|Bob Thompson Music|
By Jonathan Ward
(This article originally appeared in Perfect Sound Forever, in March, 2002.)
In 1963, the Xerox Corporation was the Cinderella story of the business world. When they introduced their weighty 914 copier in 1959, they had the ability to produce only 5 models a day, and costs were in the tens of thousands. Few thought that a bulky slab of metal like the 914 would perform well at all, much less revolutionize the copy business. Lucky for Xerox, the critics were wrong. In fact, they were way off. The 914 became known as the most successful product in history, doubling and tripling Xerox's sales figures over the next several years. In 1961, Xerox sales had reached 61 million. In 1962, they hit 104 million - far more than company president J.C. Wilson could ever have imagined. In 1963, Xerox was poised to introduce their first desktop copier - the 813. Since Wilson had flown his entire inner-circle of managers and salesmen to London the previous year to celebrate the 100 million mark, he wanted to try something different this year. Something rewarding, something that Xerox employees would remember forever.
What would he do? Well, Xerox quickly hired the Jam Handy Organization, a pioneer in the industrial film business. Jam Handy in turn hired Wilson Stone, an experienced film and Broadway composer. A cast and crew were hired, and voila! Xerox introduced Take It From Here, a musical about the company that was performed for their leading salesmen and executives at a banquet for two nights only, and then pressed in miniscule amounts as a souvenir record strictly for the attendees. The songs were big, brassy upbeat numbers following the adventures of Charlie, a good-natured rookie salesman for the company who learns why Xerox holds the key to a wonderful future. On the back cover was a note from J.C. Wilson himself. It began:
To Xerox People:
This album has been prepared so that we will never forget a happy occasion of great significance to Xerox - the introduction of the 813.
Yes, Xerox made a musical about their company, something that in fact had been done many times before, by all types of corporations, though few would know it today. These records had absurdly limited private pressings, and they were given to employees only, never for public consumption. This elusive and almost completely unknown genre, known as the "industrial musical" or "industrial show", is one of the strangest and complicated types of music that has existed. It's not advertising music, nor is it quite Broadway. It's propaganda, yet it's also fun. It puts the listener in an odd place, as you are privy to the intimate dreams and the visions not of say, Tony and Maria, the doomed teen hero and heroine of West Side Story - but of U.S. Steel, or General Electric, or Maremont Mufflers. Yet it's with the same fervor that these lost records resonate. The coiled feelings of hope, industry and greed, coupled with a happy Broadway bounce and a joyous corporate cheerleading squad, singing anthem after anthem to boost the coming prosperity.
A Dream of Destiny
The industrial show had its humble beginnings during the post-WWII boom. Two types of industries began experimenting with the idea: the retail industry and the automobile industry. As far as show collectors know, a department store was the first to jump into the fray - Marshall Field's with Give the Lady What She Wants, a show celebrating the store's history and anniversary, produced in conjunction with a published book of the same name (pictured). Even this early, Marshall Field's started the trend of nabbing top talent to produce these gems - in this case a man named Lloyd Norlin, who would go on to pen shows for Ford, Pepsi and Hamm's Beer.
And to elaborate on the scarcity of these items, only one single copy of this record seems to be in existence. Fancy, big-budgeted, yearly auto shows had been around for many years prior, and with the long-play record coming into vogue in the early '50's, the opportunity to use recording technology for purposes that were longer than a 3-minute song must have been tempting for the major players. By listening and tracking the automobile industrial shows (released largely to promote new models) produced throughout the fifties, you can see how both corporations and composers gradually worked together to not only, say, explain some delightful new features in next year's line of Oldsmobiles, but to get their troops in a selling mood. This would become a common trope in nearly all future shows. Take, for example, this song from the 1957 Ford Car Introductory Show:
Wait 'til you see how low it is -
Or, a more earthy version for the 1959 Ford tractor show, written by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, who in a few short years would go on to write Fiddler On the Roof:
Gonna be a golden harvest in 1959!
Gonna have a lot more buyers in 1959!
With the new Ford tractors the future's lookin' fine -
Now's the time to roll your sleeves up, 'cause if you rise and shine
Gonna be a golden harvest in 1959!
- "Golden Harvest", from Music to Ford-I-Fy Your Future, 1959
By the late-fifties, these deliriously happy anthems began having a positive effect on the country's workforces - at least for the night or two that they lasted. Large companies like Chevrolet wouldn't blink an eye to literally spend millions on a gala event like an introductory show. As with Ford's '59 tractor show, budding composers would often jump at the chance of composing an industrial as the pay was outrageously good. So would budding talent. For instance, Florence Henderson starred in an Oldsmobile industrial show almost every single year in the fifties - and many of these shows were hosted at a Broadway theater. The pressing of an album to commemorate the event was relatively cheap compared to the costs of throwing the gala - perhaps the companies innately understood that the souvenir record would in many cases sit on the shelf only to be discarded at the thrift store or the dump years later, that indeed the uplifting feelings would be ephemeral, that the record would remain a "souvenir". It was the spirit of the moment that brought the workers together.
"Ideally, people would leave the show still singing the songs, reinforcing the messages the company wanted them to hear," says Steve Young, a New York City writer for the Late Show and proud owner of the largest collection of industrials in the world. "Some of the songs were more serious anthems, painting a stirring picture of why working for the company was a noble, almost sacred calling. Yes, when you work for Coke, you're doing well for yourself, but you're doing something great for America and all mankind. I've heard that this sort of song, powerfully orchestrated and performed, could bring middle-aged company men to tears." On the back cover of Ford's '64 Tractor show The New Wide World of Ford there's a quote from an attendee that says it all:
"Today was the most beautiful day of my life!"
A few men of vision saw the need
Unyielding corporate loyalty wasn't the only musical mainstay that came out of the fifties industrial shows. By the late-fifties, industrial shows had moved slightly beyond the auto and retail industries and had spread to other areas of American production. Standard Oil released The Big Change in 1957 and Westinghouse Appliances released a brilliant record called the shape of tomorrow: a musical introduction to 1958 Westinghouse Appliances. This record, slathered with gusto, represents the beginning of what makes some industrials truly transcend the genre into special listening: the unabashed commitment to cram every single detail about a seemingly random piece of equipment, fixture or appliance into a three-minute song - and do it with reasonable panache, spirit and honesty. This was sinister and joyous, it dares a listener today to take it seriously.
The new cold-injector sends a jet-stream of air -
To bring colder temperatures to all the foods there!
The cheese server, butter server, meat-keeper too -
Makes sure your food stays fresh, and stays in view -
And here on the front is a magnetic door!
But don't run away 'cause there's plenty more -
This is the shape of tomorrow, that we've got right here for you today!
- "Tomorrow - Today", The Shape of Tomorrow, Westinghouse, 1958
Far from sounding like a commercial, it's meant to educate the listener, which in this case would be a salesman. It's meant to excite him, to motivate him with facts and figures that he in turn can dole out to easily persuaded housewives and cowed husbands who don't yet realize that they need a cheese-server. The customer is lovingly seen as a wallet with a mouth that the members of the mammoth conglomerate need to pay attention to - against the well-arranged punches of a hip brass section. the shape of tomorrow is meant to bring the excitement back into owning ranges, or an icebox. It fueled the excitement of consumption in general. Indeed, the motivational forces and the instructional forces, coupled with the best talent in musical theater would lead the industrial musical into its most fruitful twenty years.
The Look of The Leader
While the 1950's were considered glory years in Broadway history, it wasn't until Broadway's success and industry success met head-on in the 1960's that industrial shows began their own peculiar vanguard. While Hello Dolly, Mame and Hair were playing to audience throngs, Singer Sewing Machines released Sing A Song of Sewing, Pepsi treated their staff to Pepsi Power, Phase 2 in 1960, Coca Cola began a string of shows that sounded like military drills, especially The Grip Of Leadership, in 1961:
Packaging and pricing - a pair of pliers?
Simple as ABC -
Pliers to get a grip on profit - profit for the business, yessiree!
Gonna squeeze the starch out of competition
With my great big pair of pliers -
Squeeze so hard he'll have nothing left
But his unrequited buyers!
- "Packaging and Pricing", The Grip of Leadership, Coca-Cola, 1961
IBM, J.C. Penney's, Dupont and GE all released multiple musicals during this period as did many smaller companies. Not all budgets were high, it just seemed like most medium to large-sized companies thought putting on an industrial show was a great idea. Some shows, like the two by GAF Floor Products, were just a piano and a few singers recorded in a hotel suite. For the larger corporations the budgets remained high, but the souvenir albums often had gatefold covers and programs. For instance, included in the Woolworth's 1965 show Mr. Woolworth Had A Notion was an 8-page booklet that listed cast biographies and the cost of each individual piece of clothing the cast was wearing - just in case you wanted to know the price of a "white mohair blend shell with a little girl collar and ruffled detail."
And the music got better. Perhaps it's because of the budgets, or perhaps it was just their tireless efforts, but some great songwriters worked in industrials during these years, gradually building a reputation as the industrial "Wrecking Crew" as it were. Michael Brown, a veteran of Broadway, had a knack with tricky wordplay in his numerous shows for Penny's, Dupont, Belk's, Holiday Magazine, Woolworth's and Singer, to name a few. Hank Beebe and Bill Heyer wrote a slew of wonderfully crafted shows with catchy compositions - Diesel Dazzle, for the Detroit Diesel Engine division of GM, The Seagram Distillers Distributors Meeting in '65, Going Great for Rambler in '64, and perhaps their crowning achievement, Got To Investigate Silicones, the 1973 show by G.E.'s Silicone Products division.
Lloyd Norlin continued to write through this period, Sonny Kippe wrote two wonderful shows for Monroe Calculator and one for Royal Typewriters. Skip Redwine's four shows for York Air Conditioners quite simply, rock. These composers succeeded because they took time with their medium, even though it was clear the main reason they were in this game was the money. Not all of the material is completely straight-faced, in fact, much of it is pretty funny, even with it's underlying themes of "doing what's best for the company." Steve Young has chronicled many of these composers invisible industrial work and says "The best composers weren't cynical about it. They took pride in doing their best work all the time. Once I got past the initial hilarity of the subject matter, I realized there was a lot of fine work being done."
In it for the money as well was Hal Linden, who appeared in the 1965 New York Herald Tribune musical The Saga of the Dingbat, as well as Diesel Dazzle, as did David Hartman. Hartman also joined Loretta Swit in Listerine's 1964 show The Name of the Game. Valerie Harper made an appearance in General Electric's Go Fly A Kite, their 1966 double-album industrial written by none other than songwriting team Kander and Ebb, who would later write Cabaret and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Even electronic music pioneer Raymond Scott got into the game by composing A Man Named Brown, a musical for the 100th anniversary of the Brown-Forman Distillers Corporation.
Topically, the shows were variations on a number of themes, which tend to be alternately amusing and thought-provoking. For instance, Hamm's beer wanted to educate their sales staff regarding all the potential beer drinkers coming of age in 1965:
Be nice to us!
J.C. Penney's added a warning to their sales education:
Don't buy too much but buy enough -
Pretty harsh. A theme in many songs was the idea of progress and change being the only way to succeed in the competitive market. Take this example from Colgate/Palmolive's Team on the Beam record from 1962:
Think big of things you'll do next year -
Progress will not stop, it's now, it's here -
Keep ahead and moving boxes, outsmart those other foxes -
Keep building up the profit, you'll be winning when you've got it -
Think Big, Mr. Colgate, Think Big!
- "Think Big Mr. Colgate", Team on the Beam, Colgate/Palmolive, 1962
Education again came in the form of product information for the salesmen, and as with the Westinghouse extravaganza of 1958, some of the most absurd song topics grew out of that need to inform. Part of the fun in listening to these songs in particular is hearing the singer grapple with the lyrics. In 1964, G.E. needed to turn over the cold, hard facts about their new line of furnaces and air conditioners, except this time they chose a calypso beat:
Here in Alaska - Cold days, used to be my blue days
Way up north - my God, I'm turnin' blue day -
How I yearn for Trinidad
But now, they're all heavenly BTU days -
Thanks to the great GE furnace line that has everything.
And that includes:
The better than ever K-Line, with it's cast-iron heat exchanger
With heating that warms you from head to toe -
And the fine LUB-line, now it is equipped with enlarged control box
And simply amazing newer and higher air flow!
- "Furnace Calypso", Pattern For Success, G.E, 1964
Along with the countless songs that told of big profits, or the songs welcoming everyone to this year's Big Show, there were a few songs that extolled an almost cultic devotion to a particular company, as if to suggest that the company could do no wrong and in fact would never lead the worker or the customer astray. A startling example of this was Westinghouse's Sixth Future Power Forum musical of 1969, Perspectives For the 70's. It's a musical primarily about the benefits of nuclear power. Knowing today that there hasn't really been any growth in the domestic nuclear power industry since the Three Mile Island disaster, the low-grade 5th Dimension vocals are almost uncomfortable:
Make the power flower!
Make the wattage bud!
Keep the power flowerin'
It's America's life blood!
You're the one we're counting on to take us all the way -
C'mon and sock it to our sockets with your energy bouquet!
We'll put violets in the vases and pretty roses in the parks
While your filling up the outlets with a trillion kilowatts!
We'll be romping in the daisies out there on the village green
Always secure, always pure, making the high, high-voltage scene!
- "Power Flower", Perspectives For the 70's, 1969
It's easy to spot the similarities between these songs and songs of patriotism in general. In industrial musicals the promises are always kept, and the ultimate freedom is seen as the freedom to spend. Concurrently, the Soviet Union was producing happy-go-lucky, pro-Communist film musicals as seen in the recent documentary East Side Story. Both the Soviet musicals and the industrial shows of the '60's are remarkably similar in tone, as if at times all of life is one big sing-along advertisement for one large company - your country.
Adding another dimension to a complicated subject is the role of women in industrial shows. For the most part, these shows were for men - the executives, salesmen and owners. Never mind that this masculine bunch thought the Broadway musical - a decidedly melodramatic format - was the way to proceed with entertaining their men. There were a few songs written from the overworked secretary's point of view, but the most interesting examples were written for the wife of the salesman in attendance. For instance, Clark Equipment's show This Is Clarkmanship includes a woman's lament called "My VIP":
I wait here with a big pot roast
Dreaming how dinner should be...
But he'll grab a sandwich late again
So I've a dried-out roast for company.
Yes, we're those things called salesman's wives -
We gave up living when we chose our lives
But one truth stands - it will always be -
We love those men, our VIP's.
- "My VIP - Tribute to Salesmen", This is Clarkmanship, Clark Equipment, 1970
Hank Beebe and Bill Heyer's song "One Man Operation" from Diesel Dazzle isn't quite as bleak, but it portrays a woman who suggests that she gave up part of her life to a faceless, industrious worker drone... yet now, thanks to hard work and Detroit Diesel, he's a human being again. In Beebe's and Heyer's hands, the results for some reason sound kind of sweet:
Now he has two mechanics, a parts and service man -
A girl to take the calls and keep the books -
He spends weekends giving the children all he can -
And telling me how young his wife looks!
There for the longest while, I never saw him smile -
Now, his smile's what he's famous for -
Because the one man in my life, is no one man operation,
He may take two-weeks vacation, maybe four
Because my one wonderful man is no one-man operation anymore!
- "One Man Operation", Diesel Dazzle, Detroit Diesel, 1966
Things really didn't improve much by 1979, when Exxon staged Put Yourself In Their Shoes for their gas station owners. The song "An Exxon Dealer's Wife" is a barrage of demands that the dutiful wife should be performing, should Mr. Gas Station owner need:
A dealer's wife is a woman through and through -
Yes, an Exxon wife is a woman through and through!
Helpin' out my baby, 'cause I love him, I do!
I can write up a thousand customer follow-up cards
While I'm cookin' up a lunch.
And I can give up a holiday to pump some gas
When it comes down to the crunch.
And I can cheer up Harry when he comes home
And his octane is mighty low.
And I can give him the premium attention he needs
That makes a man get up and go!
What I'm sayin' is this dealer's wife is a full service island!!!
- "An Exxon Dealer's Wife", Put Yourself In Their Shoes, 1979
Then again, few would suspect America's corporations to be on the cutting edge of equal rights. Although there was, once, a somewhat perverted try. One of the most notorious and sought-after industrial shows was released by American Standard (makers of bathroom fixtures, urinals, etc.) in 1969, called The Bathrooms Are Coming. The plot concerned the mythical goddess Femma, "the epitome of all women's attitudes, reflections and desires and the leader of all women's movements", who wants to start a "bathroom revolution." She and her group declare plumbing a "feminine business" and enlist other women to help fight bathroom oppression. The results of course were the new line of fixtures by American Standard: Economy Wall Surround, Ultra-Bath, Proximatics and Spectra 70!
By the late-'70's, it's easy to detect a decline in the quality of the souvenir records. Fewer gatefold covers, fewer photos of the audience enjoying the stage show - this was just a preamble for the decline and fall of the industrial musical on record.
Finale & Exit Music
By the time the now defunct Money Magazine privately released their 10th anniversary musical One For the Money in 1981, it was pretty easy to see where things were going. The money was obviously gone. The cover was plain white with some lettering, the music was annoying if not completely forgettable and with a heavy emphasis on cheap synths. Compared to the monster shows of years past, it was lackluster. You can detect the same sort of sound in other shows of the 80's, such as the 1986 Pepsi Advertising Premiere and the 1986 Volvo show, I Am Rolling. The casts still sound like they're still trying to bring down the house, except the house left for Silicon Valley. In fact, 1986 may have been the last big year for industrials, though Steve Young has noted some cassettes of post-1986 shows. The industry trend of pressing a souvenir record, tape or CD even of a music-related corporate event seems to have vanished by 1990.
Of course, big corporate events and conventions still exist (many with song and dance numbers still!), but a number of factors contributed to the industrial musical's demise. There were technological reasons: the advent of home video allowed companies to produce cheaper corporate videos for similar effect, and today a multimedia or Powerpoint presentation would be even more common. Actor's equity fees rose, making the throwing of a big show and pressing a record more of a hassle for a company today than thirty years ago. Also, listening to or watching a Broadway musical was more of a unifying experience during the shows' heyday. It would be hard to imagine the staff of Iomega or Herbalife really relating to the messages contained in an industrial show.
In fact, as much as companies would like, people just don't have the kind of corporate loyalty they had thirty or forty years ago. To think a person will finish their working career with one company is ridiculous, although that was precisely the kind of feeling you were meant to have in 1963 after you saw the Xerox show. What ends up becoming clear is that all the corporate messages contained in the shows are, in hindsight, lies - propaganda to get you to work harder. Workers know now that companies don't last forever and they know that at a moment's notice they could be laid off with little warning. Ultimately, what would a recently laid-off worker from Ford think about when listening to the 1957 Ford Car show? Hell, what would Alaskans feel after listening to Exxon's Spirit of '76 musical? And anyone remotely familiar with the 1984 incident in Bhopal, India would feel chills listening to Union Carbide's patriotic show Direction '76. Strangely, all of these complexities seem to make the genre more interesting. That and the terrific music. It's very odd, this mix of artistic ideas and cold, business pragmatism.
Corporations have never written about it. It has never been studied. In fact, it was never meant to be listened to by the general public. Only a small handful of shows are mentioned in soundtrack guides. Several years ago, an import CD called Product Music was released though that's very difficult to find. It's only been through the dogged perseverance of show collectors, especially Steve Young, who has almost single-handedly crafted the history of the genre through his collection, that there has been any recognition at all of this incredibly rich subject.
Of course, a big thanks to Steve Young for his time.
Note: Although not mentioned in the article, you can hear Bob Thompson and Alan Alch's Industrial Musical, That Agency Thing, for CBS Spot Agency Sales.
You wrote a book about the Cocteau Twins in French. What was the reaction over there?
Great! We may not have as many fans here in France as you would in Great Britain, but the Cocteau Twins are still fondly remembered, and the sales have been rather impressive (for this sort of book). Back in 2013, we launched it by having a Cocteau Fest in Paris, and it was great to meet long-time fans, coming for some of them from far away to celebrate their favorite band.
What is in the book?
The book follows the whole history of the band from its beginning in Grangemouth in 1979 to its end in 1997. I really wanted to have first-hand testimonies from people inside the band, so I was lucky enough to meet Robin Guthrie, who was very helpful. We spent two days together, and he really wanted to have the chance to put the story right once and for all. Simon Raymonde was not interested, and as you would guess, neither was Elizabeth Fraser. I also interviewed people who collaborated with the band, like Vaughan Oliver (4AD) and Lincoln Fong, who explained the process of creating those fabulous records. The last chapters focus on the language Elizabeth invented to write her lyrics, the 4AD label and Cocteau Twins’ lasting impact on the music scene, as well as cover art, music videos and the band’s rare television appearances. Solo careers are also explored. A crowdfunding project has been launched at Unbound to finance the translation and publication of the book in English.
Do you see a connection between the CT aesthetic and some previous music like Ravel or even Piaf?
Well, not really. I think that what those three individuals did was create a whole new language. At first, they were compared to Siouxie and the Banshees or Kate Bush, but those early influences soon led to an entirely new sound, and a unique way of singing for Liz. I can’t think of any other band that was as peculiar as the Cocteau Twins, even if they’ve had a lot of followers, some of them worthy of notice like The Sundays or Shelley an Orphan.
I love the title (Ethereal Punks) because it seems to carry both sides of a coin which makes their early-mid period interesting. Tell me about the title.
Actually, I’ve had some feedback from people who don’t like that title, so your remark is quite welcome! When we searched for a title with the French publisher, we tried to convey their punk origins and their “heavenly” essence at the same time. So that’s it!
What do you make of Liz's lyrics? I must ask even though I don't like the attempt to "decipher" them.
There is a whole chapter in my book about them. It’s very interesting to learn how she created those lyrics, even if we may never really know why (and that’s a good thing). A mystery is, as David Lynch would say, much more powerful if it remains a mystery.
Can you tell me about Will Heggie?
Well, I also asked for his participation, but it didn’t work out. I would have liked to know more about him. The reason for his departure from the band is also explained in the book.
I guess what surprised me the most was to find out about their creation process: Robin and Simon working up the instruments on their side, Elizabeth writing the lyrics on her side, and the meeting of all three to invent such beautiful music, it’s just amazing!
What was Simon Raymonde's contribution?
Simon’s input in the band was decisive. He helped shape the sound of CT, make it evolve and reach new heights. His bass playing and compositions were invaluable, not the least of it on stage.
What are your ten favorite songs?
Here’s the top 16 I made up after I finished my book:
Is it a challenge to write about their music because it seems to call up subjective experiences or seems to transcend words? How would you describe the music if you had to? Use French if need be.
Well, yes, it is a challenge to write about any kind of music. I hope that through my listening experience, although personal, I found the right words to describe a fraction of the reactions their music triggers in people.
Do you consider CT to be a genre?
I don't see them as fitting in dreampop, shoegaze whatever. Those terms have been invented by journalists to help them describe a certain kind of music (the difficulty pointed at [your earlier question]. But as I’ve said earlier, CT are a league of their own. You can’t lock their music up in one genre. Pop? Rock? Maybe. But certainly not shoegaze!! We’re pretty far from My Bloody Valentine here!
Describe your introduction to their music.
When I was in High School, I had a friend who worked for a radio station. He had a lot of CDs, and he use to make copies for me, on cassette tapes. That’s how I discovered Cocteau Twins. We also use to have a national radio show, with a presenter called Bernard Lenoir, and he very often played them, and great other English and American bands from that era (James, Dead Can Dance, XTC…).
Pitch the Baby makes the top 10 list
of both interviewee and interviewer!
What do you think about the Jeff Buckley connection?
It’s a very personal question, and I think Liz is the only person who can really talk about it. But the track that leaked, “All flowers in time”, is quite nice. One can only dream of a more elaborate collaboration.
Have you heard the Cocteau Twins cover band Domino, from Chile?
Yes I have. They’re pretty good!
Did anything surprise you about CT during the research?
I guess what surprised me the most was to find out about their creation process: Robin and Simon working up the instruments on their side, Elizabeth writing the lyrics on her side, and the meeting of all three to invent such beautiful music, it’s just amazing!
Have you seen them in concert live and what is that like?
Yes, I was lucky to see them live in Paris, at the Olympia. It must have been in 1996, just before the breakup. It was great to get closer to the magic and experience their music live.
Are there any misconceptions about CT's work?
Not really, apart from the lyrics issue.
Can you talk about Robin's musicality and his evolution?
Robin is a really gifted guitar player, and what is surprising, is that he is self-taught. When he plays and composes, it’s like some sort of instinct that gets over him, and something beautiful comes out of it. I followed closely what he did on his own after the band split, and there are some interesting albums. To be honest, I still prefer Cocteau Twins albums, and I think his way of playing guitar and Elizabeth’s voice are a match made in heaven.
What about perfectionism among Liz and Robin in the studio?
Well, all three are perfectionists. They also took a lot of drugs J I guess it helps sometimes…
Can you talk about their career playing live?
I haven’t seen them live enough to be a specialist. But if you watch online early videos of their performances, you’ll see the transformation. At first, they had a tape player on stage to complement the instruments that were missing. And after a while, they really became a proper band on stage, and Elizabeth had some great moments, for example in the concert you put on your blog. I agree with you, sometimes she even sang better live than on record. Maybe she felt more tension on stage, and that liberated her in a strange way. But that’s just a wild guess.
Why should people listen to their music?
One of the greatest soprano voices in history, isn’t that enough?! Anyone who likes beautiful melodies and just great songs can find a lot to revel in CT’s music.
Looking back this live Cocteau Twins concert, lovingly synched with the video by Cocteau Buff it these guys were the best thing going at the time. What other band cannot be covered, simulated, borrowed from, recreated in anything but tiny bits? How can you start a genre and end it at the same time? They did it. Looking back on it it is also not just the sound of the voice but how creative she is and how every syllable has a different "spin" on it. I think this concert from 1990 is probably the best example because it has songs from their three periods: beauty with ugly, beauty with tension, and beauty beauty, and "actual song" beauty beauty. These are my faves...
My Love Paramour: Perfect example to me of the dark and light coming together.
For that reason, she's up there with the true greats in my book like Edith Piaf and Ella Fitzgerald. (I am making myself cringe with the comparison.) The bedding Robin provided her was unbelievable pairing, sort of like Smiths, X, etc. It's too bland to call it a bedding, because he plays around with sound and dissonance so much and somehow she responds to it with great complexity and genius.
1990 Concert o' Cocteau
On this concert recording, she sounds better than the records. It seems like she matured somewhat in her artistry. It's not as careful or exact. And imagine such a shy person getting up there and singing like that! Not easy but she looks so at home with herself here. I used to play CT to my father and the only song he said play it again to was "Pink Orange Red" which to me is the stripped down essence of what they do. Very simple three chords then off to the races with Elizabeth. (She never seemed like a Liz to me.)
I did see them on this tour and what I didn't get from the records was her eccentricity. I guess this is why she was able to create a world of her own.
Some of the mid-period cocteau is my favorite. Although a musician friend of mine would say that something is "fucked up" about it. The whole doesn't quite work. I am loathe to try to explain it; but it is partially that these are not songs in the conventional sense, but structures That's an observation; for me, the mid-period stuff, pre-Blue Bell Knoll and post-Garlands, is my favorite.
Liz Fraser's "Lyrics"
I don't like people's attempts to decipher what Liz is singing. It's Glossolalia, primarily. A New York Times review of the 1990 concert says that if the Cocteau Twins had explicit lyrics, it would sound kind of crappy. I am one to agree. I do like that words somehow cut through every once and a while -- to quote Howard Devoto -- are "jerky visions of the Dream." The music that seems beyond words has lyrics that go beyond words. Even writing about CT feels dumb. One has to slap down words from various reviews of their music: transcendent, ethereal stately. I'll shove some cool YouTube comments in here that are more impressions than descriptions: seeing fairies (Yuk, that is too Tori Amos!) and so on. To try to write about Cocteau Twins is to cringe at oneself.
I like the Liz's phrase "Ooze out and away, onehow" which is the name of a song and as a YouTube comment points out, a line from My Love Paramour. The lack of lyrics also let the lyrics "change" for me and mean something different as life stages wax and wane.
I've pulled together some of the YouTube comments that give some attempt to describe what is going on...
"If it is true, that before you die your mind plays whole of your life, I will listen to this song before I go."
"The song you hear when you're dead."
"If CT isn't playing when you die you are in the wrong place!"
Robin Guthrie never met a Major 7th chord he didn't like, or triplets (6/8). He sees himself as more of a tinkerer or sound designer than an actual player, from what I gather. But the stacking of complex melodic lines, and playing around with dissonance without creating a sunny-side-up egg that ruptures, is impressive. If you look at Wale Tales's double lines, as amazingly recreated by Micha Newman...
Coming Down to Earth
Heaven or Las Vegas to me is their "last song" creatively (although there was one more album to follow) because the title somehow makes some sense and links the ethereal and the red-hot swamp that is Vegas. All flights must end, but hopefully, one can take flight again.
What ultimately is the value of something? Is it the price tag? Is it the fact that it is valuable to others? Or is value something the heart knows that cannot be quantify? And why do some folks put a value on some objects others would find valueless? And what exactly does money pay FOR?
These are the questions that come to mind when you sit down to read Hubert’s Freaks. The author is a writer and antiquated book dealer and his subject is a friend and fellow dealer, Bob (whom he calls an :American Palindrome:). Bob is a restless young man in the early 70s who actually “lived like Keroac” while others just talked the talk. He developed an early fascination with collecting records and then moved to books. Book dealing is an odd business, where knowlege of how much something is worth is a guarded secret. In a sense, the person that parts with an old book may be screwed if she does not do her homework. Collecting also provides what the author calls a “down the rabbit hole” experience or two for Bob.
As Bob matured into the manager of a antiquated book shop in Philadelphia, he began collecting African American ephemera. His interests let him to a find of materials from a Times Square institution from the 30s to 60s, Hubert’s. It was part museum, part freak show where an AfAm man, Charlie Lucas, and his wife, “Woogie,” ran and put on shows for the visitors. Then a down the rabbit hole moment, he discovers what appears to be Diane Arbus photos, original prints.
From here the book reads like a good thriller. How much can they be worth? Are they authentic? How does one value photographs? Will Bob overcome this feeling that he always sells for too low? Will bob overcome depression, divorce, and more?
I won’t ruin it but the piece also brings you to the word of outsiders that Diane Arbus took as her subject, and by association the outsider status of people like Bob.
The rabbit hole opens up further, Bob makes a strange outing to Florida to get more materials from Hubert’s, finds an Arbus subject wheeling himself round the block near the bookshop, and gets grifted by relatives of Hubert’s long-deceased manager.
The climax of the book links the low life outsider world with the snobby world of art museums, and Bob with his spirtual doppleganger from Hubert’s.
“I was born a poor black child.” So begins the Jerk, a movie about a very “white” person played by Steve Martin who goes on to some romantic and material success (for a while). What’s funny about this opening line is that it is obviously false ethnically, but culturally as well. The film cuts to Martin lamely trying to clap along with his singing family. (I'll leave alone whether or not the scene is racist.)
Whether culture and art, ethnicity and music, can be pulled apart is being debated. I will invent a statement and see if it has for me mitigating factors: White people should not play or in any way borrow from African-American-created music.
Martin discovers his rhythm when uber-square dance music from Lawrence Welk comes on the radio. His fingers start to snap and he marvels at his newly discovered potential. The other joke is the cliché that white people find salvation in music that is not their own. This was much like my father’s story, who was in a rural California town who was basically hit by jazz music like a tractor beam pulling the Enterprise onto a Vulcan planet. This was back in the Radio Days. That is why hearing that jazz is property and is by nature trespassed by a white presence is kind of heartbreaking.
Are their mitigating factors to white appropriation of African -American music, if any?
I understand the attitude of “hands off my body, my property, my art” as 100% valid. This is why I have conflicting feelings here. I am not comfortable with saying “art is entirely universal” and leaving it at that, although I hear an intentional universality coming out of Coltrane's horn on Love Supreme.
My father reported being the only white person at parties in the early 40s in a matter of fact way to me. This was part of the experience for my father, although the white taste for the "exoticism" of African-American culture has been ridiculed. From his frame of reference, it was freedom and the only way to get it.
Because of my experience with my dad, the appropriation issue is not just about art as a thing, but artists as people. Artists get a special pass from me, at least. Do artists, who many time seek refuge in the arts, have the same motivations as business people or enslavers? Are these intentions a mitigating factor? I feel so. The idea that white people’s intentions matter at all is rejected by some. In fact, the idea of good intentions is in itself is taken as offensive in its own right.
You could also make the musicological argument that appropriation is the currency of the creation of art. Jazz does have some white influences (although it’s a long history) on a song by song or sub-genre basis. I am not sure the Blues is a 100 percent African invention (musically) but it is an invention that is pretty much inseparable from what I understand as the African-American experience in Southern Delta. I am not sure what African music is so it's hard to know for me.
There is a difference between tending a garden and ripping out the flowers for your kitchen table.
And then there’s Bruce Willis, as his alter-ego "Bruno." Here he is in Little Richard / Louis Jordan mode!
I think there is a dichotomy between thievery and ignorance on one hand, and honor and respect on the other. Can appropriation be done well or badly, and is this a mitigating factor? I’d say yes. There is a 1 to 10 authenticity scale, and Bruce is holding up the 1 end of things quite well. Appropriation can be done technically badly or emotionally badly. There is a difference between tending a garden and ripping out the flowers for your kitchen table. Tom Waits I think succeeds in tending the garden. "Tom Waits" is sort of a persona (a mish-mash of awesome impulses and abilities) but I do think it is him. Or is gravel-voice "Tom Waits" another "Bruno"? I don't think so. Reverence and respect matter and I think mitigate appropriation. Does coming from the heart or "appearing to get it" matter? Or is turnabout fair play and white people have to "know their place" in the musical world.
Some jazz, but not all, created by African-American people that is so close to their collective story that a white person should not go near it. I hope I never hear Gwyneth Paltrow singing Strange Fruit. Can some African-American music be less separable from the African-American experience than others? I think the Afro-Jazz movement and Mingus suggests that to be the case. I think they are trying to create appropriation-proof music. As a white person am I in any position to judge what is the blackest music?
Another technical argument is that pure examples of any, especially white music, are hard to find. Many classical music composers were always stealing from “folk” music, which although not of a different ethnicity in all cases, was so in the sense of class. Gregorian Chants are white? Perhaps Nordic Folk Music is the safest bet?
The technical argument that “jazz is African-American music with European Harmonies” is true in a crude, a musicological point of view. As the son of a white jazz musician I’d like to have it both ways thank you very much.
If you want to argue that it takes a huge amount of devotion to craft and the presence of an extraordinary person at an instrument to make great art, you might point people to the documentary Seymour: An Introduction. A classical pianist, Seymour Bernstein was struck by agonizing stage fright. Despite rave reviews, he quit performing and began teaching. In the following decades, he taught his students how to build a bridge between technique and emotion, between the sacred and profane, between the marks on the paper and the sound from the keyboard, and between their breathing rhythm and how they touch the keys.
His realization that a career in music was destructive to his authenticity was the other prompt for his "withdrawal." An artist like Glen Gould, who crossed his legs to get attention, is an object of Seymour’s gentle disdain. He says that he hears the personality more than the music in Gould's playing.
What is lost in the grandeur of performance is gained in a deeper Eros between teacher and student. The most magical moments of Seymour: An Introduction show accomplished students having breakthroughs, as if they were finding "the music in the music" for the first time. In the confines of Seymour's tiny New York apartment, it is as if the "Music of the Spheres"--a term used by the ancients to express celestial harmony--is ringing out.
The "rehearsal versus performance" dynamic represents a parallel chasm. An old musician's joke goes like this: A big band comes off the stage having burned the hell out of the set. “That was great” someone says. The response, “You should have heard the rehearsal!”
Perhaps ironically, Hollywood star Ethan Hawke brought Seymour Bernstein to life on screen. A chance encounter with Seymour frees Hawke from his I'm-famous-yet-unfulfilled dilemma. The documentary crescendos when Hawke convinces Seymour to perform for his theater group. Is Hawke trying to "cure" Seymour of the stage fright that pulled him out of concert halls; or showing that one must be "seen in public" to be artistically complete? I forgive Hawke for his narcissism, because he earnestly tries to touch the Authentic in his art. Most of us can only try--in life as well as in art.
Unlike an actor projecting from a stage, Seymour's voice sounds like music. He puts just the right amount of touch on every syllable; and the phrases come out like a gentle stream of water. He is unaffected and carries a touch of the feminine, which led his father to remark, "I have two daughters and a musician." Seymour explains that the feminine side of music animates the art, recounting that Beethoven's peers cried when they heard his new voice in the Moonlight Sonata.
A Kindred Spirit in Jazz: Lennie Tristano
The Jazz piano player Lennie Tristano also (largely) stopped performing around the same time as Seymour and shares his anti-careerist attitude.
Why did Lennie Tristano stop performing?
Although the music swings, there are all kinds of ideas and odd harmonies bubbling around his be-bop phrases (listen to "Wow," above). Tristano, despite the braininess of his compositions, emphasized the primacy of feeling again in his documentary Manhattan Studio. That complexity and craft serve feeling--and not the other way around--is an ardent belief for both musicians.
Sensing and participating in the artists’ state of mind is part of the pleasure of music. To aspire to the Music of the Spheres, an extraordinary being must be present. Seymour is such a being.
Original albums released by RCA Records, 1958-1959
Bachelor Pad Music (also known as Space Age Pop or Space Age Bachelor Pad Music) is a multi-faceted collection of genres that represents, to quote the Music For a Bachelor’s Den (1995) compilation’s liner notes, “the type of easy listening music bachelors listened to, and entertained with, during the golden age of hi-fi and the dawn of stereo.” This umbrella title includes some of the most sensual as well as the and exciting and progressive music of the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Bachelor Pad Music often positions itself in those magical moments of initial interaction between the genders, and in an atmosphere of down-to-earth sophistication that has plenty of room for imagination and, most importantly, fun. This is the place where Bob Thompson’s classic albums Just For Kicks (1958), Mmm, Nice! (1959), and On the Rocks (1959) take us.
With its subtle balance of sophisticated party music (think Henry Mancini), bouncy hi-fi stereo tester music (think Enoch Light), and Vintage television and movie music (think the Bewitched theme), with a dash of Exotica thrown in (think Martin Denny and Les Baxter), Just for Kicks, Mmm, Nice!, and On the Rocks work as some of the better examples of a “ground zero” Bachelor Pad Music sound and therefore are a good place to start exploring Bachelor Pad Music.
W-NEW Theme in the Style of Bob Thompson
About Bob Thompson
Bob Thompson is a Hollywood composer who was in demand in the 1950’s and 1960’s for his abilities as a TV and commercial music producer. Born in San Jose, California in 1924, Thompson discovered an old piano when he was a child and started trying to play it. This blossomed into his taking music lessons, which he continued to do through high school.
In his college years at the University of California at Berkeley, Thompson became a fan of the radio. He interned at a radio station in San Francisco upon his graduation, and eventually was promoted to being a composer and arranger for the station’s on-staff band. He then went through a “wilderness period” working in Paris, going on the road, and finally settling in Los Angeles, initially working on demo tracks for songs that were pitched to major labels. The independent startup label Zephyr Records released two Bob Thompson 45’s, which then led to a record deal from RCA, who signed Thompson for a five-record deal.
RCA intended Thompson to be their in-house competitor to Columbia’s Ray Conniff. Although Thompson did not care for Conniff’s music, he rose to meet the opportunity with what RCA liner notes aptly call “a jazz-influenced choral-orchestral sound he could justifiably call his own.”
About the Bob Thompson Sound
From the liner notes of an RCA release, "Bob Thompson had a firm belief that the unexpected is exciting. If music is going to be fun—he reasoned—it ought to have surprises.” Thompson accomplishes this on these albums with an impeccable sense of balance and an over-the-top sense of fun that embodies the vibrant excitement that we tend to think of when the 1950’s comes to mind.
From Bob Thompson's Just for Kicks (1958), here's
the rollicking, bursting with joy,
and fun "On the Street Where You Live"
When we in the 21st century think of an “orchestra”, we usually think of a classical symphony orchestra. Likewise, when we think of a “chorus”, we tend to think of something along the lines of The Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Because of this, the artist name of “Bob Thompson, His Orchestra and Chorus” unfortunately paints a misleading picture for modern day listeners. Thompson's “orchestra” is more like an extremely lively big band—so largely devoid of strings but heavy on the brass instruments. His "orchestra" is further augmented with flutes, vibraphone, and percussion, and holds down a solid rhythm section consisting of string bass and drums. (Some of the drum work on these albums comes courtesy of the great jazz drummer Shelley Manne.)
The voices that make up the “chorus” sound like the down-to-earth vocals from 1950’s TV commercials, with purring and cooing from the gals added for spice and extra lady presence. The voices work partially as instrumental textures, and partially to ghost the lyrics of the songs that they are interpreting. Because current audiences already knew many the popular songs on these albums (e.g. “Makin’ Whoopee”, “Do It Again”, and “There’s a Small Hotel”), all the vocalists needed to do was provide points of melody so the listener’s mind could connect the dots. The chorus vocals usually start out sparingly, and then fill in the blanks more as the arrangement develops, until they eventually become the backing vocalists for a lead melody that is actually playing in the listener’s mind.
Thompson also managed to negotiate the use of some of his own compositions for the albums. The Thompson originals are even more minimalist lyrically, and tend to evoke the sense that a curvy, flirtatious woman or two are on the premises. This trend of a few Thompson originals on the album, with one of them serving as the title track, would hold for the duration of the series.
RCA seemed to think that they had a hit on their hands with Mmm, Nice! and did a large pressing of the album to meet the expected demand, only for the album to fail expectations and end up becoming a bargain bin filler. A disappointed RCA decided to scale back the budget for the third album, On The Rocks, by having Thompson and Co. record it in-house at RCA Victor Studios, also in Hollywood, in October and November of 1959.
Although On the Rocks sounds like it’s lost a little of the wind in its sails, it still continues the joyous, bouncy sound of the first two albums. The album feels a little more reminiscent of the radio and TV advertisements of the time than does the first two (likely due in part to the sound quality), and has more of a tendency to play it safe and stay close to the previously-established formula. Regardless, On the Rocks grows on the listener when allowed to speak on its own terms and apart from the albums that preceded it. “Happy Talk,” “Breezin’ Along With the Breeze”, and “Just You, Just Me” are examples of songs that are a load of fun and grab the listener with repeated listens.
Bob Thompson’s albums started to be rediscovered in the 1980’s, and were then critically reassessed in the 1990’s when Bachelor Pad Music had a full-on revival of interest. Thompson’s son Spenser Thompson launched a Bob Thompson website in the late 1990’s that has been an Internet staple for those researching Bachelor Pad Music; it is filled in many otherwise unavailable details on Thompson’s life story and the music he created. Thompson’s son’s devotion to retelling his father's story, plus the accidental abundance of LP copies of Mmm, Nice! left over from its initial overpressing, are two happy accidents that have made Thompson one of the better-remembered Bachelor Pad Music artists in a genre that he contributed to relatively sparingly.
Ah to be as erudite, witty, and smart (but not as insane) as Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr.! In an intellectual "Thrilla in Manilla", the verbal virtuosos of the left and right wings faced off during the Democratic & Republican Conventions of 1968. As much as things have changed, they duke it out over the same things we do now: foreign wars, empire, race, police brutality, sexual freedom, and economic equality.
There is "blood" in the ABC studio, although not the "real" kind on the streets where protesters waved the North Korean flag and were beaten by cops. The potential for a revolution in the US seemed to be a point of agreement, and Buckley was desperate to stop it and Vidal seemed willing to witness it with a knowing smirk.
Vidal calls Buckley a "crypto-Nazi". Buckley, like a blonde Great White Shark, snarls in response: "Now listen, you queeeeeeeer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I'll sock you in your goddamn face and you'll stay plastered." The reserved aristocrat had become an animal, exhibiting savagery with eloquence (save the gay slur). By not escalating the fight, a la Ali'sRope-a-Dope, Vital let his opponent punch himself out...to the horror of many in the audience and it turns out Buckley himself.
The pair had eerie similarities as pointed out in the excellent documentary Best of Enemies (2015). Both had were high-born (more so in the case of Vidal), hyper-eloquent, understood of the emerging power of TV as a medium, and a failed to gain elected office. The documentary plays out as a mutual tragedy where each falls victim to his own shadow (to borrow the Jungian term) and remain entwined in an sadomasochistic, psychosexual embrace. It is if the bile of each is destroying them and they cannot let go of each other, as evidenced by angry essays about each other and Buckley's slander lawsuit that dragged on for years.
If debate and politics are simply an alternative to war, so be it. In the "sock you in your goddam face" moment we see the violence behind words.
[The stories here come from the Rosemary Clooney autobiography with my memories thrown in where indicated. -ST]
For Rosemary Clooney, the words of a song were the bridge to the audience and just as important as the music. In her autobiography, Girl Singer, she says: "I only knew one way to sing a song. The words had to mean something and you had to be sure you knew what they meant before you started to sing." This attitude helped her connect with audiences and contributed to her becoming one of the most famous people on the planet in the 50s and 60s, as big as her nephew George is now. She was presented as the Girl Next Door by the record companies and she knew who she was musically. Rosie calls herself "a sweet singer with a big band sensibility.“
Bob Thompson was one of Rosemary Clooney's arrangers and touring bandleader in the 1960s. His big band background, light touch, and inventiveness with a pop orchestra made them a musical match--as you can hear an RCA album they recorded together called Clap Hands! Here Comes Rosie.
Rosie preferred Sinatra to the country music she had heard in her small Kentucky hometown, "[admiring] his beautiful, clear diction: He dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s in every word.“ That’s what I hear in the way she splashes in to the word "fresh" in my favorite Bob and Rosie number: "Aren’t You Glad You’re You."
Every time you're near a rose
aren't you glad you've got a nose?
And if the dawn is fresh with dew,
aren't you glad you're you!“
The song is a bubbly, but not silly, and crisp as a spring morning. The flutes flap along like butterflies.
Ella Fitzgerald was the master of breaking up a song into a hundreds of syllables where each note seemed to have its own identity. She was another influence on Rosie, although once her uncle (and manager) danced by the stage and shouted "Go Ella!“. Rosie said she never tried to imitate anyone again after that moment. Of Ella she said, "...that sound flowed out with no effort at all. If I had never believed in God before, I believed when I listened to her sing.“
The Push to Pop
A song Rosie didn’t want to sing – "Come On-a My House" - was her breakthrough song. Rosie considers her signature song to be "Tenderly" (neither recorded with Bob). She was pushed in to "Come on-a...:" by her manager even though she had resisted it as a "novelty" song with a corny accent written into the lyrics! You can also here the push to pop in the title track of the Bob-arranged Clap Hands! Here comes Rosie! It was most likely a flop and features Bob’s game attempt at using – you guessed it – clapping hands in the background. This try-hard number reminds me of Frank Sinatra’s attempt at the title track of Nice and Easy, which is a brilliant LP the rest of the way. "You Go to My Head" from that record is on heavy rotation at my house. In the mid to late 60s many jazz and pop musicians started to cover Beatles songs, contributing to a glut of "Yesterdays."
The Love and Art of Music Arranging
Three of the best pop arrangers in the world were working for RCA in the early 60s: Bob, Billy Mae, and Nelson Riddle. (Bob told me that he and Rosie accompanied Billy Mae on a date, where she was obliged to play the role of the beard.)
Rosie admitted in her autobiography that she developed crushes on many of her bandleaders. My mom used to roll her eyes and say: "Of course she liked him! She’d write notes to him that said, 'Bobbie darling'". Rosie had a prosperous love life even though she was marketed as the 1950s Girl Next Store. Although there were no sparks between Rosie and Bob, she and master arranger Nelson Riddle had a love affair. When they recorded Love together, tears came down Rosie’s face as sang a song while watching Nelson from across the room. The songwriter (not Bob) was disappointed to hear it was not his song that moved her!
We also treasure a note from Rosie that says "Bobby Dear you are one hell of an arranger“ and in the book she calls Bob "a top notch musician who studied music theory.“ Rosie is what my dad would call a "real musician who knew how to swing" and was never - in my dad’s most damning phrase - "a showboat.“
The title Girl Singer takes its name from a pejorative term for big band ladies that were treated as window dressing. That wasn't Rosie. Seeing her voice as part of larger musical presentation, Rosie as a girl she would sing a capella in the house and pause for a number of bars when the orchestra "played."
About Bob she said:
"[Bob] has no illusions about the chaos arrangers have to run into order. [He said] you sit down and make parts for every player who is sitting there and hopefully out of that mess will come something pleasing."
If you knew Bob the tendency to describe everything in negative terms is evident in that quote!
"A good arranger reads the words and knows exactly what the song should convey. He knows which words the orchestration should support and what mood it should create.“
You can hear that sensibility in the solo cello that mournfully announces the song "Black Coffee," on the second-and-last Bob/Rosie collaboration, Thanks for Nothing.
Bob's arrangement of Black Coffee
When Love was re-released on CD decades later, RCA included "Black Coffee." Unfortunately, that is the only cut from Thanks for Nothing that made the cut; both Rosie and Michael Feinstein say that LP is not her best work. She always had sounded light, not lugubrious, and the stone-faced cover just doesn't seem like her. Her husband’s infidelity and the end of the Riddle affair had gotten to her. Denial and downers were the easy answer. Once pointed out, I can hear the drugs in this album but "Black Coffee" really does sound great.
Bob’s single inclusion in the reissue of Love – side-by-side with Nelson's arrangements – captures what I call the "almost“ nature of Bob’s career and its redemption at the same time. It’s clear from her book that Rosie’s favorite arranger was Nelson. Although he writes wondrous musical tapestries, I feel he‘s too extravagant and lugubrious at times. But I am the ultimate interested party!
Ups and Downs
Bob and Rosie's LPs were recorded after her initial rise to fame. Sales were declining sales as the Rock era began. Bob saw Elvis in the halls of a recording studio and described them as "hudlums." In Rosie's book Bob describes Rock as "the end of music as we know it." At the same time – the early 60s – Bob’s solo orchestral albums more or less flopped and "they couldn't figure out what to do with me."
Rosie sang every possible kind of song, children’s songs, a few novelties (like "Come on-a..."), standards, show tunes, and American Song Book. Bob was called in to orchestrate a record where she was paired with Bing Crosby in the unremarkable How the West was Won: a collection of western tunes. Bing was not Bob’s favorite artistically, and representative of a sensibility that Bob wanted to leave behind. Bob said he would sing anything for a buck and was not the warmest person. Rosie describes Bing turning and quietly facing the wall when too many people were in the recording studio. Sounds about right!
The Long Road
Bob and Rosie had similar roots as country folk, with origins in Shasta County and Kentucky respectively. Rosie began her in high school, singing at a local radio station with her sister. Radio stations back then were little media centers, with musicians, broadcasters, and radio shows. Bob did his first arrangements at a radio station in San Francisco‘s Marina district at the time, living in the basement of an apartment of one of the station managers.
It‘s a long way from the country to the Copa – one of the most elegant rooms in new York – and they both made the journey. They toured around the world; and my dad, the small town kid, was thrilled. I also believe they played for some of the Kennedys at a fundraiser. At home we had the program for the event covered in red wax drippings. Must have been a lot of drinking involved.
Rosie’s rise to celebrity was Sputnik-like: from singing on the local radio to to getting a call from the White House, throwing on a strapless Edith Head dress with a low neckline, and meeting JFK who asked how the dress stayed up. Pretty glamorous. She seems totally guileless and comfortable with meeting everybody from her friend Marlene Dietrich to Marlon Brando who walked in to a party cradling his pet raccoon. (Sounds about right, too.)
Bob spoke kindly of the man who convinced Rosie to record Come on-a My House, Jose Ferrer. He was just the kind of man that Bob got excited about – very highly educated, high energy, and man of the world. Jose told Rosie about the intellectual underpinnings of the song being Armenian folk songs that were accompanied by a plucked instrument which you can hear on the arrangement (not Bob’s). Bob had an intellectual voraciousness that came from his feeling of deprivation in his home town. I can imagine Bob almost wagging his tail with excitement, quizzing Jose about his acting and all that he knew.
Jose was rarely on the road with Rosie – contributing to their estrangement – but in one case they were in Ireland with Bob. A mutual friend told Jose and Rosie to keep their distance from Samuel Beckett because of the writer‘s "aversion to adulation“. Things didn’t go as planned according to a 1978 biography of Beckett:
"[Bob] however was so surprised to meet Beckett that he lavished praise on him and then fired questions about his writing. As always the question turned to the question of Beckett’s indebtedness to Joyce: Yes I did a great deal of work for Mr. Joyce...a man for whom I hold enormous respect.‘ Then as if he wanted to be sure that Thompson understood what he was saying, enunciating carefully Beckett replied at length to the question...“
I am sure he did. Bob pulled out some of his own stationary and had Beckett write "Wait for Godot“ rather than the title of his absurdist play Waiting for Godot. Well, he signed it insulted, puzzled, or not! With Bob were always waiting for his “Come on-a…”; we had a little statue of Sisyphus at the house.
The Greatest Generation
I was also pleased to read in Girl Singer about Bob trying to help Rosie at a time when her career was waning and she was broken up about a much-younger lover in her band. He also urged her to jump under the table when the shots rang out in the Ambassador hotel. Bob told me he told Rosie that the gunshots that killed RFK were a car backfiring. She pretty much lost it.
The word I would use to best describe Rosemary Clooney's singing is tasteful. I am grateful that Bob was there for and that he was mentioned in a book where he is not the star - a tasteful thing to do.
Irwin Chusid is a DJ on WFMU, author, producer, music historian, and landmark preservationist who has been a champion of the music of Bob Thompson for over 20 years. He has educated and delighted his audience on an array of artists - some outsiders, some one of-a-kind anomalies - that otherwise would have been lost to history or unappreciated.
How do you discover music that virtually no one has heard?
Looking in all the wrong places. I’m a connoisseur of marginalia. When I used to visit record stores (pre-internet), I rarely looked in the bins. I looked under the bins. And those stores were rarely in big cities. They were in outlying suburbs and rural areas. I hunted. Flea markets, thrift shops, tag sales. I’d thumb through the collections of friends. Any house I visited, I was distracted by the record shelves.
After I’d gained a reputation for discovering obscure treasures, unsolicited recommendations began arriving. That helped, but 90% of those submissions weren’t interesting, and of those which were interesting, few were monumental. The Langley Schools recordings were discovered on a mix CD sent from a fellow in Canada. He sent "Space Oddity," along with 19 tracks by other artists. I don't recall any of the other 19.
Has the way you discovered new music changed over the years?
The methodology has changed over the past 20 years because of the web, which requires a different sort of diligence. Competition is more fierce. If something odd is called to my attention, I can search the web for it. But something odd and rare can be snatched away on Ebay with a mouse click or an outbid. Rarities that would circulate slowly in pre-web days can instantly go viral thru Dangerous Minds, Boing Boing, the Free Music Archive, or dozens of sites which thrive on weird cultural archaeology.
Can you speak in general terms about rescuing music or art from obscurity? Can you describe the satisfaction?
The satisfaction derives from discovery and sharing. But that initial discovery has to generate some kind of excitement—a physical and emotional reaction. I’ve always approached radio (41 years on WFMU) the same way. "Hey—I found this, I loved it, maybe some of you listeners will too." At heart it’s a narcissistic, self-indulgent means of attention-getting — I’m an arrested adolescent, albeit with an adult sense of responsibility — which manifests itself through establishing a reputation for being a tastemaker on the margins.
However, I’ve never worked for a record label because I’m a terrible barometer of popular taste. No one can or should bank on my musical or artistic preferences. Half of the artists I champion and whose catalogs, works, and legacies I actively administer, don’t generate revenue. Those are labors of love. They pay the psychic rent. The ones who do help pay the bills (e.g., Sun Ra, Raymond Scott, Esquivel, Sam Rivers, Jim Flora, Wendy & Bonnie) began as labors of love. A fascinating discovery led to business opportunities. But that’s making a very long story short.
By whom was Space Age Pop re-discovered in your orbit?
Byron Werner, first and foremost. I was an early adopter, but Byron was way ahead of us. He got his buddy Matt Groening into Esquivel years before anyone knew about Esquivel (or about Matt Groening). Byron is an artist and a collector. He’s not in the music business, never has been. He also introduced me to the music of Raymond Scott, whose late 1930s Quintette recordings didn’t really fit into the SABPM genre, but at the time were strange and obscure enough to be included on Byron's cassette comps.
At first, I assumed the interest in my father's music was ironic and was pleased that it was not. Why do you think it was taken seriously?
Bob was a craftsman. He’s the perfect embodiment of what is now known as Space Age Pop. He composed, arranged, conducted, and created evocative moods. His recordings reflect then-state-of-the-art Hi-Fi. There was a playfulness about his arrangements, a sexiness, a smoothness, a sophistication. And like the best artists in any field, nothing was overdone. He exercised restraint with his orchestra, yet there was power in reserve. Bob knew how to shift dynamics, how to surprise and delight.
I’ve often thought of him as Esquivel without the Latin flavors. As I understand it, he even used many of the same L.A. musicians, in the same studios, and recorded for the same label (RCA Victor). And like Esquivel his albums were 80% arranged standards and 20% original compositions. (The Sound of Speed is an exception, since Bob composed and arranged, but did not conduct, and it wasn’t on RCA. But it’s unquestionably a Space Age Pop classic.)
What does Space Age Pop mean?
Space Age Pop refers to a sparkling strain of instrumental pop that came to prominence in the post World War II high fidelity era, starting in the mid-1950s, and which ran thru the late 1960s, by which time electronics (particularly the Moog) began seeping in. Some consider those electronica-spiced albums part of Space Age Pop. I never found them quite so captivating. This period roughly corresponds to the era of space exploration, which of course commenced before we actually propelled astronauts into space.
I coined the phrase Space Age Pop, but it was a shortening of Byron Werner’s phrase Space Age Bachelor Pad Music. Byron coined that in the early 1980s—possibly even in the late 1970s — when no one was taking this music seriously. He was a dogged collector and evangelist for Bob Thompson, Russ Garcia, Arthur Lyman, Esquivel, Les Baxter, Martin Denny, Henri Rene — all these forgotten '50s icons whose scuffed LPs could be scavenged for 25 cents a pop, if you looked UNDER the bins.
Can you describe the chain of events leading RCA to realize that reissues would be in their interest?
It wasn’t easy convincing them. I proposed reissuing Esquivel recordings in 1993, but RCA-BMG had no interest. However, they said if I could find an indie label that was interested in taking the gamble, they’d license out the material and handle manufacturing—as long as that indie agreed to pay for 5,000 copies, regardless of how many actually sold.
After I played a cassette of LP transfers for Bar/None, they loved it and decided to take the risk. By then there was a lot of buzz about Esquivel, and Bar/None had pre-orders for 5,000 CDs before the album was even released. That was followed by an avalanche of sales for the album, which I compiled and iconically titled Space Age Bachelor Pad Music.
After I compiled a sequel (Music from a Sparkling Planet) with Bar/None, BMG realized there was a market for this stuff, and they called me in to compile Cabaret Mañana and the Space Age Pop multi-artist compilation series. But then there were some departures in the exec suites, and the folks who loved Esquivel were replaced by guys who mostly thought what the public needed was more recycled Elvis. Since I’d sparked the Esquivel breakout, I was invited up to a meeting with a new exec, who wanted to hear my ideas for future releases from RCA’s vaults. I brought a list—The Three Suns were on it, more thematic Space Age Pop comps, I don’t recall what else. After explaining each proposed project and why it was worthy, there was silence in the room. The exec leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms, looked at me with intent, and said, "You know what I think would be great? 'The Best of Esquivel'." I left that meeting utterly defeated, and that was the end of my involvement.
I imagine there is a connection between your politically incorrect politics and politically incorrect music that you have brought to life?
I don’t care about the political aspects of any particular recording artist. If their music interests me, it doesn’t matter if it’s politically correct or incorrect. My leanings are libertarian, but that doesn’t affect how I listen to music. I’ve found fascinating outsider recordings that ridiculed Reagan, lauded Nixon, championed Carter, advocated one-world government, or were vehemently anti-Communist. Some were pro-military, others anti-war. Hippies and pious church-goers. Ideology doesn’t matter. It’s in the listening.
Were you interested in the business side of undiscovered gems early on?
No. I had no business background, and no college degree. I was just a collector, DJ, writer, historian, fan. I never had any idea what to do for a living until my mid-30s, and even then it didn’t occur to me that I could make a living out of my hobbies. That’s another story, and a complex one.
Spenser Thompson shares anecdotes, music, and videos from Bob Thompson's music career plus thoughts on artists from Duke to Devo.