Tuesday, February 28, 2017

KIND TO YOUR ASS: Ambient and Chill Out (1993)

AMBIENT 
Melody Maker, 1993

by Simon Reynolds

In '93, 'ambient' is everywhere.  The span of music that
calls itself 'ambient', or is ambient-tinged, is staggering.

In the post-rave zone, there's Aphex Twin, Orbital,
Bandulu and the Infonet crew, R & S's Apollo offshoot
(Biosphere, Jam & Spoon), Sandoz, Psychick Warriors Ov Gaia,
and the triumvirate of Peter Namlook/Dr Atmo/Mixmaster
Morris.  In a post-Orb stylee, there's the sometimes beatific
(Original Rockers, Higher Intelligence Agency), mostly boring
'ambient dub' on the Beyond label.  And there's a yawning and
yawnsome expanse of "electronic easy listening" (Sven Vath,
Future Sound Of London, the Recycle Or Die label etc) -
pseudo-mystic bilge that you too could cobble together, with
some bird-song samples, 'cosmic' synth-sounds, a 24 track
studio and a spliff.

On the post-indie front, there's Stereolab's muzak-of-
the-spheres; the ice-olationist tundra-scapes of Main, Thomas
Koner, Ice, Scorn and Lull; the post-MBV locked grooves of
Seefeel and Moonshake; the post-Eno art-rock of Papa Sprain
and Bark Psychosis.  And if you really want to stretch the
definition a bit, you could add the sampladelic Spector of
Saint Etienne too.

So what does it mean to align yourself with 'ambient'
these days?  Rock starts to take on an ambient tinge almost
as soon as it departs from 'naturalistic' recording, the
simulation of a live band.  If you go down the path of using
the studio-as-instrument, what Eno called the creation of a
"fictional psycho-acoustic space", chances are that you'll
finish up making ambient.

In some ways, ambient is the ultimate destination of the
psychedelic impulse. Technically, in that psychedelia
pioneered stereo and the illusion of spatial dimension;
spiritually, in that ambience is the heavenly end of the
psychedelic trip. Where acid rock plunges into into the
cosmic beyond, ambient is more like treading water, drifting
in cosmic/oceanic womb-space. For instance, Spacemen 3
started out trance-rocky, then got progressively more ambient
and nirvanic ("Playing With Fire", Spectrum and
Spiritualized).  The blurry zone between psychedelia and
ambient is a bit like the way abstract art is always on the
verge of lapsing into mere decorative art (in rock terms,
think of the way MBV evolved from the action-painting chaos
of "Isn't Anything" to the almost ambient placidity and
prettiness of "To Here Knows When").

The current invocation of 'ambient' as buzzword and
rallying cry is really a quiet revolt against grunge, a
nouveau hippy riposte to grunge's punk revivalism. It recalls
that moment in the late Eighties when former hardcore/noise
musicians decided it was more radical to whisper rather than
scream: Cowboy Junkies (who were tres ambient in that they
recorded in a church), Hugo Largo (who abandoned drum beats
and riffs), Swan's reverberant offshoot Skin, etc.

The ambient impulse is an anti-rock gesture, or rather a
rewriting of the meaning of rock: rock, as in a cradle
motion, or rock as in petrified, stoned immaculate.  Ambient
is un-rock'n'roll because it's built up by layers, whereas
rock is about jamming: instruments fit together like cogs,
forming a rhythmic engine that kicks your ass. Ambient is
kind to your ass. It's sofa rock, Erik Satie's "furniture
music".

For rave musicians, pledging allegiance to 'ambient' is
a revolt against a different kind of hardcore: manic
breakbeat-driven 'ardkore, which has alienated droves of
burned out ravers, encouraging them to abandon speedy E for
dope.  Ambient techno is dance music for the sedentary, for
oldsters who want to chill out rather than shake that butt.
   
And the future? Well, the anti-grunge guitar-based
experimentalists, and the post-rave sampladelic artists seem
to be merging into a single, seamless continuum of
progressive music.  I have seen the future, and it's flat on
its back.

OPEN MIND/TELEPATHIC FISH: THE AMBIENT TEA PARTY

"Basically, what we're trying to create at our events is
a massive bedroom. After raves, we used to chill out in each
others' bedrooms. Now we've turned the bedroom into a party."

So says Kevin Foakes of Open Mind, the organisation
behind the 'Telepathic Fish' series of 'ambient tea parties'.
He and colleagues/flatmates Chantal Passamonte, David Vallade
and Mario Tracey-Ageura formed Open Mind last summer, after
becoming disillusioned with rave culture's "harder, faster"
ethos.  The first party was in their East Dulwich flat, and
featured DJ-ing by ambient ally Mixmaster Morris of The
Irresistible Force. It was a huge success, obliging them to
holding the sequel outside the flat. There've been four so
far, and the fifth is taking place this Sunday in Brixton
(for details, see below). Open Mind hope to turn Telepathic
Fish into a monthly event by Xmas, despite problems in
finding suitable venues.

"Traditional clubs just don't work," say Chantal.  Most
promoters are interested in people getting overheated so they
buy overpriced drinks. "We're into tea rather alchohol!".
The flyer for one event even incorporated a tea bag!

So what is an average tea party like?

"There's an abundance of mattresses. Lots of soothing
lights - strictly ultraviolet, no strobes.  Lots of oil
projectors, computer graphics." Where your standard 'ardkore
rave is stress-makingly staccato (cut'n'mix beats, epileptic
strobes), Telepathic Fish is all undulating ebb-and-flow , a
wombadelic sound-and-light-bath.  The last event was styled
after a fish-tank, and Sunday's party will boast "deep sea
decor".  The music ranges from post-Orb ambient to Dead Can
Dance and Main. And the punters?  Some do floaty dancing,
most simply get recumbent and spliff up.

"We went clubbing a lot last year," says Kevin, "and by
the end it got so fast, it was like you had to work to have a
good time." Where 'ardkore's slogans often mimic the language
of graft and toil ("get busy", "work it up", "shovelling
tunes"), Open Mind don't like the 'work hard, play harder'
mentality (where you're a slave to the rush hour, then rush
your nut off at the weekend).  "People who can afford to go
to a 15 quid rave have all this aggression to get out of
their systems from working all week.  The crowd we attract is
more laidback and bohemian".  The feud between 'ardkore and
ambient is like the split between the mods, who were
city-loving, insomniac amphetamine-freaks, and the hippies,
who were into dope, pastoral indolence and sleep, and
declared 'speed kills'.  And so Mario will refer derisively
to "gurning E-heads", while Chantal talks of the ambient
thing as being "more organic.  Our parties are as close to
getting it together in the country as you can get in London."

Of course, ravers have been chilling-out informally
since the early days of rave, inventing their own rituals to
enhance the post-E afterglow and cushion the come-down.
"People are doing this in their bedrooms all round the
country," says Chantal. "But we decided to do it for 300, 500
people, not just 10".  And they're not alone. There are
similar outfits all over Britain: Sonora in Glasgow, Sunday
nights 8 til 12; Oscillate in Birmingham, every second
Friday; London's Zero Gravity (every other Wednesday at 11
Wardour St) and Dream Time Environment (midnight Friday right
through to midnight Sunday, at 67, West Yard, Camden Lock).

Open Mind have larger ambitions. They're bringing out an
ambient magazine, Mindfood, whose first issue contains
articles on Terence McKenna and floatation tanks.  And
they're linked with an ambient specialist record shop,
Ambient Soho (5 Berwick St, London).  For idlers, they're
pretty fucking busy.

 'Telepathic Fish IV: The Fishing Trip' is this Sunday,
October 3, from 12 noon to 10 pm, at Cooltan, 372 Coldharbour
Lane, Brixton. For info, call 081 693 9903


MAIN

Mick Harris, who left Napalm Death to form ambient dub
terrorists Scorn (plus his own pure ambient side project
Lull), claims that "if you play early Eno records from the
70's and turn them up really loud, there's a darker edge to
it all, it becomes really quite unnerving." It works the
other way round, too: Gibby the Buttholes once said that if
you play thrash-metal really quiet, it sounds ambient.

It's this zone of un-easy listening over which Main
currently rule supreme.  Formed by Robert Hampson of Loop,
Main explore the kind of post-catastrophic soundscapes that
always seemed the logical aftermath for Loop's apocalyptic
trance-rock.  Shifting the emphasis from riffs towards
guitar-generated and environmental timbres, Main owe a fair
amount to Eno's original ambience, although Robert insists
"we take it a lot further."

Robert's pretty scornful of the current vogue for
ambient. He's never liked hippies, always preferred the
proto-punk nihilism of The Stooges or MC5 or the post-punk
gloom'n'doom of The Pop Group and Mark Stewart.  "I can't go
along with the hippy attitude, you do need a bit of ugliness
and confrontation.  'Cos we don't all love each other, we
don't want to embrace everything."

And yet he talks of how Main "want to embrace our
environment, not retreat from it like ambient techno. Main
music reflects the way we're surrounded by noise, all the
hums and buzzes of traffic, planes, road drills, the constant
clatter you can never really escape".  The band use what The
Young Gods' called 'urban sonorities": a new track is based
around a backing drone, "the sound of a main road, processed
through an effect so that it's sounds really beautiful."
Robert describes the recent Main instrumental EP "Firmament"
as "musique concrete dub", reflecting his love of
drone-theorists like La Monte Young, Terry Riley and
Karlheinz Stockhausen (Mains' first EP "Hydra" was dedicated
to the Kraut electro-acoustic composer).

Biba Kopf [or was it Kevin Martin?] has coined the term 'Isolationist Music' to
describe the likes of Main. "I dunno about that," says
Robert. "But I do feel isolated musically.  Rock is getting
really stale again".  If he has one "comrade in arms", says
the Main-man, it's Thomas Koner, maker of austerely beautiful
meditational music, that's often inspired by Antarctica.
"Emotionally, his music stabbed its mark on me, just the fact
that such extremely minimal music could stir so many visual
feelings. I thought 'Nunattak' was the most beautiful thing
I'd heard in ages.  Then 'Permafrost' took the minimalism to
its logical extreme." A Main/Koner collaboration looks set to
happen next year.

Main's twin EP's "Dry Stone Feed" and "Firmament" are
out now on Beggars Banquet.


SEEFEEL

"Ambient's lost its definition," reckons Mark Clifford of
Seefeel. "Now it just means anything that's droney and
drifting, anything that isn't too bothered about songs. But
it's good that there's so many different meanings to
'ambient' now.  The term's either been emptied of meaning, or
it's been filled up with lots of meanings."

Seefeel's billowing bliss-rock tapestries illustrate how
'ambient' has become a sort of horizon for post-Cocteaus/
post-MBV bands, or as Mark puts it, ""any band that want to
go beyond the constraints of 3 minute punky pop, beyond
choruses".  So is 'ambient' the final death of punk?

"We did a gig where we played one truly ambient piece,
almost like a whale song, and this old punk shouted 'bring
back the Sex Pistols'. It seemed such a negative and old-
fashioned comment. That really inspired us to go even
further. Anyway, someone like Richard James is modern punk,
his music has that DIY, lo-fi naivete. That said, most
ambient techno is really safe and boring."

On their latest EP "pure, impure", Seefeel got Aphex to
remix "Time to Find Me", and a full-fledged collaboration is
in the pipeline. With "Time to Find Me", Richard James paid
them a rare compliment, in that, rather than junking almost
all of the original track as usual (see Curve, Jesus Jones)
all the sounds he used came from Seefeel's song.

Seefeel are also highly influenced by ambient's cousin,
dub reggae. But does this mean that today's ambient, like
dub, is 'just' music to get stoned to?

"I'd be upset if the only way you could get into Seefeel
is to get wasted. A lot of the mediocre ambient techno is
like that. Actually, a good litmus test for ambient is: if
it's good, you don't need to get stoned to enjoy it".

Seefeel's "pure, impure" EP is out now on Too Pure.
Their debut LP "Quique" is out in late October.

STEREOLAB

The first of Stereolab's two albums of 1993, "Space Age
Bachelor Pad Music", paid homage to an earlier genre of
proto-ambient easy listening: the 'exotica' and stereo-
testing records of the Fifties/early Sixties, artists like
Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman.

"I've been into stereo test, sound effects and Moog
albums for a while," says the Lab's Tim Gane.  "I like the
pseudo-scientific language on the sleeves.  Our name actually
comes from a hi-fi testing label, Stereolab, an offshoot of
Vanguard.  We liked the name 'Stereolab', cos it's
yesterday's idea of 'futuristic', but today it seems quaint
and kitschy.  With Martin Denny & Co, I like the idea of
taking something that was utilitarian and very much part of a
specific era, and taking it out of that context so that it's
this alien music.  Plus, it fucks up the official history of
rock, the fact that amazing records came out in 1961!"

So is 'exotica' a sort of illegitimate father to Eno's
ambient? "Well, those were the first records designed to make
you sleep. But Stereolab are more into minimalism than
straight ambience". By minimalism, Tim means everything from
John Cage and La Monte Young's Theatre Of Eternal Music to
the Velvets to Krautrock (he's a big fan of Neu and Cluster's
"meditative doodling").  Stereolab followed one of the more
obscure Krautrock tangents by linking up with Nurse With
Wound, whose Steve Stapleton has a massive archive of German
avant-rock.  For the recent "Crumb Duck" 10 inch, Stapleton
Faust-ified a Stereolab song using tape-manipulation
techniques.

Then there was their homage to the grand-daddy of
ambient, the 7 inch single "John Cage Bubblegum".  "That was
just a way of saying you can like avant-gardists like Cage
and you can like bubblegum like The Archies, and you can even
combine the two.  Because they're both extremes in their own
way." Similarly, on the 'Bachelor Pad' album, Stereolab's
titles are meant to evoke imaginary genres that really should
exist, e.g. "Avant-Garde MOR" . Another fictional genre that
Gane & Co are currently hatching is 'ambient boogie': "I like
the idea of taking an almost Status Quo bass-riff but looping
it, making it just go on." Generally, Gane says the band are
interested in making "rock music without rock dynamics, no
solos, just ebb and flow", as on their brill new LP
"Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements".

Stereolab have a peculiar, rarified approach to music -
they really are like boffins in a soundlab, gene-splicing
in order to create mutant styles. But so long as the results
are captivating, who gives a tinker's cuss?

Stereolab's latest LP is out now on Duophonic.

PROPHETIC MOMENTS IN AMBIENT'S EVOLUTION

JOHN CAGE - "4' 33''" . Erroneously known as 'Silence',
Cage's composition instructs the pianist to do nothing,
forcing the audience to listen to the barely audible noises
of the environment.

TERRY RILEY - "In C" . A symphony in one note, sifting and
shifting layers rather than developing melodically.

JIMI HENDRIX -"1983, A Merman I Should Turn To Be/Moon, Turn
The Tides...  gently gently away" ("Electric Ladyland, 1969).

MILES DAVIS - "He Loved Him Madly" ("Get Up With It", 1975).
Teo Macero's soundscape production is cited by Eno as the
inspiration for "On Land".

NEU! - "Leb Wohl" -("Neu! 75).  Krautrockers switch off the
motorik engine and bask in a seaside idyll.

KING TUBBY -"King Tubby's Special 1973-1976".  Along with
Perry, Pablo, Far I etc, this dub-meister paralled Eno in the
use of echo to create spatial, sacrosant, meditational music.

JON HASSELL -"Dream Theory In Malaya" LP (1981).  Trumpeter
pal of Eno's and pioneer of "Fourth World" ethnodelia.

JAN GARBAREK - "Paths, Prints" LP (1982). Or anything else on
cooler-than-thou jazz label, ECM (motto: "the most beautiful
sound next to silence").

BRIAN ENO - "On Land" LP (1982).  Uncle Bri's ambient
pinnacle: no pitches, just timbres, plus sounds of sticks,
stones, and insects.

ARTHUR RUSSELL -"Let's Go Swimming" (1987). Aqua-funk by NY
avant-gardist who loved disco's hynpnotic repetition.

MY BLOODY VALENTINE -"Instrumental" (bonus 7inch with "Isn't
Anything", 1988).  Erik Satie-esque glide guitar drifts like
a disconsolate ghost over junglistic hip hop beats.

RECENT PARAGONS OF AMBIENT

POM MI RU - "Koh Tao" (from Infonet CD comp. "Beyond the
Machines").  Bandalu + hippy guitarist = pastoral bliss.

THE IRRESISTIBLE FORCE - "Flying High" LP (Rising High)

THOMAS KONER - "Permafrost" LP (Baroni)
Wanna chill out? Try these hypothermic wastelands.

METALHEADS - "Angel" (Synthetic 12").  Ambient ardkore?!
Hyped up jungle beats collide with lush, languishing jazz-
tinged melancholia worthy of David Sylvian's "Gone to Earth".

ORIGINAL ROCKERS -"The Underwater World of Jah Cousteau"
(from 'Ambient Dub II', Beyond). Oceanic dub: Zion =
Atlantis.

PETE NAMLOOK -"Air" LP (Rising High)

SANDOZ - "Digital Lifeforms" LP (Touch)














Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Easy Listening #2

EASY LISTENING REVIVAL overview + interviews

Melody Maker, 1995

by Simon Reynolds

INTRO

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
styles. In 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
Music".

'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. 

_______________________________________________________________

COMBUSTIBLE EDISON

     "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
pilgrimage to 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 Kingdom Of Vegas lay within ourselves. And we decided
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
Sybaris, a mythic city inhabited by effete pleasure seekers.  Repudiating the
morbid glumness of grunge, Combustible Edison propose the swinging '50s playboy
as a more life-affirming role model. All this is expanded upon in Cudahy's "First
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


     Joseph Lanza's Road to Damascus experience occurred on board an Air France
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
what's exciting."

     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
rooms".

     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
very womb-like."

     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
Jazz-Fusion."

     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 'McArthur Park' instead of 'Land of Hope and Glory'".

     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!'".


_______________________________________________________________________

INDIGO club

     Located beneath Raymond's Revue Bar in Soho, Madame Jo Jo's plays hostess to
Indigo, 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
of Hugo 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 "Wuthering Heights", and
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.

808 STATE--"Pacific State", 1989
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 Nashville.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Mark Spitz RIP

I didn't know the music journalist and author Mark Spitz  - who has died tragically young  - very well, but I always enjoyed chatting with him. He asked me some questions for a couple of his books: Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion and Film  and Bowie: A Biography. The twee talk was on the phone, but the latter chat was via email in 2007. In addition to the Dame, Iggy, and glam in general, it also covered DB's heirs in postpunk, goth, and new wave. It is reproduced below.


Mark Spitz: Eno had already been working on a new sound for years when he hooked up
with Bowie in ’76.    The language: ambient noise, both classical and deliberately unpolished structures, the Kraftwerk fandom, was already in place in many ways.  What do you think Bowie brought to it?

SR: The songs and the soul. Meaning the anguish. Does Eno do anguish? He does those slightly-dejected, passive drifting through life, fatalistic type songs on Another Green World and Before and After Science. But while Eno can enchant and delight (and disorient and amaze), I don’t know if he could reach the places Bowie did on Low.

What is, if it can be said there is one, the “Low” sound that’s so  influential.  Is it a texture or a feeling that’s particular, or the  way they process the noise on their new fangled synths. And who, in your opinion, has used it well since? (Nine Inch Nails?).    Clearly anyone
can master a synth now....

People go on about the drum sound. This painfully crashy, abrupt drum sound, is what I think they mean. Howard Devoto mentioned it when I interviewed him for Rip It Up, that the drums sounded so different and so modern. Also I read an interview with Steve Morris of Joy Division about how he felt Low was so revolutionary, on account of the drum sound. Morris was the most production attuned member of the band, also the one into Krautrock and esoteric music.

There’s a certain dank electronic sound on the second side that I don’t think had many precedents. This glum, damp quality. It’s related to things like Edgar Froese’s solo albums like Aqua and Epsilon in Malayan Pale (I think that’s the title) which Bowie was really into, along with Cluster and La Dusseldorf and the rest. But it just has a unique melancholia to it.



Do you suppose Bowie and Eno simply got bored with rock; even punk  rock, which was already taking root in ‘76.   Bowie gets accused of  dilettantism but in part at least it probably takes a dilettante’s fleeting attention to come up with something like “Warzawa” with the
doomy synths and almost gypsy wailing vocals.

I don’t know if he was even that aware of punk brewing. He was in LA, and then went straight to Europe pretty much, right? Did the massive self-immersion in European high culture as a kind of inoculation against America/rock/decadence. Whether deliberate strategy or accidental, being out of the UK for 1976 was a great move. He was able to come in early the next year and eclipse punk, in many people’s eyes, show it up as very traditional and backward looking.

You talk in Rip It Up about its influence on Joy Division in name.  And Ian Curtis’ Bowie fascination is well documented (as is the fact that he played The Idiot the night he killed himself).  Is J.D. the bridge between Bowie and post-punk?   Did they take all that was interesting about Bowie and use it best at the time?  If you could talk a bit more about the Bowie/Joy Division nexus and share some thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

I think it’s the inhibition and repression in the Bowie/Iggy albums made in Berlin that Joy Division and others responded to. The fact that the music, while guitar-based and harsh and aggressive, never rocks out. It’s imploded aggression. And that’s very British, and particularly very Northern British. People do bottle it all up. So Iggy going from “Loose” to a sound that was very much not-loose - that resonated for your British.  I think Iggy actually had hits in the UK with songs off those albums, Idiot/Lust for Life/New Values. They were much bigger records in Britain than America, at any rate.



You mentioned “Bowie damage” in your email.  Could you elaborate on it.  Were you referring to say Duran or the Blitz club fashion crowd?

There was a time when there seemed to be an awful lot of Bowie imitators on all sorts of levels of the UK scene, and a lot of the time the influence was pernicious. Most of the New Romantic/Blitz stuff was terrible, it picked up on the idea of posing, but not the soul that Bowie actually has in there. Or indeed the intellect.

But you can see the Bowie vocal mannerisms all over the place, e.g. Richard Butler in Psychedelic Furs has a voice pitched EXACTLY midway between Johnny Rotten and David Bowie.

Some of the people who were evidently Bowie influenced (and good) at that time I never actually realized were Bowie influenced. I never understood why people dismissed Numan as a Bowie clone. Now I can see it more, but I still think he really took the influence somewhere. And the same with Billy Mackenzie of the Associates. It’s only later that I noticed the extreme influence of the Low side two instrumentals on the early Associates stuff, as collated on Fourth Drawer Down.




Is it an accurate theory that the American garage kids who tried to play Stones and Beatles songs and came up with crude but exhilarating Nuggets tracks instead invented punk rock, then the British kids who tried to be Bowie invented New Wave?  Or am I just reaching?

That’s slightly overblown. There’s a bit more in the mix than Bowie. But you could say that in a lot of ways the poppy end of New Wave -- what we called New Pop, in the US they called in the New Music or the Second British Invasion -- was a re-staging of glam. All that stuff from ABC to Culture Club to Adam and the Ants to Duran to Japan was by Roxy and Bowie and T.Rex fans.




What’s the best fake Bowie song ever?  Worst?

The Associates’ “White Car In Germany” is the best. Closely followed by “Down in the Park” by Gary Numan/Tubeway Army which is quite influenced by side two of Low I think.




Worst. Not sure. Probably something by Spandau Ballet in their trying to be in Young Americans mode.


Why was ’77 such a watershed year for the weird getting attention.  Even things like Devo’s first record or Eraserhead, and its soundtrack seemed to find favor.   As you mention in the book, it’s often over shadowed by Nevermind The Bollocks, The Clash, etc. but it’s also
really year 1 for artboy rock too.

Yeah, but glam, eh? Alice Cooper, Sparks, Roxy, Glitter, even The Sweet with their women’s clothes and Hitler-mustache-wearing guitar player. The whole early 70s was a freak zone! There’s an argument (Dick Hebdige's) that punk is just a scrawled addendum to glam. And even prog was quite outrĂ©: Gabriel’s costumes in Genesis, Jethro Tull even. Not to mention Queen…

I suppose punk, through its assault on all taboos, took that glam freakery and added the sick humour, the grotesquerie.

Lyrically, do you suppose Low is underrated as far as establishing the classically angsty New Wave lyric?  Its subject matter seems to be damage and sexual or existential fear, all rendered with self-deprecating wit; a New Wave template.

Aspects of it certainly seemed to have been picked up by people like Howard Devoto (in Magazine) and Gary Numan.  The language has a non-rock’n’roll-ness about it, a lack of American idiom (no blues or raunch or R&B derived expressions) , that I can’t see too many precedents for. But nor is it Englishness-y in the way that Syd Barrett or the Soft Machine alumni did things. It’s a stark, fractured, alienation that must have seemed stunningly modern in 1977.

I don’t know about under-rated, though!

What do you think the Bowie and later (on The Idiot and Lust For Life) Iggy croon’s influence is.  It sort of makes its debut here.  Certainly as far as Iggy’s previous albums were concerned.

Well he always had a bit of a non-rock aspect in his voice, didn’t he? If you think of the way he sings in “Space Oddity”. He was influenced by Anthony Newley, right? Who was a kind of show singer, cabaret… very English sounding. And also Scott Walker is in their somewhere.

But definitely the sonorousness and non-rock’n’rollness is more pronounced here. “Wild is the Wind” on Station to Station would be a transitional song in that respect I expect. That’s some kind of standard, a cover, right?

I must admit that while I can see how important the Iggy/Berlin albums are, I don’t really enjoy them that much, give or take the odd song. I think it’s because Iggy is American through and through, and his authentic artistic being is the wildness of the Stooges. It’s “Raw Power” and “I Got A Right”. When he does the croon it’s like he’s been forced to wear a tux and a bow tie. It seems more mannered than Bowie’s croon, where the mannered-ness seems authentic and to spring from within. But it could just be something where the grain of his voice and its range doesn’t suit the croon style like Bowie’s higher voice does. Iggy always seems like he’s crooning through a belch.

 Is Low an end to Bowie’s period of radical shape shifting?  Parts of it are disseminated throughout the other albums that he’ make, certainly through the 90s like Earthling and Outside, and obviously through the records of other artists, but he never did a complete 180 after that.   Let’s Dance was a polish but not a jarring style change as say Ziggy to 
Plastic Soul.

To me the Let’s Dance persona was the last massive, and significant change to his image. He went from being cocaine-raved thin, with this totally gaunt, pallid face, to this new healthy look -- blonde hair, tanned looking, very exuberant in the video for “Modern Love”. And that was Bowie for the first time following rather than leading. With Low and the Berlin trilogy and even with Scary Monsters’ “Ashes To Ashes” he was right ahead of what was going on, from postpunk to the New Romantics. But with Let’s Dance it was as though he was following the cues of New Pop, the rhetoric of health and self-discipline that was being propagated by groups like ABC and Scritti Politti. And the sound too with its Motown echoes and the upfulness and extroversion, the clean, bright sound, the blatant commercialism, that was totally New Pop.

Can you talk a bit about this period Bowie’s influence on the goth end of post-punk.  Bauhuas obviously, and Cure.   Do you suppose it was more visual than sonic?  The whole Euro-vampire look he was mining?

Again, almost without exception, the Goth performers were glam fans who briefly got caught up in punk and then reverted to type. They never had any truck with that being-the-same-as-the-audience, Everyman/"Ordinary Joes up on stage now" aspect of punk. They always wanted to be stars. Not that he was a Goth, but you can see it in a name like Billy Idol. You might say that was a punk name mocking the idea of rock stardom… but not really. And Idol was part of the Bromley Contingent, he hung with Siouxsie Sioux and Severin. None of these people were ever into the egalitarian side of punk. They were into the Doors and rock as theatre, Alice Cooper, Roxy, Bowie. There is an authoritatian subtext to glam, it’s a domineering relationship to the audience, who are down there while you are up there onstage. That’s why it has this relationship with showbiz. And hence all the flirtations with imagery of aristocracy and even fascism. And the obsession with physical beauty. Bauhaus were totally about that -  if the singer looked like the bassist they’d have got nowhere.



An interesting thing about Bauhaus is their cover of “Ziggy Stardust”, it’s almost like karaoke. Its shows the circularity of glam, where fans grow up to be idols having learned the art of posing from their idols.


Then again the Associates did a similar thing: their first single was a cover of “Boys Keep Swinging”, released only a month or so after the original single came out. Talk about chutzpah!





Easy Listening #2

EASY LISTENING REVIVAL overview + interviews

Melody Maker, 1995

by Simon Reynolds

INTRO

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
styles. In 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
Music".

'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. 

_______________________________________________________________

COMBUSTIBLE EDISON

     "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
pilgrimage to 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 Kingdom Of Vegas lay within ourselves. And we decided
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
Sybaris, a mythic city inhabited by effete pleasure seekers.  Repudiating the
morbid glumness of grunge, Combustible Edison propose the swinging '50s playboy
as a more life-affirming role model. All this is expanded upon in Cudahy's "First
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


     Joseph Lanza's Road to Damascus experience occurred on board an Air France
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
what's exciting."

     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
rooms".

     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
very womb-like."

     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
Jazz-Fusion."

     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 'McArthur Park' instead of 'Land of Hope and Glory'".

     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!'".


_______________________________________________________________________

INDIGO club

     Located beneath Raymond's Revue Bar in Soho, Madame Jo Jo's plays hostess to
Indigo, 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
of Hugo 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 "Wuthering Heights", and
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.

808 STATE--"Pacific State", 1989
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 Nashville.