The Clash … Goin’ Up?

Companies like Muzak and Music Choice boast about breaking new bands that can’t get radio airplay. Two years ago, before “Hey There Delilah” became the omnipresent radio hit beloved by preteens across the country, Music Choice put Plain White T’s music into its song rotation and hyped the band with interviews and videos. By the summer of 2007, “Hey There Delilah” was topping the charts.

Devin Bolton, 24, a Brooklyn-based DJ who goes by the name Dances With White Girls, worked for Music Choice’s urban programming unit, selecting new songs to drop into their rotation. “The idea is to make sure [that] what is popular in small markets that will become popular on a national level is reflected,” Mr. Bolton told The Observer.

You can still hear the elevator music of yore when you’re on hold with the post office or at Grand Central while you’re waiting for Metro-North. But Mr. Lanza, elevator music’s premiere enthusiast, usually has to listen to records by “mood maestros” Percy Faith and Ray Conniff at home. “We hear less and less of it,” he said. “Now it’s almost nonexistent. The less you hear, the more mysterious it becomes, and people ask questions: What was this like?”

The Day the Muzak Saved My Life

Muzak was founded by an American two-star general named George Owen Squier, who patented the transmission of background music in the 1920’s. Originally named Wired Radio (how 90’s!), Muzak began transmitting canned music over telephone lines, later expanding its broadcasts into hotels and restaurants. Muzak pumped its instrumental music into elevators not long after the strange metal boxes were installed in skyscrapers. Their soothing music was meant to ease passengers’ fears of falling to their deaths.

Musak gave comfort through the Great Depression, broadcast army training instructions while World War II raged and flourished during the Cold War, when the country needed healing music to mollify their anxieties about a nuclear war.

By March 1936, Musak transferred its Cleveland headquarters to New York City studios on Fourth Avenue. “Music by Musak” served upscale clients including the Stork Club on 53rd Street, where Ernest Hemingway, Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe were spotted. Cover versions of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “There’s a Small Hotel” were popular choices.

In his book, Mr. Lanza recounts how an Army B-25 bomber on a cross-country mission crashed into the Empire State Building’s 79th story on July 28, 1945. Flames raced up the elevator shafts, burning cables and licked dangerously close to 50 people stuck inside of a glass-encased observatory on the 88th floor. The front-page article in the July 29th issue of The New York Times reported: “Even at this terrifying juncture, however, the ‘canned’ music that is wired into the observatory continued to play, and the soothing sounds of a waltz helped the spectators there to control themselves. There was no panic, but within a few minutes the heat and choking fumes from the fire below made the observatory uncomfortable.”

Some of Musak and easy listening’s pioneers studied at Juilliard. Composer Jane Jarvis, who started arranging languid tracks for Muzak in 1963 and eventually became corporate vice president, was hired by the New York Mets in 1964 to play the organ at Shea Stadium. She banged out the “Let’s Go Mets” theme while the ballplayers took the field, and the “Mexican Hat Dance” during the seventh-inning stretch.

Gershon Kingsley studied at Columbia and Julliard, becoming the musical director for several Broadway shows before forming the First Moog Quartet with partner Jean-Jacques Perrey. They hunkered down in an experimental New York City laboratory to apply their “electronic sonosynthesis” to songs like “The Unidentified Flying Object,” “Electronic Can-Can” and “Jungle Blues from Jupiter,” according to Mr. Lanza’s book.

Nick Perito, best known as Perry Como’s composer who worked with Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Bing Crosby, was also a graduate of Julliard. He was one of Muzak’s “major maestros” during the late 60’s and early 70’s. He told Mr. Lanza before his death, in 2005, that he lamented the passing of traditional elevator music. “The music was
wonderful balm for the up and going, the frantic, the running, the hurried,” Mr. Perito said. Muzak was “putting a little shawl around you. It didn’t attack or provoke. When we recorded Muzak music, I liked to think that we weren’t going to war; we were going to the peace table.”