Heavy metal out, easy listening in

From Seattle to London to Sydney, squares and swingers alike are revolting against the rock 'n' roll ethos in the name of cocktail culture.

TO SEE Tony Bennett become hip once more, and the Carpenters become suddenly cool, is like watching the tip of an iceberg finally appear on the horizon. What's really going on is a worldwide resurgence of interest in a much-maligned, misunderstood musical genre: easy listening.

The broad church of easy listening - also known as "lounge" - stretches from the '50s bossa nova to Brian Eno's ambient music; from the exotique sound of Martin Denny to the Ray Conniff Singers to Phillip Glass; from Lawrence Welk, to Klaus Wunderlich's Hammond Organ Sensation, to Moog Plays the Beatles.

With a radiant Audrey Hepburn on the cover, the hip London magazine The Idler devoted its latest issue to what it has dubbed lounge culture, and declared the birth of the Cocktail Nation. Says The Idler's Joshua Glenn: "Today's crop of young people are suffering from metal fatigue. We have grown up listening to nothing but primitive id noise, and we can't take it any more."

Glenn says lounge music is "merely the soundtrack to the cocktail hour, that time-out of time during which one seizes the chance to relax completely, to live for the moment". It is an existential condition grunge rockers might call nirvana, but which "citizens of the Cocktail Nation call Happy Hour".

Now Sydney's loungers will finally have a venue to call their own when a group calling themselves The Adult Contemporary Swingers launch a new nightclub next Sunday night at a rejuvenated Les Girls nightspot in Kings Cross, now under the studious management of the local impresario Ian Hartley.

"We're calling it The Tender Trap," says organiser and easy- listening devotee Sean O'Brien. "It will be a celebration of cocktail culture at its most sophisticated and savage - multisensual stimulation for the Moog generation," a straight-faced O'Brien told the Herald.

Although the playlist will feature Brazil '66, Bacharach, The Fifth Dimension and Tijuana Brass, O'Brien insists The Tender Trap is not about kitsch. "Kitsch implies a certain shallow crassness. This will be highly tasteful and very deep. The Tender Trap is about reclaiming what it means to be an adult. It's a pastiche of Australiana and Americana from the mid-'50s to the mid-'60s - a bit "Rat-Packerish", some Las Vegas primitive exotica, a bit of Beat - for once the parents will understand."

Simon Holmes, the manager of Half a Cow Records in Glebe, says: "While there's always been a hard core of people hip to cocktail music, it has definitely become fashionable of late."

Holmes says three things can account for the surge of interest in Easy listening: "First you've got the release of two books in the past year called Incredibly Strange Music, by San Francisco publishers Re/Search." (Re/Search's Modern Primitives edition some years back single-handedly made body piercing popular and gave grunge an aesthetic to call its own. Its Incredibly Strange Music volumes are like bluffer's guides to the underground world of obscure, cult and exotic recordings.)

Second, Holmes points to the crossover success of American bands like The Coctails from Chicago and especially Combustible Edison, the tuxedo-clad combo led by Michael "The Millionaire" Cudahy, a former member of Urge Overkill with impeccable punk rock credentials. Combustible Edison (apparently named after a renowned '60s cocktail) have emerged from the American underground as the breakthrough "lounge" act. It is significant that they are signed to Seattle's SubPop label, the company which pioneered the Grunge aesthetic with bands such as Nirvana.

And third: "There's a feeling that there's no longer much innovation in popular music, especially in guitar rock. So there's a relief to be had in the whole easy listening thing in that it's light-hearted, and I think its popularity is a reaction to the (bombastic nature) of rock. Also a lot of acts like the Coctails only release their work on vinyl - it's pre-'60s and pre-rock, not just in style and attitude but also in technology."

Tuxedos and cocktail dresses will be de rigueur at The Tender Trap, but O'Brien insists there will be no "door policy" with one exception: "'80s power dressing is totally out |" Jeans and thongs are OK, so long as they are worn with a Beat Generation demeanour.

While it all may sound way too nostalgic for some, The Idler's Cocktail Nation Manifesto provides one cogent answer: "That a thing is original is no guarantee that it is the best ... a wig is better than unwashed hair |"

* The Tender Trap will be launched this Sunday night at 7 pm at Les Girls, 2 Roslyn Street, Kings Cross.

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First published in The Sydney Morning Herald


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