EASY LISTENING REVIVAL overview + interviews
Melody Maker, 1995
by Simon Reynolds
Melody Maker, 1995
by Simon Reynolds
It's official: it's hip to be square. Collectors are paying twenty quid or
more for original albums in such '50s/'60s easy listening genres as 'exotica',
'stereo-testing LPs' and 'moog music' . A reissue boom is underway: after the
best-selling "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music", Bar/None Records is about to release
a second collection of works by avant-muzak visionary Juan Garcia Esquivel;
Martin Denny and Mantovani anthologies are in the pipeline. On both sides of the
Atlantic, there's a swinging club scene:
London's campadelic Indigo and, on a
more tacky, 'so bad it's good' tip, Cheese;
Los Angeles' Lava Lounge and Mr
Phat's Royal Martini Den;
New York's Loser's Lounge.
Then there's the burgeoning mini-movement of bands who recreate bygone E-Z
America, lounge music resurrectionists Combustible Edison lead a (rat)
pack that includes Love Jones and Friends Of Dean Martin. In
Britain, there's The
Mike Flowers Pops Orchestra, The Gentle People, the Radio
Science Orchestra and more. Finally, mood-music is enjoying critical
rehabilitation. First there was RE/Search's "Incredibly Strange Music, Vol. 1"
and "Vol. 2" (and accompanying CD compilations), then Joseph Lanza's "Elevator
'Hip Easy Listening' isn't a genre as such, but a confederacy of styles. It
ranges from the pseudo-ethnic seduction soundtracks of 'exotica' (Martin Denny,
Les Baxter, 101 Strings, Arthur Lyman) to the heavenly, heavily-echoed strings
and soothing harmonies of mood-song (Mantovani, Percy Faith, Jackie Gleason, Ray
Conniff); from the extraterrestial electronic burblings of artists who used the
Moog, theremin and other primitive synthesisers (Gershon Kingsley & Jean-Jacques
Perrey, Constance Demby, Clara Rockmore, Dick Hyman), to music designed to
exploit the then newly invented stereo hi-fi (Mystic Moods Orchestra, Enoch
Light's 'Persuasive Percussion', Electro-Sonic Orchestra). What connects these
sub-genres is their functional use (music-as-decor), and their association with
the post-War explosion of suburbia and 'leisure culture'.
So why has E-Z, so long associated with comfy middle age and soul-less
suburban braindeath, suddenly become HIP easy listening? Isolated eccentrics,
like Genesis P. Orridge (Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV), Tim Gane (Stereolab) and
Graham Massey (808 State) have actually been exploring the world of exotica et al
for years, drawn by the wacky cover art and comically pseudo-scientific
sleevenotes as much as by the weird, outre soundscapes within. The fact that,
until recently, E-Z LP's were very cheap (50 pence at your local church fete or Oxfam)
also made it appealing to impoverished bohemians. Gradually, knowledge acquired
through trial-and-error solidified into a critical cartography of easy-
listening, a canon of mood-music greats; this knowledge became more widely
available just at the point at which hipsters, alienated by the mainstreaming and
MTV-isation of underground rock ideas, were looking for new ways to differentiate
and dramatise themselves against the herd. Once upon a time RE/Search could
devote an entire book to "Industrial Culture"; now bands like Nine Inch Nails
have brought 'industrial' sounds, imagery and shock effects into the Billboard
Top Ten, they and their hipster ilk have been forced to locate a new 'edge' in
the forgotten cheezy-listening music and novelty records of the pre-rock era.
Despite the formation of bands like Combustible Edison and the Mike Flowers
Pops Orchestra, hip easy is an aesthetic of consumption not production. It's
about playing games with taste, up-ending aesthetic hierarchies and reconfiguring
notions of what's musically permissible. (Of course, this strategy can lapse into
kitsch, a 'so bad, it's good' celebration of the kooky, the corny or the merely
third-rate.) There's an inbuilt dynamic to hipster and record collector culture
that requires the opening up of new frontiers within the past. 15 years ago, it
might have been obscure '60s garage punk bands or rockabilly artists that were
highly prized and priced; now, it's early '70s Krautrock and hip easy listening.
All this is means that it's collectors who are the pioneers on this scene. And so
the RE/Search books devote as much space to heroising curators like Jello Biafra
as creators like Martin Denny.
For some, hip easy is a cheeky, camp thrill. For others--Joseph Lanza,
Stereolab--the fascination is more rarefied: they're exploring the secret
connections between E-Z, avant-garde music and underground rock.
"It was like the story of the ugly duckling. Suddenly we realised we weren't
ducks at all, we were swans!"
Michael Cuday, a.k.a. The Millionaire, is describing the processwhereby
scrappy punk-pop band Christmas mutated into lounge ensemble Combustible Edison,
purveyors of suave sounds for the Cocktail Nation. After eight years of
three-chord blunder, Cudahy & Co "realised that our ideas of 'cool' were
received, they didn't jive with our inner selves". The band had made a spiritual
Las Vegas, but inevitably were disappointed that it was no longer
the town where Esquivel had a residency and the Rat Pack (Sinatra, Dean Martin,
Sammy Davis Jnr) wined and womanised.
"We realised that the
to take steps to externalise it."
And so Combustible Edison was born--ironically, just as the punk-rock values
that Christmas had fruitlessly adhered to for so long, suddenly went mainstream
with grunge. In defiance of the slacker downwardly mobile mess-thetic, Combustible started dressing sharp and playing sophisticated.
"I don't buy into the punk ethos of looking just like the guy in the
audience. I don't want people to look at us onstage and think 'I can do that'. I
wanna see an exemplar, an ideal--someone who's not me".
Like ABC's Martin Fry, who wore a gold lame suit and crooned over orchestral
strings, but still believed he was a punk, similarly
Cudahy believes that
"forming Combustible was the most punk rock thing I ever did, 'cos it goes
against the grain." Bastion of the punk spirit Sub Pop evidently concurred, 'cos
they signed Combustible and last year released their debut LP "I, Swinger", a
collection of '90s exotica that ranges from the mock-tropicalisms of "The Veldt"
to '60s spy-movie themes like "Impact".
On the sleeve appears the slogan "suave and sybaritic"--a reference to
morbid glumness of grunge, Combustible Edison propose the swinging '50s playboy
as a more life-affirming role model. All this is expanded upon in
Manifesto of the Cocktail Nation", which exalts "swankness, suaveness and
strangeness" and exhorts the reader to be "BE FABULOUS".
"The manifesto is me trying to raise a flag to show there's an alternative to
Alternative. Combustible are all about sonic and compartmental opulence,
frivolity, elegance. These are values that are anathema to rock'n'roll, which is
about about the id--'I'm hungry, I'm angry, I'm horny'. Whereas we're stepping
outside youth culture--the stuff we're playing now is music you get better at as
you get older."
Like Urge Overkill, Combustible's sensibility is very English, very Saint
Etienne/World Of Twist/Pulp. Their's is a paradoxical creed of passionate irony,
sincere inauthenticity. Pure camp, in other words, and not to be confused with
the condescension and contempt of kitsch a.k.a. the trash aesthetic (which is
sarcastic, laughing at/looking down on inferior cultural artefacts).
"To me Slayer is kitsch, cos it's so corny, and so committed in its
corny-ness. Our thing is closer to the gay idea of 'fabulousness'--something
that's so excessive you want to laugh but you're also moved. "
Currently reaping reams of press attention, Combustible like "the idea of
becoming big-time showbiz" but are worried that "the Cocktail Nation is still in
its gestatory period, and too much attention could force it prematurely out of
the womb". Whatever happens,
Cudahy's adamant that "this isn't a fad, the ideal
of spiritual extravagance will never fade away or go out of style."
Joseph Lanza's Road to
flight in the late '70s. Struck by the "eerie and calming effect" of the piped
muzak, Lanza plunged into an obsession that culminated in his fascinating tome
"Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong",
a witty revisionist account of post-War music that brings background sounds to
the fore. Unlike devotees of Esquivel-style zaney-ness or cocktail music buffs,
Lanza goes much further by celebrating the drowsy, dulcet likes of Mantovani, Ray
Conniff and Percy Faith.
"People say to me, 'I like easy listening, but not the boring stuff'. But if
you listen to mood-music using rock or hipster reference points, you're missing
the whole point---which is to challenge established notions of what's boring and
In "Elevator Music", Lanza even mounts a fierce defence of Muzak, i.e.
canned music designed to improve workers productivity and morale. Most
rock'n'rollers regard Muzak as sinister mind-control, but Lanza begs to differ.
"All music is manipulative. Once you've resigned yourself to that, why not
accept music that's designed to make people more docile, as opposed to rock,
which is designed to make you restless and obstreperous?"
Lanza used to be a rock fan, but feels the genre peaked by 1968, and it's
been downhill every since.
"Psychedelia was the pinnacle of rock, and it lead directly onto ambient and
New Age. But in lots of ways, '50s easy listening and mood-manipulation music
anticipated psychedelia, what with its studio techniques, plus the idea of
leaving workaday reality behind, of turning your home into a self-enclosed womb-
space or theme-park. One of the most extreme easy-listening outfits, The Mystic
Moods Orchestra, was actually very popular with hippies in the Bay Area. At one
point, they experimented with projecting colour patterns in synch with the music,
and even using fragrances, in order to create a total sensory environment. And
that's very like the acid-rock happenings, and today's ambient techno chill-out
Perusing "Elevator Music", it's startling how often mood-music anticipates
left-field rock from psychedelia to shoegazing to ambient. There's the same
heavenly/oceanic/interstellar imagery in song-titles, the same decidedly
'inauthentic' use of ethnic exoticisms (what are Loop Guru and TransGlobal if not
Martin Denny updated for the age of the sampler?). But if there's one thing that
links mood-music, acid rock, dub reggae and ambient, it's the use of echo.
"That cathedral-like reverb that Mantovani put on his orchestral strings, it
reminds you're enclosed. It's like you're in a huge space but you're cloaked by
God. It's ceiling-assurance, it allows you to cope with infinity. Cathedrals are
Lanza traces the origins of mood-music as far back as Mediaeval plainsong,
and whaddya know, in the last few years we've seen the huge popularity of
monk-music as a yuppy chill-out soundtrack, while Seefeel actually recorded a
track called 'Plainsong'!
At the other temporal extreme, mood-music was also often fixated on the
future. Lanza believes that yesteryear's quaint notions of tomorrow are appealing today because we no longer have the '50s confidence in technology.
"Back then, they really did believe that we were going to be ushered into this
totally-conditioned utopia complete with prefabricated music and none of the blood'n'guts that rock'n'roll saturates us with", says Lanza (who's just finished compiling a Mantovani anthology, and is working on a history of cocktails). "The counterculture was a revolt against those plastic dreams, but these days we don't believe in either the late '60s
ideals or the '50's fantasies. We don't have a very romantic concept of the
future at all."
"Elevator Music" is published by Quartet.
THE MIKE FLOWERS POPS ORCHESTRA
Regularly gracing the stage at Indigo, and available to play "luxury cruise
ships, weddings, bar mitzvahs, and trendy
West End nightspots", the Mike Flowers
Pop Orchestra are trying to resurrect "the golden age of easy listening".
Sporting a Christian Dior toupee called 'The Golden Haircut', tailored suits
(from Lord John of
Carnaby Street) and the kind of headphones worn by BBC Light
Ents bandleaders, Mike Flowers conducts his ensemble through an eclectic
repertoire that ranges from Bacharach and Jimmy Webb standards to Prince's
"Raspberry Beret" and the Velvet Underground's "Venus In Furs".
The golden age of light music, says Flowers, was between 1965 and 1975, when
easy listening got self-consciously hip.
"Bandleaders who'd been playing light orchestral and show tunes, started
using more guitar, electronic keyboards, more casual vocal arrangements, and most
importantly, more beat! Because these bandleaders, arrangers and composers were
experienced, academically trained musicians, they could create richly textured
soundworlds inaccessible to most of the guitar strummers of the day. 'Sgt
Peppter's' is basically George Martin using the Beatles' songs and performances
as the raw material for an album of psychedelic easy-listening!"
Peaking in 1971, the era faded, Flowers continues, "when the target audience
(old enough to appreciate a 'good tune', young enough to be interested in the
idea of 'free love') got too old for the free love. So Tony Bennett went back to
swinging cabaret standards and Herb Alpert retreated from the pop arena into
Flowers got hip to E-Z in the late '70s after hearing a Burt Bacharach tune
and being stunned by the "the 'just brushed freshness'" of his sound. Through
the '80s, Flowers jobbed his way through all sorts of musical contexts--doing
live music for silent films and pantos, impersonating Tom Jones doing 'It's Not
Unusual' for the soundtrack of Alan Bennett's play "A Question of
Attribution"--before forming the Pops Orchestra and its chorus, the Sounds Superb
Singers, in 1993. His ultimate ambitions are to get a residency on a luxury
cruise ship, and "to play the Royal Albert Hall with the Pops expanded to full
orchestra and chorus for the Last Night of the Proms. Everybody would be singing
along to '
' instead of ' McArthur Park and Glory'". Land of Hope
Flowers believes easy can only benefit from "the post-post-modern
psycho-acoustic sprawl. People have become less partisan in their tastes.
Whenever I hear that pop has lost its direction, I think 'great!... music ahoy!'".
Located beneath Raymond's Revue Bar in
London's premier nitespot for the hip easy massive. With its
menstrual-red velvet fittings and '60s swivel chairs, Madame Jo Jo's is very
'Absolute Beginners' (in fact we're but a stone's throw from
Old Compton Street,
where Julian Temple's musical was set). Each Tuesday, the E-Z clan convene,
dolled up in sequins, silver lame and cocktail dresses, and attempt to complete
the illusion of time travel by sipping cocktails and grooving to top tunes like
"Casino Royale" and the Fifth Dimension's "Age Of Aquarius".
On a typical night you'll find James Karminsky (half of DJ duo the Karminsky
Brothers) on the wheels of steel, throwing down a slammin' selection of what
connoiseurs call 'hardcore easy listening', i.e. the more groove-oriented likes
Montenegro, Norry Paramour and James Last, punctuated by out-of-time
adverts--like one for John Collier's "Saturday Nite Suit...only ten pounds, nine
shillings and six pence". Along with the deejaying, each night features
'variety', in the form of two guest acts who each perform twice: bellydancers,
ballroom dancers, sword-swallowers, body-piercing (although that sounds a bit
Lollapalooza, a bit too grunge). The night I attend, opera singer Marie Armstrong
performs ear-shattering covers of songs like Kate Bush's "
", and Wuthering Heights
bespectacled Hammond-and-drumkit duo The Two Souls churn out a crisply funky set.
"We're restoring the old idea of the nightclub, as opposed to the disco,"
says Felchley B. Hawkes, who, with partner/master of ceremonies Count Indigo,
founded the club last year. The outrageously named Felchley is outlandishly
dressed in a garish Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat/circus
ringleader outfit, and sports a dashing Rip Van Winkle goatee; the Count, with
his absurdly twirled mustache a la Salvador Dali, looks like a right count.
When he deejays, Felchley's selection inclines towards the lighter end of
the E-Z spectrum, what cognoscenti call 'floppy soft-core'. "Floppy, that's the
syruppy strings, classic croon and screaming brass sections of artists like
Mantovani, Perez Prado, Henry Mancini, Matt Monroe, the Geoff Love Band,"
explains Felchley. "Floppy is the kind of stuff that wouldn't jar you if you
heard it in Bejam, whereas hardcore easy-listening is more uptempo and driving".
Felchley used to be into thrash metal, believe it or not, but one day he
came home from a gig "with a splitting headache and that was that. I started
listening to easy listening, stuff like Andy Williams' "Music To Watch Girls By",
Melody FM". Soon he was deejaying on hospital radio and the pensioners' coffee
morning circuit, which he says is the E-Z listening scene's equivalent to
"cutting your teeth at warehouse raves or your drug dealer's birthday party."
At one OAP-bash, he met the chairman of the pensioner's committee and was
regaled with the tale of how he'd travelled the world on a cruise ship just to
listen to Ray Coniff and his Chorus--the E-Z listening equivalent of following
the Grateful Dead across
America. "That was inspirational", says Felchley.
Shortly afterwards he found a kindred spirit in the Count, and together they
started Indigo as "an oasis of calm in the
London sea of techno beats".
THE SECRET HISTORY OF ROCK AND E-Z LISTENING
THE DOORS -- "Riders On The Storm", 1971.
During the making of the album "LA Woman", producer Paul Rothschild stormed out
of the studio, saying "I can't get into this cocktail music shit, boys".
PINK FLOYD --- "Dark Side Of The Moon", 1973
The return of the stereo-testing, hi-fi demonstration album, for a new audience
of longhaired, spliff-toting audiophiles.
HOT BUTTER ---"Popcorn", 1974
One of the first synth-pop instrumental hits, this million-seller was originally
written by Gershon Kingsley, of '60s Moog-muzak composers Perrey & Kingsley.
THROBBING GRISTLE ---20 Jazz-Funk Greats, 1979
Fans of Martin Denny (the King of Exotica), TG veered away from their earlier
ear-brutalising "muzak for the death factory" towards mellow electronica.
THE SPECIALS---"Stereotype/International Jet Set", 1980
On one 7 inch single you got the two tracks from "More Specials" that took Jerry
Dammers' muzak-obsession to the limit--both chug along on the sort of pre-set
rhumba and bossanova beats you'd get on a Bon Tempi organ.
Exotica for the E generation; the cheeezy sax and cliched tropical bird-calls
reflect Graham Massey's love of the pseudo-Polynesian tiki mood-music of
Denny/Lyman/Baxter et al.
JULEE CRUISE---"Floating Into The Night", 1989
MOR-noir, soundscaped by Angelo Badalamenti, whose CV included making C&W-tinged muzak in