Liner notes from the upcoming BMG Music release
The RCA History of Space Age Pop
Vol. 1: Melodies and Mischief
by Irwin Chusid
Copyright © 1995 BMG Music. All rights reserved.
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Space Age Pop is back. After its heyday in the late 1950s and early
1960s, these imaginative instrumental stylings fell from fashion,
were forgotten, skipped a generation or two, then re-emerged as a
fresh source of sonic balm in the 1990s.
The tag "Space Age Pop" is generic, yet broad. Along with such RCA
recording artists as Henry Mancini, Ray Martin, and Bernie Green, the
field encompasses the lounge organ mastery of Lenny Dee; the
Polynesian sway of Martin Denny and Les Baxter; the cinematic
colorings of Nino Rota; the 1,001-strings magnificence of Mantovani;
and the prepared piano novelties of Ferrante & Teicher.
Space Age Pop frames a period, roughly 1954 to 1964--from the dawn of
high-fidelity (hi-fi) to the arrival of the Beatles. At its
inception, hi-fi (and subsequent stereo) technology provided record
companies with a showcase for the pan-galactic spectrum of audio
reproduction. Artists like Esquivel, Enoch Light and Sauter-Finegan
led the way in showing off their studio smarts. A decade later, the
British Invasion, accompanied by Dylanesque cultural and political
upheaval, altered popular music forever; the most renowned
instrumental pop artists changed their courses correspondingly, or
disappeared from vinyl.
The RCA History of Space Age Pop focuses on an epoch that pre-dates
popular acceptance of electronic sound generation. For the most part,
these recordings were made with conventional acoustic and electric
instruments. There's an occasional theremin or ondioline, but no
synthesizers. Classic Space Age Pop even pre-dates the Moog
(introduced in 1964). The state-of-the-art studio toolkit included
tape speed manipulation, multi-tracking, controlled distortion,
reverb, equalization and tape editing (with razor blades). Conductors
assumed the roles of magicians; engineers became alchemists. Despite
similarities in big band instrumentation, these recordings were light
years from Glenn Miller.
It should be pointed out that the phrase "Space Age Pop" wasn't in
vogue when this music was created. That term arose during the
mid-1980s, when cultural trashpickers--underground cartoonists and
free-form DJs--were scavenging through thrift store bins and used
record shops, paying 50 cents an armload for the stuff--because
nobody else wanted it. Moreover, the vinyl archaeologists who bought
those castoff relics developed a new (or in some cases renewed)
appreciation for the quirky signals etched in the grooves. The
producer credits Los Angeles artist Byron Werner with coining the
phrase "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music"--later shortened to Space Age
Pop by the producer.
This music was popular when it was originally released. It was a
great way to test the capabilities of a new stereo--or the limits of
your neighbor's patience. But after a decade of glory, the novelty
wore off and the music became outdated, superseded by higher-tech
hijinks and countercultural weirdness. A zillion trends have come and
gone--mostly gone--since. There was bound to come a time when the
cocktail-glass tintinnabulations of Bob Thompson or the springy
rhythms of The Three Suns would become fashionable again.
That day has arrived.
Though many bandleaders (such as Henri René and Bob Thompson)
composed, most relied on radical reworkings of Tin Pan Alley
standards, or borrowings from the classical repertoire. Juan Garcia
Esquivel, asked why he often used such familiar material for his
eccentric orchestrations, explained, "When a listener hears a song
he's familiar with, he's likelier to notice differences in the
rhythm, or the chords, or the voices. He's likelier to appreciate the
work of the arranger."
And when it came to Space Age Pop, arranging was the name of the
game. There seemed to be a competition among artists to see who could
conduct the most outrageous gene-splicing on an old pleasantry like
"Sentimental Journey" or "Mood Indigo." Occasionally, efforts sounded
contrived; some titles were overdone. After years of studying the
genre, these ears ask to be spared further variations on "Flight of
the Bumble Bee," "Humoresque," or "Greensleeves." On the other hand,
there's rarely a "Third Man Theme," "Hell's Bells" or "Powerhouse"
that fails to satisfy. And it seems almost impossible to make a bad
recording of "Caravan." Sir Julian (Gould)'s VU meter-pinning version
included here also rates high on the weirdness scale.
A sense of humor was an essential component of any arranger's skills.
Esquivel specialized in sophisticated nose-tweaking, as did the Three
Suns. Henry Mancini's Latin send-up of "Springtime for Hitler" (from
the Mel Brooks farce, The Producers) takes a devastatingly dark joke
one step beyond absurdity.
Popular as this music was in the 1950s and 60s, it was reviled at the
time by hipsters. Why? Here's a good place to start: it was
meticulous; the artists and producers were perfectionists. This
aesthetic flies in the face of rock'n'roll, which values energy and
spontaneity over technique. Yet many of the pieces included on this
album rock--and if they don't rock, they swing. (Some do both: "Julie
Is Her Name," by Mambo King Perez Prado was a hybrid style he termed
Rockambo.) These recordings were made by bandleaders and musicians
who were young and vibrant, and many of whom were considered upstarts
and pioneers. However, Space Age Pop stopped short of stripped
inhibitions; it wasn't intended to induce breathless perspiration.
However raucous the arrangements might get, there was always an
undercurrent that whispered: "Relax."
There were other reasons why this music was dismissed by many of its
contemporaries. It was considered Squaresville. Jeez--trombones and
xylophones! Space Age Pop's pedigree can be traced to the elegant big
band ballrooms of the 1930s and '40s, rather than to the sweaty,
decadent, R&B juke joints. It was genetically "respectable."
Does that mean this music had no "soul"? Who cares? Only a pedant
with no sense of humor would attempt to address such a question. This
music was meant to be festive, to provide a soundtrack for high
living. You don't need a penthouse or a velvet smoking jacket, a
swinging bachelor pad or a track-lit bar in your living room. But if
you close your eyes and relax while listening to Space Age Pop, the
High Life is just a dream away.
With a bit of persistence, you can still track down original vinyl
copies of classic Space Age Pop. If you're lucky, they can be found
cheap at yard sales and charity thrift shops. If you venture downtown
to your Goldmine-reading used record dealer, along with the
obligatory attitude, expect sticker shock. Prices on these LPs have
skyrocketed in the past few years, as demand now far exceeds
Interest among collectors--and young bands like Combustible Edison
and the Coctails--has reaffirmed the vitality of this music. It
deserves to be heard. The RCA History of Space Age Pop is one label's
attempt to dig out those old master tapes, to find the most
imaginative and enduring selections, and provide you with a
Soundtrack for Sophisticated Swinging.
Copyright © 1995 BMG Music. All rights reserved.
Irwin Chusid has produced two albums of quintessential orchestral
madness by Juan Garcia Esquivel, Space Age Bachelor Pad Music and
Music From A Sparkling Planet (Bar None/BMG), as well as two CD
collections of recordings by "cartoon-jazz" composer Raymond Scott.
Thanks to Paul Williams; Herman Diaz, Jr.; Juan Garcia Esquivel;
Wayne (Wayno) Honath; Byron Werner; Bro. Cleve, Bob Strickland
The RCA History of Space Age Pop Vol. 2: Mallets and
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