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This album will set you back £8 on amazon (available as both a CD and a download). There's also a 'volume two', which is every bit as good.
'Lounge' is used to describe a certain type of old-style easy listening. 'Easy listening' itself is a pejorative term, so I suspect the 'lounge' tag was invented so generation-x types could enjoy the music without feeling like they were betraying The Smashing Pumpkins or whoever. Lounge has shifting boundaries -it encompasses 50s/60s exotica and 'space age pop'; it includes languorous Italian soundtracks of the 60s, and even takes in the funkier end of the library music spectrum. But to me, classic lounge is American, the kind of thing you'd expect to hear in a nightclub circa 1959, or playing in the background of a terrible 60s heist movie. It can be instrumental or vocal. It swirls, it blares, and of course it requires no effort whatsoever to listen to.
The main feature of lounge is self-confidence. Coming out of a prosperous America that had won a war, had the Bomb, and was on the verge of conquering space, lounge cheerfully reaffirms what Americans already knew - that they're the best people on earth, that America is the only place to be, and that the music should be as effortless as life itself in the Eisenhower era (assuming you were white and middle class). This is, of course, what early rock 'n' roll was rebelling against, but at this distance (both in terms of time and irony) lounge feels more relevant. I love early rock 'n' roll, but if I had to choose one genre to blast into space to melt the heart of a passing alien warlord, it would be lounge.
This is music created solely to entertain. Words like 'cheesy', 'smarmy' and 'kitsch' are all applicable, but they aren't really insults. Lounge isn't about effort or emotional integrity so much as aspiration towards an idealised lifestyle - comfort, respect; a very middle-aged, white-collar version of cool. The unchallenging nature of the music has meant that a lot of soundtrack music - which after all, has to accompany a film without getting in the way - has been designated 'lounge' in recent years.
I discovered lounge about 12 years ago - I was getting fed up with constantly having Radiohead and The Verve played at me. Music was becoming a never-ending dirge - albums designed to make you miserable, because miserable is 'deep', right? It didn't take long to latch onto the Ultra-Lounge series, if only because there were more of them than in other compilation series. Covering mostly American easy listening from the late 40s to the 70s, they're a treasure trove of old-school cool, music that slides down as effortlessly as the fifth martini of the night; music that pushes gently against you, like a killer dame resting her breasts provocatively on your shoulder as you clean up at the roulette table of your dreams.
While some Ultra-Lounge releases explore the wilder thickets of exotica or space age pop, for the most part if you've heard one you can pretty well guess what the others are going to be like. So it's a bit tricky choosing one to review, as what I've written above is true for all of them. On The Rocks is probably the one that contains the highest number of familiar tunes. These are lounge covers of rock hits, mostly from the 60s. These versions treat rock as another stop on the exotica trail for blue-rinse, jogging-suit Vegas tourists, just like the way Martin Denny or Yma Sumac brought a little bit of Pacific island life to one's living room, but watered down and melodied up. These covers completely miss the point of the originals by stripping away anything subversive, sexual or druggy, and turning them into lift music.
Which is brilliant. Most of these are songs I like, but somehow having them neutered and wrapped in a smoking jacket before being played at the wrong tempo for a different audience just makes them better. You'd expect lounge crooners and kitsch band leaders to be nervous or even resentful of the music that was edging them out, but they take it on with their usual unshakeable self-belief.
A track-by-track listing would be beside the point. A few highlights will suffice. Martin Denny gives us a version of Strawberry Alarm Clock's 'Incense and Peppermints' that contains a slightly awkward mix of flute and sitars. In its dreamier moments it sounds like the kind of music that would play while you watched naked Pacific island girls bathing in a lagoon. Sir Julian gives us a strangely thoughtful Hammond organ and snare-drum take on The Lemon Pipers' 'Green Tambourine'. It could easily be the soundtrack to a casino scene in a terrible Bond spoof. Stu Philips' mostly-instrumental cover of The Kinks' 'Tired of Waiting For You' is a great deal more soporific than the original, with dreamy vocals coming in over the choruses. It turns it from a song of sexual frustration into one of simple laziness.
The Hollyridge Strings make 'Heartbreak Hotel' into a sinister piece of private-eye stalking music before morphing it into an ebullient rendition of 'Don't Be Cruel'. The New Classic Singers do a wordless dah-dah-dah-dah-dum version of 'As Tears Go By' which is quite lovely, and again, belongs in a terrible Bond spoof, perhaps accompanying a romantic interlude next to a lake. The Lettermen do a fab, soft vocal medley of The Doors' 'Hello I Love You' and 'Touch Me', which is both charming, and hilarious. (The humour comes from imagining Jim Morrison's face darkening with fury on hearing it, and then doubtless ranting drunkenly about dead indians and getting his knob out.)
There are a few misconceived tracks. 'Winchester Cathedral' and 'Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes' are close enough to easy listening in their original versions that lounge covers seem redundant. But there's still gold to be mined as we move towards the album's close. Julie London is perhaps the ultimate lounge singer, and has one of the sexiest voices ever. Her cover of 'The Mighty Quinn' is wrong in quite the most charming way you can imagine. Lord Sitar, a perennial of these types of compilation, brings some much-needed eastern mysticism to The Monkees' 'Daydream Believer'. John Andrew Tartaglia's orchestral/moog/sax medley of 'A Day in the Life' and 'I Am The Walrus' turns the tired old Beatles hits into an epic journey into outer space. The album ends with a charming and oddly melancholy trumpet rendition of 'Aquarius' and 'Let The Sun Shine In' from Hair.
If you're the kind of person who still shakes your head in disgust at the idea that Englebert Humperdinck kept 'Strawberry Fields Forever' off the number one spot 40 years ago, you should stay away. Have fun in your humourless little bubble, loser! There is, of course, room for many different types of music in one's heart, and to hate Ultra-Lounge is to hate life itself. There are about 40 Ultra-Lounge albums in total, including their solo artist compilations and recent download releases. To own one is to want to own them all. You need this stuff in your life.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Light My Fire - Zacharias
2 Sunshine Superman - Torme, Mel
3 Incense And Peppermints/It's A Beautiful Morning - Denny, Martin
4 Uptight - Jerome, Henry
5 Green Tambourine - Sir Julian
6 Tired Of Waiting - Hollyridge Strings
7 Mellow Yellow/We Gotta Get Out Of This Place - Hollyridge Strings
8 Gimme A Little Sign - Morrow, Buddy
9 Hard Day's Night - Lee, Peggy (1)
10 Whiter Shade Of Pale - Moreno, Mario
11 Heartbreak Hotel - Hollyridge Strings
12 Don't Be Cruel - Hollyridge Strings
13 As Tears Go By - New Classic Singers
14 Evil Ways - Delory, Al
15 Get Back - Little Big Horns
16 Hello I Love You/Touch Me - Lettermen
17 Dizzy - Royal Blue
18 Shaft - Hollyridge Strings
19 Mighty Quinn - London, Julie
20 Day In The Life - Tartaglia
21 I Am The Walrus - Tartaglia
22 Daydream Believer - Tartaglia
23 Winchester Cathedral - Riddle, Nelson
24 Love Grows - Newton, Wayne