KFAI's 'Jet Set Planet' unearths music that can make you cringe, but also proves irresistible
Glen Leslie has made a resigned peace with listeners who cringe during “Jet Set Planet,” his radio show on KFAI.
These are people who have heard him spinning such vinyl relics as Henry Mancini covering “Theme From Police Woman,” the 101 Strings exploring “House of the Rising Sun” or Claudine Longet (Google her — really) exhaling that Beach Boys classic “God Only Knows.”
“Some people, they’re really into kitsch,” Leslie said, sighing. “But I don’t like kitsch, and I have so much trouble with irony. I really like this stuff. I rarely play a song strictly for a gag. I find it brilliant for some reason.”
Leslie is the Pied Piper of aural ham, luring listeners into what he considers a parallel universe backed by lounge music from the groovitude of the ’60s and ’70s.
Some artists once were household names: Dig Mitch Miller and the Gang singing “Give Peace a Chance.” But the playlist mostly delights in musicians you’ve never heard of playing music you don’t recognize, but is reminiscent of riding an elevator in the old Dayton’s building.
Yet here’s the thing: The beats are solid, the riffs inventive and the hooks invasive. You may wonder why some of these tunes ever were recorded, but they clearly were recorded by some of the best musicians around.
In his 10th year of bringing bongos, “sleazy” listening and what he calls “the ‘schree’ of 10,000 Strings” into consenting eardrums, Leslie has given the question some thought.
Tastes were changing, he explained, with big bands, house bands and session musicians shifting from foxtrots at nightclubs to backdrops for TV shows, commercials, shopping malls, elevators and callers being put on hold.
Home stereo systems were becoming all the rage — think of parties on “Mad Men” or “The Dick Van Dyke Show” — stoking a need for music that created a mood. And no kidding, this music (some of it, anyway) makes you want to let go and bossa your nova.
“What makes this music so amazing is the super-well-trained musicians doing it,” said Leslie, whose mop of hair, though prematurely silver at 53, calls to mind a young Brian Wilson.
“It’s known as ‘the era when gigs were plentiful.’ All the guys from the ’40s were trying to get hip. Some weird things could happen when they’d do a Beatles cover. They were so far above the music.
“This, at its core, is ‘Jet Set Planet.’ ”
The crate-digger culture
After putting a vintage Rival Ice-O-Matic through its deafening paces, Leslie pours rum, falernum, bitters and more over the crushed ice, all in the service of Beachcomber Punch, a relic recipe from Excelsior’s old Mai Tai Bar.
Passing a highball glass to his wife, Carol, he slid onto a swivel stool before his tiki bar’s faux bamboo. A 6-foot island totem anchored a corner lit by a hanging lamp festooned with scallop shells.
“This is one of the most fun things to do,” Leslie said after the first sip. “Listen to music and drink cocktails at a bar.”
A basement room of the New Hope rambler is lined with a catacomb of shelves holding 6,000 or so records. He’s been collecting albums for years, avoiding the easy pickings of eBay or Craigslist for the serendipity of scrounging or, in the lingo of the obsession, crate-digging.
Ron Thums, KFAI’s interim general manager, admires Leslie’s vinyl archaeology.
“The crate-digger is all about finding those gems, going to a river that’s been panned out and finding those hidden nuggets,” Thums said. “It’s finding the architectural gem hidden in the squalid slum.
“Glen may love a track because it’s great, or he may love it because of how terrible it is,” he added. “He’s a guy who traverses these worlds, and the charm is that he makes sense out of something you or I independently would not make sense of.”
Attending the right party
Leslie’s opening remarks for each show create a sort of macramé wall hanging woven from a deep knowledge of music and history. Also, a sincere fascination with the vision that caused Those Fantabulous Strings to record “Help!”
He pulls an album by Ray Charles, “but the other Ray Charles,” who directed the Ray Charles Singers. “You know you’re at the right party when people say they’re into ‘the other Ray Charles’ and everyone knows what they’re talking about,” Leslie said with a satisfied smile.
“Jet Set Planet” has risen from an initial graveyard shift to the 9-10:30 p.m. slot on Fridays. You can hear the show anytime, via program archive downloads at www. kfai.org/jet-set-planet. Leslie also does occasional live gigs as Higher Than Fi, showing up at Bev’s Wine Bar in Minneapolis on most second Saturdays or setting the mood at the recent Art-a-Whirl.
He did not set out to champion lounge music.
Leslie began DJ-ing in college in Portland, Maine, in the ’80s, playing rock and indie labels. Another show featured thrift store vinyl. Leslie was intrigued, then hooked.
He moved to Milwaukee, then to Minneapolis, where he’s an administrator in the geography department at the University of Minnesota. He’d known of KFAI, whose diverse programming ranges beyond the mainstream, and volunteered to do a similar show.
They turned him down.
“I mean, it’s not the kind of music I would ever play at home,” Thums said, adding with a laugh that the station soon said yes. “Jet Set Planet,” he said, “is one of the nichiest of the niches. There are maybe two or three other shows like this in the country, and Glen is pretty much what makes this one work.”
The past in the present tense
A word about the album covers: omigod.
The early days of the Jet Set era predated feminism, while its later days perhaps delighted in poking it with a sharp stick.
Hence, covers with nude women reclining with artfully crossed legs and strategically placed objects. When women are clothed, think Barbarella.
Some covers have a pop-art, Peter Max vibe, while others are lush with jungle themes. Vietnam? You decide.
There is breaking surf, menacing cigarette holders, canyons of cleavage, rivers of lava, Vaseline-lensed visages and men who suavely predestined today’s Dos Equis’ “The Most Interesting Man in the World” ads.
Leslie can only be grateful he’s doing a radio show.
Students at the university sometimes learn that the familiar paper-pusher (his term for his day job) has an on-air life. Indeed, the show feels strangely contemporary, due to Leslie conscientiously speaking in the present tense and not playing the nostalgia card.
“A friend told me that ‘Jet Set Planet’ is like a popular radio station in an alternate universe,” he said. “And I push that.”
So he’ll keep spinning and scrounging, always on the lookout for that personal Holy Grail, an album by the Hellers, whose members included Robert Moog, inventor of the Moog synthesizer.
Could he find it online? Maybe. But he won’t look. If he’s meant to find it, he’ll find it the way people once bought records, flipping through the bins, slap, slap, slap, looking for the one that will start the party in his other universe.
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