Revival Of The Witless

By Dave McElfresh 

AS CUTTING-EDGE as the rock/pop scene attempts to be, it has always allowed for an element of nostalgia. The reunited Eagles refilled arenas at big bucks a head. Disco is back. Box sets resurface out of print rarities. Midnight TV pitches hawk cheap repackagings of Top 40 memories to aging channel surfers.

Music And now, strangely, bachelor pad music returns from the grave, making its way back into the racks in the form of reissues of Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, Les Baxter and Esquivel, and even a few multiple CD packages of related dreck from the era.

But why would anyone want to resuscitate this tasteless, forgettable, minor music style of the late '50s and '60s, now being bought primarily by listeners far too young to have heard it the first time?

Bachelor pad music's revival began with the thrift store archaeologists who dropped a quarter per scratched album to find out what kind of music lay behind the '50s cornball/seductive girlie covers of albums by the likes of Denny and Esquivel. What they discovered was a strange music intended for an audience no less idiosyncratic than the musicians. Basically, bachelor pad music--a recent term, not the era's--was what a bachelor bought to test out his new hi-fi unit, purchased with money that would have been spent on dates, if he'd had any. The albums often slapped bass-rattling fake rock beats onto outdated songs played in weird electronic tones, or presented a just-like-being-there musical postcard of some enchanted isle. Bachelor pad music was meant to impress that damsel yet to be found, proof that The Owner Of This Platter was younger and cooler than he acted, and, in spite of the disastrous dinner experience sure to occur prior to returning to his pad, Worthy Of Some Action.

Everything about an album of bachelor pad music contributed to the cause: the cover art featuring bare-breasted girls (yeah, I'm quite at home with nude women in my digs) or outer-space themes (I live on the cutting edge), music with Polynesian percussion (someday I'll tell you about my world travels) or space-aged synthesizer extremes presented as a test of a speaker's woofer/tweeter ranges (I've got bucks to spend, babe, as this spiffy unit proves).

pix Bachelor pad music was really wish music for the era's techno nerds who never ventured out into the world any farther than the nearest electronics store. But a couple of pretty hip worlds--either primitive jungle villages or outer space, Adventureland or Fantasyland--were available at 33 and 1/3.

The exotic jungle sounds became the aural equivalent of men's magazines, encouraging fantasies of untamed (and undiscerning) topless chicks in thatched huts--theirs for the asking. Bachelor pad music also incorporated the other-worldly squawks and thunderings of new electronic instruments like the Moog synthesizer, allowing all those unmarried Popular Mechanics subscribers another fantasy world where their new hi-tech amplifier could be tested and praised for abilities just a level or two below Sputnik technology. Never mind that both extreme kinds of music were written and played by musicians who sound as though they relied on drive-in movies for vision.

Bachelor pad music is the cave drawing left by the dweeb accountants from 35 or 40 years ago, who laid down two bucks per monaural platter in preparation for a date, probably never pursued, with the hot number who lived down the hall.

Not the kind of music one might think worth resurfacing.

Maybe not, but contemporary music has gone so far in slumming for new outlandish sounds that it has shamelessly settled on spotlighting the worst to come out of the world of easy-listening music. Not all easy-listening music is found to be bad enough--little interest is being directed toward the colorless elevator music of Mantovani, Ray Conniff or 101 Living Strings. But Esquivel, now there was a musician too dreadfully corny and kitsch to believe: a 21st-century Mexican Liberace wearing the ugliest pair of horn-rimmed glasses ever made, and playing glissando-heavy piano between saccharine harp interludes and snippets of surf guitar.

Pianist Martin Denny was no improvement--with his band playing orchestrator Les Baxter's fake World Music, exotica meant to conjure up images of the tropical villages and parrot-filled paradises listeners in the late 1950s could only dream of visiting. The cool vibraphone melodies and background birdcalls were a hell of a lot closer to sounding like Polynesian night at an old folks' buffet than the real music of any tropical island. Not that those buying the music noticed--band member/vibraphonist Arthur Lyman parted ways with Denny and churned out his own lucrative catalog of ludicrous luau music. Baxter also stayed with the big breasts/big drums theme, though the advent of the Moog synthesizer led him to release such space classics as Moon Rock, followed by a string of soundtracks for Roger Corman movies like I Escaped From Devil's Island.

The four of them are only the most representative figures of the bachelor pad music scene, with many other reissued artists (to use the term loosely) showing what happened when tasteless but competent musicians were allowed access to orchestras and synthesizers. They and their kind have been pursued in print by Re/Search Publications, a press dedicated to extremism, which has released two volumes of interviews with those who either collect or once recorded Incredibly Strange Music. On disc, Rhino Records long ago began carving a path for bachelor pad music by reissuing dreadful pop song interpretations by the likes of Mitch Miller ("Give Peace A Chance") and Mel Torme ("Sunshine Superman") on their Golden Throats series. Triple-CD sets from both Rhino and RCA Records are now out, entitled Cocktail Mix and Space Age Pop.

The reissues of bachelor pad music are comedy albums of a sort, making us laugh and cringe like we do when watching the shameless, straight-faced Vegas crooners who, amazingly, have no idea how bad they are. Like them, bachelor pad music is unintentionally corny when attempting to be hip, or terribly serious in presenting cutting-edge electronic sounds that these days more resemble a circus calliope. But it's a toss-up deciding which is the more laughable half of this music, the tasteless players or the too-cool bachelors. Either way, no other kind of music could more accurately be called terribly interesting. TW

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