Rubrics and Tendrils of Richard Gehr

12 September 1995

Exotic Neurotica

According to Fortune columnist Stanley Bing, an oracle of such things, corporate America has recently hung a collective U-turn back into a cigars, steak, and martinis life-style. Bing's observation illuminates the current monsoon of so-called "space-age bachelor pad music" from the late '50s and early '60s. Pegged by Los Angeles artist Byron Werner more than a decade ago, the term signifies a sensual and hedonistic form of avant-garde "easy listening" that fused mainstream pop, emerging stereo technology, and armchair fascination with the tropics and Orient. With the assist of RE/Search's two books devoted to "Incredibly Strange Music" of this ilk, the pre-Beatles generation's pet sounds have found a fresh audience in the neoconservative '90s.

Easy listening's most industrious fan, New Jersey DJ Irwin Chusid has compiled and/or annotated no fewer than nine new or upcoming collections of what he now calls "space age pop" for no fewer than four different record companies. You can find identical tracks by mambo king Perez Prado, accordion-organ trio the Three Suns, and trumpeter Russ Case on both RCA's three-volume, Chusid-compiled "History of Space Age Pop" and Rhino's three-volume, Chusid-compiled "Cocktail Mix." The more sonically audacious RCA trilogy is divided cleverly into tune-oriented Melodies and Mischief, percussively instrumental Mallets in Wonderland, and effects-heavy The Stereo Action Dimension . The Rhino comps, leaving heavy on the kitsch (e.g., Connie Francis, Dean Martin, Sergio Mendes, and the like), kicked off recently with Bachelor's Guide to the Galaxy , the best of the three. (I'd avoid the bandwagon-jumping Music for a Bachelor's Den in Hi-Fi on DCC entirely.)

A master of sinuous stereophonic strings and palpitating piano, Mexican arranger Juan Maria Esquivel was the spaciest bachelor of them all. In addition to last year's Bar/None comp Space Age Bachelor Pad Music , he's responsible for two new volumes, Music for a Sparkling Planet (Bar/None) and Esquivel (RCA), which again slightly overlap. Reprise broke the mold by reissuing the lesser Esquivel More of Other Worlds, Other Sounds (1962) in its entirety. Any of the three compilations better introduce this modern maestro.

As tools for seduction, space-age pop was a mixed blessing. After stirring the stingers and cranking up the hi-fi, overenthusiastic bachelors no doubt bored wary dates to death with verbose comparisons of "Spectra-Sonic-Sound" versus "New Orthophonic High Fidelity." Actually, most of the era's EZ listening could lull anyone into snoozy submission. Enoch Light's 1959 Persuasive Percussion and 1960 Provocative Percussion (Varese Sarabande), for example, are neither. And The In Sound From Way Out! (Vanguard) by Jean-Jacques Perry and Gershon Kingsley (who recorded as Perry-Kingsley), may be a cool giggle fest of bubbly electronic gimmickry, but I doubt it got anyone out of their knickers in 1966.

Certainly more effective was the panglobal mix termed "exotica" after arranger Martin Denny's successful series of records. Denny's 1959 LP Afro-Desia (Scamp) is a dazzling and subtle jungle soundscape full of oddball percussion and way-out vocals. The only finer supplier of this woozy tropical charm was former Denny band member Arthur Lyman, whose two best albums, Taboo (1959?) and Yellow Bird (1964?), appear on The Arthur Lyman Group CD (DCC, 1991). While the more orchestrally inclined Les Baxter wrote the hit exotica anthem "Quiet Village," his own records remain largely unavailable. The short, rare television performance captured on The Lost Episode (Dionysus) offers only a small hint of his Stravinsky-influenced esoterotics.

The tough yet tender tones of bachelor exotica come full circle with the Sub Pop retrocrooners Combustible Edison. Their music for the Quentin Tarantino-produced Four Rooms (Elektra), a toe-tapping thesaurus of recycled Esquivel and Denny, guarantees escape from your existential mall. In fact, Edison's "Vertigogo" may be the most seductive single of the year. And since it's probably easier to get someone into the sack with a spliff and a Tricky album these days, let's just say easy listening isn't just for horny bachelors anymore.