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Musician Ben Vaughn on International Pop

Ben Vaughn's records
“International Pop” selections from Ben Vaughn’s record collection. Photo by Ben Vaughn
Renaissance man Ben Vaughn is known for his work as a musician, producer, and TV and film composer, and as the host of the radio show and podcast The Many Moods of Ben Vaughn. Here’s what he had to say about creating the Museum’s first-ever Spotify playlist, a musical companion to the International Pop exhibition.

In terms of music, what does international pop mean to you?

To me, Pop Art and music have always lived together. Especially rock music. I have no memory of one without the other. I was just a kid when Beatlemania exploded and I remember Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can getting a lot of attention at the same time. It was all mixed together. Dylan going electric, Roy Lichtenstein creating comic strip panels, whatever. It didn’t seem to matter. The barriers between commercial product and fine art seemed to be disappearing and not everyone was happy about it. It was a very exciting time. Very anti-authoritarian. Other fields were affected too (photography, film) but American music and art was what I was paying attention to back then. Later on I discovered how international this period of change was.

The playlist features British Invasion bands, singer-songwriters, Brazilian and French pop, jazz, and even the Batman theme song. What do these songs have in common?

In my mind this playlist shines a light on the playfulness between art and commerce at that time. The Beatles sold millions of records but were experimenting more and more with each release. A hit TV show like Batman borrowed heavily from Pop Art but maintained a healthy mainstream audience. The very existence of Sonny and Cher was a product of that time. They were weird looking but were not considered an underground act. In France Serge Gainsbourg was inspired by this new freedom as well as Bossa Nova artists in Brazil, folk singers in Great Britain, etc. It was in the air.

The opening track is “The Beat Goes On” by Sonny & Cher. What makes it a good introduction to music of the era?

“The Beat Goes On” addresses the changes happening in the culture while representing those changes in a musical way: the bass, drums, horn arrangement, vocal attitude, etc. It’s brilliant, actually. I was thrilled to see Sonny & Cher mentioned in the International Pop catalog. It would have been a great disservice not to include them.

You included songs from the Velvet Underground’s first album, coproduced by Andy Warhol, who also designed its famous banana cover. What was so unique about the band’s sound and look?

A young musician recently asked me why the Velvet Underground sound great when their guitars are out of tune and why no other band does. I couldn’t think of an answer. What they did remains a mystery. A lot of critics like to point out that Andy Warhol didn’t technically “produce” their debut album but I’m not so sure. His influence couldn’t help but have a major effect on the final product.

Why did you choose Serge Gainsbourg, Françoise Hardy, and Astrud Gilberto?

Serge Gainsbourg was in some ways the French combination of Warhol and Dylan. You never knew what he was going to do next. He was a painter, writer, singer, performer and provocateur—a fierce individual who could care less about crossing the line into crass commercialism. Other international choices in my playlist (Astrud Gilberto, Françoise Hardy) are songs I imagine playing on record players and radios while Pop Art painters and sculptors were creating.

The Beatles experimented with lots of sounds to create “Tomorrow Never Knows.” The Ramsey Lewis Trio transformed a Motown hit, “Dancing in the Street,” in a live jazz performance. What about this period encouraged musicians to push boundaries?

Life after World War II held a lot of promise for young people. There was fear too with the Vietnam War but culturally it was a moment where the possibility of an expanded group consciousness was merging with a new consumer society. Why shouldn’t the Beatles test their popularity by taking creative chances? And by the same token, why shouldn’t a legitimate jazz artist join the hit parade by adding a Motown song to his repertoire? All bets were off. Even Jacqueline Kennedy was holding Twist parties at the White House.

How did Miles Davis end up on a playlist of “international pop”?

I included the Miles track because it’s part of the score for the French film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) directed by Louis Malle in 1958. To me it demonstrates the international exchange of ideas already in place during the embryonic stage of the Pop Art movement.

A few artists in the exhibition created iconic album covers: Andy Warhol for the Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones, and Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton for the Beatles. What do you think of this marriage of visual art and music?

I’m lucky to have come of age artistically at a time when visual art and music were blending together to great effect. I can’t imagine hearing Revolver by the Beatles without looking at the black-and-white collage on the front cover. Same thing with the first Velvet Underground record. That album sounds like the cover art. And I doubt I’m alone in thinking that. When I set about creating my own music, I almost immediately had pictures in my head of how to present it visually.

What do you hope people who lived through the 1960s will be reminded of when they hear this music?

Anyone who lived through the 1960s will most likely feel a combination of nostalgia and restlessness when hearing this playlist and looking at the exhibit. The air was filled with change but also uncertainty. The great thing about Pop Art is that the uncertainty still exists in the pieces. Was it disposable or meant to last for all time? We’ll never know. The same thing goes for Sonny & Cher. That restless energy prevails. I think a younger person will pick that up too. A feeling of unfinished business.

Can you think of any musicians or singers working today that would fit in with this playlist?

Justin Timberlake perhaps. Is he an artist or a product? Would he have been embraced by Pop Artists back in the day? Will he be remembered or forgotten? It could go either way.

You grew up outside Philadelphia in nearby South Jersey. Did you visit the Museum as a child?

My mom was a fashion artist in the 1940s. She worked in the Gimbels art department before they used photographs in newspaper ads. She retired to raise a family but always encouraged me to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She even let me play hooky from school a few times and go there instead. I’m not sure what the statute of limitations is in New Jersey but I think it’s probably okay to reveal that. I was really blown away by Franz Kline early on. I have no idea why and have learned not to ask myself those type of questions.

This interview was conducted and edited by Sid Rodríguez, Interactive Content Writer.