Album: Music Out of the Moon
Artist: Les Baxter, Harry Revel & Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman
Music Out of the Moon was released by Capitol Records in 1947 at the start of the Cold War. It is exactly as the subtitle describes: “Music Unusual Featuring the Theremin.” It’s a strange album, no doubt, but it is exactly what America wanted prior to the Space Race. The six songs on Music Out of the Moon are filled with sounds both familiar and foreign — it falls neatly within the confines of easy listening lounge music yet contains an unearthly and spectral glow.
With the release of Music Out of the Moon, space-age pop was born, reflecting the optimism of America’s post-war economy and technological boom. And even though the album represented a sophisticated new future back in 1947, the lasting influence of Music Out of the Moon can be found in ’60s psychedelia, ’70s krautrock, ’80s techno and every subsequent genre that garners a “trippy” undertone.
However, the album’s architects had nothing to do with the unforeseen drug culture it indirectly inspired. Composer Harry Revel, who worked on Broadway and in Hollywood, just wanted to write a series of mood music miniatures around the themes of space travel. Helping him bring the arrangements to life was Les Baxter, whose jazz background included big band, classical impressionism, samba and Calypso. Completing the unlikely trio was Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman, a practicing clinician who happened to be the only theremin player in Los Angeles.
Together, the combo of pop, Latin jazz and ghostly electronic choirs makes for a singular listening experience. The production sounds dated yet is filled with retro-futuristic appeal, like a space odyssey in a three-piece suit. Every song sounds somewhat the same, but that’s part of the fun — for 18-minutes, the listener is given a glimpse of a place they’ve never been.
The music also has a sad serene quality to it, thanks to the eerie wavering of the theremin’s slightly off-key melodies. For 18-minutes, the listener is also given a glimpse of a place they’ll never be. For example, “Lunar Rhapsody” sounds like its being beamed in straight from a dream, alternating tempo from slow to fast like an alien pop song. The effects of the theremin (one of the earliest electronic instruments, although it is considered quite archaic by modern synthesizer standards) engulfs the tune with its otherworldly ambience.
No surprise that Music Out of the Moon was a favorite of Neil Armstrong, who even played it on the return voyage from the moon, about 150,000 nautical miles from the Earth (Armstrong, after playing “Radar Blues” for mission control, said “that’s an old favorite of mine”). He wasn’t the only fan of the album: avant-garde musicians Sun Ra and Captain Beefheart were both heavily influenced by Dr. Hoffman’s early electronic experiments (Ra based his persona on the cosmos and covered a Revel tune on his debut album, while Hoffman played theremin on Beefheart’s Safe as Milk). I’m an avowed fan as well: I’ll play “Celestial Nocturne” any chance I can get.
In terms of contemporary trends, the album kickstarted Les Baxter’s successful career as the inventor of exotica. He’d release several popular albums throughout the early ‘50s that dealt with similarly foreign themes (including Ritual of the Savage and Yma Sumac’s Voice of the Xtabay). But Music Out of the Moon is the only Baxter album that truly stands the test of time. That’s because it evokes a place that will always be foreign to everyone and everything under the sun — leaving everything to the listener’s imagination.