In 1970, the year I started working in radio and the year I started my senior year in high school, George Harrison came out with his debut solo album "All Things Must Pass," a double album containing "My Sweet Lord" and "Isn't It a P...
In 1970, the year I started working in radio and the year I started my senior year in high school, George Harrison came out with his debut solo album "All Things Must Pass," a double album containing "My Sweet Lord" and "Isn't It a Pity?" and "What is Life?" Years later we learned that Harrison had so much great material because he had trouble getting Lennon and McCartney to record his songs as Beatles tracks, so for a few years he had been hoarding what he considered his best stuff.
In 1978, I had a musical and social epiphany one night, reporting to work at the Mutual Broadcasting System for an overnight anchor shift. Much time had passed in my young life - I was married now with a stepson to raise and a daughter on the way, had worked for three radio stations and had "made it to the network," even if it was the smallest of the four legacy networks, and 1970 seemed a long time past. So it blew my mind to step into an elevator and hear an elevator music version of "Isn't It a Pity?"
If someone was recording tunes from "All Things Must Pass" to play as background music, clearly my youth had passed, because background music was, I had always thought, music for old people. An alarming thought for someone who was 25.
It was about as strange as walking into a supermarket this week, at the age of 59, and hearing "Wake Up Sunshine," an obscure track from another 1970 album, "Chicago."
The second album by the long-lived rock-with-horns band contains the hits "Make Me Smile," "Color My World," and "25 or 6 to 4," giving the band six hits in two years, its premiere album having included "Beginnings," "Questions 67 amd 68," and "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" Even people born decades later know some or all of these tunes. And Chicago itself is still recording with four of the original six members. But only someone who bought the album when it was new was likely to remember "Wake Up Sunshine," the first track on one of the four sides, a short and upbeat number with something like a news theme at the end. It was never released as a single, though it should have been.
On reflection, two things make it possible for this to have happened, for an album cut from 1970 to be suitable as "background music" in a supermarket. The first is that we babyboomers redefined what background music was. The second is that generations coming after us have a different view of the music of different generations.
Background music is an old concept. Much of the Baroque music we listen to closely, glaring at people who cough or open candy in noisy wrappers, was written as background music for royal parties where people talked and laughed and ignored what was being played. In the Roaring Twenties, Erik Satie wrote something he called "Furniture Music" to be played at the intermission of a concert as background while people talked, but, as he told the story later, it was a failure, because people stopped talking and listened to it.
In 1934, George Owen Squier founded Muzak, whose name, he explained, came from the word "music" and the end of another made up corporate name, Kodak. He recorded background music to be played quietly from speakers in stores. In offices, to encourage productivity, he would program a succession of tunes with increasing tempos. In restaurants, to encourage turnover, he would program music with a tempo that suggested a slightly faster chewing rate. Muzak still exists, but in February the company announced it was retiring the word "Muzak."
In the 1940s, a Dallas radio station programmed orchestral music to be heard in the background in stores and homes. Its call letters were KIXL and announcers called it "Kixel." The format was much copied, along with the idea of choosing call letters that suggested a nickname. As late as the 1970s background music stations included WAYV, "the never-ending wave of music," in Atlantic City, WPCH ("Peach") in Atlanta, WLIF ("Double-U-Life") in Baltimore, and so on. To e
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