Remember the scene in This Is Spi¨al Tap where singer David St. Hubbins mulls his prospects after the breakup of his heavy metal band? ''I've always wanted to do a collection of my acoustic numbers with the London Philharmonic,'' he sighs. For nearly six years, Vitamin Records has tapped that same symphonic spine with its String Quartet Tribute series, which takes rock music and puts it through an orchestral filter. Aimed at collectors, completists, and fans open to reworkings of their favorite songs, the Vitamin catalog includes 140 classically gassed homages to every three-chord wonder from Metallica to the Darkness. ''I like the tribute to us,'' says Nickelback guitarist Chad Kroeger. ''When your music is taken to a different place, it's an honor.'' A faintly disturbing honor, to be sure. Vitamin's stripped-down interpretations of hard rock tend to be thin, shadowy affairs that can be enjoyed by the whole family. Imagine Granny humming along to Nine Inch Nails' ''Suck.'' (On second thought, don't.) At best, the discs function as quirky curios, though Vitamin president David Haerle insists: ''Our albums aren't intended as novelties. They're celebrations.'' The musicians being celebrated have something to cheer, at least: They pocket about a buck in royalties for every CD sold a respectable sum for their top seller, Tool (the label has sold almost 100,000 copies of their Vitamin-enhanced albums), but a bit underwhelming for the Velvet Underground, whose sales have topped out at 9,000 units.
As sharply conflicting as rock and classical seem, the idea has been kicked around since at least 1964, the year the Hollyridge Strings started doing renditions of songs by Capitol artists like the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Still, no record company fully embraced the concept until Vitamin, buoyed by the success of a 1997 album of bluegrass Grateful Dead covers, commissioned a string tribute to Led Zeppelin. Through a posting on a Zeppelin fan website, Haerle enlisted violinist Eric Gorfain, who had recently performed on stage with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. Gorfain and his quartet have since played on 20 Vitamin appreciations.
The label recently gave late punk-folk singer Elliott Smith and R&B star Mariah Carey the string treatment, proving it's willing to salute any kind of music or just about. ''Rap music wouldn't work,'' Haerle insists. Too bad. We were really looking forward to that string tribute to 50 Cent.