Voodoo Dreams In The Rain

It’s a classic tale of exploitation, holiday “romance” and Hollywood-styled reverie from a far-off island. Exotica is a mythical sometimes fake music that has transcended its humble roots and travelled the world.

It was in the mid ‘80s when Genesis P Orridge (of Throbbing Gristle) first introduced me to Martin Denny’s albums. Ever the inspired collector, he just liked music that was weird; different; inexplainable – the band even replicated one of Denny’s sleeves for their “greatest hits” package. On a trip to San Francisco, about three hours before the Nimitz Freeway collapsed in the earthquake of 1989, I asked the owner of a record shop I was browsing in if he had any Denny albums – “Can’t get rid of them,” he said as he introduced me to a rack of cut-outs. The sleeves alone were magnificent, I read their bizarre sleeve notes as the walls cracked in my hotel room and seismograph went mad.

By 1993, when the Re/Search book Incredibly Strange Music came out, with Denny’s ‘Hypnotique’ featured on one of the opening pages, I’d already dug into Denny’s past. He was at the heart of ‘Exotica’ (did the first two albums in less than two months) and his band who were ensconced at Don’s Beachcomber bar in Hawaii spawned Arthur Lyman’s Group and the Augie Colon combo and brought to life a host of songs by fellow traveller Les Baxter. Hawaii was a world away – some 16 hours from London, which by chance I’d visited courtesy of a Megadeth writing assignment for RAW magazine, a Mai Tai experience that re-enforced the tiki culture that was then usurped, very briefly, by thrash metal.

By then Denny was long gone but the Re/Search book unlocked a whole load more; Lux And Ivy’s love of music from the weird side of the street included a veritable slew of exotic interpretations; from the beach bum music inspired by Eden Ahbez (both Ray Anthony and Bianchi interpret his sound here), Elisabeth Waldo’s Indiana Jones-styled experiments with traditional instruments, and Tak Shindo’s attempt to bring the music of the east and west together. Add to that the influx of jazz experimentalists caught in the genre – from the formidable Stan Kenton (whose band member Johnny Richards also steps out in his own right here) and writer/arranger Phil Moore through to Buddy Collette and his conceptual ‘Polynesia’ that included narration by Robert Sorrels who was later arrested for murder.

Collette’s super rare masterpiece came from the dark side of exotica, a border line drawn here, with disc one concentrating on the fake bird noises, sound effects of the sea and adherence to melody; while disc two opts for the more surreal moments, the addition of crime jazz sounds and mood music as delivered by Les Baxter from his ‘The Passions’ album featuring Bas Sheva on vocals, Richard Shores’ ‘Hysteria’ and Bill Russo’s ‘Anger’ from ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’. Here we also travel deep into the world of voodoo, head hunters, incantations and tribal kings while Arthur Lyman’s rain-soaked opus underlines the themes that fascinated these sonic voyagers.

The exotica and space age bachelor pad easy listening scenes have come and gone many times in the intervening years but, again, in a time when music of all kinds has become available in the oddest of places and people’s homegrown need to explore other worlds without leaving their front doors has become a necessity, its value as an escapist medium is undoubted.

Back in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s when these albums were created they were part novelty/part experiment. The likes of Leo Addeo’s ‘Paradise Regained’ and The Living Strings were from a period where stereo and hi-fi were the selling points, while Jack Fascinato’s ‘Music From A Surplus Store’ explored household objects as instruments and Ruth Welcome focused on the zither made popular at the time by The Third Man starring Orson Welles.

If a marker were needed for the power of the exotica genre back then, it must come in the shape of Henry Mancini’s debut album which was re-sleeved and re-titled ‘Driftwood And Dreams’ to jump on the bandwagon, after all he wouldn’t have got anywhere without the call of the birds and the sound of the sea – and, of course, the exploitation record jacket – would he?

Dave Henderson, MOJO magazine 2021

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