Permissiveness is the key here. The listener is encouraged to surrender to music that not so long ago might have been defined as the Other, the enemy, the counter-counterculture, but at the same time he is left free to distort or reimagine it in any way that suits. History in this sense amounts to little more than a crowded closet from which, with a bit of scrounging, useable bits of fabric or costume jewelry can be salvaged.
“Lounge music” is a deliberately unhistorical term designed to allow customers to recombine disparate bits of the past into whatever musical world they want. A capacious reference book, MusicHound Lounge: The Essential Album Guide to Martini Music and Easy Listening,3 proposes a category encompassing Coleman Hawkins, Gordon Lightfoot, Nino Rota, The Four Preps, Jimmy Durante, Tito Puente, Carmen McRae, the 101 Strings, the Swingle Singers, Erik Satie, and Rodgers and Hart, not to mention the good-for-a-laugh albums released by such “singers” as Leonard Nimoy and Robert Mitchum. (No one has yet reissued the album where Yvette Mimieux read the poetry of Baudelaire accompanied by Ali Akhbar Khan on sarod, but the moment cannot be too far distant.) “Lounge music” has a definition whose purpose is to undermine the notion of definition as such, appropriately for a mix’n’match music cobbled out of any elements that grab you: Marimba? Theremin? Bossa nova beat? Cheesy echo effects? Hammond organ? Surf guitar? Close harmony background singers? Mariachi trumpet? Cowbells? Tuned bongos? Wind chimes? Press the buttons for the fantasy combo of your choice and a mix tape will be generated automatically.
Partly lounge music represents a generational shift conspiring to admit a range of musical effects that rock had excluded in order to preserve the purity of its identity. If one posits (as a worst-case scenario) a sonic consciousness restricted to heavy metal, punk, and grunge, and then imagines the sudden infusion of, say, the instrumental “exotica” of the bandleader Martin Denny, it becomes possible to grasp the revolutionary possibilities of tracks like “Stone God” or “Jungle River Boat.” A new sensuous universe opens. Glissandos, bird calls, the undulation of waves and steel guitars: the massage music works its way into pressure points that grunge had failed to reach. Irony quickly becomes a dead issue: finally you are left alone with your ears. Either you get pleasure from listening to Martin Denny or the Hollyridge Strings, or you don’t; the only variations are on the order of how much pleasure, repeated how many times. Irony meets its double, banality, as the alienated contemplation of schmaltz merges with the unrepentant enjoyment of it; or doesn’t quite merge, the mind clinging to a detachment in which unironic enjoyment is almost successfully simulated. You get all the pleasurable abandon of sincerity with none of the heartbreak.
There is a certain appropriateness in the soundtrack of fin-de-siècle America shaping up as a potpourri of decades-old mood music, movie music, elevator-and-supermarket music. Having long since got used to hearing canned versions of Bob Marley and Talking Heads en route to the dairy-products aisle, we will not find it so hard to accept the ersatz as ultimate authenticity. The point is not roots but connections, the more far-fetched the better. How far from its point of origin can an artifact wash up? How wildly can its original intent be distorted while remaining tantalizingly recognizable? It becomes part of listening to chart the migration of materials, to note, for instance, how the Bacharach-David number “Me Japanese Boy I Love You,” a sleekly efficient Orientalist confection originally sung by Bobby Goldsboro in 1964, is eventually woven by the Japanese group the Pizzicato Five into their methodically hip pop-art collages of an imaginary 1960s in which James Bond and Twiggy figure as benign, lighter-than-air demigods. In the world of lounge music, collage is indispensable, if only because there is so much music to be listened to—a whole world of buried recordings—that only by mixing it up as rapidly and heterogeneously as possible can one even begin to sample all the different genres and subgenres.
It was sampling (the extrapolation of fragments of preexisting recordings into repeated figures, or their insertion as isolated sound effects, a practice that has transformed pop music) that was doubtless responsible for the dredging up of much of this material in the first place. That aura of fragmentation—the sense that music can be appreciated just as well out of order, in pieces, juxtaposed inappropriately with other fragments—is perhaps the only atmosphere in which one can sanely approach a potentially infinite canon. Yet the manifest need for editing is balanced against a simmering desire to hear everything, to accept the late-night television offer (featured in one of Robert Klein’s comic monologues) of “every record ever made since recording began.” Listening to all the records substitutes for leading all the lives, being in all the places. The deliberately all-encompassing category of lounge music signals a relaxation that permits an endless series of brightly lit dream sequences set in imaginary epochs: no identity, no history, no reason to regret anything ever again.
The catch is that, even for someone who was there at the time, the original experience has by now become almost as much a fantasy. The question of what exactly we remember when we listen to old recordings, or whether it can be called remembering at all, becomes less and less answerable over a lifetime. In that commonest of fetishistic practices—the repeated listening to the same song, year after year and decade after decade—does one reenact an original experience, or shut out memory by substituting a fixed pattern of sounds tied to an equally fixed pattern of associations? Can one hope to hear new and different things over the course of time, or would that interfere with the need to be reassured by an unvarying response?
Every listener’s personal history can be stitched together from recollections of first encounters, recollections that in due course become private legends. There is some piece of vinyl that is forever March 23, 1962. It is the peculiar faculty of music to make each such first encounter, in retrospect, a snapshot of what the world was at that moment, as if sound were the most absorbent medium of all, soaking up histories and philosophical systems and physical surroundings and encoding them in something so slight as a single vocal quaver or harpsichord interjection. The listener wants not merely to hear the beloved record again, but to hear it always for the first time. The shock of coming up against music that sounds new—whether the encounter is with a Caruso 78 of “Santa Lucia” or the Basie band broadcasting live from the Famous Door or the flip side of the new Zombies single—involves the apprehension, or the invention, of an unsuspected reality, an emotional shade not defined until then, the revelation (tenuous or overpowering) of an alternate future. If music promised anything less than entry into a new world, how account for its hold on the many for whom it can stand in, if need be, for a belief system or a way of life?
In pursuit of an archaeology of memory, it is sometimes possible to reconstruct the encounter: you enter a room just as an unknown song is beginning to play and have an impression that the room changes, the weather of the day is imprinted for future recollection. You had been warned, perhaps: “You’ve got to hear this one.” The song is, for instance, “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” a newly released Imperial single by Jackie DeShannon, with words by Hal David and music by Burt Bacharach. It is an April afternoon in 1965, and this year, in the world beyond high school, the usual urgencies of the season seem to converge with a broader impatience in the whole culture, as if things were going to have to move just a little faster to get on with all the necessary impending changes.
The song’s impact has a great deal to do with its emphatic deployment of the word “now”: the eternal imperatives of lyric warmth are being enlisted into a program of worldwide empathy under the momentary leadership of Jackie DeShannon, whose stunning promotional photograph is a sort of poster for youth itself as imagined in 1965, the perfect Southern California flower girl, with her miniskirt and straight blond hair, radiating sincerity and spontaneity and the dissolution of hidebound social forms. Yet the defiantly fragile sentiment embodied in her singing exists at the center of the most sophisticated imaginable orchestral setting, in a harmonious wedding of feeling and production machinery. No question of counterculture: the culture itself appears to be changing at its core. In the space of under three minutes you construct a story about the way the world is going, even if your outward registration of this experience may be only to venture the knowing opinion that “this record is going to be huge.” Every subsequent playback plays back as well a compressed version of the original circumstances; and that was only one such record out of thousands.
The age of recording is necessarily an age of nostalgia—when was the past so hauntingly accessible?—but its bitterest insight is the incapacity of even the most perfectly captured sound to restore the moment of its first inscribing. That world is no longer there—on closer listening, probably never was for longer than the instant during which unfamiliar music ripped open spaces equally and drastically unfamiliar. The listener seeking more such encounters may resort to wide-ranging searches for the unheard, anything from Uzbeki wedding music to unreleased garage bands of southern Wisconsin, anything that might spring the unimaginable surprise. Yet the laboriously sought musical epiphany can never compare to the unsought, even unwanted tune whose ambush is violent and sudden: the song the cab driver was tuned to, the song rumbling from the speaker wedged against the fire-escape railing, the song tingling from the transistor on the beach blanket. To locate those songs again can become, with age, something like a religious quest, as suggested by the frequent use of the phrase “Holy Grail” to describe hard-to-find tracks. The collector is haunted by the knowledge that somewhere on the planet an intact chunk of his past still exists, uncorrupted by time or circumstance.
It was a devotional impulse of sorts that from the outset gave that music such power over its listeners. Where some lit candles, others listened to the Shirelles. To fully reconstruct how one came to be haunted by the memory of endlessly playing both sides of Lou Johnson’s 45 of “Kentucky Bluebird” backed with “The Last One To Be Loved” in the fall of 1964, or, a few months earlier (it was the moment when Burt Bacharach’s name first meant something), registering the impact of Dionne Warwick singing “Walk On By,” it is perhaps necessary to recollect the way the 45-rpm record once provided the basis for something like a religion, or at any rate a religion of art. For a youth culture that had not yet discovered its destiny to change the world, cultural life was often a matter of keeping up with the Top 40 countdown when it was released each Sunday, to culminate in the apotheosis of: “And this week’s Hot 100 Billboard number one record is…’Game of Love’ by Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders!” The transistor radio at minimal volume, listened to well after midnight, could seem like a direct line to the Godhead: in the heart of emptiness and darkness, music continued to pour out.
Edited by Steve Knopper (Visible Ink, 1998). The field has also been surveyed in Dylan Jones, Ultra Lounge: The Lexicon of Easy Listening (Universe/St. Martin's, 1997).↩
Edited by Steve Knopper (Visible Ink, 1998). The field has also been surveyed in Dylan Jones, Ultra Lounge: The Lexicon of Easy Listening (Universe/St. Martin’s, 1997).↩