16 Soothing Facts About Muzak

Keith Brofsky/iStock via Getty Images
Keith Brofsky/iStock via Getty Images

Whether you know it as background music, elevator music, or, as Ted Nugent once called it, an “evil force causing people to collapse into uncontrollable fits of blandness,” Muzak has ruled speakers for the better part of a century. Press play on your favorite easy-listening album and scroll on for some unforgettable facts about the most forgettable genre of music.

1. Muzak is a brand name.

Much like Chapstick, Popsicle, and a certain type of vacuum-sealing plastic food container, Muzak is a registered trademark. It began as the name of the company that first produced the easy-listening instrumental tunes that played in factories, elevators, and department stores. As its popularity grew, people started to use Muzak as a generic term for all background music.

2. Muzak was invented by a U.S. army general.

Major General George Owen Squier
Library of Congress // Public Domain

During World War I, Major General George Owen Squier used electrical power lines to transmit phonograph music over long distances without interference. He patented this invention in 1922 and founded Wired Radio, Inc. to profit from the technology. The company first devised a subscription service that included three channels of music and news and marketed it to Cleveland residents for $1.50 per month. When Squier and his associates realized their product was a little too close to regular (free) radio, they started pitching it to hotel and restaurant owners, who were more willing to pay for a steady broadcast of background music without interruptions from radio hosts or advertisements.

3. The name is a portmanteau of music and Kodak.

In 1934, Squier changed the name of his business from Wired Radio to Muzak, combining the first syllable of music with the last syllable of Kodak, which had already proven to be an extremely catchy, successful name for a company.

4. Muzak has been releasing instrumental covers of pop songs since its inception.

The first-ever original Muzak recording was an instrumental medley of three songs performed by the Sam Lanin Orchestra: “Whispering,” by John and Malvin Shonberger, “Do You Ever Think of Me?” which was covered by Bing Crosby, and “Here in My Arms,” by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers from the 1925 Broadway musical Dearest Enemy.

5. Muzak was briefly owned by Warner Bros.

The sound of Muzak was wafting across the country by the end of the 1930s, which caught the ears of Warner Bros. The company bought Muzak in 1938, fostered it for about a year, and then sold it to three businessmen: Waddill Catchings, Allen Miller, and William Benton (Benton would later publish the Encyclopaedia Britannica and serve as a U.S. senator for Connecticut).

6. Muzak was designed to make factory workers more productive.

Muzak manufactured soundtracks, based on a theory called “stimulus progression,” that consisted of 15-minute segments of background music that gradually ascended in peppiness. The method was meant to tacitly encourage workers to increase their pace, especially during the productivity lulls that often occurred during the late morning and mid-afternoon.

7. Muzak helped calm anxious elevator passengers.

Since more advanced electric elevators diminished the need for elevator operators in the mid-20th century, passengers were often left alone with an unsettling silence that made them all too aware that they were hurtling upward or downward in a steel box. Soft, calming Muzak played through speakers offered the perfect distraction.

8. There’s a reason Muzak's tempo is slower in supermarkets.

Just like factory workers might move faster while listening to fast-paced tracks, you might slow down while shopping to slower-tempo Muzak—which is exactly what supermarket owners want you to do. The more time you spend in a store, the more likely you are to toss a few extra snacks in your cart. (It's unclear whether the slower music might inhibit the productivity of supermarket workers.)

9. More than one U.S. president endorsed Muzak.

Muzak was installed in the White House during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration, but he was arguably only the second biggest presidential fan of the genre. Lyndon B. Johnson actually owned Muzak franchises in Austin while serving as a U.S. Senator from Texas.

10. Andy Warhol was also a fan of Muzak.

Andy Warhol
Graham Wood/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Pop culture aficionado Andy Warhol supposedly said, “I like anything on Muzak—it’s so listenable. They should have it on MTV.”

11. Ted Nugent offered to buy Muzak for $10 million to “shelve it for good.”

In 1986, the Whackmaster put in a bid to purchase Muzak from parent company Westinghouse just to shut it down. According to the Ottawa Citizen, he called it an “evil force” that was “responsible for ruining some of the best minds of our generation.” Westinghouse rejected the bid.

12. Muzak didn’t formally introduce vocals until 1987.

As part of a rebranding campaign to modernize Muzak, the company started adding voice-accompanied tunes in 1987. Before that, Muzak broadcasts had only featured voices twice. The first was an announcement that Iran had freed American hostages in 1981, and the second was as part of a worldwide radio broadcast of “We Are the World” in 1985.

13. 7-Elevens blared Muzak in parking lots to chase off loiterers.

7-Eleven storefront at night
Mike841125, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1991, 7-Eleven parking lots in Southern California became well-trafficked watering holes for youth who evidently had no place else to go. To deter them from loitering with skateboards, beer, and lots of teen angst, the stores blared Muzak—and it worked. “It will keep us away,” one young loafer told the Los Angeles Times. “But they’re torturing themselves more than us because they have to sit inside and listen to it.”

14. Seattle is the capital of Muzak.

Though it's well known as the birthplace of grunge, Seattle also had a thriving elevator music scene. Muzak based its corporate headquarters there in the 1980s, and three other leading background (and foreground) music corporations opened in the city over the years: Yesco Foreground Music, Audio Environments Inc., and Environmental Music Service Inc.

15. Kurt Cobain wanted Muzak to cover Nirvana songs.

When an interviewer told the Seattle-based rock star that Muzak didn’t recreate Nirvana tracks because it found them too aggressive for its purposes, an amused Cobain said, “Oh, well, we have some pretty songs, too. God, that’s really a bummer. That upsets me.”

16. It’s no longer called Muzak.

In 2013, an Ontario-based sensory marketing company called Mood Media acquired Muzak. The company, which provides music, smells, signs, lights, and interactive displays to businesses to achieve a certain mood, consolidated all of its services under the Mood brand, effectively killing the Muzak name (at least officially).

David Hasselhoff's Strange Connection to the Fall of the Berlin Wall

re:publica, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
re:publica, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Americans might know David Hasselhoff best as the star of pre-peak television series Knight Rider and Baywatch. But in Germany, he’s been a popular singing attraction since 1985, when his album Night Rocker became a sensation. In June 1989 Hasselhoff released Looking for Freedom, an album with a title track that seemed to speak directly to citizens in European countries seeking democracy. That track had been playing since 1988 in anticipation of the album’s release.

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Was it coincidence, or did Hasselhoff help incite a revolution?

In a new interview with Time, Hasselhoff takes no credit for that seismic change in Germany, despite the fact that some of the actor's fans have knitted the two memories—his popularity and the dissolution of the wall—together, leading some to believe he was partly responsible. Some of the same people who began chipping away at the wall dividing East and West Germany had been humming the song for months prior. Some have even told Hasselhoff his music helped inspire change. Others held up signs thanking him for the fall of the wall.

“You’re the man who sings of freedom,” a woman once told Hasselhoff, before asking for his autograph.

The wall, of course, came down rather abruptly, shortly after a premature announcement that East Germans could take advantage of relaxed travel restrictions, and Hasselhoff demurs when asked if he played a role. “I never ever said I had anything to do with bringing down the wall,” he told Time. “I never ever said those words ... There was the guy from Knight Rider singing a song about freedom. Knight Rider was sacred to everyone and hopefully we’ll bring it back as a movie. I was just in the right place at the right time with the right song. I was just a man who sang a song about freedom.”

After the wall fell, Hasselhoff was invited to sing on a crane hovering over its remains on New Year’s Eve in 1989, which you can witness in the video above. Hasselhoff recently returned to Berlin for another series of concerts to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the wall being torn down.

[h/t Time]

10 Fascinating Facts About INXS

INXS's Michael Hutchence in Mystify: Michael Hutchence (2019).
INXS's Michael Hutchence in Mystify: Michael Hutchence (2019).
Dogwoof

Over the course of the 1980s, INXS went from fledgling Australian pub rockers to global superstars. Although frontman Michael Hutchence died in 1997, and the band finally called it quits in 2012, INXS remains hugely popular. There’s a widescreen 4K Ultra HD restoration of the band’s 1991 concert film Live Baby Live coming to theaters, as well as a new documentary, Mystify: Michael Hutchence. In celebration of this INXS resurgence, here are 10 facts about the band.

1. INXS was a band of brothers (and three other guys).

Like the Bee Gees, who also formed in Australia, INXS featured three brothers: Andrew (keyboards), Jon (drums), and Tim (guitar) Farriss. Rounding out the sextet were Garry Gary Beers on bass, Kirk Pengilly on guitar and saxophone, and of course, Michael Hutchence on lead vocals.

2. Midnight Oil’s manager came up with the band's name.

The group was known as The Farriss Brothers (and for a little while, The Vegetables) before changing its name to the much cooler INXS. That suggestion was made by Gary Morris, manager of Aussie rock heroes Midnight Oil. Morris was inspired by IXL, a brand of jam, and the English new wave band XTC, who’d recently toured Australia. Although INXS is read as “in excess,” Morris wanted the band to market themselves as “inaccessible,” the adjective that seems to have inspired the moniker.

3. INXS was almost a Christian band.

Not every idea Gary Morris had was a good one. During his brief stint as INXS’s manager, he tried to sell the boys on hardcore Christianity, which he’d embraced after attending a Billy Graham crusade. “He wanted us to write songs about Christ and to promote a drug-and-alcohol-free and a no-sex-before-marriage proper Christian lifestyle,” bassist Garry Beers wrote in the band’s official autobiography. These were the guys who would later write “Devil Inside” and “Original Sin”—they didn’t go for it.

4. They didn’t go global until their third album.

INXS were strictly an Aussie phenomenon until their third album, 1982’s Shabooh Shoobah. It gave the group their first entries on the Billboard Hot 100—"The One Thing" and "Don’t Change"—and reached #46 on the Billboard 200. It also became INXS’s first Top 5 album at home in Australia.

5. Nile Rodgers changed a key lyric in the band’s first #1 hit.

INXS recorded their fourth studio album, 1983’s The Swing, with super-producer and former Chic bandleader Nile Rodgers in New York City. Rodgers played a key role in shaping “Original Sin,” which later reached #58 in America and became INXS’s first #1 single in Australia. First, he asked his buddy Daryl Hall to sing backup on the chorus. Then he suggested Hutchence change the line “dream on, white boy/dream on, white girl” to “dream on, black boy/dream on, white girl.”

“I come from an interracial couple,” Rodgers said. “Psychologically that makes it a bigger statement. Even when I rang up Daryl Hall to sing on it his manager thought it was too controversial. But I think the record would have been bigger had I not talked them into changing the lyrics.”

6. The head of Atlantic Records thought Kick was trash.

When INXS first played their sixth album, 1987’s Kick, for Atlantic Records president Doug Morris, the response was less than encouraging. “He put his feet up on the desk and closed his eyes from the minute the record went on to the minute it finished,” said the band’s longtime manager Chris Murphy in 2017. “When it stopped, he said, ‘I’ll give you $1 million to go and record another album. This is not happening, this is sh*t.’” Morris couldn’t have been more wrong. Kick reached #3 on the Billboard 200 and spawned four Top 10 hits, including the #1 smash “Need You Tonight.”

7. Andrew Farriss annoyed a cab driver while writing the band’s biggest U.S. hit.

INXS was nearly done with Kick when producer Chris Thomas decided they still needed a few more songs for the album. He convinced Andrew Farriss to meet up with Hutchence in Hong Kong, where the singer had an apartment, and write some new material. While waiting for a cab to the Sydney airport, Farriss came up with a tasty guitar riff. He rushed to record a demo, complete with drum machine, while his frustrated cab driver looked through the window.

After 40 minutes of tinkering, Farriss got into the car, made his flight, and presented Hutchence with the tape. The frontman loved the track and dashed off some lusty lyrics in minutes. They called the song “Need You Tonight,” and in January 1988, it became INXS’s first and only #1 song in America.

8. There was some speculation over the cause of Michael Hutchence’s death.

Michael Hutchence of INXS in 'Mystify: Michael Hutchence' (2019)
Dogwoof

Hutchence was found dead on November 22, 1997, at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Double Bay, Sydney. The coroner’s explanation was suicide by hanging. At the time, Hutchence was reportedly in a depressed state due to several factors, including an ongoing custody dispute between Paula Yates, the mother of his daughter, and Yates's ex-husband, rocker and Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof. Yates later questioned the official cause of death and suggested Hutchence had died from autoerotic asphyxiation. Further complicating matters, another of Hutchence’s exes, model Helena Christensen, reveals in the 2019 documentary Mystify: Michael Hutchence that the singer suffered wild mood swings as a result of brain damage he suffered when a cab driver punched him outside a Copenhagen restaurant in 1995.

9. INXS tried to carry on with several other lead singers.

After Hutchence’s death, INXS took about a year off before returning to the stage. They did so in November 1998 with Jimmy Barnes of the group Cold Chisel on lead vocals. The following year, they enlisted singers Terence Trent D’Arby and Russell Hitchcock for a concert celebrating the opening of Stadium Australia. From 2000 to 2003, Jon Stevens of the band Noiseworks took the helm, and in 2005, the group used the reality series Rock Star: INXS to audition a new frontman. The winner, Canadian singer-songwriter J.D. Fortune, toured with the band from 2005 to 2011. The last man to grab the microphone was Northern Irish singer-songwriter Ciaran Gribbin, who joined in late 2011 and stayed on until INXS’s final show in November 2012.

10. For their final show, INXS opened for Matchbox Twenty.

In November 2012, during the final show of a tour supporting American pop rockers Matchbox Twenty, INXS announced they were calling it quits after 35 years. It may have seemed like a random and non-glamorous finale to their career, but the show was in Perth, Australia, where the band had lived in the late 1970s. INXS ended the concert with one of their most beloved singles, “Don’t Change,” with Matchbox Twenty frontman Rob Thomas helping out on vocals.

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