Elevator music's stock seems to be on the rise

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Los Angeles -- Weary of the angst and hand-wringing of alternative rock, a growing number of musical refuseniks have fueled a zany new reissue boom based on easy-listening "elevator music" of the '50s and '60s.

The faux-South Pacific instrumentals of Martin Denny, the loopy big-band genius known as Esquivel, and anything with a martini glass or woman in an evening gown on the cover is suddenly big business for stores that deal in collectible recordings. Albums that once were easily available for 50 cents in dusty thrift shops now change hands for $35 or more.

Meanwhile, low-key red-leather lounges and smoky Polynesian-inspired dives are enjoying a revival among young hipsters who make up Cocktail Nation and groove to new lounge sounds by the Friends of Dean Martin, Combustible Edison and the Wonderful World of Joey.

"All the qualities lacking in today's music are apparent in this stuff," said Jordan Reichek, 26, an animation director involved with TV's "Ren & Stimpy" and "The Baby Huey Show," whose North Hollywood home is practically a museum of kitsch culture.

"I appreciate the combination of imagination and skill in the music," he said. "The artists might be doing standards, but they were arranging them in new ways, using what were new recording techniques. They were applying pure experimentation and imagination, and people today are finding things they don't hear in current music."

The undisputed king of the exotica genre is Juan Garcia Esquivel, a Mexico City arranger-composer-producer known simply by his surname, who recorded a dozen revered albums of wild avant-garde pop between 1957 and 1968. Afterward, Esquivel moved on to a 12-year stint in Las Vegas showrooms.

The first of two new compilations of Esquivel's vintage Spike Jones-meets-Salvador Dali material -- in which he took standards such as "All of Me" and "Sentimental Journey" and remade them using female voices singing odd phrases such as "zu zu zu zu" and "boink boink" -- are currently left-field hits. Esquivel's "Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music" has sold almost 40,000 copies for the tiny Hoboken, N.J.-based Bar/None Records.

"Many people thought my music was crazy," Esquivel, 77, said from his home outside Mexico City, where he is recuperating from a hip injury. "They didn't understand. They said the use of syllables like 'zu zu zu zu' or 'pow' rather than the lyrics was all wrong. They objected so much to my doing that. Perhaps I was too ahead of my time, and the public wasn't ready for my music."

That may have been true 35 years ago, but today, music lovers fed up with grunge guitars and the musings of world-weary 20-year-olds have embraced Esquivel's way-out creations, some of which have also been compiled on a second anthology, "Music From a Sparkling Planet."

"The main appeal of this music is it's listenable, extremely musical -- and it provides great sonic wallpaper," said Woodland Hills resident Dave Provost, a musician who plays with the Ringling Sisters and Davie Allan & the Arrows. "It's a cleansing of the palate for people who hear alternative rock all day and for people who play loud rock music. It also sets a definite instant high-fidelity mood."

A mood is what Martin Denny was after with his 1959 hit "Quiet Village," composed by former Nat King Cole arranger Les Baxter, which featured bird calls, jungle sounds and tropical percussion. Mr. Denny was working a regular gig at Don the Beachcomber's on Waikiki Beach when he came up with the concept of exotic sounds that suggested foreign lands but never strayed too far from convention, while taking advantage of then-new stereophonic sound.

The "Exotica!" compilation on Rhino is the best introduction to Mr. Denny's world, which resembles music you might hear on Disneyland's Jungle Cruise.

"Some of these albums may have been designed as background music for tiki parties or backyard barbecues, but they're not novelty records," insisted Josh Eick, 27, a California easy-listening archaeologist. "Collectors who have been into it for some time tend to take the music seriously and respect the creativity, ingenuity and talent that went into it."

Mr. Eick predicted that any recording of the era that becomes recognized today eventually will be released on CD. To that end, RCA is issuing a three-disc box set called "History of Space Age Pop," which will include rare Three Suns and Esquivel material, while Rhino is planning a trio of "Cocktail Mix" discs for release early next year.

Not everyone, though, welcomes the rediscovery of music that was partly created to demonstrate '50s hi-fi sound.

"I have friends who think this music is repugnant and unlistenable and are almost insulted we take it as seriously as they take jazz and blues," said record collector and dealer Steve Alper, 32. "They see it as banal, disposable trash. But I view it as history."

Trash or history

Mr. Alper owns more than a small piece. The Californian's 2,500-strong collection of albums includes "personality singers" such as Alan Thicke, Tony Perkins and Ted Knight, as well as the notoriously awful Joey Bishop country album, plus sections for surf, hot rod, outer space, Mexican rock and roll and '70s "blaxploitation" film soundtracks.

"There may be one or two records a year by contemporary artists I like," said Mr. Alper. "Five years ago, record stores were throwing this stuff away. Today, it's displayed on the walls. The competition is somewhat fierce."

Most people who enjoy this suddenly fashionable music point to the acknowledged bible of exotic record collecting: Re/Search Publications' two-volume "Incredibly Strange Music," which sparked the boom two years ago.

"When those books came out, people realized they could build great weird record collections for very little money," said Otto von Stroheim, publisher of Tiki News, a small magazine devoted to faux-Polynesian culture. "Until recently, you could pick this stuff up for 50 cents and you could enjoy lots of music for 10 bucks, which is what you'd pay for one new album. Now, there's a lot of interest because people want some relief from all this loud Seattle grunge stuff. They're looking for an alternative to the alternative."

Mr. Von Stroheim became interested in traditional Hawaiian music seven years ago but eventually came across the artificial island stylings of Martin Denny.

"I realized it was much more interesting than anything else I'd heard up to that point," he said.

Sometimes, it's difficult for the uninitiated to tell if these '90s easy-listening fanatics are actually serious. As musician Provost tells it, his 25-year-old brother-in-law from Texas was in for a surprise when he came visiting.

The last frontier

"He knew I'd been in many alternative rock and punk bands, so he looked at my records expecting to find the Cramps, Green Day, Nirvana and others," Mr. Provost said. "When he saw these old albums by Martin Denny, Esquivel and Mae West, he was quite perplexed. He even asked me, 'Where are your real records?' He thought it was all a joke."

So, what's next for the forward-thinking musical archaeologist? Don't ask.

"Polka is the last frontier," Brian Rosser, a record store buyer-manager, said with a straight face. "I'm telling everyone to start combing the thrift shops right away."

'SPARKLING' SOUNDS

To hear selections from Esquivel's "Music From a Sparkling Planet," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6158 after you hear the greeting.

ESSENTIAL EXOTICA

Here are 10 essential examples of exotica on CD. Many of these albums are available at chain stores or specialty shops or can be ordered for you.

* "Exotica: The Best of Martin Denny," Martin Denny (Rhino)

* "Space- Age Bachelor Pad Music," Esquivel (Bar/None)

* "Music From a Sparkling Planet," Esquivel (Bar/None)

* "Incredibly Strange Music, Vols. I and II," various (Asphodel)

* "Into Outer Space," Lucia Pamela (Arf! Arf!)

* "Music for a Bachelor's Den," various (DCC)

* "Mondo Mania: The Best of Perez Prado," Perez Prado (Rhino)

* "Mambo Mania: The Kings and Queens of Mambo," various (Rhino)

* "Taboo: The Exotic Sounds of Arthur Lyman," the Arthur Lyman Group (DCC)

* "Ed Wood," soundtrack. (Hollywood)

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