Muzak on the Radio

(Albuquerque, N.M.) Another term that gets bandied about is "Muzak." Or perhaps "elevator music," "dentist office music." People use these terms to deride a certain type of instrumental music that consists of cover versions of popular tunes, done in a deliberately bland style. These tracks were recorded by a small orchestra, and the arrangements were apparently knocked out one after another, by an expert who needed some quick cash.

But how much of that old Muzak do you hear anymore? You don't hear it in elevators or dentist's offices. You don't even hear it when you're "on hold" or waiting for a conference call. Instead, what you get is that damnable "soft rock."

Of course, Muzak is a specific company that manufactured this "background music" for office buildings and retail establishments. Still, the generic term sticks. And the music is generic, or at least it was. Muzak, and the music resembling it, is vanishing before our ears.

The other night, while driving across northern Arizona on I-40, I was flipping the FM dial, trying to escape from Phil Collins. Suddenly, what is this? An instrumental version of the Lettermen's "Come Saturday Morning." Then a soporific version of Melissa Manchester's "Midnight Blue," which had a pseudo-classical piano break. Then an acoustic-guitar-and-strings version of Burt Bacharach's "Wives and Lovers." When you hear a sleepy orchestra cover Burt Bacharach, you know you're getting mellow.

This was vintage Muzak, or something quite like it. You may call it hack-work, but you know what? The arrangements were pretty cool -- one verse on the trombone, next verse on the flute, bridge on the strings, then modulate up. And the performances were spot-on. All these anonymous players were likely moonlighting jazzers or members of regional orchestras who were out for a few extra bucks. But they could play!

The radio station was KAHM -- as in "calm" -- which broadcasts out of Prescott, Ariz., at 102.1 FM. This station has the lonely job of carrying that low, flickering torch of instrumental background music on the public airwaves.

KAHM's slogan is, "Music as beautiful as Prescott." I've never been there, but if the claim is true, then Prescott must be a gorgeous retirement community.

According to Wikepedia, the Muzak company no longer produces its own content. Instead, it's in the business of designing soundscapes for businesses, using licensed material. That's why the sounds you hear on KAHM date to the late 1970s at the latest. One imagines a locker full of old reel-to-reel tapes.

And that's why you won't hear a string section doing a pizzicato version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Stick around, and you'll hear Percy Faith's "Theme From 'A Summer Place.'" Keep listening, and you'll get Vince Guaraldi's "Cast Your Fate to the Wind."

Sure, you can laugh at Muzak and at this type of background music, but it's vanishing. As with the term "lounge music," it's something people refer to in a derogatory way without having heard it in years.

According to the same Wikipedia article, the Muzak company is currently operating under bankruptcy protection.

The next time you're driving across I-40, or for that matter on historic Route 66, forget that caterwauling classic rock. It's dead, man; it's over. If you want to capture some of the spirit of the old America that is fading away by the week, tune into KAHM, 102.1 FM, in Prescott, Ariz., while you still can.

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