It was a bright, sunny, cheerful Saturday morning, full of warm breezes and chirping birds -- in short, the kind of day that makes you glad to be alive.
But that wasn't quite the way I was feeling as I lifted my throbbing head from the pillow. I had spent the previous evening investigating the lounge music revival with some friends and a number of martinis, and now each golden sunbeam felt like a dagger through my skull. Unless someone had sneaked in during the night and replaced my tongue with an old gym sock, I was beginning to suspect I had been a little too diligent in my research.
Granted, I should have known better. Although "cocktail chic" is all the rage in hipster circles, its blend of lounge music and hard liquor has yet to take middle America by storm -- and for good reason. It's one thing to want to play at sophistication, quite another to build a lifestyle around old episodes of "Playboy After Dark." Particularly given how astonishingly cheesy the music is.
But as thousands of martini-swilling, Mancini-listening young hipsters strive desperately to relive their parents' salad days (in ultra-ironic hi-fi), the demand for "lounge classics" -- brassy, Vegas-style swing by Dean Martin-style crooners, gimmicky "space-age" instrumental albums, collections of Tiki-lamp exotica and the like -- have gone through the roof. At least a half-dozen cocktail music reissue projects are in the works or in the stores, and hipsters from coast to coast are dropping names like "Martin Denny" and "Esquivel." So, like any diligent music critic, I decided to check it out.
Downstairs, the debris spoke for itself. There were empty martini glasses and canape crumbs on the coffee table, stale chips and an open jar of olives in the kitchen. A stack of CDs sat by the stereo, daring me to play them again. I shuddered, and searched for aspirin.
My plan had been simple enough. I would get a group of people together, ply them with liquor, play some of the lounge music compilations that were littering my mailbox, and pray I'd stay sober long enough to take notes. Sweetening the deal was the fact that The Sun had agreed to pick up not only the bar tab but the guests as well, providing a limo service that would keep my group off the road and me out of a liability suit.
All I had to supply for the experiment to be a success was a representative sampling of hipsters -- a laboratory Rat Pack, if you will. What I needed were people who understood the Cocktail Nation mystique, who knew something about lounge music, and who had Friday night free.
When the limo finally pulled up that night, there were seven guests at the door: Jack Heyrman, a record producer currently at work on the soundtrack for the cocktail-culture film, "Pousse Cafe"; Love Riot singer Lisa Matthews; her husband, martini expert Miles Anderson; Scott Huffines, proprietor of the underground-oriented Atomic Books; "Man About Town" (it said so on his card) Tom Warner; City Paper columnist and genuine Gen-Xer Max Weiss; and writer Wil Hylton, who looked so young I was tempted to ask for ID before letting him in.
After some introductory mingling, drinks were poured -- martinis and Gibsons all around, except for Warner, who saw the bottle of Angostura bitters and asked for a Rob Roy -- and I herded the group into the living room, where the stereo awaited.
Martini Madness (Rhino 72238)
In deference to my guests (or their drinks, anyway), we began with "Martini Madness," the second volume in Rhino's "Cocktail Mix" series. Judging from the cover, which depicts tiny, well-dressed couples jitterbugging across a cocktail tray as large, garishly-colored drinks loom above them, this collection was astonishingly sincere in its desire to seem tacky.
And the music more than lived up to the illustration. Kicking off with "Miss Ann-Margret" performing a Jayne Mansfield-style number called "Thirteen Men," it expertly walked the line between cool and corny. There were hot, Latin-inflected numbers like Cal Tjader's "Soul Sauce" and "Mais Que Nada" by Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66, as well as sublimely silly fare like Mel Torme's soul-man workout, "Comin' Home Baby."
Mostly, though, the album was given over to the sort of dance music favored by '60s sophisticates who wanted to have fun but wouldn't be caught dead listening to actual rock and roll. So we got goofy stuff like Les Elgart's stiff-as-a-board trot through "Frenesi-Twist" (which, according to the liner notes, was culled from Elgart's classic "The Twist Goes to College!!!") and Dick Hyman's bongo-driven organ arrangement of "Washington Square." You couldn't have asked for a better example of Kennedy-era upper-class cool.
Nor could you have gotten a less enthusiastic response from the panel, who sipped their martinis, nibbled canapes and talked baseball. Eventually, Warner perked up as a Quincy Jones big-band number burst from the speakers. "This is the best," he said. " 'Soul Bossa Nova!' "
3' But by then it was time to move on.
Space Capades: Atomic-Age Audities and Hi-Fi Hi-Jinks (Capitol "Space Capades" is part of Capitol's "Ultra-Lounge" line, and focuses on the now-forgotten era of hi-fi gimmickry. Back before the CD age -- back, even, before stereo became synonymous with record players -- gadget-conscious young Americans were obsessed with hi-fi. These sound systems were enormous and complicated-looking, bedecked with mysterious dials and multifunction knobs, and marked the owner as a thoroughly modern, space-age kind of guy.
These people weren't audiophiles, or at least not in the geekish, gear-obsessed way of today's Absolute Sound subscribers; they bought into hi-fi for the same reasons people purchase home theaters now -- to enjoy the latest in entertainment technology. And, naturally, they wanted albums that would show off stereo technology's most novel feature: Different sounds coming out of each speaker.
The stuff on "Space Capades" took that approach to the extreme. In addition to spacey, theremin-based numbers like Billy May's "This Room Is My Castle of Quiet" -- imagine the sort of thing Captain Kirk would slip on when putting the moves on some Rigelian princess -- there was a hefty dose of sound-effect fare like Dean Elliott's "You're the Top," which, to be honest, was kind of like Spike Jones with the jokes removed. Definitely an acquired taste, and one my panelists weren't interested in acquiring. "This isn't sexy like the other one was," complained Weiss, 30 seconds into David Rose's "Gay Spirits."
"This is like 'Holiday for Strings,' " agreed Anderson.
A few minutes later, as one of the theremin tunes kicked in, the crowd grew restive. As Weiss moaned that the music "wasn't cool," Heyrman explained the hi-fi aesthetic to Huffines. Eventually, while part of the group demanded to know why I didn't own any lava lamps, Hylton poured his half-finished martini into Weiss's glass and asked for a beer.
It was time for a new disc.
Shaken Not Stirred (Rykodisc 50337)
A genuine concept album, "Shaken Not Stirred" tries to tie cocktail culture to the great James Bond boom of the mid-'60s. Unfortunately, it does so not with actual James Bond film music, but with low-watt jazz workouts by the Arthur Lyman Group, Jack "Bongo" Burger and the improbably-named James Bond & His Sextet.
"This is not the real deal," said Heyrman, sourly.
"It has a good cover," allowed Huffines. "When I saw the cover, I would have bought it. But that was the worst one so far. It would put you to sleep."
"But James Bond was the ultimate hipster," Matthews pointed out. "And he loved a good martini."
I= He's not the only one, I thought, mixing another pitcher.
10: 04 p.m.
Persuasive Percussion: Bachelor Pad Music by Enoch Light (Varese Vintage 5636)
Halfway between the lightly Latin jazz of "Martini Madness" and the hi-fi showiness of "Space Capades," Enoch Light's "Persuasive Percussion: Bachelor Pad Music" is a masterpiece of nerdy invention, delivering the sort of sound that could make any room feel like an elevator. Reaction among the panelists was instantaneous, but hardly unanimous.
"I liked it," said Warner.
"Too gimmicky," countered Anderson.
"I didn't think it was all that bad," said Matthews.
I point out that Light was an alumnus of the Johns Hopkins University.
"There's nobody that cool at Hopkins today," said Weiss.
10: 20 p.m.
Mondo Exotica: Mysterious Melodies & Tropical Tiki Tunes (Capitol 32563)
Yet another title from the "Ultra-Lounge" series, "Mondo Exotica: Mysterious Melodies & Tropical Tiki Tunes" is like a musical visit to Trader Vic's. With selections by Martin Denny, Les Baxter and Yma Sumac, it offered the Great White Hi-Fi Owner a trip to the darkest jungles of pop music as it drew upon the sounds of the Amazon, Hawaii and Polynesia.
Was this worldbeat before its time? Not quite. As much as these artists tried to evoke the allure of far-off lands, the average Tiki band's sound had as much to do with the actual music of the South Sea Islands as a Johnny Weissmuller film had to do with the wildlife of Africa. Not that my guests cared.
"Martin Denny has the stuff that will really grab you," said Huffines. "This isn't boring like the last one."
Maybe not, but after several martinis each (except for Hylton, who is still nursing his beer), the group's attention is definitely beginning to wander. One end of the room is debating the merits of the Stan Kenton Orchestra ("They were nothing after Lee Konitz left!") while the other end is deep into a discussion of the McCarthy hearings.
E9 My God -- they really are turning into their parents!
10: 40 p.m.
More of Other Worlds, Other Sounds, by Esquivel, His Piano and His Orchestra (Reprise Archives 45844)
Few carry as much weight in cocktail music circles as Esquivel. A legendarily eccentric musician, this Mexican-born pianist and arranger was famous for favoring odd instruments -- bass harmonica, electric harpsichord, pedal steel guitar -- and a bizarre blend of sounds.
"More of Other Worlds, Other Sounds" was originally released in 1962, and is typical in its fusion of easy-listening melodies and over-the-top orchestration.
Matthews was excited from the first note.
"It's so cool," she said. "It's this retro thing. Right now, I'm fascinated with Capri pants, and if I smoked, I'd have a cigarette holder."
"Do you find it good?" asked Heyrman.
"I find it sexy," answered Matthews.
"I was raised on music that's really exciting," shrugged Hylton. "This is sort of flat."
"But this is so '60s," countered Weiss. "Viva style and sophistication!"
"This is the guy. This is god-like," murmured Matthews.
It's over, but everyone's still talking. As "The Girl from Ipanema" burbles from the stereo, Warner is flipping through the other CDs, Weiss and Matthews are arguing about Pearl Jam, and Heyrman and Anderson have slipped out to smoke cigars. There no more gin. Hylton is still working on that beer.
The limo waits outside, its driver looking as if he sees this kind of behavior every night.
I'm not sure what happened after that. There appears to have been some further discussion, but of what I can't say, as my notes at that point look to be in Arabic.
One thing is for certain, though -- I probably wouldn't listen to any of this stuff sober.
To drink in the sound of the cocktail music revival, call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6189. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.
Pub Date: 5/19/96