Liner notes from the upcoming BMG Music release

The RCA History of Space Age Pop

Vol. 2: Mallets and Percussion

by Irwin Chusid

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Copyright © 1995 BMG Music. All rights reserved.
There's an old adage that a good band with a bad drummer is a bad band. This album contains a lot of great bands, and we aim to give credit where due: to that rowdy bunch of rhythm wizards making a ruckus back in the percussion section.

Space Age Pop pioneers were a curious and wacky breed. When the spectrum of recorded sound expanded with the advent of High Fidelity and Stereo, producers, arrangers and bandleaders fell over each other plundering the percussion closet. Anything that could be struck with a stick, mallet, pedal, palms, or fingers was in harm's way.

They safari'ed 'round the planet trying to outdo each other in discovering exotic rhythm-makers: to islands in the South Pacific; from the mountains of Latin America to the Far East; among remote African tribes, through US hobo jungles, and--no doubt--into their own kids' playrooms. If it rattled or went thud, they dragged it into the studio.

They used common, everyday trap sets, tom-toms, bongos and cymbals; kettle drums, congas and tambourines; xylophones and vibraphones. They also called in these instruments' distant cousins and overseas kin--strangers with evocative names like loo jon drum, Chinese bell tree, Tahitian log, marimbula, chromatic bamboo, Burmese gong. Some items mystified: what the heck are "puppet shakers"? Others led to speculation: could an Indian ankle bells specialist find steady work in Hollywood?

Through clever arrangement and strategic microphone placement, on the beat or off, this hardware would ping-pong, ricochet, spiral, ratchet, whizz by, and occasionally detonate. The policy was: Swing first and ask questions later.

For the recording sessions of Orienta, by The Markko Polo Adventurers, the album liners noted that "the studio was virtually filled with percussion instruments, as many as twenty-five at one time," played by five players, often doubling up on particular tracks. The overload prompted one drummer to quip, "Why don't they hire that Oriental god with six or eight arms?"

Had that deity been available, he could have clocked a lot of O/T on both coasts. But his agent wouldn't return calls, so those gigs went to human timekeeping machines like Mel Lewis, Bobby Rosengarten, Milt Holland, Ed Shaughnessy, and Shelly Manne, or syncopating svengalis such as Terry Snyder, Ray Barretto, Phil Kraus, and William Kraft.

This album is a tribute to the guys working the beat. (Hey!--no gender slight intended. Gals played organ, harp, and sang, but not one female is listed as percussionist on the original session logs.) In a few cases, near-50% of the personnel are hitting something percussive, but they usually weren't listed on the album jackets--even if the exotic instruments they played were. The RCA History of Space Age Pop intends to rectify this historic injustice. You'll find their names below.

As noted in Volume 1 of the series, the era of long-playing Space Age Pop records extended about ten years--from roughly 1954 (the dawn of hi-fi) to 1964 (the British invasion and introduction of the Moog synthesizer). The original LPs were intended to: 1) satisfy the prodigious sonic appetites of an emerging generation of audiophiles; 2) de-ice their dates; and 3) impress seismologists. Consequently, classic Space Age Pop albums often went to great lengths to explain technical recording minutiae. Waveform graphs were juxtaposed alongside mic positioning charts, annotated with baffling references to the RIAA crossover curve, feedback cutters, and 500 cps. rolloffs. It was the record company's way of assuring the buyer: We know a lot of things you don't. Trust us--buy this record; it's a technical marvel. In some cases, arcane jargon lent an LP credibility otherwise lacking in the music. But for the most part, it was obligatory hype, conferring status, and certain to be ignored.

Occasionally the fine print could be refreshingly candid. An early Bernie Green album (More Than You Can Stand in Hi-Fi, Jazz Records, 1957), after a paragraph of blather about Neumann-Telefunken KM-56 microphones and Pultec Equalizers, noted: "...In other words, when you put the needle down on the record, it should play, get it? Use the RIAA curve, whatever that means."

However, there is an important aspect of the RCA History of Space Age Pop which should be stressed. Ultimately, it doesn't matter how much cash you sink into your audio system, or how little. Whether you listen on a high-end pro studio setup, or on a tinny plastic box with three knobs; even if you can't tell a woofer from a waffle iron, the thing to notice is: THE MUSIC.

It's great! Relax and enjoy it!

Copyright © 1995 BMG Music. All rights reserved.

Irwin Chusid is a writer, music historian, radio personality (WFMU), record producer (Esquivel, Raymond Scott, Lucia Pamela), and Director of the Raymond Scott Archives. He bought his first drum kit (a 4-piece Ludwig pink champagne) with his Bar Mitzvah money.
Thanks to Paul Williams; Herman Diaz, Jr.; Wayne (Wayno) Honath; Byron Werner; Bro. Cleve; Wayne Barker; David Garland
The RCA History of Space Age Pop Vol. 3: The Stereo Action Dimension.
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