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The Key of Cool

Say, remember all those great fringe albums you can't recall, back when CDs wuz LPs and the recording industry was only at a 78% pucker level… back when experimental goods could still get some distribution on the coat tails of 4000 copies of Fleetwood Mac's latest skeet per station? Of course you don't; can I hear you say "copped a buzz," 57,000 times?

One of the best lost gems is The Key of Cool on Big/Slash Records, producer Mitchell Froom's soundtrack to damned near the only halfway intelligent porn flick in history, Cafe Flesh. It was conceived as sci-fi, but the backing of certain strip clubs led it to additions of a XXX nature and subsequent midnight-movie fame. Its an After-the-Bomb scenario where 95% of the population literally vomits when they try to have sex, so the remaining 5% are required by law to do it on stage. The named club is run by a dominatrix done up in white leather and the clientele is said to have been every person who was not currently working in the L.A. film world and thought a walk-on in a porny would be fun. Its a disturbed little piece of cinema and great fun for the wrong-headed, such as me.

The 1984 soundtrack features the only rockabilly I've heard performed almost totally on synthesizers. The effect grabs you because its so unexpected. Its real gutbucket, finger-poppin' stuff, as if the Stray Cats had each played a synth. The sound is a bit dated by the technical nature of the instruments of the time, but the lo-fi vibe is part of its charm. Its appropriately aggressive, but still sounds like a somewhat tipsy band, falling ever so slightly off-tempo once in a while, yet having a killer time all the same. Those cuts are, like, Elvis 2000, man. There is also some tasty Hammond organ work in evidence and possibly a dab of Mellotron or Chamberlin tape-based keyboards where choirs are heard.

There are also several cuts that are the sleazy accompaniment to the sex scenes, with bump-&-grind drums aplenty. These are among the few times where such a piece didn't stand up and holler "Hey, look! A synthesizer!" Its sounds just like what you'd expect in a strip club of the future, or its nearest imagined equivalent, complete with little punctuating synth stabs that sound vaguely like yowling cats. There are also several segments of the film's dialogue that are just disturbing: "You live in a halfway house, walk around in panty hose and act like a fly." A definite added attraction, heh.

The whole thing SOUNDS idiomatically gritty, as per its film's story, but that's deceptive; when you listen to it carefully, its slickly laid out and evidences an attention to detail that sets it apart. It was done on an 8-track on the fly for surely less money than usual, but it was polished by The Touch, which is a subtle but vital quality.

Mitchell Froom is less a musical act proper and more commonly known as one who has produced work by Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Los Lobos and other notables. Apart from "hearing" his "touch" on a few things (as you can with Eno, Trevor Rabin and others), I recall his (paraphrased) sage comment about Tom Waits: "The main direction I take with Tom is to let him be Tom. Its like when he sat down and played a celeste out of the blue… there's something organic and unique there that might be lost if you laid too heavy a hand on it." Now there's the smart money; less is often more. Froom started out a as a solid session player and the keyboard work shows it. He is said to have a large personal collection of quirky as well as mainline instruments, so his options are plentiful.

The Key of Cool was one of many great finds I came across during what I think of as the last era in which you could lay hands to truly strange or transcendant goods in an actual record store, circa 1980-1990. The labels became far more pre-packaged and far less willing to release fringe items, so there was a certain gap until the Internet and desktop production began to take over.

Now, there's so much more to wade through, certain happy accidents of discovery are more rare, despite the larger access, because the flood of new and digitally remastered material is overwhelming. Its easy to find specialty sources for any sort of music now, but unfortunately, that can be a hindrance to cross-pollination.

Using the Search engines on sites such as, which offer comparison CDs in the chosen style (and a few mp3s or RA example files) or any randomizing utility in looking for music is highly recommended. That's how you'll find the next Key of Cool. It doesn't seem to have been released as a CD, damnit, but you might still stumble across it if you're lucky. Ask yer pals! Check out these resources, as of 3-28-05:

– Review by Hellpope Huey