Freaky Tiki Surf-ari: Les Baxter

Les Baxter
Official Site
Ritual of the Savage, Rev-Ola Records 2006 (Original release date: 1951)
The Passions, Rev-Ola Records 2006 (Original release date: 1954)

Nobody here but us placeholders.

Ever since I first started the Freaky Tiki Surf-ari, I know that someday I simply had to cover the work of Les Baxter in some way. Considering how his album Ritual of the Savage, also known as Ritual of the Savage (Le sacre du sauvage), both spawned the exotica genre and inspired me to create the Freaky Tiki Surf-ari, picking it as the subject of today’s review was a no-brainer.

Although I’ve previously touched on various aspects of both Les Baxter’s career and Ritual of the Savage several times in the past, I thought it best to take a more extensive look at his musical career. Said career began at age five when he learned to play the piano. Although this eventually lead him briefly becoming a concert pianist, Baxter opted for a (then) more modern sound and joined the Mel-Tones. However, things really took off when he signed up with Capitol Records in the 1950’s. Not only did he have several big hits, but he started the exotica genre during that time. He also composed the scores for numerous films, including several horror films. While best remembered for his work on 60’s AIP films like House of Usher and Comedy of Terrors (to name only two), his first horror score was for the 1957 film Pharaoh’s Curse.

While examining the appeal of Baxter’s work (and unintentionally noting the horror aspects of exotica), David Toop noted how he “…offered package tours in sound, selling tickets to sedentary tourists who wanted to stroll around some taboo emotions before lunch, view a pagan ceremony, go wild in the sun or conjure a demon, all without leaving home hi-fi comforts in the white suburbs.” Another link between Baxter’s exotica work and horror can be found in his often-used setting of abandoned cities and ruins in his works. In addition to reviewing Ritual of the Savage, I will also be reviewing another exotica-related album he did during his time at Capitol: 1954’s The Passions featuring Bas Sheva. This is both due to a recommendation from one of the exotica artists who I had spoken to in the past and because Rev-Ola Records packaged the two together for their CD reissue of the albums.

Our musical journey naturally starts at a “Busy Port.” Baxter’s original version is not as Peanuts-like as Lyman’s later take on it and sounds like something from a travelogue or the end of a 50’s TV show. But I mean that in the nicest way possible, as the exotic instrumentation is quite relaxing. “Sophisticated Savage” takes things down a notch to a slower pace and offers some great percussion. Oddly enough, this track reminds me of Masaru Sato’s work on Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster and Son of Godzilla (with the guiros reminding me of the Kamacuras’ theme from that movie). “Jungle River Boat” offers a playful sense of travel thanks to its combination of of piano, oboe, bongos, orchestral strings and plinking tones. Awhile the unisex wordless vocals give this a distinct 50’s feel, radio host/exotica fan Francesco Adinolfi has noted how Baxter used the pentatonic scale in this track, which was “used often throughout the second half of the nineteenth century to signify the East.” “Jungle Flower” beautifully starts off with soft, soothing xylophone work to represent flower petals falling. But as the piano and percussion eventually builds up, we get the peppy feel that appears so often in Baxter’s work. “Barquita” is a Spanish term for a small boat, which is musically conveyed via excellent string work and stylistic touches resembling those of the preceding tracks. All combined, they conjure up both a Latin feel and the sense of being on an aimless boat ride. “Stone God” starts with the sort of “dramatic tone” you often hear in old movies and speedy, almost frenzied nature of the percussion should please fans of Kava Kon’s “Zombie.” I especially enjoyed the use of oboes, trumpets and vibes. All in all, it’s the perfect sound for a rite to a stone idol.

Up next is the exotica classic “Quiet Village,” whose insectlike guiros and waltzy feel make it easy to understand why this became the hit it did when Martin Denny covered it. Said cover came about after Denny was exposed to this album by Augie Colon (who provided the bird calls in said track). It’s also worth noting that the opening is loosely based on Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” “Jungle Jalopy” is somewhat more subdued than Lyman’s version, but still catchy as ever. I cannot tell you have many times I’ve caught myself humming this while working on something. The original favors bongos and xylophones rather than piano work and also has some great string work. The soft opening of “Coronation” starts with a little xylophone work and bongos that eventually gives way to some big band goodness. But although fast percussion and drums form the track’s backbone it’s the flute that gets the spotlight. Despite its soft percussion and wordless vocals, “Love Dance” reminds me of portions of the Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster soundtrack. I know that this is the second time I’ve said something like this and believe me, this will be explained in more detail later. Getting back on topic, “Kinkajou” is an appropriately jaunty and lively musical tribute to the South American animal of the same name thanks to its combination of soft fluting and maracas. “The Ritual” starts off with soft percussion and although the orchestra takes over, drums are always present. Men chanting in a foreign language also adds to the overall feel.

While there are undeniable horror touches in the album, I must admit that the album’s content has more to do with the dancing couple on the cover rather than the spooky idols. That doesn’t make the album any less enjoyable, though. The next album on the CD is The Passions, which had Baxter teaming up with one Bas Sheva. Although born as Bernice Kanefsky, she adopted the name “Bas Sheva” (a play on Bathsheba) as a way of making up for how she stopped performing as a Jewish cantor in favor of “popular music.” Baxter became aware of her thanks to her appearance on the Capitol album Soul of a People.

First up is “Despair,” which has been split into two tracks. The first part makes one hell of a first impression thanks to its dramatic, funeral dirge-like opening, which features groaning and sobbing sounds combined with string work. But the way in which it’s done makes it come off as being rather musical in nature rather than as just sound effects. It’s almost like singing! Although there’s a big “close,” the second part returns things with a vengeance. The militaristic drums build up, there’s much louder moaning and yelling by Bas and there even a Twilight Zone-like flourish at one point towards the end. As you might expect from the name “Ecstasy,” the vocals in this track are much happier. The dreamlike instrumentation (especially the chimes) are great and I like how it builds to a crescendo towards the end. Menacing music opens “Hate,” whose piano and horns are soon followed by angry grunt-moans. Building off his experience as a film composer, Les Baxter masterfully creates a sense of dread with excellent string work and bongos. It can be a little Twilight Zone-ish at times evil laughing at end is a great touch.

“Lust” is very much an exotica track thanks to its extensive use of guiros and exotic percussion, along with its focus on desire. As noted in my review of Don Tiki’s South of the Boudoir, the cover of Ritual of the Savage was meant to evoke a sense of unbridled pagan passion to its intended suburban listeners. Adding to the effect is Bas Sheva’s drawn-out moans that start soft and gradually increase in volume. “Terror” has a great false start where happy, peaceful music plays while Bas sings “Baa, Baa Black Sheep.” But all that changes when rattlesnake-like maracas intrude and summons in dark, suspenseful music. The sparing use of drums is very effective, as is Bas’ gasping in shock. She fearfully tries singing to the (distorted) tune of “London Bridge is Falling Down,” but this soon turns into screaming and eventually crying. “Jealousy” starts with her annoyed groaning, which comes off like a subdued version of what she did in the previous track, along with soft percussion and horns. The final track, “Joy” offers dreamy music and vocals that are almost cooing in tone. The use of a xylophone for the backing music is almost cartoony (but in good way) and sometimes reminds me of something from a sponsored film. This track is also worth noting due to an unnamed male vocalist joining Bas in happily singing “La la la,” but she remains the star of show.

Although not exactly an exotica album, there is enough of an exotica influence to justify its inclusion here. Also helping matters is how Les Baxter drew on his experience as a horror film composer for tracks like “Hate” and “Terror.” Despite the raw talent on display in Bas Sheva’s performance, The Passions turned out to be her last album. It’s a shame, as Baxter and she made quite an amazing musical team.

I can’t stress how glad I am that I finally got around to picking this CD up. In addition to being an enjoyable listening experience, experiencing Baxter’s work like this has given me a much greater appreciation for exotica as a whole now that I can see how his work has influenced so many of the musicians whose work I enjoy. I’m also glad because Ritual of the Savage has given me a new appreciation for Masaru Sato’s work on various Godzilla movies. Lots of Godzilla fans (myself once included) tend to think of him as a lesser composer just because he isn’t Akira Ifukube. Given Toho’s habit of reusing selections from past Ifukube scores (including material he had prepared for the World’s Fair!), it seems the fans weren’t the only ones who wanted his work to appear in as many Godzilla movies as possible. But as much as I love Ifukube’s work, I think it’s high time that Masaru Sato be given the respect he deserves.

In addition to having received a nomination for the Japanese equivalent of an Academy Award for one of his film scores, it must be kept in mind that when he scored Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster and Son of Godzilla (returning to the franchise after having previous scored Godzilla Raids Again), the series had long since moved away from serious look at the horrors of nuclear weapons and had settled comfortably into lighter films aimed at younger audiences. When Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster was made, the use of surf music was a conscious decision made in order to attract a teenage audience and (presumably) to add to the film’s tropical feel. It should be noted how certain scenes had the surf music removed for the original American version, a situation that has thankfully been since remedied by the US DVD release using the uncut international version. As both films were set on tropical islands, the use of exotica-style jazz music and surf rock made perfect sense. And you know what? Said music is extremely well-made. It may not get the blood pumping like Ifukube’s work can (especially since that’s not was it was intended to do), but it’s very enjoyable to listen to. In fact, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster is hereby decreed the official monster movie of the Freaky Tiki Surf-ari!

Getting back on topic (there’s that line again), I highly recommend this CD. In addition to offering two great albums at a very affordable price, Rev-Ola Records has also sweetened the deal by including some excellent liner notes by Lounge Laura Taylor. It should be noted that Rev-Ola has since been folded into PoppyDisc Records and that PoppyDisc is planned on reissuing both albums in vinyl in the near future! So no matter your preference of format, exotica fans have no excuse for not picking up this album if they don’t own it already.

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