Elevator Going Down

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(Pictured: Elton John and bandmate Davey Johnstone in a hotel elevator at some point in the 70s.)

Here’s another rebooted post from the earliest days of this blog—in this case, April 22, 2005.

Piped-in music isn’t what it used to be. Very few stores will trust anything so random as a local radio station to provide a background for customers anymore. Many stores have their own music services, delivered by satellite, and no doubt carefully researched to facilitate the separation of people from their money. Some companies will actually sell you CDs of the music they play in their stores.

My local convenience store plays oldies mostly from the 60s to the early 80s. Nevertheless, I was a bit surprised to hear James Brown’s “Sex Machine” as I dropped in for my morning constitutional today. To hear JB stripped down and hitting on the one while I was filling a giant mug full of Diet Pepsi was a bit like slipping into an alternate universe where decaffeinated light-FM hip-hop and the steroidal boot of rap are both curiosities, and true funk is the chosen music of millions.

(Digression: The Mrs. and I have some old friends whose daughter we have watched grow up. One morning when the girl was three or four, her father heard her singing something while everyone was getting dressed in the morning. As he listened closely, he determined that she was singing “Sex Machine.” He also determined it was probably time to cut back on the James Brown records for a while.)

Then again, maybe my little suburb is an under-the-radar funk zone. One fine Sunday morning, I made a quick run to our neighborhood grocery store. While I was maneuvering my cart past the suburban dads loaded with beer and chips and various grandmothers with cat food and paper plates, I noticed that the store’s music, at a barely audible level, was playing “Saturday Night” by Earth, Wind and Fire. So there I was, in the cereal aisle, getting my schwerve on. But the store topped itself in the next few minutes by playing Honey Cone’s great 1971 hit “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.” Somebody must have dialed up the wrong channel by mistake.

The rise of specially programmed in-store music channels (often containing commercials) has accompanied the near-demise of elevator music: those light-and-lovely instrumental versions of pop and rock hits made to be ignored, or more precisely, made to seep into your brain at a subconscious level to relax you, make you feel more alert, or go Communist. As a radio format, elevator music, known officially as “beautiful music,” is largely dead, too—because its target audience is largely dead. But in its heyday, elevator music plundered all genres of popular music for familiar tunes. Some of my all-time favorite elevator-music remakes include Waylon Jennings’ “Luckenbach, Texas,” “Synchronicity II” by the Police, and—I swear it’s true—“Rock and Roll All Nite” by KISS.

I worked at an elevator-music radio station for a while, back in the late 80. It wasn’t quite as tomblike a place as you might expect—I got hired precisely because I was a jock with a personality, and that was what the station wanted. Alas, none of those delightfully bizarre remakes were on our station. Our library was pretty pedestrian, really. There were no KISS or Police remakes, although I seem to recall a version of Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face” and a remake of Tiffany’s cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” which had recently been a hit. The instrumentals weren’t all bad. You’d get the occasional classic jazz tune, Brubeck’s “Take Five” or Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd’s “Desafinado.” However, there’s no denying it was mostly the Swelling Strings Orchestra doing “Red Roses for a Blue Lady.”

No wonder you’d get sleepy on the night shift.

Some years after I wrote this, I heard “I Ain’t Superstitious” by the Jeff Beck Group and “Little Sister” by Stevie Ray Vaughan in the same convenience store, and “Dixie Chicken” by Little Feat at a different grocery store. At first I feared the latter might be some kind of a promotion for the meat department, but I was grateful to determine it was not.

One thought on “Elevator Going Down

  1. Alvaro Leos

    Best moments in store music:
    –On a Saturday morning, listening to a local grocery store’s 70s on 7 Feed when I start hearing orgasmic moaning. Turns out the sound was the infamous “Jungle Fever” by Chakachas. I talked about with the cashier, and she mentioned that whenever it came on the PA they’d try to turn it down before anyone noticed but they couldn’t do it in time.
    –Having a utterly miserable morning redeemed by hearing “Party All The Time” by Eddie Murphy. I hope the cashier didn’t freak out too much when I laughed for a full minute.

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