Vegas, Baby! Vegas! An Incomplete Guide to Lounge Music
I watched a lot of movies when I was a kid, frequently imagining myself in some of my favorites. In 1977, the movie was Star Wars and I was Han Solo (like most geeks, I was really Luke Skywalker, but he was so whiny and Han was so cool!) In 1982, the movie was Tron, and I was Flynn, using my supreme video game skills - the ones my mother always wanted me to stop developing so I could come eat dinner - to defeat the MCP and save the world. In 1988, it was They Live, and I was out of bubblegum.
Then I grew up, and in 1996 I saw a film that I didn't have to imagine myself in, because watching it was like watching a documentary of my life. The movie was Swingers, and though its brilliant writing and a sensational cast made it a sleeper success nationwide, those of us who lived in Los Angeles and were struggling to make it in the entertainment industry were able to enjoy it on an entirely different level from the rest of the country.
Everything they did in that movie, from playing NHLPA 93 and complaining about the lack of blood in NHL 94 (where, I might add, the Kings were a bitch team), to bad golf at the Los Feliz Par 3, to driving separate cars to parties in the hills where you're supposed to be impressed because some girl is wearing a backpack, was something my friends and I had been doing regularly for years. Show of hands: how many of my fellow Angelenos have made that impulsive trip to VEGAS, BABY! VEGAS! only to realize, somewhere in the darkness on the 15 near Bat Country, that maybe you should have spent more than ten minutes planning it and left before 8 p.m.?
Swingers played a huge role in the lounge culture fad of the late '90s, bringing martinis and manhattans back to my generation, making swing dancing cool again. I don't have enough coordination to shuffle my feet while I do the white guy overbite without falling down, so I didn't get caught up in the swing craze, but the music in the movie blew me away. I couldn't believe I'd never heard it before, and after I saw Swingers for the first time, I walked straight out of the Sunset 5, into the Virgin Megastore, and bought a stack of Lounge CDs that immediately went into heavy rotation on my crummy bookcase stereo at home.
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Over the years, my lounge music collection grew, and today I have dozens of compilations and a surprising amount of useless knowledge about the artists on them. While I don't listen to lounge music with the single minded ferocity I had in the '90s, there are still days when I need to turn my office into a swingin' bachelor pad.
I do this silly thing on Twitter where I make up conversations with iTunes. The way it's turned out, iTunes and I have a slightly dysfunctional relationship, but since it's all in my head anyway, I'm in complete control (iTunes: Yeah, you just keep telling yourself that. Me: Stop it! I'm writing my column!) so I can claim responsibility for whatever music iTunes is making me listen to.
Last week, it shuffled to Combustible Edison's "The Millionaire's Holiday" (from the 1995 album I, Swinger) and though I hadn't made a conscious effort to listen to lounge music in months, it was suddenly all I wanted to hear. I had so much fun listening to it again, I thought I'd use my column this week to celebrate some of the records I love, and hopefully introduce new listeners to the glorious world of space age bachelor pad music.
You can get started for free at Last.fm with exotica radio and space age pop radio. You can also download Comfort Stand's Two Zombies Later: Strange and Unusual Music from the Exotica Mailing List. (While you're there, give Coconut Monkeyrocket a listen.)
If you're interested in building a collection of classic tunes by original artists, the four-volume Cocktail Mix series from Rhino (Flying Spaghetti Monster bless every single person at Rhino Records, by the way) is a great place to start, and it may be all you ever need. From Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse" (which I grew up knowing as the Warner Brothers Factory Music) to Robert Maxwell's "Accidental Slip on an Oriental Rug, Volume 1," alone.
Capitol's Ultra-Lounge series has a lot of overlap with Cocktail Mix, but it also spans over 20 volumes, many of them organized by theme, like Mondo Exotica, Bongo Land, and The Crime Scene. You could make an argument for this being the definitive collection, though like anything spanning 20 volumes, there are a few tracks that are not, as they say, money.
Compilations are great for parties and a good way to get a broad introduction to the genre, but if you're serious about getting the most out of your Hi-Fi cabinet system, you need studio albums from the original artists. While lounge crooners like Bobby Darin and Louis Prima are well known in the mainstream, we're going to dig a little deeper into the gold shag carpet of our sunken conversation pit and listen to the godfathers of lounge music: Esquivel and Martin Denny.
Esquivel's Space Age Bachelor Pad Music was the first lounge CD I bought, and remains the one I listen to the most. It's a compilation album, but it was my entry vector to the world of "Zoo! Zoo! POW! POW!" and ping-pong stereo effects (in the '50s, Eqsuivel conducted two orchestras in two different studios at the same time so he could get the desired stereo effects, live). As far as I can tell, his original albums are out of print, but Cabaret Manana and Music from a Sparkling Planet are fantastic, as well, and there's even the obligatory Esquivel Xmas album.
If Esquivel put the space age in space age pop, it was Martin Denny who put the exotic in exotica. Inspired by the great Les Baxter, his albums Exotica and Quiet Village are mandatory music for any Tiki room worth the bamboo on the bar. If your cocktail party features more tiny umbrellas than olives, Martin Denny will give you the perfect soundtrack.
As the lounge music fad exploded into a phenomenon, artists like Jaymz Bee and the Royal Jelly Orchestra provided an amusing and somewhat campy take on the genre, with lounge-style covers of popular music the young people enjoy on Cocktail: Shakin' and Stirred and holiday favorites on the cleverly-named A Christmas Cocktail, but artists like Combustible Edison actually embraced the culture and the music, producing enduring albums like I, Swinger and Schizophonic! Both artists would be right at home with Joey Altruda's Cocktails with Joey, if the discerning lounge lizard were inclined to expand his collection with more current releases. (On a timely note: if you need swingin' tunes for the holidays, I'd recommend the first two volumes of Christmas Cocktails from Ultra Lounge; you can get them both from iTunes.)
Though this guide is deliberately incomplete, and is intended to serve as more of an introduction than a comprehensive collection, I would be remiss if I neglected to mention the Swingers soundtrack. While it's not entirely lounge music, it's one of those rare collections that just works and is as enjoyable as the movie that inspired it. It's also the perfect inspiration for and accompaniment to an impulsive trip to VEGAS, BABY! VEGAS!
...of course, if you're like me and your stupid common sense stops you before you can get to the freeway, the last time I was at the Dresden Room, Marty and Elayne were still "Stayin' Alive," and Carl still greeted everyone who came to listen to them.
Do you have a favorite cocktail culture blog? Is there an essential artist or album that I neglected to mention? Leave a comment and let me know; we can never have too much ultra-modern hi-fi living.
Wil Wheaton took the Kings to the Stanley Cup in 1994, thanks to Bob Kudelski's can't-miss backhander from the right side. Subscribe to this column's RSS feed here.