The Easy Listening Revival
New York Times
Sunday, February 5, 1995
New York Times
Sunday, February 5, 1995
by Simon Reynolds
IT'S OFFICIAL: IT'S HIP TO BE square. Collectors are paying top dollar for original albums from such 50's and 60's easy-listening fare as LP's designed for stereo testing and music played on Moogs and other primitve synthesizers. The music's quirky arrangements and zany sound effects, its aura of opulence and optimism, are providing light relief for latter-day hipsters who have tired of the heaviness -- musical and emotional -- of today's alternative rock.
There are the beginnings of a reissue boom: "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music," a 1993 anthology of avant-Muzak compositions by Juan Garcia Esquivel, has sold so well that the independent label Bar/None will release a second Esquivel collection this spring. Clubs have sprung up where martini-sipping nuevo sophisticates can chill to the mellow, mellifluous sounds of yesteryear. London has Sound Spectrum and Indigo, Los Angeles has the Lava Lounge and Mr. Phat's Royal Martini Den, and New York has Loser's Lounge at Fez, where the Kustard Kings, the house band, pays tribute to middle-of-the-road deities like Henry Mancini for a wig-wearing, lame-clad audience.
Even contemporary bands are re-creating bygone lounge-music styles: Combustible Edison, Love Jones and Friends of Dean Martin and, in Britain, the Mike Flowers Pops Orchestra and the Gentle People. On a less revivalist tack, bands like Stereolab draw inspiration from the quaintly futuristic sounds of 60's space-age Muzak.
Finally, mood music is enjoying critical rehabilitation. The books "Incredibly Strange Music, Vol. 1" and "Vol. 2" were the first attempts to take this maligned, neglected music seriously, and now they are accompanied by a series of CD compilations. Last year, Joseph Lanza pitched in with "Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy Listening and Other Moodsong" a scholarly revisionist account of post-1945 music that brings background sounds to the fore.
"Hip easy listening," the term used by devotees, 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) to the heavenly, heavily echoed strings and soothing harmonies of moodsong (Mantovani, Percy Faith, Ray Conniff); from the extraterrestrial electronic burblings of the Moog, theremin and other proto-synthesizers (Constance Demby, Dick Hyman, and Gershon Kingsley and his partner, Jean-Jacques Perrey) to music designed to exploit the newly invented stereophonic hi-fi (Mystic Moods Orchestra, Enoch Light's "Persuasive Percussion" series).
What connects these subgenres is their functional status (music-as-decor) and their association with the postwar explosion of suburban leisure culture. With its comfort and its aura of pseudo-sophistication, hip easy listening is at the polar extreme from rock-and-roll's raw passion and hunger for kicks.
Why has this music -- for so long synonymous with the bland and the prematurely middle-aged -- been rescued from the bargain bins as the soundtrack of the cooler-than-thou? One reason is that after grunge's breakthrough, underground-rock ideas began being picked up by the mainstream, and hipsters have been obliged to find new ways to differentiate themselves from the herd.
There is a built-in dynamic to hipster and record-collector culture that requires the opening up of new frontiers by reinventing the past. Fifteen years ago, it might have been obscure 60's garage punk bands or rockabilly artists that were highly prized and priced; now, it's early 70's German neo-psychedelia and hip easy listening.
For Andrea Juno, a co-author of the "Incredibly Strange" books, the collector is a pioneer, a heroic explorer. The easy-listening boom began, she says, "when people like us came across these LP's in thrift stores and flea markets and realized you could get a great album with a fabulous, garish cover for 25 cents. We realized when we did the first book that it would create interest and drive prices up, and, sure enough, these albums now sell from $2 to $15 and higher. But once a territory's been plundered, I move on anyway, as there's always new areas of cheap stuff to explore."
For Ms. Juno, the collector is also a critic. "Popular culture has generated so much stuff this century, and there's a real need for people with discrimination and categorization skills to sort through it all. There's also a transgressive aspect to tweaking the esthetics of 'good taste.' " Of course, this mischievousness can lapse into kitsch, a so-bad-it's-good celebration of the kooky, the corny or the merely third-rate.
Others -- notably Mr. Lanza and the British band Stereolab -- prefer to explore the unexpected affinities between mood music and underground rock. On albums like "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music" and last year's "Mars Audiac Quintet," Stereolab blends the hypnotic trance-rock of iconic bands like the Velvet Underground and Neu! with motifs from Muzak and Moog music. "For me, Muzak, Moog, exotica, etc. did a lot of experimental things much earlier than other more respected, artistically serious forms of music," said the guitarist Tim Gane of Stereolab.
Mr. Lanza concurs: "Fifties and early 60's mood-manipulation music in many ways anticipated psychedelic and ambient music, in its studio techniques and the idea of escaping workaday reality." There are also striking parallels between 50's mood music and today's ambient techno: the use of echo to create a cathedral-like aura of sacrosanct space and the use of ethnic exoticisms -- like Polynesian percussions -- with scant regard to questions of authenticity.
If easy listening was suburbia's psychedelia, then the 50's playboy was arguably a sort of square beatnik -- someone who lived not for work, home and family but for leisure and pleasure. The 90's neo-lounge band Combustible Edison has seized upon the playboy ethos as a reaction to the slacker's downward mobility. After eight years in the punky pop group Christmas, the guitarist Michael Cudahy realized that "my ideas of cool were received, they didn't jive with my inner self."
Rechristening himself the Millionaire, Mr. Cudahy formed Combustible Edison and set about resurrecting the panache of 50's cocktail culture -- just at the point when the slacker sensibility was entering the mainstream. Edison's mock-tropical sounds and 60's spy-movie themes, as heard on its 1994 debut album, "I, Swinger," come wrapped in a fully developed tongue-in-chic ideology. Mr. Cudahy exalts "swankness, suaveness and strangeness" and exhorts the neophyte to "be fabulous."
If one thing unites the devotees of easy listening, it's the sensibility that could be described as passionate irony. It is a rebellion against the alternative mainstream and its ethos of authenticity. For hipsters, artists like Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam strive so hard to be honest that they come across as histrionic and corny.