The odd parallel universe of easy-listening cover versions of revolutionary acid rock classics that proliferated in the 1960s.
One thing is certain: no matter how rebellious, difficult, challenging and weird music can be, there will be someone, somewhere who will be working on sanitising and commodifying it for the masses. Nothing is so spikey that the edges can’t be filed down and made palatable to the sort of people who have never rebelled against anything. These days, of course, that simply means ambitious pop acts and slick producers washing over everything with an excess of autotune, heavy production and corporate smoothness – popular music has been around long enough for ‘pop’, ‘rock’, ‘dance’ or ‘hip-hop’ to be familiar musical forms even for pensioners and so what we might call Adult Oriented Rock now is simply a blander, more comfortable version of everything that the kids are listening to – sometimes by the same artists. The major labels and ambitious performers have long since learned that the big money comes from not upsetting anyone and the days of aggressive, scary musical movements breaking on through to upset the applecart have long since gone. Some sounds might still upset the middle-aged, middle classes, but those sounds are restricted to the musical ghettos of YouTube videos made by wannabe gangstas trying rather too hard and remain entirely insignificant.
Perhaps in a world where we’ve already had the most extreme noises that can be created by guitars, electronics and human voices, there really is nowhere to go for those looking to shock their elders. When your grandparents were listening to Whitehouse or Metal Machine Music, what on earth can you listen to that will rattle them? Well, one thing comes to mind. The current popularity of old, previously uncool bands like Fleetwood Mac is probably the most rebellious thing a teenager can do in terms of upsetting their old punk grannies. But in general, musical tribalism is dead and everything is out there to be enjoyed by everyone. The idea that people can discover old music, free of notions of whether or not it is fashionable or not, and enjoy it alongside new stuff that has no connection to it at all is probably the saving grace of our otherwise culturally moribund modern music scene.
Perhaps now, the real undiscovered country of popular music is the vast world of easy listening – a musical genre that is hard to pin down at the best of times. “But what about that whole lounge music revival?”, I hear you ask. Well, what indeed? Certainly, the sudden burst of interest in ‘loungecore’ that saw clubs springing up around the world and labels cashing in with often fantastic compilations like the Ultra-Lounge series brought a whole new audience to the music – but it happened over twenty years ago. It’s almost as distant a musical movement now as the original music was during that revival. If anything, we’re due a ‘lounge music revival’ revival, if only because the exotic and unusual sounds of that scene remain as fascinating, timeless and outside anything happening today as they ever were (we can probably forego the knowingly-kitsch neo-lounge acts like Mike Flowers though).
The easy listening scene remains entirely removed from pop music as we know it because it always existed in a parallel universe where the tunes that the kids were into would be reworked, polished and stripped of any sense of rebellion or anarchy – at least in the way that we might think of it. But there is surely something rebellious in taking the musical experimentation of the Beatles or the cocksure swagger of The Doors and making it palatable for 1960s middle-aged parents, stripping out the vocals and replacing them with violins or brass, smoothing off the edges and either jauntily speeding things up or moodily slowing it down to create tracks that exist solely as soundtracks to life. These tracks are background music, designed to ease you through your day without ever being fractious or uncomfortable and the arrangers, band leaders and session players who performed them – sometimes the same people who had also worked on the original bands’ sessions – could take the most unlikely tune – a Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds here, an I Am the Walrus there – and make it smooth and relaxing. I almost said ‘inconsequential’, but that’s unfair because many of these orchestral reconstructions have a substance that belies their supposed disposability. They become their own thing, removed from the original meaning and sound of the track and instead transported into a breezy world of comfort and pleasure.
Joseph Lanza’s extraordinary Feral House book Easy-Listening Acid Trip tracks many of these recordings in remarkable detail, exploring how artists like the aforementioned Beatles and Doors, alongside Donovan and the Beach Boys, shows like Hair and songs like Nights in White Satin, A Whiter Shade of Pale and Scott Mckenzie’s San Francisco all drew in the orchestral arrangers – something that in retrospect makes perfect sense but at the time was a bold move. You might see this as simple opportunism, taking the hits of the day and reworking them – sometimes within weeks of the original track being released – but that works on the assumption that there was something to cash in on. Of course, in the mid-1960s, the kids buying Beatles records were not buying easy listening discs and the parents buying the latest Hollyridge Strings release were certainly not also buying Sgt Pepper. While the easy listening albums certainly sought to hitch their wagons to the ‘Now Sound’, the music was working for a very different audience. The audience for these records was not taking LSD trips – though they might well have been popping valiums knocked back with a Scotch. As Lanza points out, these records took the psychedelic sounds of the time and turned them into something else – something that, heard now, feels almost more trippy because it is so unfamiliar to us.
My own favourite of this sort of thing – one not mentioned in the book – was Arthur Fielder and the Boston Pops turning Eleanor Rigby into a bombastic work of intense drama that felt at times like a cover of Also Sprach Zarathustra – two trips for the price of one. It was the highlight of a collection of orchestral, instrumental Beatles covers that my parents owned and it was thrillingly unlike anything else I had in my record collection as a kid. Alongside the oddball movie theme cover collections of Geoff Love, it was the track that originally sent me down an easy listening rabbit hole once the pleasures of rock music had started to wane. In a world where everything felt interchangeable, here was music that seemed both familiar and alien.
As Lanza points out, this is what became known as ‘muzak’ – even though Muzak was a very specific product from a single company – or ‘elevator music’, the sort of inoffensive background soundtrack that is supposed to go almost unnoticed. It removes an uncomfortable silence but doesn’t draw attention to itself. These days, of course, shopping malls, high street stores and even elevators are as likely to be playing the latest pop hits, music that itself is now so generic and polished that it floats by almost unnoticed by shoppers. These older orchestral versions of the familiar would probably seem more jarring now, simply because we are all familiar with the original tracks in ways that a 40-something would not have been at the time; an easy listening Beatles tune would now catch our attention because it is an unfamiliar variation of a familiar song. How things change.
This is music that remains widely mocked – many of those who hitched their wagon to the easy-listening revival in the 1990s were just fashion chasers who never really liked this stuff and soon reverted to seeing it as worthless. But as Lanza points out, there is great talent and imagination at work here, deconstructing and reconstructing teenage acid-drenched pop into something smooth and inoffensive. There’s a lot to be said for inoffensive – not everything has to be edgy all the time. And as the book emphasises, the lines that separate psychedelic rock and easy listening were not always that clear, be it the Beatles’ nostalgia-driven songs of vaudeville and a longing for the past, the baroque sounds of the Left Banke, the fascinating world of Love’s Forever Changes, the arrival of the sitar in both rock and lounge music to add a certain exoticness, the laid-back soundscapes of Pink Floyd and the rise of bubblegum pop – a genre very much the teen answer to easy listening, you might think – of bands like The Lemon Pipers.
There’s much to explore in this world – thrift stores and charity shops used to be awash with these albums and some still are (these discs sold lots of copies) if you are prepared to dig. You could create entire compilation albums – double albums at that – of varying orchestral covers of certain tracks (the book lists sixteen versions of Light My Fire and we can assume that there will be more). I’m surprised no one yet has. I very much recommend checking out Lanza’s book as a launching point – there is so much to explore and while some lounge recordings of psychedelic pop hits are, of course, generic and disposable (as, indeed, as many of the original records) others are inspired and precious. This is a secret world of strange pop music made for the terminally uncool and as such, it is now more exciting and original than anything else you’ll ever hear.
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