Exotica pioneer Les Baxter takes a trippy musical journey into outer space
One of the first examples of what would become known, in the 1950s, as “space-age pop,” Music out of the Moon was a collaboration between arranger Les Baxter, composer Harry Revel, and theremin player Dr. (of podiatry) Samuel Hoffman, fresh off the success on his work for the Alfred Hitchcock film, Spellbound. Revel wrote most of the music for this release, which was originally a box set of three 10-inch records, but Baxter—still a rookie as arranger and composer—was given considerable freedom in how he executed Revel’s compositions.
Baxter began his musical career at the Detroit Conservatory, where he studied piano, before enrolling at Pepperdine College to study music. Throughout the 1940s, he worked for a number of swing bands and famous performers, including vocalist Mel Torme and clarinetist Artie Shaw. He eventually moved into arranging and conducting, working at Capitol Records. It was in this capacity that Baxter was assigned to work with composer Harry Revel on something of an experimental record, Music out of the Moon, featuring theremin player Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman.
In 1947, people were still emerging from the nightmare of World War II, and while many of the world’s major countries were in tatters, the United States had suffered the destruction of its own cities and infrastructure. Thus, the country was poised to enjoy a period of historic prosperity and assume the role of one of the world’s great leaders. The optimism of the era is reflected in much of the music that was produced throughout the next ten-to-fifteen years—as is the melancholy that persisted underneath the good times—the phantom of wartime loss of life, PTSD, the creeping alienation as populations moved to the suburbs.
All of this is reflected in Music out of the Moon, a joyous celebration that sometimes allows itself to sound haunting, even a little sinister. One of the goals of this style of post-war big band was to show off the capabilities of new audio technology, both in the recording booth and in-home hi-fi systems. As a result, artists were encouraged to spread their wings and even get eccentric, as long as it showcased the dynamic range and stereophonic capabilities of new equipment. As such, Baxter was allowed to pull out any stop he wanted, including those breathless harmonies, wordless choruses, and soaring strings that would become the defining features of space-age pop, which here, despite being one of the earliest examples of the style, is very nearly fully formed right out of the gate thanks to Baxter’s genius as a conductor.
The first song in the collection, “Lunar Rhapsody,” remains perhaps the defining song of space-age pop, putting Samuel Hoffman’s theremin front and center and backing it up with a dreamy choir, harp and other strings, and piano. The second track, “Moon Moods,” is one of the most recognizable slices of space-age pop, referenced constantly and containing the “do dee do zap de zu!” vocals that would achieve their zenith under the guidance of Juan Garcia Esquivel a few years later. The song also adds guitars, and xylophones along with the theremin and the rest of the orchestra. It brings a sense of quirky playfulness.
The middle portion of the collection settles into a slightly less eclectic rhythm, though there are still plenty of quirks. Just when something seems to be a fairly routine bit of easy listening jazz, in wanders Hoffman and his otherworldly electronic instrument to remind that while, yes, this is a song of tender romance and dancing, it’s also taking place inside a geodesic dome station on the moon. The weirdness picks back up with “Mist o’ the Moon,” into which Baxter throws a surprising flirtation with more modern jazz and a slightly more hectic pace than the languid cruising that typified the songs before it. The collection closes with the dreamy mood indigo of “Radar Blues.” Another night comes to a close on the moon, and you in your silver spacesuit are slow dancing with a partner in the haze of lingering cigarette smoke—because back then you could smoke in space stations—and the bartender pours one last tumbler of space scotch before you get in your hovering pod and head home to your bachelor(ette) pad in space.
Music out of the Moon is a gorgeous record and an amazing accomplishment for young Les Baxter. He takes myriad styles and strange sounds and somehow weaves them into a lush, romantic, and indeed space agey whole. The record set was a smash, and still holds the enviable position of “best-selling theremin record of all time.” It was so perfect a record that, some two decades and change after it was released, Neal Armstrong brought a tape version of it with him on the Apollo 11 mission and played it on their way back to earth.
Having hit upon a good thing, the gang was back less than a year later with more of the same on 1948’s Perfume Set to Music, another ethereal foray into theremin-tweaked space pop that really helped solidify the style. As a way to feel transported, as a way to set the mood, and as a way to show off the capabilities of your expensive new stereo system, space-age pop became one of the go-to niche genres, once again reaching its crescendo in the work of Esquivel. But everyone who worked in the style, whether as a true believer or a dabbler needing to make a fast buck, owes a debt to Les Baxter. Revel and Hoffman made a third record in 1949, Music for Peace of Mind, in what, along with Moon and Perfume forms a sort of trilogy, but for that one, they worked primarily with conductor Billy May.
Les Baxter would himself return to space-age pop some years later, on 1958’s legendary Space Escapade. But for the bulk of that thrilling new decade, the 1950s, Baxter would spend his time inventing and then perfecting a new variation on what he helped pioneer with Music Out of the Moon. Only this time, rather than looking to the far reaches of space for inspiration, he would look to the far corners of the globe. Misty jungles, moonlit beaches, ancient temples. Not exactly the music from far-off places, but an impression of what Baxter—and most Americans, at a time when international travel (other than when it relates to war) was a dream—thought sounded like these far-off places. In short order, this new style would be given a name—exotica—and Baxter would be recognized as one of the genre’s titans.