Styles & Forms | Lounge Music | Popular & Novelty

Following on from the lush bombast of the swing era, and established by a colourful group of American artists in the 1950s and 1960s, lounge was easy listening’s quirky kid brother. It was more playful than its more populist relative and, when viewed retrospectively, had a high camp factor. 

Although ostensibly laid-back and mellow, lounge artists like Les Baxter and Esquivel were not afraid to experiment with tempo and style and helped lounge mutate into new forms. Space-age pop made use of futuristic new instruments and exotica stole influences from Latin America, Africa and beyond with a magpie’s zeal. This music was dilettantish rather than authentic, presenting snapshots of far-off countries or future worlds for an audience hungry for luxurious escapism.

Lounge music was later re-branded as cocktail music, martini music and lounge-core by the trendsetters who rediscovered it in the 1990s. To them, it evoked kitsch 1960s lifestyles pursued in bachelor pads stuffed with lava lamps and leopard-skin sofas. Whether this image was accurate or not was irrelevant: retro freaks descended in droves on second-hand record shops to unearth vintage LPs like Equinox (1967), by the Brazilian Sergio Mendes, and the entire back catalogue of the mighty Burt Bacharach.

A Musical Trip Around The World

One of the foremost lounge artists was Les Baxter, a pianist from Detroit who worked with some of the biggest bands of the swing era, but is best remembered as the most important pioneer of exotica, which gained considerable popularity in America during the 1950s. His compositions retained the backbone of strings and brass that characterized most popular music of the time.

But he also assimilated everything from the striking, four-octave range of the legendary Peruvian vocalist Yma Sumac to the steel guitars of Polynesia and Hawaii, whose tiki bars and hula dancing permeated American pop culture in the post-war years. African percussion was another influence: in 1951, Baxter recorded his seminal Ritual Of The Savage LP, a musical travelogue replete with recorded jungle noises and bird calls. The album remains a classic of exotica – its lead track, ‘Quiet Village’, was covered with great success by another renowned lounger, Martin Denny, in 1959, and it also inspired Denny’s bandmate Arthur Lyman, who had a hit with ‘Yellow Bird’ in 1961.

Back in 1948, Baxter had also experimented with a theremin, one of the world’s first electronic instruments, combining its eerie, otherwordly sound with a choir, rhythm section, cello and French horn. The result, an LP titled Music Out Of The Moon, was the progenitor of space-age pop, a future-fixated relation of lounge that exploited the possibilities afforded by the stereo format and nascent electronic instrumentation.

A Burst Of Latin Lunacy

A prime mover in both space-age pop and exotica was Esquivel, a bona fide lounge eccentric who created some of the strangest music of the late-1950s and 1960s. Much of the Mexican’s output was based on the big band format and shot through with exaggerated Latin American...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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