Other Worlds, Other Sounds – The Cosmic World Of Space Age Easy Listening

The futuristic sounds of the distant past.

Space was big in the Fifties. The atomic age not only ushered in a new world of science fiction cinema, comic books and writing but also inspired big band leaders and musical arrangers to explore the sounds of the cosmos. As the Space Race took hold and interstellar exploration seemed set to – ahem – skyrocket us to the stars, so the idea of outer space and the unexplored galaxy inspired music that was influenced not by the here and now, but by the infinite possibilities of things to come.

From the 1950s into the early 1970s, the world of Space Age Pop explored the sounds of tomorrow through the orchestral works of band leaders, Moog masters, musicians with an eye for what was popular and a handful of visionary geniuses who were fascinated by pushing the world of easy listening music into strange new worlds.

As it turns out, the sounds of tomorrow were very much like the sounds of ‘today’ (today being whatever time the album was recorded) but with added theremin, electronic effects and ethereal vocal wooshing to give things a slightly otherworldly feel. Lounge music was already obsessed with the modern – the whole bachelor pad concept was based around the good life of labour-saving gadgets, ultra-modernist furniture and decor, exotic cocktails and general sophistication that threw aside the restrictions and miseries of the past in favour of hi-fi, TV, dishwashers and endless leisure. And this, it seemed, was just the start. I wonder what those swinging bachelors of the 1950s, listening to Martin Denny albums while sipping martinis, would make of our modern world, where tech has developed in ways unimaginable even by most sci-fi visionaries and is used mainly to argue furiously about conspiracy theories and who is the biggest victim.

Of course, nothing is more hilariously dated than yesterday’s modernism – designs and ideas that are completely wedded to a time and place. But after a while, what once felt dated becomes so removed from where we are now that it becomes oddly new and experimental once again. Just as 1950s and 1960s modernist furniture design now feels radical and dramatic compared to the very ordinary and interchangeable sofas, chairs, tables and kitchenware of today, so the spaced-out easy listening of the past now feels even more radically weird and spaced out than ever. Even your standard lounge music has a dramatic sound that is so far removed from anything that we recognise as popular music today, it feels almost revolutionary – and when you add weird space-age sounds to that music, it feels even odder, so completely removed from anything else that it isn’t remotely dated. We are probably due another lounge music revival – the last one, after all, was over a quarter of a century ago, almost as distant in time now as the music it briefly revived was.

Space Age Easy Listening was a mixed bag, of course. Some records went all out for otherworldly weirdness and the scene had its share of mad visionaries. Artists like Sun Ra were so obsessively prolific that they deserve their own separate article – and will get one at some point – while the likes of Esquivel and Joe Meek pushed the sounds of orchestral music and the available electronic sounds of the era into strange, wild new areas that still feel insanely experimental. Others, though, seemed a tad opportunist. We might not expect Leonard Nimoy’s Mr Spock’s Music from Outer Space to be exactly serious, but tracks like Music to Watch Space Girls By feel as though they are pushing the envelope a bit. The tune is, indeed, the classic swinging Andy Williams track, with added spacey noises and ethereal vocals, and there’s no denying that it’s a fun little tune – but not, perhaps, the sounds of cosmic exploration.

The craze for the space-age easy listening LP seemed to end with the Space Race. While the Moon landing was a time of great excitement, it also seemed to ultimately draw a line under the whole thing. The Moon turned out to be a not very exciting place and once it had been conquered, neither the USA nor USSR seemed all that interested in carrying on. The idea that this would just be the first stop in an ongoing galactic exploration quickly fizzled out and within a few years, NASA stopped sending missions to explore the barren satellite. The future, it turned out, was less exotic than many had hoped and there was little appetite for the brave new worlds of exotica and lounge music in the rather more down-to-earth 1970s. Of course, sci-fi escapism returned with a bang towards the end of the decade and the worlds of disco – arguably the easy listening of the 1970s with its aspirational, celebratory good times vibe – and orchestral music embraced the spaced-out fashion once again, though, in the case of the latter, this tended to be more orchestral recreations of John Williams’ bombastic faux-classical music rather than anything remotely swinging and groovy. The science fiction of the modern era – that is, post-Star Wars – tends to be soundtracked by big, thunderous and traditional movie soundtracks rather than space-age pop, more’s the pity.

Here, then, are a smattering of classic era space-age easy listening albums. Yesterday’s sounds of tomorrow, today.

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  1. Niiiiice….
    ReSearch’s two volumes of Incredibly Strange Music (released nearly 30 years ago!) are still two of my favourite books about music in general, so good on you for continuing to mine this area now that it’s no longer hipster central.
    Look at those covers, what a shame nobody dares to create a cover like ‘Space Escapade’ now. Much like in the book world, it seems everyone is taking themselves a bit too seriously in the rush to prove their worth(iness).
    Speaking of Mr Spock, I always thought Alexander Courage’s Star Trek theme tune (particularly as heard over the end credits of the original TV series) was a perfect example of Space Age Lounge. In fact, the original series is pretty much Lounge TV…

    1. You’re welcome!
      Re: Star Trek – that was always one of those themes (along with Doctor Who) that the ‘sci-fi themes’ albums made by the likes of the Geoff Love Orchestra could never get right, simply because the futuristic sound never quite translated to regular orchestral interpretation. Of course, modern incarnations of both have junked the futuristic space pop in favour of bombastic, Williams-inspired overload. Not an improvement, I think.

  2. Yeah I agree, it’s its own thing I suppose but it can’t hold a candle to the utterly bonkers original.
    Who knew that furious bongos and soprano vocals worked well together??
    It’s that kind of mixage of disparate ingredients that I wish more musicians would be brave enough to experiment with. You’ll never know unless you try!

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