Library Music

If you want to dig into the curious nature of record collecting and sample culture as a resurrector of long-forgotten ephemera, a good place to start would be the surprisingly vast world of library music. With the explosion in popularity of television after WWII, library music — also known as production music or stock music — became a major concern, an easy way for the increasingly mass-market worlds of radio, film, and TV production to license pre-made songs without having to go through the trouble and expense of commissioning an original score. Its work-for-hire nature — cutting composers out of the licensing process, and typically leaving them anonymous and uncredited in the media their music appeared in — was offset by the ridiculously prolific nature of many of these composers, many of whom turned out pieces by the hundreds over the course of a decade or so. Some of them even broke through to a little sliver of mainstream recognition — think Alan Hawkshaw, whose production-house gigs helped spawn a cult hit and legendary hip-hop break with the Mohawks’ organ-driven funk vamp "The Champ" — but for the most part, fame for these artists was far from the point.

While it’s an international practice that still runs well into contemporary times, much of what people think of when the term “library music” comes up is a particular time and place: European and British, the mid ’60s through sometime in the ’80s, leaning primarily towards the jazz-funk side of the soundtrack equation, and cut for labels like Music De Wolfe, KPM, and Editions Montparnasse 2000. That particular milieu is still in popular use: TV series like How To With John Wilson and web documentaries such as the ones produced for SBNation’s sports-deep-dive series Dorktown use vintage library music to give their presentations a particularly distinct kitschy-yet-sincere feel, highlighting the weirdness of their subjects while emphasizing a sense of curiosity and enthusiasm. Another, of course, is in hip-hop and other sample-based music, a side effect of increasingly costly sample-clearance fees and rarity-arms-race cratedigger one-upsmanship. (KPM alone has become nearly as indispensable to a producer’s arsenal as a crate full of James Brown or Roy Ayers.)

But what does it mean to sit down and listen to this music as… well, as music? Not chopped and flipped, not wafting beneath documentary footage or accompanying a cheap cop show, but as examples of some sort of lost-world corner of soundtracking trends? It can be fascinating to follow some of these pieces as they unfurl in parallel to the more well-known movements in pop, rock, and film scoring — from the swingin’ sixties to early electronic experiments for newfangled color-TV psychedelia, the post-Shaft drive towards heavy funk and smooth jazz, and the synthesized pulse of disco and new wave as the home video age dawned. In isolation, this music ignores any lines between easy-sell commerce and idiosyncratic experimentation, and often creates something so weird that it’s hard to imagine any kind of show or film bizarre enough for that music to score. You’ll find plenty of familiar breaks and samples in these ranks, but odds are you’ll find even more under-explored, self-contained worlds in themselves.

Voyage (A Journey Into Discoid Funk) cover

Ask an elder Brit rock fan about Brian Bennett and you’ll probably get the brightest glint of recognition talking about his time as the drummer for Cliff Richard and the Shadows. Ask a beatmaker, though, and his library records would probably click a lot faster for them; his work on KPM has been sampled on tracks for ScHoolboy Q, Drake, Raekwon, Jaylib, and innumerable other hip-hop greats. A fascinating library record cleverly disguised as a cheapie disco cash-in, 1978’s Voyage is coveted for the midtempo billionaire-cosmonaut vibe of “Solstice” with its punchy, diamond-sprinkled bassline. The rest sounds like what we would’ve gotten if Star Wars went with disco instead of John Williams — brightly, shamelessly cheesy, yet infused with some compelling dramatic tension in its melodies.

Rock Spectrum cover

Pretty much every album put out by London’s KPM Music under their “1000 Series” featured the same dark green cover with the company logo un the upper right hand cover — a generic branding that latter-day cratediggers made iconic. And while a lot of their albums are scattershot listening experiences, this one jams all the way through, and not just with lighthearted synth kitsch. You could single out this 1975 record for “Confunktion” alone — a lurching, maniacal, feedback-apocalypse-coda-sporting dirtbag symphony by bassist Dave Richmond, a piece that’s been sampled by Madlib and featured in at least one high-profile ’70s porno. But there’s far more to it, with cop-show chase-scene jams (“The Fuzz”) sharing wax with some genuinely bizarre prog-funk (“Ill Wind” Pts. 1 & 2 and “Quantum” are keepers).

Rythmes Contemporains cover

While Editions Montparnasse 2000 was a library label, you could be forgiven for thinking they were in a more avant-garde future-pop business: not only did they release albums by electronic music innovator Jean-Jacques Perrey and film score / library music titan Piero Umiliani (of “Mah Na Mah Na” fame), they cultivated the career of their own in-house composer Janko Nilović, who spent much of the ’70s pushing the boundaries of what could possibly constitute “music for commercial purposes.” Rythmes Contemporains sounds like a mid ’70s action film big-band score having gained sentience, broken free from the celluloid to sprawl into its own unpredictable narrative

Abstractions of the Industrial North cover

Basil Kirchin was a drummer who transitioned from big band rhythm cog to soundtrack wizard in the 1960s and gave an odd, vividly unpredictable life to films (some of which only existed in his head). This reissue of a 1966 album on revered library label De Wolfe finds a strange pastoral grace and moments of brisk, swinging intensity in its invocations of manufacturing and creation — and, in the orchestral jazz-pop swagger of the bonus material, a glimpse of a mid-Sixties Jimmy Page in sessionman mode.

Pop In... Devil's Train cover

Before joining fellow French library composer Bernard Fevre in creating the enigmatic 1978 synth-disco cult oddity Disco Club as Black Devil, Jacky Giordano had worked up a formidable body of work that fueled spacey plasticine soul and prismatic psych-lounge with wild keyboard and synth flourishes. An often-reissued collector favorite on Editions Montparnasse 2000, it sounds like an oddly yearning luxury near-future staring out into a neon-lit bay, noir jazz and kung-fu funk for a world where only feelings get hurt.

Nuggets: Luke Vibert's Selection cover

Most library music compilations seem content to promote a simple cross-section — a particular label, a certain sound — that aims for a sort of reivisionist-historical consistency with as few idiosyncratic human fingerprints as possible, the music speaking for itself and nobody else. UK producer Luke Vibert, whose songs typically aim for a kind of absurd cartoon beauty whether they’re danceable or downtempo, went “nah” to propriety when it came time to put his own comp together. Nuggets compiles some of the most oddball cuts from the ranks of labels like Chappell, Southern, L’Illustration Musicale and others, with a heavy emphasis on the more eccentric, synth-experimental and exotica-leaning cuts from French composers like Nino Nardini, Roger Roger, and Eddie Warner. In the process it draws a line, however Spirograph-squiggly, from these ’60s and ’70s curiosities to millennium-changeover IDM — or at least its weirder tendencies.

Mindbender cover

One of the funny little benefits of the Conquest Of Cool that appropriated psychedelia and experimental music for business ends is that often the remnant coolness long outlived the commercial aspect. Sounds that once seemed threatening in a future-shock crisis kind of way become familiar en route to aging into kitsch — Mindbender being one of those albums that’s a sugar rush on all those levels. Distorted guitars and palpitating bongos are sweetened with the best strings an early seventies work-for-hire outfit can supply, James Bond jet-set exoticism blown up so you can see the halftone dots.

Bite Hard: The Music of De Wolfe Studio Sampler 1972-80 cover

DJs, diggers, and collectors might be fine with plunking down triple digits for a library record with only a couple great cuts, but for the rest of us, the rush of compilations that accompanied library music’s rise to oddball renown in the ’90s showcases the best bits. Compiling the cream of the crop from UK firm Music De Wolfe is a massive undertaking, but Joel Martin (edit-version maestro behind Quiet Village and Velvet Season & the Hearts of Gold) and breakbeat producer Mark B bring out the kind of tracks that you could tag as the label’s big canon of breakbeat gold, with cuts by composers like Alan Hawkshaw, Nick Ingman, and Alan Parker hinting at a wealth of off-kilter made-for-TV funk ripe for the sampling.

Cinemaphonic: Electro Soul cover

If any label seemed destined to get into the library music compilation game, it was Emperor Norton, the lounge-chic retrofuture specialists who put out Concorde-inflight-soundtracks by the likes of Fantastic Plastic Machine and Arling & Cameron. This one’s heavy on stuff that’d sound good scoring footage of a mustachioed detective’s land yacht smashing through a fruit cart — lots of brassy, organ-hammering uptempo funk-adjacent instrumentals with a two-mode switch between “groovy” and “hassle” — but if you can’t find a beat to loop in this (and you should), tracks like the hyperventilating “Harvey Wallbanger” (by Paul Simon’s kid brother Edward!) and the frictionless Italo-cool of Mario Nascimbene’s cuts stand up as great mood pieces on their own.

Feelings cover

First, some clarification: “Jay Richford” and “Gary Stevan” were pseudonyms for Stefano Torossi and Puccio Roelens respectively, two Italian conductors who rubbed elbows with the greats of film scoring but still stuck primarily to the library record world. This is their definitive classic in tandem, ten evocations of specific moods with utilitarian titles (“Flying High”; “Fighting for Life”; “Running Fast”) that nail a particular Euro-cosmopolitan cool while infusing it with a heavy measure of Isaac Hayes/Quincy Jones jazz-funk. The pungent wah-wahs, string stabs, and organ solos on this are — there is no other term for it — bad as hell.