!En Estereo!

[Originally published in The Lightmouse Keeper, Nokia online journal, Helsinki, 1997.]

“Let’s face it… you are afflicted with the South of the Border syndrome. What can you do about it? Well, you can catch the next banana boat to Curacao. Or you can let Latin America come to you. That makes the whole thing so simple. No humiliating defeats at the hands of surly porters. No puzzling about how to ask for the washroom in Portuguese. And not a revolution in sight.” (Liner notes, “Hugo Winterhalter Goes… South of the Border”)

The invention of stereo recording and playback techniques during the 1950s and 1960s unleashed a flurry of recordings aimed directly at creating a new market of Hi-Fi enthusiasts. The recent revival of these recordings reissued on CD under the general banner of “Lounge”, “Easy Listening” or “Exotica” marks the return of this music as an amusing precursor to the supposedly more authentic phenomenon of “world music”.

They might sound nostalgic now, but in their day these recordings were shining examples of the consumer utopia made possible by cutting edge technology. These recordings were invented by the very same companies who were interested in demonstrating the superior technology of Hi-Fi stereo over the popular mono recordings of the era (ultimately made obsolete by stereo discs). Sound familiar?

It’s not so different from the manner that digital age corporations (producers of software, hardware and delivery systems) manufacture, deliver and market their all-new-improved bundles of machines and related software. Recalling the incredible profusion of sounds, publicity blurbs and graphic devices invented especially for this new medium of the 1960s demonstrates how little this strategy has changed.

New technologies require proof of their superiority. Today it’s time, and not just place that needs to be conquered.

Faster computers, faster internet connections, faster CD-ROM players and so on need their own proof of superiority in order to convince a market that obsolescence is merely a bi-product of progress. As in the space age, today’s info age companies need products that demonstrate the unarguable need for advances in the technological systems that allow access to entertainment, information, communication or for the production of images, sounds and texts. Only this time the turnaround is a matter of months, not years.

In the fifties it was stereo that would convince consumers to throw away their old mono record players and trade up to a new stereo player. The reason: without one you couldn’t truly appreciate the unlimited stereo action contained in the new recordings.

These “demonstration” discs were bundled with stereo record players. Album covers dramatically announced the new incompatibility and superiority with eye catching graphics. Assortedly, they announced The Wondrous World of Stereo Fidelity; Living Stereo, Stereo Action and Dynagroove, the Magnificent New Sound developed by RCA Victor; Mercury created f:35d Perfect Presence Sound Series; Kimberly Records manufactured a series of Sounds You See and Hear Hi-Fi in Motion percussion albums; United Artists developed their Wall to Wall Stereo Ultra Audio products; the Time Series, and best of all, Command Records issued the wildest series of abstract-moderne covers (by Joseph Albers and lesser-known graphic designers).

In the process, the recording industry came up with an extraordinary series of 33 RPM albums produced solely to convey the vitality of stereo techniques. Initially derided as “ping pong percussion”, many established arrangers were soon hired by the recording corporations to breathe new life into old standards. The same song in stereo simply wasn’t the same song as it was in the days of monophonic recordings. Technological novelty also required other kinds of musical novelty. And so producers of stereo music branched out into the world of “non western” music in order to amplify the sense of access to an extraordinary world made available by this new technology.

Juan Garcia Esquivel transformed the songs and rhythms of his native Mexico into novel stereo experimentations (with “el Sonido que sus Ojos pueden seguir”!). He invented a crazy blend of Russian, Latin and percussive music on two volumes of “Lo Infinito en Sonido”, and “Sonidos de Otros Mundos”. On “Cuerdas en Llamas” (recorded in New York’s Webster Hall in 1959), he collided the music of Rimsky Korsakoff, Brahms, Mozart, and Cole Porter into very cool and very kooky avant garde pop arrangements .

Enoch Light followed suite, finding infinite inspiration in percussive arrangements of Latin forms in Command’s “Persuasive Percussion”, “Pertinent Percussion”, “Cha Cha Cha”, and “Bosa Nova” volumes. Perez Prado, “el rey del mambo” in Mexico, found an even larger audience in North America for his mambo rhythms re-recorded in full dynamic living stereo. The likes of Les Baxter, Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman practically invented whole Pacific Island cultures for the sake of rhythmic and sonic innovation.

Percussion became the trademark of Hi Fi demonstration. String sections were multiplied to almost absurd levels, giving birth to groups such as the 101 Strings who committed “The Soul of Spain” to the (then) technically unsurpassable vinyl disc. Tangos were given the stereo treatment, striped down and relayered into flashy and often hilarious demonstrations: the directionality of sound was proof of stereo’s ability to create a music never heard before. Well, almost.

Hugo Winterhalter and others went “South of the Border”, “Latin”, or “Gypsy”. What’s the difference? It was a safe way to hear the “exotic” world outside the suburbs of the US. Jose Valdes y Los Embajadores gave us their “Cook’s Tour of Latin America”. Herman Clebanoff, with his Exciting Strings and Percussion, recorded “Quierme Mucho”, “Hava Naglila”, “Sueno Flamenco”, and “Barranquilla” for Mercury. Many of these exotic songs were written by North American composers working in the corporation’s studios. Who cares if they thought, as did Clebanoff, that Baranquilla was named after a small “town in Venezuela”!

The RCA Victor Corporation initiated a new series of Stereo Action recordings, packaging the new orthophonic high fidelity “sound your eyes can follow” in elaborate geometric covers — complete with cut-out shapes, space-age inner sleeves, and extraordinary technical notes explaining the intricacies of the new technology. Many covers came with the hyperbolic technical warning: “This stereophonic 33 1/3 RPM long playing record has been mastered employing the Westrex cutter head system driven by a Sculley lathe. We do not claim full fidelity when played on a monaural phonograph.”

Of course. Only on stereo record players and only through the art of stereo recording (“as developed for the 1960s and beyond by the engineers at RCA”) could these new dimensions truly be heard. These LPs,

“when played on stereo phonographs would provide the hearer with spectacular sonic illusions of motion, directionality and depth. (RCA Victor’s “Bob and Ray Throw a Stereo Spectacular”, LSP-1773, is a prize example). The snarl of racing cars whizzing past the starting line, the New York City subway, a ping pong game, the bowling alley, the zing of a riffle bullet toward its target, the soft shoe dance across the stage — these and other novel effects became showpieces for the home stereo listener.” (Liner notes, “Stereo Action Unlimited!”)

Although initially developed to create a more “realistic” sense of sound in space (and not necessarily for the domestic market), recording companies soon realised that they needed to demonstrate the superiority of advances in stereo more literally. And less “realistically” as it turned out.

These stereo recordings were presented as the perfect merging of art and technology.

Stereo replaced mono by the early 1970s — after more than ten years convincing consumers to make the switch — finally making mono recording and record players obsolete. In the process a new form of music produced solely to demonstrate the amazing sound of stereo, came and went, destined for the back of the pile of records at your parent’s place, and now back to the front shelves of your nearest CD store.

Talk about a revolution.

Ross Rudesch Harley, Santafe de Bogota, March 1997.