Pop: The mechanic of love

Hey there, special lady, we'd like you to meet Count. Count Indigo. But you can call him Bruce, the avatar of Easy Listenin'. By John O'Reilly
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"What do you say, when a stranger loves you more than your wife?/ The answer's not in Yellow Pages or Citizen's Advice/ And what's more... I don't even remember her name" Count Indigo, `My Unknown Love'

Assuming rock is the devil's music, what is Easy Listening? Novelist Milan Kundera once wrote rather apocalyptically that the culture of kitsch heralds the end of modernity, reducing life's ambiguity and complexity to cliche and emotional narcissism: "The kitsch man's need for kitsch - the need to gaze into the mirror of the beautifying lie and be moved to tears of gratification at one's own reflection." So when the Beast arrives to wreak havoc in the final days, will he have horns and be accompanied by the sounds of hell, or will he arrive by E-Type Jag in a polyester suit, swaying to the melody of "The Windmills of your Mind"? In short, is Easy Listening star Count Indigo a cultural horseman of the apocalypse?

Indigo's first single "Unknown Love" was Chris Evans's record of the week and was described by The Face as classic pop schmaltz and was performed on TFI Friday. But the crowning achievement for an avatar of Easy is that it was playlisted on Radio 2.

If Count Indigo is the Beast then Club Indigo on Tuesday nights at Madame JoJo's is Babylon. There you can catch such angels of darkness as Bikini Beach dressed in fezzes and Hawaiian shirts playing Easy versions of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and "Pretty Vacant". Or the Ukelele Kings singing "Ziggy Played Ukelele". Like the polyester, the joke can wear a little thin. But there is also the fabulous DJ James Kaminski and if you are lucky you may get to see the epic weirdness of Lucky Fifteen serving up Sakamoto epiphanies with a twist of South Pacific.

At some point in the evening the Count will perform some Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis schtick with DJ Felchley B Hawkes, a hirsute figure you could easily mistake for an Old Testament prophet in a flared three-piece suit. On a bad night Club Indigo is a heaving mass of people who would complain if this kind of music were played at a wedding. This is where the overdressed suave of Easy meets its drunken cousin Karaoke, and style means not throwing up on your date. But at its most enchanting the fabulous fantasy of Club Indigo reveals the winsome charisma of its flamboyant, elaborately moustachioed host.

You could be forgiven for believing that the Easy Listening fad is the one-note joke of the cultural necrophilia that goes by the name of post- modernism. But Count Indigo is the sign of something else emerging out of Easy Listening. He writes his own material, oozes charm and croons in a skin-shiveringly rich baritone voice. With a degree in film studies he is a Douglas Sirk of musical melodrama. Like Batman, the Count's other name is Bruce - Bruce Clayton Marcus. The character of Count Indigo is that of a Russian aristocrat with a flat in Green Park and a mansion in the country. When I met the Count for coffee in Soho he arrived in what was obviously casual morning wear for the sophisticated emigre about town - a beige, belted safari suit. I asked him whether he was worried that his music might not be taken as some weak porno joke. "You can only get so far on irony and double takes. You should leave it to the audience to respond to it in the most natural way they can, rather than giving a constant wink which is a bit trite. I think Oasis are really camp; they are quite a kitsch band in many ways. They are so knowingly stylised but, because they do it straight, no one writes about them in those terms."

It's not difficult to see Liam as an angry northern jessie, the latest pop drama queen. And perhaps what's most interesting about contemporary lounge music is the extent to which it is about identity, fantasy and the re-invention of the self. This is why Count Indigo believes that Easy is not only undervalued as a genre but is much freer than most: "Romance is all very well and it's one of the most interesting things to write about. But the problem is that in pop music the only thing you're meant to say is `baby, baby, baby', especially if you're black. It's `baby, baby, baby I want to do you girl', or `She's a bitch, you don't mean nuthin' to me.' What I try to get at are the mechanics of love - how to make things work, how they do work and why sometimes they don't. The new single `Her Other Man' sounds like you are the bit on the side. In fact it's a male fantasy of trying to re-invent yourself to make your relationship more interesting, more vibrant and more worthwhile than just sliding along."

The difference between tragedy and melodrama is that the tragic is about the inner conflict of characters trapped by fate whereas melodrama is about thwarted desire. Count Indigo's songs are narratives with characters such as travelling salesmen who find themselves in a smalltown bar, who fall in love with someone whose name they can't remember, and whose love they can't forget, told to the soundtrack of sweeping orchestrations and swooning vocals. They have the immense intensity of emotions that marks out the Easy Listening genre as sentimental and narcissistic but also communicates a vulnerability born out of frustration. It was once said of Scott Walker that he wrote songs for gin-sozzled housewives on Valium, and while Count Indigo is no Scott Walker he does chart the shallows of the suburban imagination. "Her Other Man" begins as a tale of tedious emotional domesticity, "Country walks have lost their thrill she says, and dining out's a bore. Frozen nights drag interminably, did we once have more?" So who exactly is he addressing? "I always think of middle income, middle England women. They are interesting people to write for. Not that I know a great deal about them. But," he says with raised eyebrow and lowered voice, "I'd like to find out."

After hearing him on record the Count's softly spoken voice is a surprise, but the discovery that he had such a rich singing voice was as much a revelation for him. "It all started when I did a session in Edinburgh in 1989 and suddenly I had this huge baritone `I'm a big loverman' voice. It's the `beast within'," he says in Barry White basso profundo style. "And as soon as you start singing in that register you start getting interested in notions of maleness and why it is that most pop music is men singing tenor or falsetto."

The Count talks of his favourite films (Sirk's Imitation of Life, Nicolas Roeg's Insignificance and Mario Bava's Diabolik), of Karim Bey in From Russia with Love shooting his enemy through Anita Ekberg's mouth, and of how the brilliant John Barry recycles his work so that Dances with Wolves is the rural re-mix of Midnight Cowboy. Film is part of the vocabulary of the post-Easy sound.

Leaving aside the cheesy student joke aspect of lounge music, Count Indigo and other bands like Lucky Fifteen are signs of a post-Britpop genre. Emerging from the Easy Listening dialectic of smooth melodies and high drama is a pop sensibility akin to early Eighties bands like ABC, or even Heaven 17, who produced their own album of covers Music of Quality and Distinction with songs by Nancy Sinatra and Glen Campbell. This might be speculation but, maybe, as Douglas Sirk might have said, it's written on the wind.

n `Her Other Man' is released on Monday on Cowboy Records. Club Indigo is at Madame JoJo's, London W1, Tuesdays 9pm (0171-734 2473)