Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Exotic Sounds of... Wally George?

(Artist's concept of Wally as a bongo hep-cat.)
Wally George (1931-2003), the self-proclaimed "father of combat TV," had opinions about almost everything. But I was surprised to find that he’d weighed in, frequently, on musical exotica of the Polynesian Pop variety.

Wally’s “Hot Seat” show, which began on Anaheim’s KDOC-TV in 1983, was clearly the direct ancestor of much of our current daytime television. Wally’s guests all clashed with him, and each episode became a melee of screamed insults and attempts to out-shout each other. His young studio audience chanted “Wah-lee!, Wah-lee!” in a way that would be very familiar to fans of Jerry Springer. Wally took an ultra-right-wing stance on everything, but he was much more focused on being contrarian and shocking (to the point of farce) than political. In his day, he was an iconic Southern California character.
New radio personality Wally George, in 1948.
There are a lot of curious things you can say about Wally. He had long hair but hated hippies. He wrote an episode of Bonanza. He appeared (as himself) in Nightmare on Elm Street 5. He was the father of actress Rebecca De Mornay. He died nearly broke, but Robert H. Schuller performed his funeral at the Crystal Cathedral.

But here’s another strange fact you didn’t know: Wally was a music critic for the Los Angeles Times in the 1950s and 1960s, and he clearly had an interest in South Seas-style exotica: the music of tiki.
The following are some excerpts from his "Court of Records" column,…

Aug. 18, 1957: "EXOTICA -- This is Martin Denny and some strange sounds that are supposed to suggest the exotic, mysterious Orient. Oddly enough, they do just that. Not the Hong Kong bamboo sticks and cymbals type of musical cliché, but music that delights the ear with unusual effects, yet remains commercial enough to be commercial. Emerging from Honolulu's Hawaiian Village, Denny Statesided it to Las Vegas where his clicking sometimes became confused with the clicking of the silver dollars."

Dec. 1, 1957: "Several months ago, we reviewed an unusual Liberty LP by one Martin Denny and orchestra. Entitled EXOTICA, it was an excitingly different record soundwise and its sales have proved that thousands thought as we did. Now comes [EXOTICA II], in the same vein, a definitely exotic blend of music combinations suggesting Polynesian and Oriental influences... Les Baxter's orchestra on Capitol's PORTS OF PLEASURE takes an uneventful voyage to various Far East ports. Orchestration is, as always with Mr. B., clever and sprightly. However, the melodies themselves seem to be going nowhere."

Apr. 20, 1958: "TABOO -- Here is another one of those ‘strange sounds from the jungle’ records highly reminiscent of Martin Denny's recent EXOTICA. This one is by Arthur Lyman and was recorded in Henry Kaiser's aluminum dome outside the Hawaiian Village Hotel in Honolulu. The sound is excellent and Lyman's conception of 'Caravan' and 'Katsumi Love Theme' is admittedly intriguing. This LP has been getting big play from the disc jockeys of late, so you may already have become familiar with it.”

Sept. 14, 1958: "...We reviewed an LP entitled TABOO [from] Arthur Lyman. Now comes not one, but two, companion albums: HAWAIIAN SUNSETS and BWANA A. Both contain the same exiting mélange of sounds captured by Mr. Lyman in his initial waxing. The former has such fare as 'Hawaiian War Chant,' 'Sweet Leilani,' etc.; the latter, 'La Paloma,' 'Colonel Bogey's March,' etc. The Hawaiian album is enough to rekindle an island flame in the jaded. Verdict: A delicate journey into the exotic.”
Jan. 4, 1959: “... Martin Denny has another fabulous LP on the racks, PRIMITIVA…”

Sept. 6, 1959: "While the much heralded return of the big band has as yet failed to materialize, we do have in our midst another musical phenomenon -- exotic music. One of its top practitioners, Martin Denny, has come forth with another of his slick releases, QUIET VILLAGE. Although this is anything but a big band the six musicians on this LP manage to make as much noise as many larger orchestras. As with the six previous Denny efforts, the music has the charm of the islands, or perhaps, the call of the wild. Denny relies almost entirely on percussion instruments to create his illusions, and one of his helpers, August Colon, supplies bird calls. Unless our ears deceive us, Mr. Colon has been padding his part. This is not necessarily a criticism, just an observation; at times you get the feeling you're locked in a bird sanctuary..."

Oct. 4, 1959: "For a change of pace try BAHIA with the exotic sounds of Arthur Lyman..."

June 5, 1960: “EXOTIC SOUNDS FROM THE SILVER SCREEN --  Here is another outpouring of bird calls and the like from Martin Denny. This is up to his previous high standard, but up to last count this is his 10th LP. So enough, already."

Jan. 29, 1961: "Martin Denny, always a bit wild with weird sounds even on monaural discs, serves up a doubly tempting portion via stereo. His latest: EXOTIC PERCUSSION. This offers among other things--tuned Burmese gongs, piccolo xylophones and boo bams..."
I don't know about you, but while reading this I kept waiting for Wally to preemptively call music fans who disagreed with him "creeps" and "jerks," and tell them to "go back to Russia." I'll stop writing now, before I get thrown off the stage.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Introduction to Tiki

From architecture, home décor and music, to restaurants, literature, theme parks and backyard luaus, the South Pacific was a wildly popular theme throughout Mid-Century America. This was especially true in sunny locales like California and Florida, where primitive carved figures, grass huts, “Aloha shirts,” and lush jungle landscaping seemed right at home. But the tiki or "Polynesian Pop" craze eventually spread not just across the continent but across the world.

It began gradually with pre-War bamboo bars and reached critical mass with Trader Vic's and Don the Beachcomber -- the two restaurants that invented the initial canon of tiki decor and drinks and associated them with fine dining and good times. The theme's popularity grew rapidly in the years following World War II, and peaked around the time of Hawaii's admission to the Union in 1959. Many of the service men who'd been in the Pacific Theater remembered the beauty of the islands, in spite of the horrible events that occurred there. New popular restaurants like The Luau in Beverly Hills refined the tiki decor and menus even further. Thor Heyerdahl's bestselling Kon-Tiki (1950) and James A. Mitchener's Tales of the South Pacific (1947) -- which later became a popular musical -- also fed the trend.
Entrance to the "Hidden Village" at Sam's Seafood, Sunset Beach, CA.
Tiki style mixed traditional designs, artifacts and motifs from the actual cultures of the South Pacific with pop-culture trends of Mid-Century America, and then added a dose of "exotic" fantasy elements that sprang from the minds of various artists. Blended together, they created something altogether new and unique.

Certainly, we can dissect a favorite tiki haunt into its component parts, and admire and study each element for what it is: Masks from Papua New Guinea, war clubs from Tahiti, cartoon-like carved tikis from a nearby nursery, "Chinese" foods invented in New York, Latin-infused jazz from the hotel lounges of Hawaii, etc., etc. But it was the combination of all these elements and more that was instantly recognizable as tiki style. At its worst, it was ham-fisted and cheesy. But at its best it was beautiful, evocative, and mysterious, and provided an instant escape from modern life into an exotic fantasy world.

The tiki juggernaut continued well into the 1960s, but was already sputtering to an end by the time the 1970s arrived. From then on, the classic examples of the style were under assault by real estate developers and changing tastes. Even iconic sites like the popular Kahiki Supper Club in Ohio (on the National Register of Historic Places) were bulldozed.
New tikis for sale at Bamboo Ben's "garage sale" event, May 2010.
But just as it seemed the last vestiges of the tiki phenomenon would disappear forever, people began to care about it again. At first, it was only a handful of urban archaeologists, retro-chic hipsters, and nostalgic suburbanites who remembered tiki from their childhoods. But the cult of tiki revival has grown over time. Restaurants have re-opened, Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room has been refurbished, tiki carvers suddenly have tons of customers, the music of Martin Denny is being downloaded into iPods, and tiki's biggest fans gather at large events scattered around the country.

Yes, the revival has been marked with more than its fair share of plasticky Chinese knock-offs and junk. And some folks think hanging a cheap Indonesian mask and a fishnet over their barbeque makes them the next Trader Vic. But there is also quality, creativity, and tiki wonderfulness to be found again. And some of the few remaining authentic tiki remnants of the 1950s and '60s have gotten the shot-in-the-arm they need to survive a little longer, so we can study them, enjoy them, and consider what they can tell us about their era, about their origins, and about ourselves.

The tide has definitely turned.