A small handful of generations ago, there was a time when people actually sought out the soothing sounds of generic instrumental fluff. Full-blown wall-to-wall orchestral adaptations of popular songs and instrumental classics. Pure musical gloss drenched in production polish and dripping with sugarcoat. The lack of stylistic ambition in these albums – telling any two apart could fail any Pepsi Challenge – was often mirrored in their presentation. With titles like Music to Make You Misty, The Sounds of Spain, and Exciting Strings, this was music designed for people who didn’t want to have to think about their music, who was behind it or where it came from.
This was Easy Listening, the hatching ground for perennial conductor superstars like Percy Faith, Enoch Light, Andre Kostelanetz, and Ray Conniff, amongst many others. And hard to imagine now as it may be, this stuff wasn’t just a little popular. If you’ve ever casually flipped through the bargain bins of your favorite record shop or thrift store, you know you’ve seen more Easy Listening than any of the cool shit. Once upon a time, people bathed in this music.
For those Easy Listeners who didn’t even want to deal with names, 101 Strings were the ideal creation. Whatever style, genre, or theme desired, this nameless orchestra delivered the goods with almost mechanical virtuosity. They established a solid reputation yet never revealed the names of their members – an identity characterized by lack of identity – packaged in cheaply designed spineless sleeves that resembled overgrown postcards.
For no-frills entertainment, their world was your oyster – with one notable exception…
Strings producer Dick L. Miller would occasionally branch out and record something beyond the pale of the ensemble’s devoted following. By 1968, selling the sounds of “those kids today” to the older generation was a niche market in itself. Tapping into the post-2001 sci-fi craze, 101 Strings delivered a record that alchemically fused their branded trademark lushness with four-piece Psych band grooves. Just about every other earnest attempt in the history of music to pull off this feat would inevitably fall flat on its face, but this album, so uncool in its pedigree, so nearly overripe in its essence, it occupies its own orbit in the cosmos of Out-There-ness.
This bizarre marriage of pulse-perking keyboards and acid-soaked fuzz guitars with the reliable down-blanket comfort of an all-string orchestra succeeds almost in spite of itself, spinning a dark fantasy ride that would resonate with a sensibility light years ahead of its time. Opening with a shuddering twinge from the Moog synthesizer, Astro-Sounds must have left even the hippest of parents scratching their heads in generation-gapped bewilderment right out of the gate:
From there we settle into a future-visioned cocktailia of Jetsons-inspired bachelor pad elegance woven with decidedly Earth-bound cascades of strings that threaten to levitate the needle straight off the record. This is Space Pop being redefined even as the term was still getting a sense of itself. This is the embodiment of 21st century sophistication as conceived through late-60s sobriety. Dig the longing reflection of the flightless star-gazer that permeates “Re-Entry to Mog” [sic?]:
clip: Re-Entry to Mog
Cheesy? Perhaps – but not gimmicky in the way you’d expect a 60s sci-fi pop album to be, completely devoid of any clichéd sci-fi effects. There are musical chops at work here to be sure, thanks to producer Miller and Alshire label owner Al Sherman, who are credited as the composers. The back cover’s copy tries to cram just about every hip phrase into a catchy come-on: “A SPACE ODYSSEY IN THE BEAT OF TODAY – WITH THE FAR OUT SOUNDS OF TOMORROW’S UNCHARTED TRIP BEYOND THE NOW GENERATION.”
Too groovy for the folks, too square for the kids, and so wrong that it actually works, breathtakingly so. The album’s killer centerpiece for me is Side B’s anthemic opener “Barrier X-69”, a mini masterpiece that feels like the lost theme to some sci-fi space epic that never was:
clip: Barrier X-69
Was the casual buyer of 1968 at all prepared for this? Did the devoted 101 Strings fan truly register how pregnantly anomalous this merger of two so distinct worlds was? Apparently not – producer Miller has attested in recent years that people actually wrote in to complain about this album, putting the skids on any further experiments melding modern sounds with the Strings’ apparently winning formula. You can almost picture Mr. & Mrs. Middle America tossing this record in the trash and quickly throwing on Bert Kaempfert to calm themselves back down.
In truth, Miller borrowed session tapes cut two years earlier by Jerry Cole and session musicians for an equally mind-blowing album as The Id called The Inner Sounds of the Id. These tapes would provide Psych fodder for almost a dozen albums by the decade’s end, half of which invented new personas for the same base material: Projection Company’s Give Me Some Lovin’, Bebe Bardon’s The Sounds of Love (with 101 Strings again), Haircut & the Impossibles’ Call It Soul, the ultra-bizarre Modern Sounds Famous Songs of Hank Williams (the cover of which features a come-hither hippie girl feeding red and blue sugar cubes to a horse!), and most notably as the one-shot-wonder The Animated Egg (which in turn was later re-packaged as Black Diamonds’ A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix, itself slightly different to the albums with same name and overlapping material by the Purple Fox and Jeff Cooper & the Stoned Angels – got it?).
When the Lounge revival peaked in the mid-90s, this album was mythical. One of those records you always heard of but never actually heard. Fortunately, some enterprising bootlegger put out a number of 2-on-1 CDs taken from vinyl, liberating Exotica classics by Esquivel, Les Baxter, Yma Sumac, Tak Shindo, and this jewel (some, unfortunately, were digitized at the wrong speed; Astro-Sounds is a bit too fast in this form). The demand for these boots made the major labels realize they were sitting on a goldmine, and legit reissues from the master tapes soon followed. Astro-Sounds finally got its due in righteous presentation thanks to Caroline’s sub-label Scamp, which soon went out of print. Fortunately, Santa Monica-based indie label 26F Records just reissued it with the same three non-Astro-Sounds bonus tracks as Scamp’s edition. The clips presented here are just the tip of the iceberg.
By some miracle about a year ago, I chanced upon a copy of the original LP and could hardly believe it. I had never met anyone who’d even seen a copy, let alone actually owned one. All I expected was just the beauteous warmth that vinyl more often than not has to offer, but was in for a shock: the LP’s mix favor’s the strings (naturally), coming across as even icier and spookier than on Scamp’s CD (which does a much-needed job of bringing up the bass). Needless to say, it’s a treasure.
The stock disclaimer: While I’d love to just give this album away with a free download, somewhere out there is a mom & pop store or site that needs your support now more than ever. Here are some sources for the CD: Dusty Groove, Amazon dealers, ebayers.