Playlist: The (un-ironic) Joy of Easy Listening

Burt Bacharach

When somebody mentions Easy Listening, what is your reaction? If it’s to cringe, consider yourself off our Christmas list… 

For some time now, the only way to properly appreciate the genre we term Easy Listening, is with an ironic expression on one’s face, perhaps while wearing a pastel sweater and slacks.

Now, I’m not going to argue that the genre is in any way avant garde or dangerous, simply that it deserves greater appreciation than it currently gets.

My first knowing (not in inverted commas) brush with Easy Listening probably came via Neil Hannon’s band, The Divine Comedy, whose pre-millennial take on the form reached my ears – as well as its commercial zenith – at a time I could more commonly be found listening to Pulp, Weezer and Stereolab. Not an obvious fit, then.

“Hannon’s mix of wit and baroque-pop arrangements found me at exactly the right time”

Thing was, Hannon’s mix of wit, sexual crudities and baroque-pop arrangements all wrapped up in an easy-to-sing-along-to package found me at exactly the right time; their long-players Casanova (1996) and A Short Album About Love (1997) proving just the right counterweight to the more off-kilter lo-fi stuff to which I was used to.

From Hannon, the only way to look was backwards, and in so doing I bought some Andy Williams – of course, friends thought this (and by extension, me) achingly un-cool, the antithesis of the grungy clubs and often equally grungy music our emergent late-adolescent selves had claimed as our own.

That was okay though, I thought then – and still do – that I had it both ways. Also, I understood the growing sense of ironic cool attached to some of it (more of which later), even if that wasn’t why I was listening!

Back to the present day, the thing about Easy Listening that most strikes me now is that, as a term, it encompasses a lot: a lot of artists and actually, a lot of variation. Give me the Carpenters, give me Scott Walker, but whatever you do, please don’t force Richard Clayderman or Engelbert upon me – they’re akin to a trip to Orwell’s room 101. So you see I did/do retain quality control in this matter.

What also occurs to me is the fact that, as is the case with almost any music, the very best examples can transcend pigeon-holing and simply fall into the category of great pop. Perhaps the best exemplar of this argument would be Burt Bacharach and his song-writing partner Hal David.

“The word ‘classics’ hardly comes close to doing these songs justice”

Walk On By? Bacharach and David. I Say a Little Prayer? Bacharach and David. Do You Know the Way to San Jose? Bacharach and David, and I could go on – the word ‘classics’ hardly comes close to doing these songs justice; that they each came from the same pair of guys is verging on insanely impressive.

But Bacharach isn’t the only one to have left an indelible mark on the genre and the industry. While the (unrelated) Walker Brothers covered The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore) with great success in 1966, and later split in 1968, out of the ashes came Scott Walker (real name Scott Engel) who famously influenced the likes of David Bowie, while Sonic Youth covered the haunting Carpenters song, Superstar, a track I’ve become near dangerously obsessed by.

These are some big shadows cast by a genre more usually accustomed to being written off as unsophisticated, and frankly, something to be ashamed of.  Indeed, despite being surrounded by gold and platinum discs when interviewed for BBC Four’s largely superb The Joy of Easy Listening, surviving Carpenter Richard still seemed very touchy about how he and his music was remembered.

Perhaps one of the problems with its image is that sense of irony 90s audiences felt so compelled to attach to it, on top of which pastiche acts such as Richard Cheese and Mike Flowers, whose contributions to the field – amusing and from a loving place though they were – I can’t help but think hindered as much as anything.

Unlike Richard, I don’t care; screw the haters, I say! Now, where’s my roll-neck?

Mike Pinnington

What The World Needs Now… The Music of Burt Bacharach Thursday 17th October 7.30pm @ the Liverpool Philharmonic

Posted on 16/10/2013 by thedoublenegative