This Weekend I Will be Mostly Listening to… Library Music June 25, 2011Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, This Weekend I'll Mostly Be Listening to....
A very welcome guest post in this slot from sonofstan.
The easiest way to explain ‘library music’ is to describe it in functional terms; in this regard, it is, perhaps, a form that suits a reductive materialist aesthetic analysis more comfortably than most. It is what it does. If you were Alfred Hitchcock – or you are James Cameron – and you need music for your film, you have the resources and the time to commission Bernard Herrmann or John Williams to write it, and hire an orchestra and a studio to record it. If, however, you are the somewhat less secure producer of ‘Confessions of a Housewife’ from your dingy office in Soho, and you need a comic, circus- type vamp for the scene where the milkman chases your heroine around the bedroom, your options are more limited. And similarly with TV: the BBC can – still – commission original music, and they used to have a whole in-house structure, from Billy Cotton to the Radiophonic Workshop to produce it, but, again, if you’re the director of a magazine programme on Anglia TV and you need some gentle pastoral noodling to accompany your 30 -second piece about surprising wildlife on the Broads, you probably don’t have the time or the money to commission something. And this is where library music comes in.
Library –or programme- music was (actually, still is) a blanket term for generic, non-specific pieces produced for just the eventualities outlined above. And for advertising, station and programme idents, incidental music for training videos, inspiring corporate presentations and countless other contexts where a ‘a bit of music’ would be nice, but not important enough to pay very much for it.
This peculiar branch of the music business, not surprisingly, developed in tight symbiosis with the movie and TV industries, and, until recently, tended to be based very close to the centres of its host pursuits. Rather oddly, there isn’t that much notable US library stuff – the most interesting and strangest stuff is all European, and largely from London, Paris and Rome. It was pretty much exclusively produced by companies, usually allied to publishers, who only did this sort of thing, and while there was huge crossover in terms of personnel between the ‘mainstream’ music biz, and the library sector, they remained completely separate in terms of the corporate structure. In Britain, the big players were KPM (Keith Prowse Music), DeWolfe, Bruton and Standard, in France, Telemusic and in Italy, CAD.In what follows, I will concentrate on the Brit stuff – French and Italian Libraries are fantastic, but I don’t know the field even half-way well enough.
The golden age of Library is generally accepted to be between the mid-sixties and the early eighties: again, there are sound material reasons for this. Before about 1965, most library stuff was done on 78s –they survived longer in the movie business than outside for reasons I can’t fathom – and was largely ‘light classical’ in form, or derivative of the polite dance bands of the pre- and early post- war years. It was played by concert orchestra hacks, by and large. After about 1982, and the arrival of the ‘keyboard workstation’, it became possible for one musician to produce acres of electronic pabulum in his home studio that could effortlessly manage to be as uninteresting as music can possibly be, without being silence.
However, from the mid-sixties onwards, the demand for more contemporary sounding tunes to soundtrack the obligatory swinging party scene, or the car chase, or the politely erotic sex scene, required hipper music –and musicians. In this regard, again, the material conditions within the music industry in Britain in particular, meant that there was a deep pool of exceptional players, able to read, and compose fast, or improvise on jazz/ soul/ rock structures and produce acceptable results under the strict regime of the 3-hour session. This last is another crucial point: the business then was more or less 100% unionised and studio time – compared to now –was very expensive. So the way to do this to a budget, it was quickly realised, was get the best possible musicians for the shortest possible time. And because the rate for a three hour session was pretty good, and universal, and because there wasn’t so much work around that session guys could afford to turn anything down – the industry in the UK was quite provincial and small scale then, and, in the wake of the Beatles, hordes of scruffy herberts were insisting on bashing their own ham-fisted way through their records – most library stuff produced in London in the 60s and 70s was at least well-played, and sometimes quite inspired. Whereas their equivalents in the US would be still getting round the clock mainstream studio work – the likes of the Wrecking Crew in LA, who played on everything, the Stax/ Motown/ Muscle Shoals/ American house bands – there were loads of sophisticated, jazz-literate guys scuffling between Shirley Bassey sessions and Jingle writing. So they did library sessions for the above mentioned companies. Hundreds of them.
These sessions were banged out on LPs with titles like ‘Flamboyant Themes’,‘Light Backgrounds’ and ‘Music Pictorial – Clean, Fresh, Appealing New Sounds’ or, sometimes slightly more descriptive:’ Big Beat’ or ‘Afro Rock’ – occasionally there was –as in the last two – a certain thematic or generic unity: often there was none. I should explain that these records were never commercially available: instead, ad agencies and film companies had subscriptions. They were pressed in quantities of no more than a few hundred at a time, and usually packaged in generic sleeves. KPMs have a beautiful dark green covers, absolutely uniform on the front, DeWolfes usually a two colour drawing, Brutons a lot of letraset type stick figures, and a distinctively awful typeface. This rarity, and the ‘collect the set’ vibe, makes them record collector crack, of course, and the rarer ones go for eye-watering amounts at auction.
Aside from deranged collectors though, Library music has had a curious secret after- life in mainstream music: most obviously in hip-hop, where its highly-valued sample fodder – mostly instrumental, often with open drum breaks and big horn riffs: and, helpfully from the point of view of Mr. Beats, the same theme is often repeated with various instruments taken out. DJ Shadow, for one, owes much of his career to these anonymous studio hacks. Aside from that, Jerry Dammers has always been a big fan, and wrote the intro to a book collection of Library LP sleeves, and the influence is completely audible in his work from ‘More Specials’ onwards. The debt owed by Stereolab, the High Llamas, Broadcast and the Focus Group is more direct, and the ‘Lab have acknowledged this in many ways, from cover art to song titles- and moving into more electronic-y areas, Luke Vibert has done up a few Library comps, and the Cinematic Orchestra very often hit that KPM beat. So, as it was on the TV you watched as a kid, it’s all around, but not quite ‘there’ at the same time…..
Leaving aside these cultish considerations though, why would you actually want to listen to what is, essentially, background music? Well, firstly, its very functionality is attractive – no one is trying to exorcise inner demons here, or wanting to present a weltenshauung : they want to make music, get paid, and get out to the pub. Often though, the very lack of pressure to be creative, and the anonymity, produces deeply weird results. There is a track on the Standard LP ‘Small Group Pop’ called Evil Flowers (by Herbie Flowers, who played bass on Walk on the Wild Side and on Hunky Dory), which I can’t find on you tube, but is on a mix I did, that I’ll send to anyone who wants it, where the guitar eats itself in a way that out-psychs most music that sets out to be disturbing. And the field provided a context in which many pioneers of electronic music got to make albums at a time when the opportunities were otherwise non-existent: Delia Derbyshire, the woman who wrote the Dr. Who theme and helped set up the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, did quite a few Library records under various pseudonyms. Even in more straightforward, light jazzy, or easy, breezy listening sets, there is often a freshness and a surprising sophistication to a lot of this stuff: and, equally, a lot of it is, of course, boringly generic. In truth,it’s music that demands a lot of cherry picking – there are very few Library LPs that are listenable all the way through. In this respect, compilations/ mix tapes are probably the way to go, and a bit of googling will take you there.
The clips below are a merest tip of a big, and scary iceberg:
Funky Fanfare by Keith Mansfield:
And, as sampled by DangerDoom:
This is more typical of the ‘lighter’ KPM sound:
A great piece by Syd Dale:
Here’s a piece from Delia Derbyshire’s 1972 KPM LP Electrosonics:
And this is from a Standard Library LP called Pop Pulsations, after they found a way around the unions by outsourcing to the Eastern Bloc: this is Polish Funk….
And finally, from a KPM All-Stars gig from a few years ago, a tune you will recognise, originally from a library session: