Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Future Past

Cookie, shmookie -- there's nothing like old music to evoke old memories ...

Remember Monty Python's "Summarize Proust" sketch? It was a quiz show in which contestants were given 30 seconds to summarize Marcel Proust's monumental Remembrance of Things Past. It went something like this:

"Well, um um, there's this man, um, and he's sitting -- he's sitting in a garden -- Oh! and there's a cookie! Yes yes, the cookie's very important, because, um um --"
"Time's up!"

But seriously ... The flavor of a cookie might have worked for Proust, bringing back the entire flavor of his childhood. But for me there's nothing better than hearing a piece of music I haven't heard for a long time. Recently I unearthed another lost recording that dates back (I'm amazed to say) almost 50 years. If you have any idea of my taste in music, you'll be surprised to hear that this treasured work is a collection of pop orchestrations by Les Baxter, one of those composer/arrangers who used to fill offices and department stores with "easy listening" Muzak.

I always thought that expression was perfect -- "easy" because it was so undemanding on listeners that you could hear it almost without noticing. To Baxter's credit, he was among the most capable practitioners of this style. At his best he approached the interesting orchestral textures of Ferde Grofé in The Grand Canyon Suite, and you could certainly stack him up against Leroy Anderson, whose work gets performed by serious orchestras.

So what's so special about Space Escapade? Well, to begin with, I was young and my musical sophistication had yet to develop. At the time the records in our household ranged from classical to Broadway musicals, but there was no jazz, no folk, and certainly no rock and roll. (Yes, kids, before it was Rock there was a roll at the end of it.) I think the only recordings I owned myself were Alvin and the Chipmunks (the originals) and maybe a Bob Newhart comedy album.

But I was enchanted with science fiction and Outer Space. And my dad had this wild friend who drove a Thunderbird sports car and threw parties. I'm pretty sure Space Escapade was a present from him, because my parents would never have bought such a thing. At any rate I always associated it with a free life style. Probably this was due to the cover, which represented some futuristic singles whooping it up with purple beverages and a misty floor. Things in the future would be more open and free, it implied. Girls would come in colors, like shirts, and there would be more than one of them available per male. (Hey, I never said it was politically correct.) Small wonder that it captured my juvenile fancy.

Looking for more info on Les Baxter I came across the website SpaceAgePop.com, the author of which has identified an entire genre of related music dating from the 1940's through the 1970's. One interesting thing to note is that apparently the "Space Age" is long since over -- it ended with the conclusion of the Space Race with the Soviet Union and the abandonment of the Apollo moon program. But for a few glorious decades the future seemed to hold unlimited promise. It was going to be a Technicolor future, with Americans riding in rockets to the accompaniment of sugary sweet violins ... a Jetsons future in which the nuclear family would consist of mom and dad, two kids, a dog and a robot.

Alas, that future is over too. It ended in the quicksand of Vietnam, the debacle of Watergate, two space shuttle disasters, financial collapse, terrorism, pollution, and the advent of global warming. We have to work quite a bit harder now to imagine a brighter future, and even then it is one that has lost its innocence.

But Space Age Pop is still here to remind us of the future that used to be. It even includes multiple sub-genres such as Exotica, Jet Set Pop, Incredibly Strange Music, and my personal favorite: Bachelor Pad Pop. Actually I learned later that my dad's wild friend was gay, so we really should add an additional genre called Gay Bachelor Pad Pop.

You can listen to samples of Space Escapade and the rest of Baxter's prolific output at Amazon. What's that? You say it sounds dippy? Of course it's dippy! That's the whole point! You just have to strap on your jet pack and go along for the ride. Even the album cover description is camp beyond words:

"Even today, in an era of science and satellites, the mystery of the universe has lost none of its magical appeal. We can close our eyes and dream of the future, wondering whether a starlit planet might soon replace a tropical island, the Riviera, or a distant mountain lodge as the ideal spot for a romantic holiday. Or, with the aid of the music in this album, we can drift into the future's lovemist with Les Baxter and make a spaceliner escapade by earthlight, tongue safely fastened in cheek."

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