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Irrevocably Retro

My Glamorous Research Assistant is holding a ‘vintage tea party’ themed party this weekend, so naturally she looked at the mountain of organising, styling, designing, catering and collating that would be needed and deduced immediately that I was best put in charge of … the music. And nothing else.

[Links mainly go to YouTube.]

My remit was: a) ‘vintage tea party’, which made some sort of logical sense; b) ‘period yet modern’, which meant “Caro Emerald and stuff”; and c) “stuff I like”, which really meant “Tough shit, suckers, you can listen to my music all evening for once”. As the party is an extended afternoon & evening affair, that divides conveniently into ‘early afternoon/arrival/mood-setting’, ‘mid afternoon/early evening/buzz’ and ‘evening/dancing’ times (possibly dropping back to the vintage stuff for the late afternoon lull before things pick up again).

Strictly speaking, ‘vintage’ would probably be for terribly polite and refined English tea party stuff - aspidistras, chintzy crockery, doilies, the vicar and his lovely wife round while something like the Fawlty Towers theme plays quietly in the background as everyone crooks their pinkie around bone china handles. But an hour plus of that would either send you to sleep or make your ears run, so I went more for Big Band Swing, starting with the Charleston and Benny Goodman’s Sing, Sing, Sing. For the former, I had an excellent rendition by Enoch Light in my library; not actually contemporaneous to the original period but made in the Fifties, apparently to showcase high fidelity recording techniques. The other you hear almost everywhere a ‘Thirties feel’ is required and it’s infectiously hyper (if perhaps a trifle long at over eight minutes in its full form).

Truth be told, more than thirty minutes of this stuff could also make your ears run; yeah, I enjoyed watching Top Hat but it does come across as rather stagey and farfetched these days. So from here I headed both ‘south’ to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue - redolent of jazz-age sophistication - and ‘north’ to Eartha Kitt’s Let’s Do It (which actually comes from much later, being recorded in 1951, but the song dates from 1928), rather less sophisticated but a lot more fun. Throw in some random other pieces that were to hand (Gene Kelly, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, the entire Easy Virtue soundtrack) and job done.

I didn’t sweat the ‘vintage’ side too much; it’s just the appetiser and scene-setter. Strictly speaking, the tea party itself is themed around the late Forties (although I doubt rationing would have lent itself to abundant cakey goodness, given the shortage of eggs) and early Fifties, so for the mid-afternoon slot and going into the livelier evening ents, I broadened the remit to encompass ‘modern with a retro feel’ and ‘retro versions of modern tracks’ and elected not to observe strict fidelity to a precise time period. Caro Emerald is a good example of the former, and one of the better ‘electro-swing’ artists simply by remaining enjoyable for more than a few tracks - quite a lot of the genre is just an ever diminishing reiteration of the same tricks, whereas at least Emerald has some decent original material such as Just One Dance and Coming Back As A Man. But I did luck out in finding a decent electro-swing cover of Beyoncé’s Crazy In Love (by Swing Republic, apparently recorded but passed over for the recent Great Gatsby soundtrack), a remix of Fred Astaire Puttin’ On The Ritz, and Tape Five’s charming Bad Boy Good Man. Plus the pièce de résistance: a German swing rendition of Seven Nation Army, by Musik For The Kitchen, which really has to be heard to be believed. (There were also a lot of smooth jazz covers of modern hits, variously collected on several compilations themed by decade, but these generally seemed too laid back for what we wanted, although I did add Groove de Praia’s Walking On The Moon. For something livelier, The Lost Fingers do a nice line in scat jazz covers while The Baseballs trade in rock ‘n’ roll versions.) Meanwhile, Royal Crown Revue’s Barflies At The Beach (added alongside their Hey, Pachucho! from the dancehall scene in The Mask) and Zarif’s Box Of Secrets both rework the Sing, Sing, Sing brass line from earlier.

Moving away from pastiche, Chris Isaak, Jace Everett, Imelda May, Lucinda Belle and Miss 600 all work in a consciously retro style that slotted in nicely with the Fifties theme while keeping the event rooted in the present day.

From the period itself, I elected to avoid the Forties - The Andrews Sisters? Gracie Fields? Austerity?? I think not. Too much of the music scene was on hold due to war, with those who would have been likeliest to move it forward instead mobilised, leaving the homefront to fall back on the reassuring nostalgia of cosy pre-war sentiment. But the Fifties - the rise of teen affluence and rock ‘n’ roll - provided a much richer seam, beginning with Elvis, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran (always a favourite of my dad’s) and the now somewhat unfairly overlooked Larry Williams. To these, I added Della Reese’s formidable Why Don’t You Do Right (a blues standard, though this version was actually recorded in 1960) and some slighty cheesier fare: a bit of Andy Williams, some Perez Prado (yes, the Guinness one) and the inimitable Hoots Mon! by Lord Rockingham’s XI.

At this point, co-opting the theme from an advert led me down a whole new avenue and I became sidetracked trying to locate Jazz That Would Be Acceptable To Non-jazz Fans. I ended up exploring, firstly, the themes from some of the classic ATV shows of the Sixties (namely The Avengers), and then spy themes in general. Big, brassy, blatent, recorded mainly by big band ensembles and arrangers who would have learnt their trade in the previous decades, these promised to add a bit of swagger even as they veered dangerously beyond strict remit. I had intended to avoid the Sixties, notably The Beatles onward, as then you’re definitely Swinging and before you know it, you’re into psychedelic rock which is a whole ‘nother party (albeit one I’d quite like to throw, even if it would likely turn out to be purely for myself). But I figured we could, with a squint and a convincing cover story, slip in The Saint (Orbital’s beefed-up version to add some contemporary oomph), Hugo Montenegro’s kitsch The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (which is about to become topical currency again) and Our Man Flint and inevitably, the Theme From Mission: Impossible, not to mention worthy covers of Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and the Peter Gunn theme, from Volume 7 of Capitol’s commendable Ultra-Lounge series. And then I thought, what the hell, and added some contemporary Bond theme covers from David Arnold’s Shaken And Stirred album, a few Nancy Sinatra singles, and Goldbug’s acid jazz reading of Whole Lotta Love on the somewhat dubious grounds that it includes the Pearl & Dean theme (and because I love the female vocal).

(If you like this stuff, there is apparently an entire recognised genre entitled ‘spy jazz’ or ‘crime jazz’ that delights in bigging up classic TV themes and digging out the more obscure ones or even churning out new material in the same vein - try Somafm’s Secret Agent station, beloved of programmers, or tracking down a used copy of the compilation This Is Cult Fiction Royale, or if you want the modern facsimile, start with The Murky World of Barry Adamson, Steve Hillman’s The World Over, or even Bebo Best’s Jazz For Imaginary Movies.)

Unfortunately, the GRA is apparently allergic to jazz so that excluded most of the best stuff from the period, except for the most accessible and popular tracks such as Take Five (I’m sure I didn’t dare squeeze any of Wes Montgomery’s big band jazz work in there, ahem). But Latin Jazz feels a tad more acceptable, particularly if accomplished in a modern idiom, so I included Touch And Go’s frenetic Would You and Club Des Belugas’s Habana Twist.

Listen, let’s not even get on to the ‘evening’ playlist. I had to include Gold by Spandau Ballet on there…