Vol. 1, Issue #26 Jan. 19th - Feb. 1st, 2007

Tiger Beat From Hell
By: Wilhelm Murg

A Short History of the Lounge Revival & “Cool & Strange Music!”

Back in the 1990s, I wrote for Dana Countryman’s Seattle-based magazine “Cool & Strange Music!” The whole thing was a joke that got out of hand. Everyone involved expected the magazine to circulate to about three or four hundred record geeks like ourselves, and never make any money. We ended up being blamed for the retro movement, the swing craze, Wesley Willis, and just about any other form of hideous music that resurfaced during that foul decade. And we were half right – we never made any money.

It was the damnedest phenomenon I had ever witnessed, and I was at the epicenter. As CDs (remember those shiny discs?) rose to become the dominant format for recorded music, it felt like the whole world dumped their record collections, but not by selling or trading to traditional used record stores. For the most part, the used dealers at the time were angry and confused by this non-rock music coming into fashion. The only way you could get rid of lounge records was by making a tax-deductible donation of them to your local charity thrift shops, which resold them for anywhere from twenty-five cents to one dollar.

Much of the music that resurfaced for the retro movement had a cult following since its heyday in the 1950s, including Martin Denny’s faux exotica complete with croaking frogs and chirping birds, the RCA Stereo Action series where the orchestra recordings were mixed to ping-pong around the room, and the Hollywood-styled operatics of Peruvian-born Yma Sumac, who claimed to be the last Incan princess. Even in the early industrial movement there was a lot of collecting of Denny records, which is why the artwork on Throbbing Gristle’s “Greatest Hits” is an homage to Denny’s early album covers. One of the earliest Denny tributes was Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh’s opening instrumental music for “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” which premiered at least five years before “Cool & Strange Music!” was even conceived.

While there was all this very interesting music that was collectable, a new breed of anal-retentive record geeks were going into the Never-neverlands of the truly esoteric, mostly due to the fact that the records were a mere twenty-five cents each. While nearly everything by such masters as the super-cool-arranger Esquivel or Raymond Scott, the patron saint of the “Looney Tunes” soundtracks, were worth hearing, only one or two of the hundreds of albums by the also-rans – like the over-bright arrangements of Enoch Light, the accordion, guitar and organ trio The Three Suns, and 101 Strings’ Muzak albums – are even bearable. However, it was possible to put together a complete set of these artists’ records for less than the cost of a new CD.

Countryman got subscriptions and writers for “Cool & Strange Music!” by placing an ad in a record collectors’ magazine. I had a few oddball things to write about, but I wasn’t sure of how much material I could produce before I ran out of subject matter. When the magazine started taking shape, it revealed a tapestry of insane record collectors who had spent years fueling their personal obsessions, and often in a more disturbing way than I had ever thought of doing. Suddenly there were these experts who had every Ferrante & Teicher album ever produced (they were sort of the Siegfried and Roy of the piano world), people who had extensive Tiny Tim collections, and even toured with him and let him stay at their house, and sex education record collectors who got strange kicks out of hearing bad sexual advice from people who had no business talking about sex in the first place.

The magazine always had two different camps; the wild and wacky connoisseurs, who always used the phrase “so bad it’s good” (which I personally hate; it must be “good” otherwise why would you keep going back to it?), and those of us who were really looking for art, or at least something interesting, in the piles and piles of discarded vinyl. Dana, the publisher, was a good balance. Dana is a family man, a deacon in his church, and generally into campy music; I don’t think he ever thought his magazine would lead to reviews on the spoken word recordings of William S. Burroughs’ junkie memoirs, or Charles Manson’s songs from prison, but he would bend that way to appease his readers. However, one time he sent me a 10-inch record of Anton LeVey, the founder of The Church of Satan, playing tunes on an organ. It came with a Post-It note from Dana saying “For your collection: Do NOT Review!!!”

At one point the magazine had caught on so big that it was being distributed through all the major book chains. That was about the same time that trouble started. The first shot was when Scamp Records fell apart. Scamp released a line of Denny and Esquivel albums, and it was soon discovered that while people would buy them for a dollar, there weren’t enough people interested to support a massive re-release program on CD. The imprint soon went out of business.

The final death knell came when the swing revival turned into an international fad. While I had given an early positive review to the first Big Bad Voodoo Daddy CD, I don’t think any of us wanted to see the fad taken to such decadent heights like the L.A. cigar clubs that charged thousands of dollars a year for memberships. Just like Disco in the seventies, everything soon became “swingified”; what started as a fun passion for a handful of people became mass-produced sludge. The dream was over. Dana wanted to spend more time with his growing family and to work on his own music projects, so he turned the magazine over to some guy none of us had heard of who never bothered to put out another issue.

While the movement died in a whimper, we did leave a dent in pop culture. I keep my satellite tuned to XM Radio’s “Special X,” which is basically the same concept done as a radio station. There are also many fine exotica and lounge stations on Live365.com. Perhaps our biggest gain is that you can readily find the best of these artists on CD and available for download.

If we had continued, would we have run out of material at some point?

Probably not; the more I investigate, the more I am convinced that there is an endless supply of “Cool & Strange Music!”

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