|Bob Thompson Music|
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.