'People don't do minuets today. They disco'

Having rolled over Beethoven and switched on Bach, the pop music world is now recycling the masters. The lively result is Hooked on Classics, a medley of 106 disco-styled snippets from such long-haired chestnuts as the Fifth Symphony and the Brandenburg Concertos, not to mention Brahms' Hungarian Dances, Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake and Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. The LP first became a smash in England, where it was recorded last summer by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Now it has caught the fancy of American listeners, pushing sales worldwide to more than four million and reaching the top five on U.S. pop album charts. Roll over yourself, Chuck Berry.

If it is an unmitigated commercial monster, some consider Hooked an aesthetic Frankenstein. "A silly record," intoned the Times of London. Echoed the Sunday Times: "A sad comment on the way the arts are regarded in English society."

The target of such attacks is rock musician Louis Clark, 35, who both arranged and conducted the album. "Blinkered," Clark huffs at the sniping. "They want to pigeonhole everything." He maintains that he isn't desecrating classics. "In some cases," he boasts, "I actually enhance them by beefing up the orchestration. Besides, it opens up that music to a whole new audience."

The Royal Philharmonic, which performed for years under the late Sir Thomas Beecham, agreed to the project for its usual fee of $80 per member per session, plus a 12½ percent production charge. (The biggest dividend has been the extra engagements arising from the album's popularity.) "As a professional," observes RPO concert-master Barry Griffiths, "you don't consider your likes so much as doing a job well." For his part, Clark pleaded, "Some of this was dance music in its day, but people don't do minuets today. They disco."

Hooked on Classics is merely the latest product of medleymania, which started last spring with a smorgasbord of linked Beatles tunes recorded by a group of studio musicians as Stars on 45. Subsequent victims of the fad have included the Beach Boys and Abba.

Their success inspired London-based Don Reedman, a producer for K-tel, the purveyors of those greatest-hits record packages advertised on U.S. television. He asked Clark to raid the classics. The offer came just in time to deliver Clark from "a real downer." His arrangements for the rock band Electric Light Orchestra had yielded him a comfortable income and a wall of gold discs, but when ELO wanted a different sound last year, he suddenly found himself giving clarinet and flute lessons. "We were broke," he says. He and his wife, Jo, were forced to sell their lawn mower, her engagement ring and even some of his musical instruments. "I was going to pack up music altogether," he says, "until I realized I knew how to do little else."

The son of a bricklayer, Louis went to live with an aunt at age 2 when his mother died. He became familiar with classical composers after taking up piano at 12. Then the Beatles came along. After a few false starts as a bass guitarist with a rock group and jobs outside music in accounting and computer programming, Clark finally got a degree in arranging from Leeds College of Music in 1974. Not long after, he met Jeff Lynne, the pivotal member of ELO, and they collaborated on the group's pioneering Eldorado album and five others.

Today Louis lives in a four-bedroom brick-and-clapboard house outside Birmingham, England. He's back with ELO, and is planning to record a Hooked on Classics sequel with the Philharmonic this spring. He is also organizing European and American concerts in which he'll conduct pop numbers in classical style and the classics in pop style. Though he's optimistic, he notes, "I've had so many ups and downs that I wouldn't be surprised if in five years I was broke."