Tiki Tiki Boom Boom

It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Boink

Space Age Bachelor Pad Music
Bar None

In considering the work of Mexican arranger/composer/bandleader Juan Garcia Esquivel, one is reminded of the words of Edd “Kookie” Burns, who said it best when he remarked: “Wowsville, daddy-o!”

Simplemente Esquivel

Of course, he was speaking in an entirely different context, but the sentiment remains apt. The 14 tracks on Space Age Bachelor Pad Music, a reissue of some of Esquivel’s most distinctive recordings, are stubbornly resistant to categorization. Even Esquivel has trouble describing Esquivel! music; one of his three originals is titled “Whatchamacallit.”

It is appropriate during this so-called “easy listening revival” that Esquivel’s genius should be finally recognized. While such trend-spotters as Newsweek have proclaimed that a “cocktail nation” is bubbling away among disaffected grungers, most of the bands comprising it seem to be under the misapprehension that merely donning evening dress and turning down the amps is all that’s required to be considered a happening sophisticate. Even a cursory listen to Bachelor Pad should reveal that being “easy” isn’t that easy.

A contemporary of that avatar of exotica, Martin Denny (whose 1957 hit, “Quiet Village,” with its human-produced jungle animal noises and Polynesian instrumentation, began the craze for hypnotic “tiki” sounds), Esquivel released a series of instrumental albums beginning in 1957 and continuing through 1968. While this era coincides with rock ‘n’ roll’s wildest pre-teen years, you wouldn’t know it from listening to this record.

Most of the songs on Bachelor Pad were familiar middle-of-the-road standards long before Esquivel got to them. His versions, however, are at once familiar and utterly foreign. In Esquivel’s hands, “Harlem Nocturne” sounds as if the arranger took the A train uptown via Saturn — for some reason, he thought to add Star Trek-style female vocalizing to the mix. The Glenn Miller chestnut “Sentimental Journey” boasts a merry whistler amid blaring brass. Surely the Beguine was never begun like Esquivel begins it. Throughout Bachelor Pad, incongruous choruses of “cha-cha-cha” ‘s, “zu-zu-zu” ‘s, and similarly unorthodox instrumental flourishes jump from the speakers.

And though Connie Francis‘ tearfully over-the-top “Who’s Sorry Now?” remains the definitive version, Esquivel’s rendition must be considered a model of elegant weirdness. In extracting most of the lyrics and replacing them with occasional phrases and choruses of “boink-boink” over minimalist, low-register piano, he has deconstructed the tune to the point where only the “duh?” remains.

Mixing howling swing band horn charts with jew’s-harps, sci-fi theremin’s, and the odd, harpsichordish Ondioline, in arrangements that constantly fluctuate over sudden dynamic extremes, Esquivel gets your toe tapping even as your head shakes in disbelief.

While it may be useless to try to explain or even describe the Esquivel touch, the key lies in the fact that he is first and foremost an arranger.

It’s a job title nearly extinct in today’s music industry, but prior to rock’s takeover, arrangers wielded considerable clout. Many versions of the same song might hit the market simultaneously; it fell to savvy arrangers to figure out the most compelling orchestrations and pair them with the appropriate singers. Think of Nelson Riddle‘s work with Frank Sinatra. Or the swing era’s Fletcher Henderson, who was probably more renowned for his arrangements than his band-leading.

Arranging is largely an intellectual process, done with no musicians in sight. Working with a pencil and blank sheets of staff paper, the arranger draws in trumpet notes at the sixth measure, eases violins out by the twelfth: It can be as passionless as a mathematics problem. As his unorthodox sonic combinations reflect, Esquivel clearly brought intensity to the task.

In his excellent book, Elevator Music, Joseph Lanza defends — nay, passionately proselytizes — the much maligned Muzak and its historical kin. He dismisses any easy dismissal of easy listening as the result of knee-jerk cultural prejudice, laying particular blame on the snooty music press for encouraging an unjustified superior attitude. He writes that “[a]fter decades of rock, rhythm and blues, folk, heavy metal, and rap, a desensitized population seems to assume that if music is not hot, heavy, bubbling with jackhammer rhythms and steaming with emotion or anger, it is somehow less than good or (worse) less than art. Not every artist should be obliged to reassure us that we are not zombies. There is also a place for music that is subdued, unobtrusive, even remote or alien.”

Lanza, who can see similarities between Mantovani and Philip Glass, must appreciate the cocktail nation movement. As our increasingly distressing and dangerous information age hammers us with nonstop nihilism, it is perhaps not surprising that a mood music renaissance has arisen. New age and trance are part of it, as are retro-visionary bands like Combustible Edison.

Lanza speaks glowingly of mood music’s utilitarian function, calling it “perhaps the twentieth century’s most authentic music, tailored exclusively for the electronic revolution.” The rise of postwar suburbanization and its attendant consumerism, the advent of stereophonic sound, along with the American public’s desire to put the hard years of Depression and war behind them, created a climate for recordings designed to “fully exploit the intended use of the hi-fi and stereo as domestic appliances with all of the environmental controls of thermostats, air-conditioners, and security systems.” Esquivel grasped the concept early and eagerly, filtering his songs through echoplex machines and other sound-bending technology — the mood Esquivel most often captures is otherworldly rapture.

Says Lanza, “[Mood music] can enchant us with exaggerated dreamscapes of order and happiness.” Esquivel’s exaggerations verge on the absurd while still managing to conform to easy listening standards. Muzak likes to bill itself as “more than music” — that’s also a fitting description of the Esquivel! experience.

Reprinted from Washington City Paper.