A Breath Of Fresh Aire
September 22, 2012 10:05 PM   Subscribe

In 1975, composer/drummer Chip Davis, bass player Eric Hansen, and keyboard player Jackson Berkey introduced the world to the unclassifiable mix of classical, jazz, rock, and synthesizer music known as Fresh Aire: Prelude; Chocolate Fudge; Interlude I; Sonata; Interlude II; Sara's Band; Fresh Aire; Rondo; Interlude III; Pass The Keg, Lia; Interlude IV; Mist.

Mannheim Steamroller's first album was originally an album which encompassed the twelve months of the year (song-by-song liner notes by Bill Fries, AKA C.W. McCall of Convoy fame [proto-rap #1 hit Convoy written by Chip Davis, of course]), Fresh Aire's popularity pushed it to "Spring" status as a cycle of four albums was conceived based on the Seasons (a la Vivaldi).

1977's Fresh Aire II (Fall) opened with the Fantasia suite [sadly not available for online listening as a single piece]:
Chorale, The First Door - Interrupted Thought, The Second Door - The Ugly Head Of Greed, The Third Door - Pride, The Fourth Door - Relaxation, The Fifth Door - Frenetic Energy, The Sixth Door - Nostalgia, Door Seven - Thermal Inversion, Fantasy. The second side/half of the album: Interlude V, Velvet Tear, A Shade Tree, Toota Lute, Going To Another Place.
Summer finally came in 1979 with the release of Fresh Aire III:
Toccata, Small Wooden Bach'ses, Amber, Mere Image. The second side of the album was again intended to be listened to in as a single piece, but again is presented here as individual tracks: Morning, Interlude (renamed Interlude 6 for CD release in 1986), The Cricket, The Sky, Midnight On A Full Moon.
The first cycle wrapped up in 1981 with Fresh Aire 4, an album about Winter.
Side one: Outside: G Major Toccata, Crystal, Interlude 7, Four Rows Of Jacks. Side two: Inside: Red Wine, Dancing Flames, The Dream, Embers.
The album included liner notes by Ed Wilson, a glimpse of which can be found in this epinions review.
In 1983, a new Mannheim Steamroller era began. Fresh Aire V is the first Fresh Aire album to be released on CD as part of its original release. It is also the first Fresh Aire album to be recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra. It also is Eric Hansen's last appearance as a member of the Steamroller.

Fresh Aire V is based loosely on Johannes Kepler's posthumous book published in 1630 (perhaps the first work of science fiction?) Somnium (Latin text) or The Dream (English translation), in which Kepler postulates a journey to the Moon:
To The Moon -- Lumen (New Light, A Chant For The Candlemas), Escape From The Atmosphere / Release, Dancin' In The Stars / Chant. On The Moon -- Z-Row Gravity, Creatures Of Levania, Earthrise / Return, The Storm [titles taken from the original release, they were shortened for later releases].
Expanding the circle from one man's mythic dream to those of an entire culture, 1986's Fresh Aire VI was based on Greek myths. Once again recorded with LSO and The Cambridge Singers, it included Eric Hansen on only one track (The Olympics):
Come Home To The Sea [official video]; Rhodes Suite: Twilight At Rhodes, Night Festival At Rhodes, Sunrise At Rhodes; The Olympics; Nepenthe; Orpheus Suite: Descent Into The Underworld, Dialog With The Devil, Ascent From Hell; Sirens: Crash And The Call / The Dance / The Singing Contest / Farewell [grooveshark link].
Recorded with Mannheim Steamroller's now expanded orchestral cast and (once again) The Cambridge Singers, "Mystic 7" was the inevitable subject of the next Fresh Aire album, 1990's Fresh Aire 7:
Conjuring The Number 7; Sunday The 7th Day; The 7 Colours Of The Rainbow; The 7 C's; The 7 Metals Of Alchemy; The 7 Chakras Of The Body: Chakra 1 / Chakra 2, Chakra 3, Chakra 4, Chakra 5, Chakra 6 / Chakra 7; The 7 Stars Of The Big Dipper.
The final album in the Fresh Aire series turned everything on its side, as Fresh Aire 8 explores the concept of ∞, infinity. Once again with the London Symphony Orchestra and The Cambridge Singers, 2000's Fresh Aire 8:
Main Titles; Greek Thinkers Suite (Infinity In Philosophy): Day Party, Interlude 8, Night Party, Goddesses In The Forest; The Big Bang (Infinity In Cosmology); Leonardo (The Infinite Thinker); Fractals (Infinity In Mathematics); Waterfall (Infinity In Art); The Circle Of Love (Infinity In The Wedding Band); The Steamroller (Infinity In Music); The Heart And The Feather (Infinity In The Egyptian Afterlife).
posted by hippybear (28 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
This album caused me to buy a Yamaha B2 and C2 and a pair of ADS910 speakers.
posted by bz at 10:24 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Marvelous wok on this post. I can't say enough about it. This is intelligent and well-crafted music and I have always loved it. Well. there goes my Sunday. Thanks again for all this great material.
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 10:35 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Holy shit. When I was a wee little runt an 8 track with 'Convoy' was on every time my dad took us on a road trip. Listening to the background music armed with this new information(this one sounds more obvious to me) is a bit mindblowing.
posted by mcrandello at 10:44 PM on September 22, 2012

Aww shit, is it pledge drive time again?

[actually thanks, great post!]
posted by not_on_display at 10:48 PM on September 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh this takes me back. Fresh Aire V is inextricably linked with Sonic the Hedgehog in my head. I was 12, recently discovered all things Mannheim Steamroller, and Fresh Aire V had just been released. I played that cassette on endless repeat while playing Sonic. It carved an indelible groove into my psyche.

Thanks for this.
posted by insert.witticism.here at 11:05 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Saw them play a show back in the post III pre IV days in a small hall in Kansas City. Crazy good.

About as much as this post!
posted by Windopaene at 11:26 PM on September 22, 2012

It must be noted that before "Convoy", "C.W.McCall" was doing his country-rap in commercials for Old Home Bread and had another notable country hit in "Wolf Creek Pass", IMO, the SECOND greatest runaway truck song ever recorded (after Harry Chapin's "30,000 Pounds of Bananas").

My all-time favorite Mannheim Steamroller-ism was when they backed up Mason Williams for a remake of his 1968 instrumental hit "Classical Gas". I could go on about Mason Williams, but I'll do that in another post.
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:27 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

At this very moment I have, sitting on the bookshelf in my living, the vinyl of Fresh Aire III, my personal favorite. I grew up on Chip Davis (I even used to listen to it while playing Quake!). Thanks for this great, great post.
posted by Doleful Creature at 11:31 PM on September 22, 2012

This is great. Thanks, hippybear.
posted by homunculus at 12:48 AM on September 23, 2012

Thanks as always, hippybear -- lots of great memories here. I spent a particularly blissful New Year's Eve with friends listening to FA4 shortly after it came out, with the house lights doused and the moonlight glistening off the snow outside. Just...perfect. (The memories around wearing my homemade FRESH AIRE III sweatjacket to school for several weeks running are less pleasant, but I kind of brought that on myself.)

It's mystifying how horribly American Gramaphone has treated the original LP artwork for the Fresh Aire series...particularly the first four, which were reduced to postage stamp size on the initial CD booklets, then butchered in various ways for subsequent reissues. So for those of you who haven't had the pleasure: here are nice big scans of the covers from Fresh Aire, Fresh Aire II, Fresh Aire III, Fresh Aire 4 and Fresh Aire V.

The runaway success of Christmas was the beginning of the end in my opinion; it was Davis's "Margaritaville" moment, when he suddenly had an honest-to-god mainstream fan base and had to choose between riding that tiger or letting it ride him. It's been riding him ever since, as demonstrated by the existence of an additional eight yuletime-themed albums (not counting compilations), four Halloween tie-ins, the line of Mannheim Steamroller-branded body wash, shampoos, and scented candles, and of course There's A Municipal Holiday In The Aire!

(Ha ha, thassa joke. The last one. Not the body wash. The Mannheim Steamroller body wash is real.)
posted by Lazlo at 1:30 AM on September 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

Chip Davis not only co-wrote "Convoy" and the other C.W. McCall hits with Midwestern ad pitchman Fries, he produced them. Once you know that, it's hard to miss their resemblance to Mannheim Steamroller records.
posted by texorama at 4:18 AM on September 23, 2012

I used to take bass lessons from a guy who lived down the street from a guy who lived down the street from Chip Davis (and who, as a volunteer fireman, saved the Davis estate from burning down). I always felt like I should have been able to claim some sort of reflected musical glory from this, but I could never figure out how.
posted by COBRA! at 5:14 AM on September 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Synthesizers, symphonies, and mythology. Sound like the second coming of Rick Wakeman.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 5:19 AM on September 23, 2012

Tubular Bells, the Fresh Aire series, Vangelis' Albedo 0.39, Rick Wakeman's King Arthur, --these comprised about 98% of my listening until I was 16 when I started playing in punk bands and discovered beer. I guess I wasn't much into lyrics then.
posted by sourwookie at 6:38 AM on September 23, 2012

I worked in a somewhat high end audio store '80-81. Toccata and Chocolate Fudge sold a ton of AR and Advent speakers for me back in those days.
posted by Ber at 7:05 AM on September 23, 2012

Yeah the audiophile recording and product of American Gramaphone was outstanding. In the days before digital anything, they were creating the cleanest sounding, most dynamically active vinyl one could imagine. (It's also why those early albums were so short -- they only had 15-20 minutes per side of vinyl, which allowed the grooves to be placed far apart, and they were on thick vinyl which allowed the grooves to be nice and deep -- there was plenty of room for the needle to wiggle back and forth and up and down without skipping out of the groove and lots of space to carry as much signal as possible.)

They were also expensive. I think I remember paying $25 for Fresh Aire II on vinyl in 1978 or 1979, over twice the price of other albums. But damn, even on my not-very-good stereo system, the difference in the audio was clear. Little to no noise floor on the vinyl itself, crystal clear everything.
posted by hippybear at 7:34 AM on September 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

And honestly, this post was inspired by the fact that huge horrible wildfires are burning across the NW and sending plumes of smoke all across the country degrading air quality. It's bad enough and thick enough that NASA has photographed smoke from these fires out over the Atlantic Ocean east of Newfoundland.

So my mind has been preoccupied with the bright red sunrises and reduced visibility and background smell of campfire that's been constant here for over a week (and I live over 200 miles away from the fires closest to me), and I got to longing for some fresh air. And because my brain is random access and poetically wired, here we are.
posted by hippybear at 7:40 AM on September 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Mannheim Steamroller body wash is real.

Holy shit.

Also, Mannheim Steamroller grilling kits. Mannheim Steamroller hot chocolate and chutneys.

I'm still glad I have the piano reduction scores for Fresh Aire and Fresh Aire II. Although I don't often have anyone around to help play the Fantasia suite from Fresh Aire II (it's arranged for one piano, four hands).
posted by hippybear at 10:03 AM on September 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ha! and the Mannheim Steamroller Christmas piano score is for TWO pianos, four hands. Like many ever have the equipment for that sitting around...
posted by hippybear at 10:05 AM on September 23, 2012

Ber, I discovered Fresh Aire in a similar way. It was not long after I got married in '82. My wife was selling audio at a now defunct discount chain in the Seattle area when she brought home a cassette of FA 1 she'd been using to demo equipment. She put it into our "stereo" -- heh, some sort of tiny Sanyo boombox -- and changed my life almost as much as marriage itself had.

The Steamroller was a gateway drug for me, coupled as closely as it was with Vangelis's scores to Chariots of Fire and Bladerunner. I've rediscovered the earlier FA albums, but never quit listening to FA 5 (and I admit I really, really enjoyed the first Christmas album). It led me directly to music I will not speak of here, so as not to distract our attention from hippybear's excellent post. Good job!
posted by lhauser at 10:53 AM on September 23, 2012

For those of you not up on your musical history (and/or who haven't ready your liner notes), the name Mannheim Steamroller refers to a technique developed by the Mannheim court orchestra and composers in 18th century.

The Mannheim School developed a number of techniques designed to use the coordinated resources of the full orchestra to thrill audiences--things like the Mannheim Rocket, the Mannheim Sigh, the Mannheim Birds, sudden crescendos, diminuendos, grand pauses, and of course, the Mannheim Roller. This is the period when dynamic markings (f, p, cresc, dim, etc) began to be used systematically in orchestral music, and ideas and techniques pioneered by the Mannheim orchestra were a big reason why such markings were needed.

As to the Mannheim Roller itself: It's hard to imagine a world where the idea of 'crescendo' doesn't exist, but that is the world before the Mannheim school. I exaggerate only slightly. The idea of a crescendo is, 'Let's gradually start playing louder.' But the Mannheim Roller is a crescendo on steroids. It uses the full, coordinated resources of the orchestra to start from a very quiet place and gradually, gradually, gradually create a crescendo over an extended period of time, building step by step to full orchestral instrumentation. Typically, ostinato figures and string tremolos are used as part of the build-up. It's not just 'let's play louder' but exploiting every available compositional and instrumental technique to make the biggest and most impressive crescendo ever.

The beginning of this Stamitz Symphony has a nice example of a Mannheim Roller (starting just after the initial six chords).

Examples of other Mannheim techniques: An example of a Mannheim Rocket in a Mozart Symphony is here, and in a Beethoven Sonata here. In another vein, John Corigliano wrote a piece called Mannheim Rocket.

This page explains several Mannheim techniques with examples.

There is probably a nice FPP about the Mannheim School that could be made by some ambitious person.
posted by flug at 1:47 PM on September 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

Not too many electronic bands from Nebraska.

Wikipedia reports that As of October 16, 2011, Christmas in the Aire [ their 21st album ! ] was the fifth best-selling Christmas/holiday album in the U.S. during the Nielsen/SoundScan era of music sales (March 1991 – present), having sold a total of 3,730,000 copies

Not only did they somehow anticipate Terry Gross' radio show, they also found a way to pay for the artsy stuff. (I never realized their name derived from the Haydn & Mozart-influencing Mannheim School.)
posted by Twang at 3:27 PM on September 23, 2012

Not only did they somehow anticipate Terry Gross' radio show, they also found a way to pay for the artsy stuff.

1) They didn't anticipate Terry Gross and her radio show. Terry started her show Fresh Air in 1975, the same year that Mannheim Steamroller began with their album Fresh Aire.

2) Fresh Aire has an e at the end of Aire, because it's a musical term.

3) It was Davis' work with CW McCall which paid for the artsy stuff. If that hadn't been a giant success (a number 1 hit and spawning a movie which starred Kris Kristofferson and Ernest Borgnine), Davis never would have had the financial freedom to start doing that other stuff.
posted by hippybear at 3:41 PM on September 23, 2012

Davis also has designed a whole lot of live-end/dead-end studio control rooms.
posted by bz at 5:57 PM on September 23, 2012

glad to see hippybear mention the audiophile nature of Mannheim's original vinyl releases. I'm from Central Nebraska, so Mannheim always had a pretty good following around here, but it was the audio stores that sold those Fresh Aire albums. Those were the albums used to demo the high end audio equipment, and people always wanted the album that was played too. Regular record stores (and department stores) could order the albums, but of course as special orders. But if it was an upscale store, or if it sold high end audio equipment, it had all the Mannheim Steamroller albums (and sold tons of them).

those albums were the thickest vinyl you've ever seen - the were solid platters that thumped when you set them down on the turntable. I'm surprised that several folks up above mention listening to Mannheim on cassette - even today the thought of listening to Manneheim Steamroller on the lousy sound of cassettes makes me shiver. American Gramaphone as a company spent money on recording and reproducing quality sound. I think I remember that they were initally reluctant to issue CDs because the early CDs had problems reproducing the depth of sound that they insisted on.

Davis is a good corporate citizen as well - They always do a series of Christmas shows in Omaha for the local audiences, even though they could make much, much more money doing those same shows in much larger cities.
posted by jkosmicki at 7:32 AM on September 24, 2012

There's a Fresh Hair beauty salon close to where I live. What's with hair salons and pun-filled names? When I was growing up, there was one called Scissorgy which I always snickered at. </derail>
posted by not_on_display at 10:26 AM on September 24, 2012

The thing that really grabbed me when I first encountered the Fresh Aire series when I was in high school, was the blend of acoustic and electronic instruments, and along with that the blend of classical composition and modern pop styles. I think the best example is "Mere Image." It starts as solo flute, then a harpsichord and some percussion for a quaint little folk tune. Then an orchestra comes in and we're in more classical territory, followed by the arrival of synths and pop/rock percussion - the piece sort of encapsulates the history of Western music, in a way.

Even that first Christmas album - the way "Deck the Halls" starts with synths, but then there's also that funky harpsichord in there, and then later in the album is the whole suite (or "sweet") of songs on acoustic Renaissance style instruments.

Thing is, by the time of the second Christmas album and even around Fresh Aire VI (definitely by VII) it becomes increasingly clear that it's now just Chip Davis in his basement with an army of synths and computers. The blend and balance of old meets new that I loved is now totally gone, and all that's left is the musical equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting. It's pasteurized processed American music food.
posted by dnash at 10:32 AM on September 24, 2012

Yeah, I agree that the magic of the Steamroller started to disappear shortly after the second Christmas album. (Those first two Xmas albums are pretty masterful, IMO.)

Personally, my interest in the Fresh Aire series starts to decline with VI, and there's only a couple of pieces I like on each of 7 or 8. I think V is a masterpiece and maybe should be performed in its entirety as a symphony or something. And the first side of II, the Fantasia suite... is utterly sublime.

(We won't talk about Saving The Wildlife or Yellowstone... they both sound so forced they make me wonder how they ever saw release.)
posted by hippybear at 8:30 PM on September 24, 2012

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