Enoch Light

Persuasive Percussion

(Varese Vintage)

By Jim Dorling

As lounge music, favored by “mature” listeners of the 1950s, finds a new audience in the post-baby-boom set, a flood of imitations, compilations, and reissues has rushed in to meet the revived demand. Central to the trend is a renewed fascination with the idea of the space-age bachelor pad–the legendary souped-up penthouse into which a playboy of the late 50s might lure young women in order to seduce them. As an ad for DCC’s Music for a Bachelor’s Den series admonishes, “Enter at your own risk…honey.”

In two consecutive 1956 issues, a three-year-old Playboy magazine designed and decorated an idealized version of quarters for the urban bachelor, equipped with “a self-timing rheostat which will gradually and subtly dim the lights to fit the mood–as opposed to the harsh click of a light switch that plunges all into sudden darkness that may send the fair game fleeing.” In the 1959 film Pillow Talk, bachelor Rock Hudson inhabited such a pad, complete with a push-button console that allowed him to lock the front door, dim the lights, and drop the needle on a record without ever having to surrender his place on the couch (or more to the point, “on base”).

One of the most telling bits of nostalgia dredged up from the original bachelor-pad era is Persuasive Percussion, which was the first in a ten-year string of hit records for easy-listening producer Enoch Light. When it was originally released in 1959, a year after the introduction of the stereo long player, it was a bit of an oddity for the easy-listening genre, combining the lazy tropical kitsch of Martin Denny with an almost martial precision in the percussion department. The songs–versions of “I’m in the Mood for Love,” “I Surrender, Dear,” and “Orchids in the Moonlight,” for instance–were obviously chosen for their seductive reputations, but they were arranged in such a way as to test various functions of the owner’s hi-fi. So at any moment the spell could be broken–if, say, your speakers weren’t properly balanced or your tone arm were binding on the inner grooves. The contradictory functions of the record may seem odd, but they made it a best-seller–and they parallel certain contradictions of the bachelor-pad myth.

How do you dispel the mystique of the bachelor pad? Two words–baby boom. More men were married and heading single-income households in the late 50s than at any other time in the 20th century. And the few men who remained unmarried past the age of 30 were subject to the same kind of scrutiny as anyone else who seemed “unusual” during the cold-war era–it was whispered that they were communists or homosexuals.

But in the 50s the U.S. economy was also booming, and as production exceeded demand, workers were called upon to become consumers. Playboy designed its bachelor den to pry open the wallets of working dads. See, no one was quite as ill-suited for the role of consumer as the male breadwinner. Herbert Marcuse wrote in Eros and Civilization that the localization of erotic pleasure in the genitals and the desexualization of the rest of the body was a precondition for transforming the body into an instrument of labor. Playboy decided that the localization of erotic pleasure in the genitals and the desexualization of the rest of the body meant that the best way to sell the luxury of items like stereo hi-fis to men was to convince them that it would get them laid.

Playboy habitually addressed its readers–including the more than 53 percent of them who were married, according to the magazine’s own surveys–as bachelors. Playing upon the pressure married men felt as sole breadwinners, it demonized wives as “money-hungry” gold diggers and lazy “parasites.” It celebrated the joys of unencumbered living and multiple sex partners. The monthly centerfold offered visible confirmation of its readers’ heterosexuality, and the wholehearted embrace of capitalist consumerism banished the specter of communism. By 1956 circulation had passed the million mark, and a decade later the ideas Playboy espoused were common in popular culture: in the 1965 comedy How to Murder Your Wife, Jack Lemmon pleads guilty to the title crime but asks the jury of married men to acquit him “on grounds of justifiable homicide–and not for my sake [but] for yours.” The message to men was increasingly that the high life was just one wife away–better start furnishing that space-age bachelor pad now. Persuasive Percussion, a seduction sound track disguised as a stereo test record (or maybe vice-versa), was designed to give dad something handy to do as he dreamed of ditching the family for swingin’ digs and a steady supply of trim.

In the 70s the number of bachelors in this country doubled, and surveys showed a dramatic increase in the public’s acceptance of divorce and of people who just didn’t want to get married. Consumer culture is now firmly entrenched, while by most accounts the traditional family has been broken down into single mothers, deadbeat dads, and latchkey children–a trend social historian Barbara Ehrenreich attributes as much to the “male rebellion” expressed in Playboy and other mainstream media as to the more popular scapegoat, the feminist movement of the 70s. Today’s “singles” culture, Ehrenreich says, is in a way a fulfillment of those male fantasies of the 50s. “If even a fraction of Playboy readers had acted on [its program for male liberation] in the late 50s, the ‘breakdown of the family’ would have occurred a full fifteen years before it was announced,” she writes in The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight From Commitment (1983).

So now that we’re all single and lovin’ it, why do some young adults feel the need to revive the myth that led us here? Well, in place of the limitless prosperity we once envisioned, we have a widening division between rich and poor, with executives bringing home record paychecks while the middle class erodes under the pressure of downsizing and the switch from an industrial to a service economy. The lounge revivalist is a subspecies of the slacker, a college-educated twentysomething who works at Tower or Starbucks and confronts his lack of occupational opportunity not by reveling in the romance of poverty but by playing at wealth. He excavated the bachelor-pad fantasy while thrift shopping, much as Winston Smith in 1984 discovered his past among the proles.

Lounge revivalists expend a lot of effort juggling two contradictory beliefs: that conspicuous consumption leads to a healthy economy and plentiful sex, and that if you know where to shop you can live it up on a shoestring. In last summer’s issue of the zine Organ & Bongos, a D. Hume reports getting into “The 2nd Annual Tiki Mug Party” for a dollar instead of six by bringing his own mug, and a lounge singer, Joey Altruda, dubs the sunken living room of his rented apartment “The Ski Lodge.” Sometimes the make-believe affluence is funny, possibly even subversive, but just as often it seems a cover for frustrated desires to be rich.

In the 50s, men blamed marriage for their inability to move up the economic ladder; in the 90s, lounge revivalists are single and can’t muster the commitment to blame corporate greed for their misfortune. What they attack instead, in zines, books, and liner notes, is political correctness. “There’s this movement of p.c.: Second-hand smoke causes cancer, people drink too much, eat too much fat. And this is a reaction to all that,” says bachelor-pad guru Irwin Chusid in the Austin American-Statesman. “We’re going to drink and light up. Maybe we’ll drink too much coffee, drink martinis. Instead of jeans and flannels, we’re gonna be fashionable. We’re gonna do our hair instead of looking like a slob.”

It’s unclear what they hope to accomplish by this, but there are hints here and there. Writes Hume at the end of Organ & Bongos: “Why don’t the heavyweights in the liquor and tobacco industries poke their heads up out of their bunkers and take note of this phenomenon called ‘Cocktail Culture’ that’s bucking all the other trends unfavorable to their interests? Then they might consider how to divert some of the money they waste trying to look like they’re against teenagers using their products–which nobody believes anyway–and spend it in ways that would allow someone like Joey Altruda to put his Big Band together and even take it on the road, spreading the Gospel of Lounge throughout the nation. Perhaps Mr. Altruda wouldn’t mind being pigeonholed so much if the hole were just big enough–as it could be if it received sufficient backing.” Because they lack even the unrealized economic potential of the 50s breadwinners, neoloungers can only wait for the corporate mother ship to come down and take them to the next level.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Album cover “Persuasive Percussion”.