It’s All Easy Listening If You Enjoy It

This is a response to an article written in The Week you can read that here. The Original Article

Dear Mr. Bachelor Pad,

As a fan of just about every genre that’s come and gone I have to conclude your assertion that easy listening is dead is both right and wrong. And this is because unfortunately you made your argument poorly and did not define your terms and thus, at first, I was not exactly sure what you were on about.

Reading between the lines I think what you appear to bemoaning is that the mainstream music landscape has no personality or variation, and therefore no space for you as a music fan. The major labels are not catering to your audio preferences.

I feel you. They are not catering to me either.

Herb Alpert was once on the same charts as The Beatles and Led Zeppelin and The Supremes. You had more options on the dial and on the racks back in the day. But again in your passionate verve, you went a little Patrick Bateman. And I will not allow you to sweep up the entire history of rock and it’s friends and throw it out simply because Kay Starr is no longer swinging on stereos across the nation.

1st: Easy listening didn’t die. It became the AOR/west-coast sound of the late 70s and early 80s that, AHEM- ambrosia salad of what is now called “yacht rock” or “the quiet storm” and that all morphed into what is now called smooth jazz (a real insipid genre term IMO).

And the lush orchestration of the exotica/lounge of the 1950s morphed into what we sadly call, “new age”. Same exotic song titles, just more synth for your yoga class, I guess. Most folks, “can’t even” with one cocktail hour of Yanni. Even so, in terms of production and craft, he lays it down just as bitchin’ as Teo Macero ever did.

2nd: If the basis of your thesis is on what you come across in record stores:

A. You find all those easy listening records in the bins of record stores because people bought them and then after a while realized most of them kinda sucked or just were not any fun. The Rolling Stones are FUN! Also, just as a personal question, are we including the “Wall Of Sound” in all this rabble about rock?

B. Not everybody wants to feel like they are in the waiting room of a dental office while they drink a Negroni at 5PM. I LOVE Les Baxter but two albums in a row is overkill for most of my friends. At least throw in some Irish aires to mix it up! Or better yet, lay on some Art Pepper he goes really well with a Negroni.

C. Your opening statement:

“If, like me, you spent an unfortunate amount of your young adult life digging through the record stacks at thrift stores, you probably realized it at some point: Nobody actually listened to Jimi Hendrix in the 1960s.”

Leaving aside the hyperbole of the word “nobody,” it gave me serious pause because it is such a bold claim, yet takes a mere single reflective moment to see it makes no sense. Some of my pals took this as a jaded grump taking a piss on rock. I took it as just simply not thought out very well at all. The reason Mr. Hendrix is not in your thrift store bins or garage sale boxes is because the experience was so good, people kept the records!

As to “music for adults,” first … what age range of adult are we talking about? 18 to 25, or 60 and over?

You seem to allude that The Beatles is kid stuff but Easy Listening Beatles is for adults? Just because all the angst was smoothed out for your elders does not remove the fact they are the still songs about making whoopee. If you’re going to take The Beatles to the hotel lounge, may I suggest you go with Keely Smith Sings the John Lennon-Paul McCartney Songbook or John Pizzarelli Meets The Beatles. They manage to translate the rock lyric idiom well into their own jazz forms and, by the way, do so with the stellar production you love. But be warned, Pizzarelli plays guitar.

While we are discussing jazz, have you never listened to any Cole Porter lyrics? “Let’s Do It Let’s Fall In Love” LITERALLY talks about the fact all animals want to shag each other! And then you add Eartha Kitt singing on top of that… don’t tell me that isn’t baby making music. You may have a gimlet in your hand but all paths lead to the bedroom.

Hell, even Bach sonatas have been thought to largely represent his existential angst. Also “music for adults” implies “adults” don’t shag. I’m here on this Earth in part because my grandparents owned Sinatra records.

I gotta be honest, I’d say your tantrum comes off sounding more like you never got laid to a Mitch Miller record than it does about The Who blowing out their amps at Pye Studios.

“What you can’t argue is that the remarkable (I would argue even unsurpassed) stretch of albums from her [Streisand] debut in 1963 until Guilty is anything but easy to listen to.”

I was going to do some etymology here but instead I’ll just say, it’s called “easy listening” for a reason.

I watched a Leonard Bernstein lecture from Harvard where the dude broke down Beethoven’s “Pastoral” and laid out how the entire piece is basically just Ludwig doing a variation on the first two bars of the entire piece. The level of genius going on, on all fronts, from Bernstein to Ludwig blew my mind. But complexity in and of itself really means nothing to nobody outside of those people into that kind of thing.

In his day, Ludwig’s audience was a rowdy drinking bunch who would talk over the music and shout for repeats of sections of music they wanted more of. Focused attention done politely and seated was not how it was done in the 1700s. It was party time.

To which, side note: This demand for repetition now seems somewhat parallel to black DJs taking the bits of songs people liked best and sampling it to keep the groove going.

Anyway, the point is nobody was sitting down listening with intensity to the genius that was present, which is ironically part of the genius. It’s not in your face, but it’s there if you want it discover it.

But back to Babs; parallel to the Streisand album run you mention, in about that same stretch of time, you had the unstoppable force of one multi-platinum Led Zeppelin record after another. And I hate to be “that guy” but nobody is playing back the drums on a Streisand album at a slower RPM to figure out how the hell it was done.

Rock music is a war zone. You can’t join “The Battle Of Evermore” with Jimmy Page and play like Hal Blaine did on, “Stoney End”.

Speaking to production and sound quality specifically, since you name dropped some fancy ass speakers out of most people’s price range, I want to mention the film Once (2007). There is a very telling scene about music production in the film that somewhat speaks to this. The band is listening back to the record they just made in the studio and they are very excited about the results and how it sounds and that’s when the producer says something like, “Great! Now let’s go see how it will sound to the rest of the world.”

And they all drive to the beach and play it on a junky car stereo.

In fairness to you, I think you got a little swept up in a moment and just took the guitar with it because I’m sure you have no issue with Les Paul or Mary Ford pickin’ away.

I concur that a lot of people making music just got fucking lazy and are phoning it in these days. No song should ever require 17 songwriters. And being that this is a recent article, I have a feeling you are probably more upset about the current mainstream field being a wasteland of mono-genre hip-hop beats than anything. It’s just that the way you went about having a fit makes it sound like you don’t listen to the modern stuff at all and so your only frame of reference is that small window when only The Beatles mattered.

But come on man! Even you have to concede when disco did it right, it did it RIGHT! Listen to those Barry White arrangements and try and convince me they are not on par with Nelson Riddle or Xavier Cugat.

Now I do feel the need to take time out to further address the sound quality issue for I once went after Neil Young and his sound quality rant.

Yeah, I get it… I do.

But when was the last time you had your hearing checked? I ask because I know my ears don’t operate at 100%. But more importantly, the ambulance that goes by every evening, or the barking dogs, or the ringing phone, or screaming kids, my own damn farting … all of that and more are hurdles to sound quality for the average listener. Nobody I know lives in a recording studio.

I’ve only ever known of two people with rooms dedicated solely to listening to records. One person was a family friend who worked at Sennheiser. His room was surround sound with a chair in the center of it and extensive catalog of classical and all you did in that room was listen to classical. The only other person was John Belushi and he had room with walls lined with mattresses so he could thrash out to Heavy Metal at appropriate volumes. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

But all of that prattle is moot because you left out the most important part of this equation, the thing that Easy Listening Beatles will never be able to grasp or understand. And it goes beyond equipment and even production. And that is feeling.

Most people don’t care about about sound quality (I mean, Ms. Streisand herself is being listened to right now at bitrates WELL below lossless). What most music lovers care about is connecting to the music on an emotional level first. Sound quality is maybe third or fourth depending on how important dancing is to you.

The Stooges’ first record is a blown-out mess in terms of production, this is true. But holy fuck, the young male angst in it is raw and in your damn face. And furthermore, intentional or otherwise, that blown-out mess is similar to how youth is; a hot-fuzzed blown out mess! Youth certainly isn’t some mall muzak version of, “I Wanna Be Your Dog” cradled by Pat Boone.

Bruce Dickenson of Iron Maiden said it best, “Rock should be gross. That’s the point of it. It gets up and drops it’s trousers.”

I do agree that Barbara Streisand is one of the greatest voices ever recorded and I personally have been championing a return to the pure tone and less caterwauling style she and folks like Laura Nyro, Julie Andrews, and Dionne Warwick were known for. But the reason those albums worked so well at cocktail hour was because they didn’t demand your damn attention. They were produced in a way so as to not get IN the way. You could have a conversation without having to yell, “Turn that down!”

Rage Against The Machine was never meant for the pre-dinner chit chat. It was meant for the kid alone in their bedroom, likely with the bass too high. To either make them feel better about being a teenager, or help them forget they are a teenager.

Nobody that I’m aware of ever brought home The Carpenters and said to their pals the next day at lunch, “Maaaannnnn you gotta check this out, it’s mind blowing!”

They both serve their intended purposes and I fail to see why both can’t exist to serve their intended audiences. But to get back to your article, I think I now understand what your intended message was. And if I may be so bold as to you help you edit your article down for the short attention span crowd.

“New music sucks.”

If we are talking mainstream music, I more or less agree. A lot of it does suck right now. But if you’ll excuse me, I feel the need to listen to Welcome To My Nightmare. Bob Ezrin is a wizard who requires your utmost attention.

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