Soft Illusions: The Bruton Music Library, 1977 – 1989

Exhibit / June 8, 2017

Images via Maraid Design

MCKENNA: Alongside the industrial manufacture of popular music that characterized the second half of the twentieth century, another type of music aimed at a smaller group of consumers and offering another perspective on the humors of the day was also being recorded: production music, also called library music, was instrumental music recorded to evoke a certain mood or tone and licensed for use in other media (for example as background, incidental, or theme music).

Bruton Music—or, to give it its full name, the Bruton Music Library—was founded in 1977 by Robin Phillips under the aegis of ATV boss Lord Lou Grade, and initially operated out of ATV’s offices in Bruton street in London. Before moving to Bruton, Philips was already a respected name in the field for his work at KPM Music, one of Britain’s longest-running and most respected sources of library music. He’d instituted revolutionary changes there, moving the company away from using 78 rpm records to the sturdier 33 rpm LPs, and was well-known for fostering the talents of his protégés, many of whom he took with him to Bruton. The Bruton record covers were made instantly recognizable by featuring variations on the same grid design as well as the company’s winningly gauche isometric logo. The label was bought in 1982 by Michael Jackson before being sold on to the Zomba Group three years later.

I’m going to start this off with the fantastic “Technicolour.” Described accurately on the back cover as “Dynamic impressive theme,” “Technicolour” (sic, so leave that spelling alone, my meddlesome American chums) is from 1981’s Music Machine, an LP dedicated to the intersection of new digital technologies and industry, and you’d have to be deaf or a southerner not to hear the thunder of the brass bands that once were the pride of every British industrial town in the synth fanfare that is the song’s motif. Like all of the first side of Music Machine, it’s by Leeds-born British rock veteran Alan Hawkshaw, one of the composers Phillips had brought with him from KPM. Though already in his mid-forties, Hawkshaw quite clearly had his finger on the digital pulse: “Technicolour” is a perfect précis of the mood of the times—bombastic and triumphal yet with a hint of uncertainty and tension (as well as what sounds like an incongruous bit of bongo) spot-welded onto the chassis. Such is the prototypical current-affairs thump of the thing that I can practically see a montage of commuters disembarking trains, automated production lines and Concorde taking off as I listen to it. Not coincidentally, it was the title music of BBC’s regional news gazette programme Midlands Today from 1984 to 1988. And yet, it was apparently also used for HBO’s Inside the NFL? How could you transatlantic rowdies have understood its splendor?

GRASSO: What a king’s ransom you’ve unearthed here, Richard. I must have spent an hour or two the other night on YouTube finding treasure after treasure of Bruton library music. My Yacht Rock-loving soul appreciates the bouncy synth-funk of Geoff Bastow‘s “Upmarket,” while the side of me who wishes he was the protagonist of a 1970s detective series absolutely loves Hawkshaw’s “Fuel Injection.” All these song titles are so evocative, aren’t they? With the pulsing, insistent beat and seamless integration of synths and the added dimension of these song titles, they really do put forth an attitude of late-industrial optimism. I’m reminded of a similar artifact of a parallel time, “Powerhouse” by Raymond Scott (1937), which comes down to most of us through its use in various Warner Bros. cartoons to indicate the tendrils of Fordist manufacturing careening out of control, but which is really a profoundly modernist document: a near-Futurist manifesto of Western industrial strength in the Depression years between the wars.

You nailed the other use for library music other than current events programming: sports. I faintly remember “Technicolour” from various NFL films and Inside the NFL; but that gets me thinking of “Heavy Action,” the iconic Monday Night Football theme by Johnny Pearson (off the 1974 library album Industrial Panorama, no less!), which I see here was also blithely used in the UK as the theme to your version of Superstars? I sit here and marvel at this profoundly ecumenical genre of library music, suitable for literally any occasion or nation! I know I’ve wandered a bit off the Bruton reservation, but maybe Kelly can bring us back.

ROBERTS: Absolutely not, because I want to talk about how much I’ve come to appreciate and even adore this kind of music as I get older. I discovered Eno’s ambient stuff in my early 30s, and through that moved onto space ambient artists like Steve Roach and Michael Stearns, new age, lounge, and eventually library music and Muzak. What does it say about me, on the eve of my 45th birthday, that I will listen to hours of 1970s mall music and tacky Kmart Christmas programming while experiencing this bittersweet yearning for a time gone by that never existed, at least not the way I remember it? It’s all a fantasy, this nostalgia that’s engulfed us, and I enjoy it as such. But the downside is “Make America Great Again” and “Take Back Control,” this delusional Golden Ageism empowered by a barely concealed contempt for mass democracy. I’m not suggesting that cynicism and “anti-nostalgia” is a remedy (possibly because I am not giving up The Love Boat), but I feel like I have to be vigilant. I’m quite helpless against Bruton and its kin.

Anyway, this “incidental” music, to me, is anything but incidental. My unconscious has rearranged it into an aural phantasm of the things I have lost.

MCKENNA: Without wishing to be wilfully contentious, I’m in two minds about whether enjoying this Bruton stuff actually is nostalgia, to be honest. The Oxford dictionary defines nostalgia as a “sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past”—something inherently backwards-looking and redundant. It would be silly to claim that music is somehow inherently timeless and resistant to the self-centered pull of other forms of nostalgia, but these Bruton tracks just don’t feel as though they’re a masturbatory distraction. Yes, they were probably cranked out by seasoned pros trying to pay the installments on their second Jag, and yes, we might struggle to hear them except in the language of longing for a future that never happened, but they’re also buzzing with the energy of a world of shared social interaction and endeavor, and just listening to them feels like it’s clearing my head of the accumulated encrustations of po-mo dreck from the last couple of decades. Despite their origins and whatever the actual political leanings of their creators, these records feel socialist, so I’m going to take them as a positive, inspirational stimulant for looking forward—that “a time gone by that never existed” could still perhaps actually be the future.

The songs often cheekily steal from pop phenomena to an extent that sometimes borders on plagiarism (“Clean Machine” is an endearingly blatant rip-off of Jon and Vangelis’s “I Hear You Now“), and the Bruton staff weren’t even above ripping themselves off, as anyone familiar with Bennett’s Voyage: A Journey Into Discoid Funk (1978) will realize when they hear Bruton’s Fantasia (1980), but the pleasures here are endless: the lazy thud and shimmy of Patrick Wilson’s “Exhibition 1” (defined on the back cover as “Confident”), Frank Ricotti’s channeling of John Carpenter, “The Artifact” (“Emergence”), Paul Hart’s “Action Report,” with its fantastic rendering of that enduringly ’80s motif, the courtly Renaissance melody filtered through plastic synth. Then there’s Trevor Bastow’s “Better Ways” and the brash autofunk of his brother Geoff’s “Communique,” contrasted with “Tradition” (“Classically based up market invention”), another Geoff Bastow piece—a wonderfully elegiac paean that feels more like an act of mourning for the missed opportunities of this new technological age than nostalgia.

I might be reading too much into it, but with the way this music filters out the more modish nonsense from the motifs of the day and reduces it down to grist, these Bruton records feel almost like an expression of shared existential joy and fear about the direction of mankind as it watches new technologies, and what could be more contemporary than that?

GRASSO: Now that I’ve had a chance to collect myself, I can talk about these Bruton LPs for real. First of all, as objects, I find them almost compulsively collectible. I realize these design choices were meant to be utilitarian—need some appropriate background music? Pull a Bruton LP from the shelf!—but their soothingly consistent cover design makes me want to collect them all. They’re even color-coded! The topics and moods are so varied; you can travel from the green covers’ rural idyll of Golden Plains (1978) or Village/Country Atmosphere (1980) to the dark purple covers’ industrial work zone of Light Industry (1979) and Technocraft (1983) to the red-orange covers’ futuristic playgrounds of Gyroscope (1980) and Tomorrow’s World (1982). And as I examined them more and more through YouTube and Discogs, I saw that the back covers provide song titles along with recommended moods the songs might fit! It makes the entire endeavor look and feel very much like a menu, for the convenience and speed of the user.

Possibly my favorite album I’ve listened to so far is The Video Age (1980), complete with space-age Westminster font on the cover and lots of jazzy synth (like the aforementioned “Upmarket”). It was composed and performed by a pair of Yorkshire brothers, Geoff and Trevor Bastow, both sadly no longer with us. (Geoff’s earlier pre-Bruton work includes a 1975 LP with one of the greatest Eno-esque album titles I’ve ever heard, Music to Varnish Owls By.) There’s some old-school ’70s patch-sounding synth on The Video Age for sure, but you can faintly hear a more standardized and homogenized 1980s synthesizer sound creeping in here: check out “Mechanics (Light Industrial Motion)” for a track that sounds about halfway between Wendy Carlos and John Carpenter. You can definitely picture hearing this stuff in the background of an interstitial on PBS or the BBC in the early ’80s. It’s smooth but vaguely “technological,” perfect for being ignored in between the programs you’re actually watching.

It’s only after fully exploring the Bruton catalogue that I can fully understand what Ghost Box Records has been after over the past decade in assembling their quirky roster of neo-library artists like The Advisory Circle, Belbury Poly, and Pye Corner Audio: a consistent design identity that obscures the actual artists in favor of album and song titles that are halfway between English country idyll and Cold War heavy industry. I love it all, both the Bruton originals and the contemporary re-interpretation. As Kelly said, it’s the sound of the missing liminal places of my youth, from retail establishments to the spaces between the TV programs I watched.

ROBERTS: Let me take a step back. These Bruton LPs are wonderful. They are what Richard says they are: a force for good in a cultural milieu strewn with feckless irony and “prestige” postmodernism. They will eventually all be collected somewhere, and I will listen to them as long as they exist. (Actually, I just discovered that a sizable collection is available at the Internet Archive.) My previous point was that, as Mike says, the Bruton library represents music that was meant to be pleasantly ignored. It was not meant to be ecstatically enjoyed. I would argue that our visceral enjoyment is inseparable from nostalgia. Longing for a future that doesn’t exist is hope, but longing for the future that never happened is nostalgia.

Now that that’s out of the way, let me say this: Brian Bennett is the man! Of all the Bruton stuff, his is my favorite, with Alan Hawkshaw (especially Frontiers of Science, 1979) a very close second. Terrestrial Journey (1978), “a Contemporary Suite depicting space and time passage,” is also pretty incredible. What I find interesting, going through all the titles, is that you can track the cultural shift between the late ‘70s and the late ‘80s. What starts with an emphasis on space exploration, utopian futurism, nature and wildlife, science, and soundscapes becomes Video Explosion (1985), Aggressive Advertising (1985), In Search of Excellence (“Advanced rhythms in industry”), Art of Technology (1987), Montage of Power (1987), and even Wall Street (1989)!

MCKENNA: I totally agree about Brian Bennett and Alan Hawkshaw being the two pulsing diadems in the Bruton crown (though I might actually put Hawkshaw in first place, and not just because he comes from Yorkshire), but how about we also agree that music like this can, at best, stimulate both hope and nostalgia—momentum for the present as opposed to just a retreat into the past? And come on, whatever the intentions of the tired producers slapping one of these tracks over a montage of frightened penguins, the people making this music were not planning on being pleasantly ignored! Library music is still thriving today, made by talented individuals like Andrea Veltroni, who creates production music for prestigious specialist labels and a taster of whose evocative work we can sample under his pseudonym of Mystére X—shared soundtracks providing a compellingly personal and communal document of their times that let us recontextualize our popular music in a way that can only be positive.

13 thoughts on “Soft Illusions: The Bruton Music Library, 1977 – 1989

  1. It’s totally worth clicking the Maraid Design link to see more of the covers. I’ve been listening to some of this music, selected more or less randomly, and it’s oddly compelling. It’s clearly been created by people who know how to use music to skillfully evoke a certain mood in the listener.

  2. Woo hoo, now I have an entirely new library of eargasmic aural plains to explore. Thanks a lot, guys.

    Funny that you mention that Powerhouse tune, Grasso…that’s exactly what came to mind as I was ingesting the article and thinking about how music can evoke a certain type of mood…what’s crazy is I never knew what the name of that tune was, although I’d heard it countless times in all the old Bugs Bunny cartoons and what not. It’s only pretty recently that I finally discovered the origin of that song, thanks to the constant nostalgic break-time banter that my Gen-X co-workers and I relish on a daily basis…

    “Dood, you remember that tune, right??”
    “Totally! Wait…what was it called?”
    “Aw man….it was…it was…shoot I dunno. What the hell was it called??”
    “Aw, here we go. Google time…”
    [a few keystrokes and scroll wheel revolutions later]
    “That’s it! WHOAaaaa!”

    I’ll have to send a report after checking out the BML! Laters!

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  10. Does anyone know of the existence of a track called “News News News” that’s apparently part of The Bruton Music Library?

  11. As a library enthusiast chancing upon your pages I found the discussion most stimulating. The erudite contemplation of library music (best enjoyed in general while wearing corduroy) is indeed one of the great joys known to man. One does imagine you all “à table” in an atmosphere of after-dinner plenitude with the trashed remains of a bountiful repaste still in evidence amongst various drained libations. Roberts in particular is stone-cold RAVISHING in sumptuous off-the-shoulder raw silk as she distractedly fondles the bulbous weight of a triple cognac and lays bare the myriad intricacies (of library music).

      • Well, I’d have to say fair enough for some of these awkward, rockier Brutons. One also hears that in France enthusiasts often end up discussing library whilst scantily-clad, or even naked!

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