Youtube is a fascinating and sprawling nebula of distractions. Some bright cascades of beauty, color, and light. Some twinkling distant echoes of long dead stars. Some abysmal asteroid belts of floating crap. Billions and billions… of cats. Then there are black holes. Endless gravity tunnels that pull you in and steal hours, whole evenings of your life away. I fell into one lately. Sci-Fi Lounge Music.
Let me back track a little bit before we get into this. When I’m writing, storyboarding, or even just reading, I focus much better with background noise, which is not that uncommon, but even then, it’s kind of tricky. I can’t do music with lyrics, pop stuff is out. Even my own iTunes is too distracting, having the ability to scroll through my options whenever I don’t like the current track could waste, for me, hours at a time. That’s where youtube comes in. Among other things, Youtube is an amazing place to listen to music you didn’t pay for. And I’ve discovered hours of instrumental music, soundtracks, scores to movies that don’t exist (we’ll get into that in some future post), and ten hour blocks of thunderstorms. This is how, sometime last year, I fell backwards into Ritual of the Savage.
It was a suggested video, I don’t know why. I didn’t know what the hell it was, but Les Baxter was a familiar name, and I defy anyone not to love that gorgeously painted cover. It was exceedingly easy to tune out and work to, and that was the stumbling block over which I fell into the youtube hole of 50’s Exotica lounge music. I listened to the album several times, until youtube, with it’s eerie eye for patterns and viewing history, started suggesting more. And it turns out, there’s a bunch of it. Jewels of the Sea, Tamboo!, Ports of Pleasure, The Sacred idol, Tropicando, The Soul of the Drums, Jungle Jazz, Voodoo Dreams, and more, and those are just the Les Baxter ones. Baxter was an American composer who was active most notably in the 50’s and 60’s, and is known primarily for being credited with developing this niche of exotica music, and having that claim to fame bitterly disputed by Nelson-the Batman theme song– Riddle. That’s right, American Treasure Nelson Riddle thought Les Baxter could eat shit. Exotica was a term coined by Martin Denny to describe this particular brand of easy listening, which in his words reflects “musical impressions” of the South Pacific and Asia. The music did not actually emulate native instrumentation or composition, but rather the safe, colorful, Disney-like impressions of exotic lands that appealed to white suburban Americans in the Eisenhower era.
This research helped me put a name to what I couldn’t place, it’s easy listening. I’m not rocking out to these albums. I feel compelled to allay you from any misconception that I’m some guy in a short sleeve button-down with a soul patch and a lot of Tiki shit and Coop paintings around my house, I don’t have anything beyond a healthy appreciation for The Iron Giant. But these albums provide a comfortable static to the auditory backdrop of my apartment while I write and work specificly because they don’t demand a lot of attention. They remind me a lot of the big band and organ records my PopPop used to play when I was young. Music which was not unpleasant to me, but that I had to learn to tune out so I could do my homework. They sound to me, like someone left the TV on in the other room and the original Star Trek is playing (something PopPop also did) but without dialogue. And that brings me to the topic at hand.
At some point Les Baxter must have gotten bored with jungle themes and written this soundtrack to some Martian key party. Space Escapades was Baxter’s attempt to infuse sci-fi themes into his travelog lounge albums, making him truly the Pat Boone to Sun Ra’s Little Richard.
Space Escapades does not begin compare to this sinister genius to me, nor is it the best example of the sci-fi lounge concept albums I’m attempting to shed light on, but it lead me to all of the following.
And it barely qualifies, but I’d still group it here, this:
For about a three week period, I could not. Stop. Listening to this. I still put them on, at least once a week I will throw one on while I clean up the place or revise something I’m writing. They give me some background noise, they’re not needy for attention or have abrupt volume shifts like film scores, and they remind me, bittersweetly, of my PopPop. But mostly, I’m fascinated by the fact that there exists this sub-genre within a sub-genre. For several years across two decades, people were recording Sci-Fi lounge records. Something about it makes me smile. And I’m sure somewhere out there there is a whole community of people baffled by the fact that I didn’t know this, and that’s beautiful too. The Nimoy album in particular warms my heart, it’s an audio comfort food, with a badass version of the Mission Impossible theme on it.
But now I know there are albums and albums of what I can only describe as Johnny Quest music, and now, so do you. You don’t have to like it, I’m not trying to sell it to you. But you have to appreciate the odd, beautiful fact that this exists. That a handful of composers of the day sat down and wrote albums for boring people to put on at neighborhood mixers and evoke exotic locals beyond the vast gulf of space, where jet setting drunks can hit on green women in Jetsons-like spires, is something to be appreciated.