Music for TV Dinners

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Oct. 3 2001 3:00 AM

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.

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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 "Holiday Playtime" and Jack Beaver's "Workaday World" in the mind like tiny time bombs. And when you hear them on CDs like Scamp Records' two Music for TV Dinners discs, where they've been lovingly collected and annotated, they detonate with a small, pleasurable, nostalgic ping. "They are some of the best-known and best-loved songs in people's lives without them even realizing it," says Ashley Warren, who coordinated the compilations. Indeed, if one criterion for pop-music greatness is memorability, this may be the most influential pop ever written.

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 "Theme One" by George Martin (yes, that George Martin) suggests a goofy eclecticism that's almost entirely missing from today's pop charts.

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 "The Riviera Set" is as perfect a suggestion of cool, finger-popping swank, circa 1970, as can be crammed into 2:27; close your eyes for his "Beauty Parade," with its swirling banks of strings and piccolos, and you can almost smell the hair spray. David Lindup's "In the Limelight" and Johnson's "Happy Go Lively" practically demand to be the score for a newsreel about prosperous postwar families building new lives ... in the suburbs! ... while Eric Winstone's "Trafficscape" suggests a jam on the new interstate, but nothing that'll keep Dad from getting home in time to barbecue. Every one is perfectly, splendidly evocative of memories that may not even be our own. If you buy the notion that we have a collective unconscious, this is what our collective unconscious whistles when it's doing the laundry.

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 "Disco Tek" (from the Amphonic compilation Ready Steady Boogaloo!) don't sound so different from the jazz-rock fusion Ferguson, Buddy Rich, Quincy Jones, and others explored in those years. So who was listening to whom? Given how broadly disseminated production music was and is to this day, it seems more likely the jazzbos were listening to the commercial boys than vice versa. Which may mean that after all these years, the composers of this most disposable pop music can laugh the last laugh.

Bill Barol writes Blather, a daily Weblog on pop culture and the news, from Los Angeles.

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