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50s Shtick











For years a significant segment of the music market has survived and even thrived by recycling and/or reinventing outmoded trends, cultures, and genres. Think of the rockabilly revival, neo-hippies, flashbacks to the acid era, the recently pervasive and dominant presence of disco and its culture, the current nostalgia for punk and new wave.

The most potent out-of-time, out-of-place passion currently going is for some of the more mundane aspects of 50s culture, from "tiki bars" and simulated Hawaiian luaus in suburban backyards to beatnik bachelor pads equipped with plush-consoled hi-fis. Urge Overkill genuflect before the well-made martini, posing with skewered Spanish olives in publicity stills and sipping carefully balanced cocktails in some of their videos. Recordings by once-discredited performers like Les Baxter, Martin Denny, and Esquivel, up until recently found only in moldy thrift stores, are now highly sought collector's items, valued for their garish Technicolor sleeves depicting various exotic scenes, many of them variations on a theme of a voluptuous woman in form-fitting clothes and strange jewelry or hats. The British band Stereolab named their song "Jenny Ondioline" after an early-50s synthesizer popularized by cornball Frenchman Jean-Jacques Perrey and use other equally outdated instruments to create their spectrum of "modern" sounds. In 1990 the top-notch archivists at Rhino Records released Exotica: The Best of Martin Denny, and forthcoming from Bar/None Records, home of tongue-in-cheek acts like They Might Be Giants and Ben Vaughn, is an Esquivel collection called Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music. And there's more: with similarly twisted nostalgists Love Jones, Chicago's Coctails, Grenadine, and Combustible Edison gaining visibility and the notorious and thorough weirdo-culture journal RE/Search dedicating two recent issues to "Incredibly Strange Music," a large portion of which focuses on the renewed interest in Baxter, Denny, Esquivel, and their ilk, something is certainly amiss.

By and large the focus of the current obsession is a species of music generally called easy listening--albeit quirky, unusual easy listening; we're not talking spittle like 101 Strings. As Irwin Chusid writes in the liner notes to the Esquivel collection, "To the rock'n'roll generation, it was anything but hip. It was Mom & Dad's music, best left on the shelf." There are several nonmusical explanations for this music's original popularity. Pianist Martin Denny, for example, took ofay cocktail-lounge tinklings and spiced them up with "exotic" percussion; the particular innovation of his big 1957 hit "Quiet Village," originally an innocuous piece of fluff composed by Les Baxter, was the addition of birdcalls. One can imagine Denny swelling with pride as he dissected his work with his group in an interview published in the first "Incredibly Strange Music" volume of RE/Search: "Together we achieved the 'Martin Denny sound,' which was a blend of all these instruments. And the hook was these exotic bird calls."

Brian King and Stuart Swezey, who run LA's weirdo-culture publishing haven Amok Books and compiled and wrote the liner notes for Rhino's Martin Denny collection, suggest a second reason for the music's appeal in the same volume of RE/Search. In an era of severe sexual repression, says Swezey, the use of the word "pagan" in many song and album titles (and, by association, exotic rhythms) clearly equaled "Dionysian party-time--pagan meant sex." Last but not least was the fact that stereo was a new invention. According to Denny, "Part of the reason my records caught on was that stereo had just appeared on the market, with its amazing separation into right and left channels. People were interested in sound per se--and that included my so-called 'exotic' sound." Esquivel's music in particular exploited the sound possibilities of stereo, deconstructing and twisting what might have been bland big-band orchestrations with odd slide-guitar flourishes, exotic percussion, and bass accordion, among other sources. As interesting as Esquivel's recordings were, though, they were still basically glorified stereo-demonstration records. While many of these artists continued recording through the 60s and early 70s, rock's eventual domination pushed this once-popular music well into the margins.

It's certain that record collectors have galvanized the renewed interest in this stuff, as numerous interviews in RE/Search indicate. But collecting the records is one thing, playing the music quite another. Michael Cudahy and Liz Cox used to lead an excellent, quirky, smartnik pop trio called Christmas; now, going by the names "the Millionaire" and "Miss Lily Banquette" in a quintet called Combustible Edison, they're leading the way in reviving this musical era with a blend of Denny-esque exotica, cocktail-guzzling opulence, and hedonistic finery. The cover of their debut album, I, Swinger (Sub Pop), features the description "suave and sybaritic" on the lower left portion; there's a credo printed inside that involves striving for "fabulousness" and a recipe on the back for the combo's eponymous cocktail, a foul concoction of Campari, lemon juice, and a "flaming stream" of brandy. Despite this silliness the band bio insists that they're serious: "not camp, not kitsch, not retro nor revivalist. Nothing coy here, no sly indie-rock wink, and never say 'novelty.'"

The actual music stretches beyond Denny and Esquivel. Opening with a jaunty version of "Cadillac," a piece written by film composer Nino Rota, they go on to cover Julie London's classic torch song "Cry Me a River" and traverse a German-language take on The Threepenny Opera's "Surabaya Johnny." But while they achieve no uncertain verve and a lush sound--a blend of double bass, guitar, cocktail piano, and lounge-y organ, souped up with exotic percussion and vibes and various keyboard effects--their original material often falls flat. "The Veldt," for instance, is a shameless rip-off of "Quiet Village," from the silly birdcalls to the sashaying bass line, while "Spy vs. Spy" uses the expected Peter Gunn-esque reverb-heavy guitar.

During Combustible Edison's Chicago debut at the Empty Bottle a few weeks back, a makeshift tiki bar was constructed to serve their name-brand drinks. Cox modeled a long red gown, while the rest of the band was attired in modified black bullfighter getup complete with silver lame sashes. Cudahy filled between-song transitions with a poorly rehearsed comedy shtick that came off mechanical, full of intentionally cliched lines like "Don't forget to tip your waitress." The band's performance--mostly faithful renditions of material from the album--was adequate if unspectacular. This sort of music was never designed to be exciting in performance; it was background fodder, mood music, the sound track to relaxed conversation.

Some things don't change, and Combustible Edison's forced conversion of this stuff for the rock stage proved it. If they were truly authentic they'd be playing in the corner of some suburban Holiday Inn cocktail lounge. As it was Cudahy was sipping spiked Hawaiian Punch from plastic cocktail glasses, the band was dressed like waiters in a tacky Polynesian restaurant, and Cudahy sounded more like he was giving a slide lecture on the South Pacific than introducing songs. Admittedly, the band is moderately entertaining, but its facade of seriousness is ridiculous. Celebrating America's pop-culture history is one thing; emulating it without a drop of irony is either impossible or moronic, and maybe both.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.

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