Distributed in health-food stores

Back in the 1980s, there was a thing called “New Age”. It was a not-quite-religion, a mish-mash of spiritual practices and beliefs all broadly rejecting materialism and suggesting people slow down. Sort of Buddhism-lite, for prosperous Californians. It was a bit self-centred – long on attending health spas and short on volunteering at soup kitchens – but basically harmless.

My main objection to New Age stuff was olfactory. New Age markets and shops and such were invariably accompanied by the heating of essential oils and the burning of incense. Fine for those who like it, but incense makes me sneeze and get a sinus headache – it is almost instant. Hard to connect with your previous lives, dude, when you feel like someone is tightening a G-clamp across your temples.

wh smaplerThere was also a thing called New Age music. In hip circles, to call music “New Age” was a bit of an insult. There was truth in the caricature: dolphin calls echoing over synth washes, with maybe the odd didgeridoo and Tibetan musical bowl to add street cred. Incense of the ear.

But the best of it what got labelled New Age was worth a listen. The format offered talented musicians an opportunity to break out of the restrictions of commercial music. They could turn the volume down, riff on a theme and see where it led, trusting that listeners would give the sounds a fair go. If this sounds a bit like jazz, it is: a lot of the best practitioners of New Age had some jazz in their past.

One label which did New Age well was Windham Hill Records. They started out in the late 1970s in – you’ll never guess – California. A guitarist, William Ackerman, was asked to record some of his tunes on cassette for friends, and radio stations picked them up and vinyl records followed. Ackerman’s girlfriend, Anne Robinson, was a skilled graphic designer: she created a distinctive minimalist look for the label: avoiding rainbow tie-dye cliches she created restrained images, framed in white.

Windham Hill became underground-popular – initially the records were “distributed in health-food stores and book stores” – then broke into the almost mainstream. Billboard magazine, for well or ill, created a “New Age and Contemporary Jazz” chart, and Windham Hill became its star label for many years.

It all seems long ago and far away. The label was sold, then sold again, then merged, and now exists somewhere in the “legacy” section of the Sony catalogue – which is better than not existing at all.

This LP was a sampler, released in Australia in 1985. I discovered it, a few years later, at a dark time in my life. I was couch surfing, and in a bad place. One of the couches (my eternal thanks to the people who provided it) was in a room with a record player. There were not many records, but this was one, and I played it a lot. It is soothing, relaxing – all that stuff – but I also loved the folky-jazzy-“who cares, really?” style.

It is music which says: “just be”. You can call it “New Age” if you like, or “Contemporary Jazz”, or something else altogether. Okay, not “Easy Listening”. But just listen.

  • Artist: William Ackerman
  • Album title: An Invitation To Windham Hill (Various Artists)
  • Track: B4: “The Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Windham Hill Records
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: ‎WHA 1
  • Year: 1985

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Show the bones

Back in the early 1980s, some seriously weird music came out of what was then West Germany. The spirit of surrealism, da-da and futurism thrived, especially in West Berlin, where rents were cheap and young men could dodge national service. So when you find a pop compilation record published in 1981, which has a cow on the cover, and the title Alles In Butter, you expect weird. And weird is what “Everything in Butter” (the title in English) delivers.

aib front covThe pickings are rich. Ina Deter Band, with “Ob Blond, Ob Braun, Ob Henna”? Recht Herzlich, and the majestic “Der Kleine Elefant”? Or someone called Markus, with the, err, incisive social commentary of “Ich Will Spaß” (I Want Fun)? But in the field of West German Weird, you can’t get past Trio.

Trio was into hyper-reductionist-minimalism. They took the name Trio, because there were three members. They argued that most popular songs were based on simple structures, and that this simplicity, usually concealed beneath ornate production, should be allowed to shine. Trio did for music was brutalism did for architecture: strip away artifice, lay bare the underlying structure. Show the bones. So, they kept it simple. During live shows, the drummer would keep the beat with one hand, while eating an apple held in the other.

Trio’s big hit was “Da da da, ich lieb dich nicht, du liebst mich nicht, aha aha aha”, better known as “Da da da”. But they were not a one-hyper-minimalist-hit wonder. They put out several LPs, and one of their tracks “Anna – Lassmichrein Lassmichraus” turns up on Alles in Butter. Subtle and elaborate? Not so much. But engagingly weird? Da.

  • Artist: Trio
  • LP Title: Alles In Butter (Various Artists)
  • Side 2, Track 2 “Anna – Lassmichrein Lassmichraus”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, stereo
  • Label: Polystar
  • Catalogue: 2475 572
  • Manufactured in: West Germany
  • Year: 1981

Many of the records featured on Planet Vinyl are for sale on Discogs.

 

Do they still have elevator music in elevators?

Do they still have elevator music in elevators? I live in a provincial town. In my workplace there are few lifts (which is what we call elevators in Australia) and anyway I usually take the stairs. But when I do go to the big smoke and catch a lift in an office tower, there is no music. Silence, and the faint hum of (hopefully reliable) machinery, reigns.

2063 cover
This is a welcome change. When you caught a lift, not so long ago, they would inflict on the passengers what, even in Australia, was called “elevator music”. This is the sort of thing I mean.

That was Wout Steenhuis and Peter Schilperoort with their take on Procal Harem’s “Whiter Shade of Pale”.

Now, I mean absolutely no offense here. On Planet Vinyl we believe that it is always a good thing that people make music, and if they can get paid for it, so much the better. Wout and Peter were both Dutch musicians, jazz instrumentalists. Making a living from jazz in post-war Holland cannot have been easy, and if recording this sort of thing helped pay the bills, I have no problem with that. The Planet Vinyl rule is to just listen, with an open mind. But you only have to do it once. And I honestly don’t want to hear this track again.

But there is elevator music, and elevator music.

The track from Steenhuis and Schilperoort comes from one of the samplers which many labels produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, hoping to persuade listeners to upgrade to stereo. Stereo Galaxy, it was modestly titled, and promised “A New World of Quality Sound”. Fitting the space theme, the opening track is a version of “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, the brass-and-kettle-drum fiesta by Richard Strauss, which had been adopted as the theme to the movie 2001 – A Space Odyssey. But the record quickly settles down – well, into elevator music. Tightly-played, over-sweet arrangements of well-known tunes.

But while riding the Stereo Galaxy elevator, one track stood out for me. Elevator music, yes, but … There was “a certain something”. Faint praise given the competition, but still. It stood out. There was something there.

And so I have discovered the Hawaiian music of Basil Henriques. If that does not sound a particularly Hawaiian name, you are onto something – Baz did not hail from Hawaii. He was an Englishman, who fell in love with the Hawaiian pedal steel guitar as a teenager. Henriques became small-big, playing regularly with a group called the Waikiki Islanders (none of whom came from Waikiki) at a nightclub in Birmingham, which was called (not making this up) Kastaways. Band photographs of the Waikiki Islanders show them, shivering and white, in kitsch Hawaiian outfits.

But music is the universal language. It crosses cultures and times. And the spirit of music will out.

Basil, the pale lad from Birmingham, could play, really play, the Hawaiian pedal steel guitar. This guitar is the uilleann pipes of string instruments – demanding to the point of insanity. Henriques mastered it, and went on to teach and inspire others, such that he was formally nominated for inclusion in the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame, a most unusual thing for someone not from Hawaii. He has not yet been included, but that serious steel peddlers think he deserves to be considered in the company of Sol Hoʻopiʻi is high praise indeed.

I doubt that this track is Henriques’ best work – its is flattened out to fit into the elevator – but there is musicianship there that shines. If I was to be stuck in a lift, this is the music I would like to listen to.

  • Artist: Basil Henriques
  • LP Title: Stereo Galaxy: A New World Of Quality Sound (Various Artists)
  • Track: Side 1 Track 3 “My Cherie Amour”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: MFP 50004
  • Manufactured in: Great Britain
  • Year: 1972

This record, and hundreds of others, is for sale on Discogs.

The Persuader

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as stereo sound systems became more affordable, many record companies produced what you might call stereo samplers, compilations of sound effects and popular music which sounded impressive in the new format. They were sold very cheaply, or even given away, a freebie thrown in with a new record player.

This one, Breakthrough Volume 2 (the imaginatively-titled follow up to Breakthrough) was put together by EMI, and features instrumental tracks from the big bands and pop orchestras of the day. It was the kind of thing you might have heard while sipping a martini and waiting to board Concord.breakthrough 2 cov

The first track is, quite obviously, designed to blow the wavering potential stereo buyer into next week, and also into reaching for the chequebook. (An obsolete method of payment, once popular. It was lighter and more convenient than a leather bag of doubloons.) It is the theme to a popular and cutting edge TV series, The Persuaders!, which starred Roger Moore and Tony Curtis. It may not surprise, given the lead actors, that the main characters are a pair of boozy, sports-car driving, womanising playboys who use unorthodox methods to protect sunny southern France from the scourge of crime.persuaders

I have never seen it, but it looks kinda fun judging from the opening titles. Nice theme, too, but the version which appears on Breakthrough Vol 2 is better than the original. It features Johnny Keating, a British a band leader, composer and arranger, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.

Now, if sir and madam would like to relax on the purple crushed-velvet sofa, I would be delighted to dazzle you with the magic that is High-Fidelity Stereo Sound …

  • Artist: John Keating conducting the London Symphony Orchestra
  • LP Title: Breakthough, Volume 2 (Various Artists)
  • Track: Side 1 Track 1 “The Persuaders Theme”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: HMV SOELP 10000
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1972

This record is one of hundreds of titles for sale on Discogs