna” doesn’t transcend or transform its material, and it doesn’t tap anything deep in the soul of rock and roll. But then, Billy Joel’s not trying to do that, either, and the solo perfectly captures the essence of his not trying. That the soloist is veteran Italian virtuoso Dominic Cortese, who had played on Dylan’s Desire and would solo on the Moonstruck soundtrack, just makes it more perfect.
Styx – “Boat on the River” (1979)
Speaking of albums I wore out in 1977 and never listened to again—that would be Chicago-based Styx’s prog-lite breakthrough, The Grand Illusion. By 1979, I had moved on to punk, and they had hit the pop stratosphere. “Boat on the River” didn’t chart in the US but was a big hit in Europe. I love the portentous pop drama, the faux-gypsy vibe, and regular keyboardist Dennis DeYoung vamping on the instrument he was playing as a 14-year-old when the band’s core first came together.
Mink DeVille – “Love & Emotion” (1981)
Like Bruce Springsteen’s “Sandy”, this cult Jersey band’s music finds the heart of its local subjects by burrowing deep inside them. Louis Cortelezzi’s baritone sax introduces the irresistible hook and passes the love on to Kenny Margolis’s piano and accordion as Willy DeVille’s vocals provide all the emotion you could ever want.
Subway Sect – “Stop That Girl” (1981)
The opening guitar notes promise post-punk before the accordion melody shifts into proto-indie-pop, hearkening back to the bubbly vibe of a prior era. Vic Godard’s Subway Sect began performing in 1976 as a punk band but didn’t release their first album until 1980. No idea who’s playing, but it’s simple, tuneful, and sublime.
Fleetwood Mac – “Tusk” Live (1982)
When they took Tusk on tour, Fleetwood Mac keyboardist Christine McVie turned to the only single instrument capable of replacing the entire USC Trojan Marching Band on the album version of the title song. As she tells it: “It was just laying around the stage one day. I wasn’t sure what I was going to play on ‘Tusk’. I thought I might wind up playing some kind of percussion, but I just picked it up and started doing the riff.”
Elvis Costello & the Attractions – “The Long Honeymoon” (1982)
After his punk-era calling cards and some transitional experimenting, Elvis Costello’s next-level seventh album was sprawling, ambitious, and emotionally harrowing. But despite its stylistic range and varied instrumentation, Imperial Bedroom has always flowed in my head as one single breakup song. Attractions’ keyboardist Steve Nieve’s moody musette playing sets an ominous tone that never loosens its hold. It’s as if the Paris cafés of a romantic honeymoon linger on into the nightmare of a marriage doomed to failure.