Anyone who shares my perverse fascination with mass-produced pop culture would probably also tell you that the best place to understand the role of sexuality within a particular society is, in fact, its mass-produced pop culture.
Recorded music’s diffuse and inexpensive channels of distribution and production have long lent it to sexual content. The independent record industry has been less vulnerable than its more centralized counterpart, the film industry, to external regulation and censorship. As a non-visual medium, though, music has generally limited itself to sexual humor, boasting, innuendo and sound effects. The sensory and more narrative experience of film has played the more critical role in sex’s media mainstreaming.
Still, cinema and recorded music (not to mention non-recorded media like magazines and books) have charted similar, sometimes converging, courses in both their place in American culture and their representations of American sexuality. For every blue burlesque record, bit of 78 rpm hillbilly and blues innuendo, or album of bedsprings squeaking, there was an exposé of nudist camp culture or a Russ Meyer movie. Sex’s weirdly sublimated existence at the fringes of music and film tells us just as much about our puritan hang-ups as it does about our actual sexual practices.
Mainstream pop culture started to loosen up in the ‘60s. By the 1970s, counterculture had seeped its way into mass culture, and, electrified by the spirit of economic opportunism and hippie-era free love, Americans momentarily achieved a sort of embarrassed stalemate with their sexuality. Joy of Sex was a bestseller and there was, of course, the Pill. Wives read about key party foibles in Cosmopolitan magazine. Hipper couples made that furtive trip to catch Deep Throat. After all, Johnny Carson had done it.
Film probably did more any other popular medium to change the landscape of sexuality and to reclaim it from media marginality. But there’s no denying the sexiness and air of sex about a lot of the pop and soul (and later, disco) of the era either. If nothing else, hits like Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin’s heavy-breathing “Je T’Aime” (hear an excerpt here) and the Chakachas’ “Jungle Fever” (excerpt here) and the Hair soundtrack measured that changing sexual landscape. Movies like Emmanuelle or Last Tango in Paris may have been pushing the envelope of popular discretion, but, still, you were more likely to only own their soundtracks.
I’ll leave such needless analysis at that, though. I offer up this week’s selections as part of the first annual Office Naps Sex Issue, and in the resurrected, gaudy spirit of Porno Chic. (And thank you Wikipedia, you pop culture godsend, for carrying such an entry to begin with.)
1. Manpower, Please Love Me (Erotica) (Philips)
This was actually the Welsh progressive rock group Man, renamed here by Philips Records as the more prurient “Manpower” for the U.S. release of their 1969 debut album Revelations. It’s an album lauded – at least by those who care about such things – as a sort of concept-rock masterpiece. I can’t personally attest to its music, but I can tell you it’s an album with titles like “The Future Hides Its Face,” and “And Castles Rise in Children’s Eyes” and liner notes which extoll Man in near-cosmic terms, promising that “there will be ‘a beginning but no end’ to their music.” Sure. Sounds great, guys.
Like many other hippie relics, it’s sometimes hard to tell where the artistic aspirations leave off and the exploitation begins. Which brings us this selection, taken from the Revelations album. Ground-breaking provocation or cheap thrill? The band would rather us believe the former, of course, but the increasingly seismic moans of “Please Love Me (Erotica)” favor the latter.
“Please Love Me (Erotica)” was apparently a big success in the European pop charts in the late ‘60s.
2. Damaso Pérez Prado, Sexomania (Orfeon)
Pérez Prado was the Cuban-born pianist and bandleader best remembered as a great populizer of the mambo, especially in this country. His “Patricia,” “Mambo No. 5” and “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” were gigantic pop hits in the ‘50s, and they exemplified Prado’s style. Bombastic, bright, brassy, and punctuated by Prado’s trademark “¡Dilo!” grunt, they weren’t the most advanced arrangements, but they were accessible and certainly a lot of fun.
Outside of American’s Latino communities, Prado was known throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s as the “King of the Mambo.” There was some merit to the title: Prado sold more records than Tito Puento, Tito Rodriguez, and Machito combined. By the early ‘70s, though, when “Sexomania” was recorded, Prado had departed for Mexico (where he’d first achieved fame in the late ‘40s), his fortunes and popularity in precipitous decline on the American pop charts.
Prado’s grunting and heavy Afro-Latin dance rhythms – not to mention some lurid album covers – subtly indulged Middle America’s antiquated ideas of exotic intrigue and oversexed natives. In theory, then, Prado should have been poised to capitalize on our brief vogue for sexual expression in the early ’70s. Never perhaps the most versatile of bandleaders, though, here was Prado updated with some choppy guitars and a chorus of groovy nymphettes but sounding on “Sexomania” much as he always had: all grunts and screaming brass.
“Sexomania” was originally released in 1972. Orfeon is a large Mexican record label.
3. George Wilder, Partly Cloudy – Part I (Wilmax)
Not soundtrack music per se, but if ever there was a theme in search of adult cinema, then “Partly Cloudy” is it. Likely recorded in the mid-‘60s, this creamsicle predates the golden era of sax-you-down, easy-listening porn soundtracks. There are no orgasms or e
xplicit references here. There’s just no need for that sort of cheap titillation. Just a cloud of pink saxophone and soft-focus harmonies that says far more about a stimulating For Mature Audiences Only experience than thumping percussion or wah-wah guitars ever could.
The George Wilder here is likely the track’s saxophonist, the same George Wilder who played in a late ‘40s version of the Stan Kenton orchestra . “Partly Cloudy” was recorded in Los Angeles.
Begrudging respect must be paid here to the eternally brilliant Crud Crud. Soriano beat me to this track by a mere day or two.