Thursday, September 23, 2021

Appreciating ‘middle of the road’ music

By Dave Babbitt – Special to the Sydenham Current

I’m neither an introvert nor an extrovert.

One might describe me as a “middle of the road” kind of guy.

And that leads me to this weeks topic.

In the past, I’ve written about how music lovers tend to get hung-up on music genres.

It’s important to most people to let others know what kind, or genre of music they enjoy listening to, their favourite artists, and are usually pretty vocal about what they don’t like.

Finding someone who shares your passion for a particular genre of music is like finding a motorcycling buddy.

Your common interest makes you almost blood-kin.

I continually flog the fact that my taste in music is incredibly eclectic so in reality, I could be buddies with almost anyone reading this, that is until it comes to “Middle of the Road” music (or MOR).

I could likely find more people who share my appreciation of Gregorian Chant than my love for MOR music.

Like most music, MOR music is actually quite difficult to define as there are several sub-genres and blurred lines between them.

I once found a “Guide to Heavy Metal Music” and it was divided into seven different sub-categories.

I sometimes think that there are almost as many music genres as there are artists.

While I know what I categorize as MOR music, I decided to consult with the all-knowing (and sometimes wrong) Wikipedia to get its take.

Wikipedia sub-categorizes MOR music into Easy Listening, Pop Music of the Pre-Rock Era, Show Tunes, Smooth Jazz, Soft Rock and Countrypolitan.

I don’t necessarily agree with all of that but I do agree with the fact that it says MOR has long been used as a derogatory term and is characterized by vocal harmonies, prominent melodies and subtle orchestral arrangements.

My appreciation for MOR music and in particular Easy Listening music has nothing to do with my age however.

I’ve always loved it.

It’s undoubtedly due to my bias toward great instrumental musicianship and my often dislike of lyrics.

Perhaps somewhat deep and hard to understand, (and many will disagree with me), I look at many lyrics as displacing otherwise beautifully placed notes.

In other words, they take away from the beauty of a great melody.

To be a bit clearer, I find this analogous to the difference between still photos and video.

A still photo is completely open to one’s interpretation, just like a painting.

Despite what may seemingly be obvious, something completely different could have been happening in a still picture and the viewer can interpret it any way they choose.

Video on the other hand has sound, and there is no room for interpretation of what you’re seeing and hearing.

There is a place for both still pictures and video just as there is for instrumental music and songs with lyrics.

I just happen to have great appreciation and bias toward instrumentals.

Just as many genres of music such as Big Band Jazz, Doo-Wop and straight-up Rock ’n Roll have largely faded into the sunset, so has MOR music, and I’m largely left to spin my old records, watch YouTube or find CD’s on nostalgia sites.

Let me drop some names and see if anyone remembers some of my favourite MOR artists.

I’ve long been a big James Last fan.

He put out so many albums and compilations that it was hard to keep track of his prolific output and he sold over 100 million albums over the course of his career.

He was never on the Hit Parade and toured the world with sold-out concerts for decades, but sadly I never had the opportunity to attend one.

His music was often brass/horn heavy (hence my bias) but he also recorded many lush orchestral and vocal records.

His genius was in his arranging.

In rattling off other names, I liked much of the output from artists like Andre Kostelanetz, the Anita Kerr Singers, Mantovani, the Johnny Mann Singers, Bert Kaempfert, the Laurie Bower Singers, 101 Strings, the Living Strings and Living Voices, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Henry Mancini, Ray Conniff and of course, the great (and Canadian) Percy Faith.

Percy Faith’s recording of Theme from “A Summer Place” is one of my favourite recordings of all-time.

It transports me every time I hear it!

There were also some MOR acts like Liberace and the Lawrence Welk that while quirky, featured great musicianship.

After being less than kind to songs with lyrics, I do appreciate some of the great vocalists who had the ability to choose strong material and had prolific careers in the MOR genre.

I’ve long admired vocalists like Perry Como, Andy Williams, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Doris Day, Burt Bachrach, Englebert Humperdinck, Bobby Vinton, and never forget Ol’ Blue Eyes.

Please remember, “Pop” music is not a genre or style of music.

It is merely a moniker for what is popular at any given moment in time.

All music falls out of the “Pop” category eventually, with some of it moving into the Easy Listening category.

For example, I’ve seen former “Pop” stars like The Carpenters and Neil Diamond now listed as “Easy Listening” artists.

I think it important to be clear that I do not classify the immense body of work of classical or orchestral works by the Master’s as MOR music.

Yes, it has a very large catalogue of relaxing instrumental and choral music, but I look at that music as standing on its own.

I can’t leave this topic however without addressing what many refer to as “Elevator Music”, another term that is usually used in a derogatory way.

Popular back in the 60’s and 70’s, there were subscription music services such as Muzak which provided instrumental music (i.e. Elevator Music) to business and companies whose sole intent was to subconsciously influence buying, or work habits.

Sick as it may seem, I recall enjoying much of that too as I wandered around the Sentry store in Sarnia.

(Just before they would announce “we have a lost eight-year-old boy by the name of David at the Service Desk”. I used to get lost a lot)

A co-worker of mine at WDSS gave me an entire box of Easy Listening CD’s that their Father had purchased (largely from Readers Digest) before he passed away and I’m having a great time going through them.

Don’t turn your nose up at MOR music.

What you’re listening to today will likely end up in a MOR bargain bin at Wal Mart one day.

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