An Eclectic Gastronomy of Sound
“Summer is rotting in a haze like a neglected peach”, wrote the author Neil Gaiman in the introduction to a Tori Amos tour book. And the end of summer is like that. Plants are tired, browning, drying up. Their last gasps of energy going towards production of fruit and seeds. The birds and bees are stocking up for hibernation and migration.
Though autumn has been creeping in on stealthy night breezes, there was still a heavy heat in the afternoon air as I found myself one recent afternoon at the local Salvation Army, browsing through the used records. I generally don’t like visiting Goodwill’s, Salvation Army’s and the like to look for records. True, you can sometimes find interesting or collectible music at rock bottom prices, but just as likely you’ll be trawling through troves of Nana Mouskouri albums (the apparent queen of Canadian used bin album sales). Not to mention you’ll get “album finger”, which is especially bad in these places – that grubby, dirty feeling your fingers get from flipping through numerous albums which have spent a good part of their lives in someone’s basement or garage (rotting like a neglected peach, you might say).
To top it off, there was no air conditioning and there was a long sweaty line of people waiting at the registers, crying babies and all. The air was so stifling that one woman in the process of having her items rung up started getting dizzy and a chair had to be rushed to her before she keeled over.
Then, through the dusty haze, there it was, lodged between Olivia Newton John’s Physical and a record of gospel songs by a family in matching purple polyester suits. An album designed to give the listener access to an endless summer in paradise, an escape from the melting Limburger cheese of a late Canadian summer which was dangling the threat of not-too-distant polar vortexes and ice storms. An album full of the promise, rather, of a fresh summer of lush green foliage, tropical sea breezes and alluring Hawaiian maidens in grass hula skirts. In short, a ripe peach of a summer – or more specifically a ripe pineapple -because the album was called Percussive Pineapples. I could be saved by Lani Royal with the Diamond Head Band and their Sound of Hawaii – Percussive Pineapples record. The cover was shiny and new looking, despite its age. Unblemished white with a colorful, impressionistic graphic of orange and yellow pineapples. Inside, the record itself was without scratch or fingerprint as it shone in the jaundiced yellow of the aging overheard light fixtures.
It was obviously of 1950s or 1960s vintage – from the height of or later end of the exotica/tiki craze popularized by Martin Denny and Les Baxter. On a record label called Kapp Medallion, but “manufactured and distributed in Canada” by Phonodisc. Disappointingly, the record was not actually from the land of coconuts and ukuleles. As well, there was no information on Lani or his Diamond Head Band, who could just as easily have been a one-time conglomeration of New York studio musicians as genuine islanders. Yet, the back cover had extensive, and well written (give that writer a job on the tourism board!) album notes aimed at middle Americans in their cookie-cutter suburbs and busy with their hectic city lives:
“This album invites you on a fascinating musical journey across the Pacific, to those exotic, faraway islands of our Fiftieth State. Here is a land where everyone seems to be on holiday – where flamboyant orchids and bird-of-paradise flowers grow in wild profusion; where thatch-roofed cottages nestle beneath giant palm trees swaying in the gentle Kona winds; where silent canoes glide across peaceful lagoons; where cool lanais overlook vast plantations basking beneath a brilliant sun. Here, too, is a land where the visitor is always welcome, his shoulders bedecked with sweet-scented leis, his eyes bedazzled by brilliant tropical colors; his senses soothed by supple rhythms and softly strumming guitars. When night falls, the festivity increases; flares light a pathway into the palm groves, leading the way to a luau, where a host of succulent delicacies tempt the palate, while the sensuous rhythms of the music are interpreted by graceful hula dancers.”
A little more research once I was home revealed nothing else about Lani Royal, and no other albums under his name (or the Diamond Head Band). Though, Percussive Pineapples seems to have been reissued recently under the title Broken Colour (huh?). The original was part of the Medallion imprint of albums Kapp issued between 1961 and 1962. Started, according to an extensive website on the history and discography of the label, as a series of albums highlighting percussion so as to demonstrate the then-new stereo sound technology (as the Pineapples album explains: “…a showpiece album designed to display your playback equipment at its best, each selection is dramatized by the introduction of specially written ‘stereophonic scoring’, which brings you the full depth of stereophonic sound…”) They also mention, for those not hip to the new technology, that a mono version exists too. But they didn’t make you feel good about it if you were one of those luckless people, as you wouldn’t experience “the startling results that add an exciting new presence and dimension to the music.” True Hawaii is only in stereo.
Kapp was based in New York City and ran from 1953 to about 1973. It was a pretty eclectic label, with titles ranging from big band, children’s and stereo demonstration records to easy listening to country crooners like Mel Tillis and likeable soft pop entries like Is Now! by St. George and Tana. In the late 60s and early 70s they diversified a bit and put out oddities like the influential garage rock of The Little Black Egg by the Nightcrawlers and the now legendary psych folk Parallelograms by Linda Perhacs. Apart from a series of albums by a band called the Waikikis (who were from Belgium, of all places, strengthening my belief that Lani Royal had nothing to do with Hawaii either), Percussive Pineapples was one of the few tropical exotica titles in their catalog.
But, the most important question – was I transported to a Hawaiian paradise upon listening to Lani Royal and his Diamond Head Band? Well, no, I’m still on the North American continent, but the music is a step up from a lot of the standard at-times exploitative easy listening “exotic” music of the day. There’s some genuine life and musical interplay in songs like the mysterious “Harbor Lights” and rowdy “Hawaiian War Chant” (which sounds more like a zany 1960s sitcom chase scene through a fish market than anything approaching a war chant.) That Hawaiian standby, the pedal steel guitar, is featured prominently on all cuts, with the ukulele taking more of a backseat role. Bongos pop up here and there, but not enough for my taste. No pineapples appear to have been harmed in the recording (and unfortunately, none appear to have been utilized as percussive instruments either).
Unfortunately, the music varies in digestibility throughout, with “Beyond the Reef” and “Beyond the Sea” taking you out into uncharted waters and leaving you there, in slowly rising waves of borderline schmaltz. Oboe, anyone? No thanks, not with my Pina Colada.
In the end, the music can only approximate the real thing. As the back cover elocution encourages, no doubt implying Percussive Pineapples as a stand-in for the actual thing: “A visit to Hawaii will leave the traveler with a thousand happy memories, perhaps recalling the night of the luau, when music drifted across the lagoon, when the palm trees were etched in the silvery light; when, in the warm intimacy of the tropical night, he vowed to return to this Paradise – again and again!”
Listening with coconut headphones may enhance the experience.
The pineapple, after all, is not from Hawaii either. It’s a transplant from South America; not a native – just like this album isn’t native. It’s all an illusion – but sometimes the illusion is all we need to transport us to another place. Percussive pineapples or rotting peaches – I’ll take the percussive pineapples every time.