555: El Records Explores the 1960s


Over the past year, reissue label El has released a handful of compilations that explore different scenes and aspects of 1960s culture (with some 1950s thrown in for good measure). In this week’s 555 installment, we will investigate these compilations


Bower Hats & Leather Boots: Personalities Go Pop Art is an interesting compilation of songs recorded in the 1960s by various television and stage personalities. One might be (rightly) afraid that this collection would go the route of Rhino’s collection of, erm, interesting recordings by movie stars. Of the thirty six tracks, there’s not a lot of material on here that’s deserving of scorn, though the three songs by Dirk Bogarde might be the exception. It’s easy to forget in this celebrity day-and-age that at one point, when one wanted to be considered an actor, one would also have the ability to both sing and dance, and taking that into consideration, this set isn’t that bad. A handful of those appearing here were accomplished singers, such as Anthony Newley, Hayley Mills, and Sophia Loren, and their songs are excellent in their own right. Others, such as Orson Welles, Robert Mitchum, and Tom Courtenay, are still campy fun, even if their singing voices are less than stellar. Also included is Vincent Price reading poetry, a comedy sketch by Beyond the Fringe, and Quentin Crisp, who is in a category all his own. This collection is enhanced by an essay on camp, and is best read while listening to this fun little collection.

If you’re looking for a good barometer of the British popular culture, there’s no place better to look than at the films and television programs of the era. Pop Goes The Easel: The Start of the Swinging Sixties, presenting the soundtracks from popular cult films like It’s Trad, Dad!, Play It Cool, and All Night Long.  What one hears, then, is a pre-Beatles England that is fascinated with American jazz, early rock and roll, and, most especially, Elvis Presley. Speaking of the King, the best moments here are the four songs by Anthony Newley. Idle on Parade took the story of Elvis’s military service and twisted it into a story of a pop idol in the military; Newley’s a dead ringer for Presley, and from the sounds of it, it’s a hilarious film. No wonder the kids liked it!

Building on the theme of cinema in the 1960s is the simply-titled World Cinema In The 1960s, Volume One. This collection compiles numbers from a handful of films from such noted directors as Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Stanley Kubrick, and Orson Welles. The numerous songs cover a multitude of genres, from the dark, cold orchestration for Chris Marker‘s film La Jetee, to the jumpy jazz songs from Orson Welles‘ adaptation of Kafka‘s The Trial. Truffaut’s Jules et Jim highlights the diversity he sought in his soundtracks, with its three songs ranging from marching band-style orchestration, to easy listening, and to the gentle sounds of Jeanne Moreau‘s French cooing on “Le Tourbillon.” Stanley Kubrick gets the greatest space on this collection, though, as the entirety of the score to Lolita is found here, a contrast of lightweight numbers and heavier, darker fare, all wonderfully directed and written by Bob Harris and Nelson Riddle. Closing the set is Vera Lynn‘s “We’ll Meet Again,” which famously concluded Kubrick’s much-loved dark comedy Dr. Strangelove. All in all this is eighty minutes of cinematic delight, and here’s hoping subsequent volumes are this consistent and compelling.

Equally compelling, but by no means as easy a listen, is the collection Electronic Music For The Body and Soul. This five-track collects essential works by masters of 20th Century composition, and can be an abrasive, scary listen. John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen aren’t exactly palatable fare, and to some, these compositions sound like the aural equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting, but they are influential recordings nonetheless. Listen with that in mind, and don’t listen to it in the dark.

Finally, a much more interesting and delightful trip in time can be had with the two-disc set The Dawn of Psychedelia. This collection rounds up a number of different sounds and ephemera, to paint a picture of the arts scene at the beginning of the LSD era. It’s a pretty diverse collection, ranging from the African tribe Les Troubadours Du Roi Baudouin to sitarist Ravi Shankar, and on through the flautists Yusef Lateef and Herbie Mann. This compilation is eclectic as all get-out, with both music and spoken word. If you wanted to know the context with which the psychedelic scene arose, there’s no better place to start than here. I mean, where else are you going to hear Alice B. Tolkas talking about her special brownies alongside beautiful Indian ragas?

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