The Joy of Easy Listening on BBC Four

I’ve just discovered that BBC Four are currently broadcasting a season of documentaries and concerts to celebrate the history of easy listening, that much-maligned and misunderstood musical genre. It’s interesting to me to see which artists the BBC pushes together into the ‘easy’ category – I’m not sure sure how comfortably Richard Clayderman sits next to Brasil ’66.

There doesn’t seem to be a season page on the BBC Four website, so here are my picks of things that might be worth a look. Some are coming up, some are already available to watch on BBC iPlayer. Apologies to non-UK visitors – I think you’ll need some internet know-how if you want to watch the BBC’s streaming videos.

The Joy of Easy Listening (90 mins)
A look at easy listening’s architects and practitioners, its dangers and delights, and the mark it has left on modern life. From its emergence in the 50s to its heyday in the 60s, through its survival in the 70s and 80s and its revival in the 90s and beyond, the film traces the hidden history of a music that has reflected society every bit as much as pop and rock – just in a more relaxed way.

Contributors include Richard Carpenter, Herb Alpert, Richard Clayderman, Engelbert Humperdinck, Jimmy Webb, Mike Flowers, James Last and others.

Burt Bacharach… This Is Now (50 mins)
Dusty Springfield narrates a documentary profile of the songwriter who won an Oscar for the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid score, enjoyed stage success with Promises, Promises and whose classic songs continue to influence modern music. Featuring interviews with Dionne Warwick, Noel Gallager, Hal David, Herb Alpert, Elvis Costello, Cilla Black, Richard Carpenter, Carol Bayer Sager and Gillian Lynne.

Herb Alpert & His Tijuana Brass (25 mins)
Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass play Something Special. Includes The Lonely Bull, What Now My Love, Up Cherry Street and Spanish Flea.

Only Yesterday: The Carpenters’ Story (60 mins)
Documentary about brother and sister duo The Carpenters, one of the biggest selling pop acts of the 1970s, but one with a destructive and complex secret that ended in tragedy with Karen Carpenter’s untimely death at 32. Featuring behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Richard Carpenter, family and friends.

Easy Listening Hits at the BBC (60 mins)
Compilation of unique performances from the greatest easy listening artists of the 60s and 70s, including Burt Bacharach, Andy Williams, Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66, the Carpenters and many more.


3 thoughts on “The Joy of Easy Listening on BBC Four

  1. I’ve been watching some of these programmes. As you say there was a real mix of music in the Joy of Easy Listening documentary. Maybe it’s possible to make a distinction between “interesting” easy listening (artists like Bacharach and the Carpenters who aren’t just about lush arrangements but have some clever harmonic progressions and unpredictable melodies too) and more mundane stuff like “Please Release Me” and James Last (who I can’t get on with at all).

    I know they were trying to describe the origins of Easy Listening as a kind of lifestyle choice in the late 50s and 60s and there are limits to what you can include in a 90 minute documentary but I think they left a lot of interesting stuff out: people like Esquivel, Martin Denny and Antonio Carlos Jobim who were all doing much more interesting things than the likes of Last and Stu Phillips with their orchestral “lift music” versions of current hits…

    Some good choices in the Easy Listening Hits at the BBC I thought: the likes of Glen Campbell, Noel Harrison and of course Mas Que Nada, an Easy classic…


    • Esquivel, Denny & Jobim were a bit more ‘breaking out’ with their different sounds & not exactlly easy listening, though definitely related. The playlists on my youtube channel feature those 3 artists & 400 more. Jackie Gleson re his orchestral, early 50s music: “Music to set the mood, yet not intrude.” I like to think of backround music as just being ‘there’. Take it as you wish: listen seriously (there’s lots to hear in these orchestrations if you wish) or just let it set an undertone for other activitties. I first went to youtube to hear ther beautifully orchestrated pop songs of my youth, was smitten by the uniqueness of Ray Conniff’s ‘sound’ & created the playlists to share with the world. Just do a search of chkjns for an archive of a century of pop music & hear how foxtrots evolved into big band sounds that morphed into Easy Listening . . .

  2. Yes, the documentary was rather a mixed bag, and a little bit confused we thought as to what it was trying to say about “easy listening” as a genre. I think the idea of this music as being a bit kitsch or camp is rather old hat now (particularly in the case of artists such as Bacharach and the Carpenters). Still, there were some interesting interviews and a lot of good tunes throughout the night, I don’t think you can ever hear Glen Campbell’s takes on Jimmy Webb’s songs too many times!

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