James Last and the ‘happy sound’ of easy listening

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You know the feeling. Standing in a roomful of people clutching a drink, not knowing whether to catch someone’s eye or pay more attention to your canapé than it strictly merits. Party nerves.

Fifty years ago, James Last came up with a solution. The German “king of easy listening”, then in-house arranger for Polydor Records in Hamburg, released an album called Non Stop Dancing, the first outing for the James Last Band. It comprised swinging orchestral versions of “aktuelle internationale Hits” by the likes of The Beatles and Dave Clark Five, each accompanied by the sounds of a party: tinkling glasses, sparkling chatter, merry cheers.

The idea was that you would play Non Stop Dancing at the start of your own party. Your guests, on hearing Last’s soundtrack to the perfect suburban soirée, would subliminally loosen up.

“You think there is a party going on even if there are only two people in the room,” he explained. Hey presto! Reserve would be cast aside, schnapps would flow and real voices would drown out the recorded chat on the vinyl disc. Some of the more uninhibited revellers might even feel the urge to . . . dance!

Countless parties must have flourished thanks to Last. He made dozens more iterations of Non Stop Dancing, from a recorded output numbering over 200 albums. The Bremen-born bandleader, who died aged 86 in Florida last week, found there was an unquenchable demand across the world for what he called his “happy sound”. In the UK he spent eight years in total in the charts, the second most successful albums act after Elvis Presley.

Critics were less enamoured of Last’s light classical music, orchestral pop, ersatz folk and exotica. He was the “King of Corn”, they sneered, the “Maestro of Muzak”. In 1965, the same year the first Non Stop Dancing record came out, the US charts introduced the category of “easy listening”. By the end of the 1970s, with the genre derided as “cheesy listening”, it was rebranded the “adult contemporary chart”.

Easy listening was scorned because it strikes at certain long-held tenets about music. “Proper” music should be intellectually difficult or emotionally powerful. It should challenge listeners or sweep them off their feet. To upholders of these values, from classical music gatekeepers to rock snobs, Last and his ilk were peddlers of a complaisant and fake sophistication, the musical equivalent of Babycham, package holidays and Harold Robbins novels.

The naysayers had a point. Last’s voluminous discography contains more than its fair share of kitsch, a fact proudly advertised by album covers on which the bandleader variously posed as John Bull (1971’s Last Of Old England), a cowboy (1977’s Western Party), the Moon (1979’s Last the Whole Night Long) and a matador (1992’s Viva España).

Yet Last’s adventures in easy listening in the 1960s and 1970s, alongside those of Mantovani, Caravelli and others, were actually a sign of progress. They were the product of technological advances and growing wealth. It was music for an age when listening to records, reading, eating out and travelling abroad were becoming mass activities, not an elite pastime.

Easy-listening versions of Greek folk songs shared space in northern European homes with undrunk bottles of ouzo. Softly rearranged works by Mozart made classical music less forbidding. Orchestral versions of pop and rock hits brought the age of the big band into the modern era of the charts. “Die Tanzparty für jung und alt” was how the first Non Stop Dancing advertised itself: the dance party for young and old.

Last’s popularity came at a time when free time and disposable income were increasing. The infectious swing and bustle of his music evoke a bygone sense of leisure, the newfound freedom of having time and money on one’s hands. It chimes with John Maynard Keynes’s forecast in 1930 that leisure time would increase in tandem with personal wealth as machines took over the world of work. “Technological unemployment,” Keynes called it. Or “Freedom Day”, as a song on Last’s Beachparty Vol 6 might put it.

Alas, life hasn’t quite worked out that way. The modern experience of leisure is stressful and contested. Work emails leach into spare time; an always-on-call culture takes hold. “Your Office Anywhere” is the name of a Microsoft app, a double-edged prospect. Meanwhile dire warnings of binge drinking and obesity pathologise our appetites.

Does anyone know how to have fun any more? Fifty years on, Non Stop Dancing still has a lesson to teach us. Switch off your smartphones, people, and join the conga.

The writer is the FT’s pop critic

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