Music for TV Dinners
The enduring charm of disposable pop music.
Let's assume for the moment that you have a rich fantasy life and that it takes the form of a 1960s movie. Not a distinguished one like A Man For All Seasons, but a cheap and cheesy one like The Knack or Smashing Time, the kind of period piece where Twiggy-draped guys in Edwardian suits hurtle toward Portofino in Jaguar XKEs and there's a lot of discussion about things being "groovy" or "swinging." The soundtrack unquestionably features Syd Dale and David Lindup and Eric Winstone and King Palmer, the pantheon of British instrumental pop.
If these composers' names don't sound familiar, there's no reason why they should, although you've heard their work approximately one million times. They worked in obscurity from the '50s through the '70s in an arcane varietal of pop called "production music," which is by definition anonymous and disposable. Recorded for commercial libraries like KPM and Amphonic, production music is sold by the yard for use (and reuse after reuse) in TV shows, advertisements, and industrial films. It is unabashedly pre-fab and modest; its values—timeliness, catchiness, craft—are the values of pop music writ small. This, combined with the cumulative effects of 30 years' continuous play, has the effect of planting vintage production music like King Palmer's "
The music these composers produced was obscure, but the composers weren't, at least not always. John Barry, who scored Midnight Cowboy and composed music for more than a dozen James Bond films, wrote production music; so did Laurie Johnson, who wrote the theme for The Avengers, scored Dr. Strangelove, and released a large number of orchestral tracks under his own name. Both kinds of work are collected on another Scamp series, The Sound Gallery (Vols. 1 and 2), released to document the British "easy listening" revival, which more or less paralleled the Stateside lounge movement of the mid- to late 1990s. Along with two British releases, The Easy Project I and II (Sequel Records), the Sound Gallery discs are a fine introduction to the field of '60s instrumental pop as a whole. They pinpoint a moment in time when lush, gooey orchestral pop was being pushed aside by rock and roll and its offshoots and doing its best to keep up. It failed spectacularly. But it was an interesting failure, if you like that sort of thing, and from 30 years on, an artifact like "
It's on the Music for TV Dinners discs, though, that the work of the '60s and '70s instrumental composers really shines through. The constraints of production music had a challenging, bracing effect, forcing its practitioners to reduce pop composition to the bare essentials. Faced with the commercial demand to grab a listener's attention in seconds, soften up the ground for a hard sell, or to conjure for film viewers an aural landscape suggesting Carnaby Street or Piccadilly or the Riviera—often in the service of a filmmaker who was too cheap to suggest it visually in any detail—a production music composer had one imperative: Evoke. Looked at in that light, composers like the late Syd Dale emerge as mad geniuses of musical compression and allusion. Dale's "
There's a chicken-and-egg riddle here. Scamp's Ashley Warren describes the composers and session players who made production music as among the best in the business, and there was constant crossover between the worlds of production music and commercial pop. John Keating, for example, was a prolific composer of production music who also released a number of instrumental pop albums in the early '70s and produced an album for the jazz trumpeter and band leader Maynard Ferguson. And side by side, production tracks like Dale's "
Bill Barol writes Blather, a daily Weblog on pop culture and the news, from Los Angeles.
Audio excerpts from Music for TV Dinners, 1997 Scamp Records; The Sound Gallery, vol. 2, 1996 Scamp Records; Music for TV Dinners: the '60s, 1997 Scamp Records; Ready Steady Boogaloo! 1969 Amphonic Music Limited. All rights reserved.