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Monday, January 19, 2004

The Retro Christmas

Other than the filthy lucre of toppled totalitarian regimes, it was a very retro Christmas around here. Niles loaded me down with retro picture books. For example, Lileks suggested All-American Ads of the 30s. I'll get around to that one day, no doubt, but for now I got All-American Ads of the 60s and 50s. On page 397 of the 60s book there's an ad for RCA TVs featuring Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock. That's a prime reason I wanted this book.

The ads in general are gorgeous. They were from an age when illustration (rather than photography) was still widely used, and many of them are in glorious color (or, giving decorating styles of the era, not-so-glorious color). Some of the clothing and interior decorating, which were so cutting edge then, seem charmingly old-fashioned to modern eyes. My favorites are the ads, usually for televisions, showing futuristic houses. In the future, we will all have enormous living rooms with walls of glass (apparently we won't worry about the neighbors looking in), almost no furniture or decorations, and little tiny TVs. Well, they seem tiny today.

In an earlier Bleat (see the bottom of the page), Lileks grumbles about the snotty tone of the introductions. I haven't read those yet.

Taschen publishes a bunch o' books which are nothing more than accumulations of old ads organized around some theme, like the Kitchen Kitsch book I got
and wrote about last year. There's usually an introduction, and that's it for added text. Another of the books is Future Perfect, which I got for my birthday. The graphics for it generally weren't taken from ads, but from old pulp magazines. I was disappointed in Future Perfect, since most of the pictures were of a common, primitive style that isn't very interesting to me.

I also got their book See the World, a collection of old travel ads, and Mexicana, a collection of advertising graphics with Mexican themes. See the World was OK; had an ad for the Andrea Doria. I've only glanced at Mexicana---looks gorgeous though.

Also under the tree was a non-Taschen book, Southern California in the '50s. I've only glanced through it, but it promises to be a rich vein of tailfinned cars, Googie architecture, and rich, Kodachrome colors. I was born after the '50s were over, 2000 miles from Southern California, and somehow that culture spread to the Midwest and spoke to me. I've always considered those pointy, swoopy buildings to be the promise of the future we were supposed to have, dammit, and never did. Well, I suppose it's never too late to begin THE FUTURE!

Speaking of Googie and THE FUTURE!, it's surprising how much "tiki", a (faux?) Polynesian style of architecture / decor echoed (or influenced) the space-age style. (In fact, the main graphic at the Googie link above includes a giant tiki!) If you don't know what I'm talking about (don't let it bother you; I never do), go look in The Book of Tiki, another Taschen book. It's a guide to all things Tiki, from architecture to food and (especially) drink. For a quick overview of Tiki (focusing primarily on drinks), see this website, the Tiki News. I'm halfway through The Book of Tiki; it's informative, but a bit annoying. For one thing, it approaches the subject from the perspective of an anthropologist exploring the influence of Tiki over American civilization in (at its peak) the '50s and '60s. This conceit can be patronizing and annoying unless the author can convey the fact that he's part of the culture too. This one's not doing it that well, and besides, I can sense that he's tiring of the role, if not of the subject.

Finally, there's Exotiquarium, which is subtitled Album Art from the Space Age. This book is nothing like I expected.

It's not about space-themed album covers from the '50s and '60s, although there are some of those. It's not about album covers whose graphics reflect a Googie sensibility, although there are some of those. And it's not about past album covers that provoke modern viewer to wonder what they were putting in the drinks in the '50s---in short, it's not an album cover version of The Gallery of Regrettable Food. There are some pretty ghastly covers, but the book doesn't spend a lot of time noting their ghastliness. Instead...

(What's that? You want to see some of the goofy covers? Well the book's not really...oh, all right. You realize some of the goofier ones won't be found on the web.

Here's the cover of Blast Off! by Ferrante and Teicher. I always thought F&T were dull "easy listening" types, but the book says they did a lot of "experimental" music in their early days.

Then there's the racially and sexually-risque (for the times) Tabu from Ralph Font and his Orchestra, whoever they were.

Then there's Melachrino's Music for Daydreaming, which could also be titled "What the cops found." Creepy. Melachrino had a ton of "Music for ..." titles, including Music for Dining, Music for Reading, and Music to Work or Study By, the last not in Exotiquarium.

As for Port Said and East of Suez, all I can say is, "Not Safe for Work" (especially the former).

And then there's From Another World by Sid Bass, aka Lucy in Space, and Strings for a Space Age. Note the importance of the woman in this composition. (Hint: We gotta have a dame!)

For other outer space offerings see here. This site has a ton of goofy album covers, amusing comments, and reviews of almost everyone of these albums the author has dug up from thrift stores and flea markets.

Now can we please get back to the book? Thank you.)

Instead, what the book is about is the musical scene at the dawn of the Space Age, although space itself is only involved peripherally. The history of the record is recapped (piecemeal), especially the advent of the LP. Why you could get 20, 30 minutes of music on one side of an LP. You didn't have to keep getting up to change the music. There's also the invention of stereo. Liberty Records claimed that on Sandi, by Sandi Sonsai, "And if you are listening to this record in stereo, you will actually see Sandi dancing across the floor in front of you." (By which I suppose they mean they unnecessarily jiggered with the voice so as to have it dart from speaker to speaker. I wonder how many people were disappointed that they couldn't "actually see" Sandi.)

By the way, enjoy Living Stereo, a 1958 film short from the Prelinger Archive, describing how stereo records actually work. I didn't know, and thought it was very interesting. (You whippersnappers who have never owned a vinyl record, or anything that wasn't in stereo, may be less interested.) Or, instead, you can look at A Revolutionary New Triumph in Tape, which includes Living Stereo, plus a presentation of the four-track tape cartridge. The four-track was a giant audio cassette tape, bigger, I think, than a video tape today. These are extremely pink movies.

The book also discusses the rise of "Easy Listening" music, which was intended to be used as sonic wallpaper---background music. Hence all the Music for ... titles. (Hey, and some people think Brian Eno invented that concept.)

Plus, there are sections on the foreign music trends of the time (Polynesian, Latin, and Middle Eastern), pioneers of electronic music, and music to furnish your space-age bachelor pad by.

But don't take my word for it, go visit Space Age Pop Music Page, which will tell you all about it. As far as I can tell, it has no connection to Exotiquarium, but covers much of the same ground. After reading the book, I had a great hankering to get hold of some of this music. It turns out many of them are still (or again) in print. If you go to the individual artists' biography pages, you find Amazon links for many of them (like this page for Les Baxter). And don't despair if you there aren't any, because some of them are still available; you just have to type the name in Amazon's search field.

In other words, we had a cool space-age cocktail Christmas, baby.