My first encounter with the exotic was on the Magic Mill at Thorpe Park, a South-East England theme park which from appearances had originally been based around a cramped zoo or city-farm set-up. At some point in the late 70s it had seemingly panicked, though, and parked itself up in order to survive. With its born-delapidated aluminium-heavy decor and threadbare bunny mascot, the park ended up an icon of crappiness for my friends and I, but at age eight or nine you don’t think in those knowing terms. Even then, though, Thorpe Park was noticeably lacking in actual rides, preferring to emphasise hearty activities like karting or pedalo boats, leisure options which left bookish little me forlornly stranded in the model village.

The few rides there were back then were passive and processionary: the type of attraction where you sit in your car for five minutes and admire themed waxwork tableaux along a ‘ghosts’ or ‘pirates’ theme: mogadon versions of the fairground ghost train, which were visited in general only because they always had the shortest queues. These kind of rides were based on a contract of mutual deception: they would pretend to offer an immersive, FX-laden ‘experience’, and you would pretend you wanted one. Of course the effects would be cumbersome and the ideas pedestrian, but they weren’t really the point: the real idea behind the non-rides was to let you carve an easy notch on your things-done tally stick, and to let you take a break from the FUN for a bit, without you having to admit you wanted one.

Of this type Thorpe Park had a ghost ride, which was pitiful, and it had the Magic Mill. The first time I went, the ghost ride wasn’t quite finished yet and all my friends were on the karts, so I thought I’d go on the Mill, unsure what to expect. There was never a queue. You climbed into a plastic gondola, which would bob along the ‘magic river’ (a series of grassy meanders) while quiet electronic music played. The odd plastic bullfrog aside, there were no decorations, and the lawns were trimmed to funeral-home standards. For the tired parkgoer, the effect was soporific, beautiful, and eerie – lying back in the gondola you could imagine yourself in another world, or more accurately in a non-world, a strange extra-temporal limbo, an Elysian lobby. The boat swung around a final bend and ahead you heard water and music, as you were carried towards two huge synthetic-wood doors. They swung open and you were in the Mill.

The Magic Mill was a half-minute of pure exotica, Home Counties-style, a chirruping, grunting, cawing, tom-tomming riot of cod-Africana. Cartoony model elephants, monkeys, and macaws, immense and ominous carvings, red-brown paintings and lunges of dark-green tropical flora, with a soundtrack of animal cries, the constant rush of water on a wheel, and ever-pounding tribal drums. After the few minutes of waiting-room lull, this was both really effective and really irritating: I wanted more of that peaceful cotton-wool feeling, and to get it I rode the Magic Mill again three or four times that day.

What I didn’t notice on the ride was the complete absence of a human presence amidst the exotica – who worked the mill? who played those incessant drums? As exotica becomes less of a method of working musically and more another style to be deployed and quoted, it loses any connection it might have had with the musics it is itself appropriating. The Magic Mill was itself a caricature, a suburban fantasia on ‘the African’: any human element in its jungle paradise would have necessarily been a caricature too, and even in early-80s Surrey, a fibreglass bongo-playing African would have been a caricature too far.

Questions of race may be central to exotica, but they’re rarely discussed openly. This isn’t so much because writers or listeners are unwilling to confront them, but because accusations of colonialism and caricature are, to borrow a phrase from Mike Daddino, “ultimately both too vague and very obviously right”. Rhetorical sweeps in this territory count for less than examples. In his Exotica book, David Toop sketches the story of Carmen Miranda: her Brazilian superstar origins, her Hollywood peak, her early death and her disavowal by latter-day compilers of Latin music who despised her apparent artificiality and her ridiculous fruitbasket hats (which as Toop points out were one of the more ‘authentic’ things about her).

We’re back of course to our old friends, the authentic and the artificial. It may be down to my Magic Mill experience that I link elevator music and exotica, but it’s more likely to be because they’re both illegitimate musics, styles which step outside the romantic/modernist rock paradigm: they both ditch the idea that music should be primarily a vehicle for the self-expression of the musician. The detonation of that idea is as appealing to the contrary mind as it is to the corporate one, and throughout Exotica the book’s cast of musicians, writers and adventurers in sound clusters around two poles. On the one hand are Hollywood’s creatures: performers like Miranda, or songwriters like Bacharach, or production-line composers like Baxter and Denny. On the other we meet a Burroughsian motley of dandies, addicts and individualists like Colin McPhee or Pierre Loti, drawn to the exotic often by its perceived opportunities for sexual and chemical license, staying in an attempt to drown their own identities in the Other.

Reading Exotica you get the impression that this book – infuriatingly flawed and incomplete-seeming – is actually the only book that could have successfully been written on the subject. It frequently dips into fiction, or sleevenote ephemera, or anecdote, in an even looser way than Toop’s previous (and wonderful) Ocean Of Sound did. It politely refuses to engage head-on the issues it hints at. It ends up a book you have an impression of rather than remember. Which of course is entirely appropriate to the subject, even if you do end up sighing wearily as another chapter kicks off with some nonsense about the starship Mercurius (one firm thing I can say after finishing Exotica is that I would not buy a David Toop novel). But the only other approach I can think of would be a mere catalogue, an attempt to somehow master the exotic: Toop at least goes some way towards engaging it on its own terms.

Images, names, and stories recur, and one image that sticks with me is the idea of tabu, which at once sums up the kitschy element in exotica, and its odd resonance. It’s a subject you approach at your own risk, and I’ve paid in writer’s block and website paucity for my hubris in imagining I could understand it in only a month. There is an awful lot more to be said, and perhaps even in a more structured way: the subtitle of Exotica runs “fabricated soundscapes in a real world”, which begs the question of whether it’s even possible to make Exotica any more in a world where everything seems both endlessly new and immediately recognisable – where everything, in other words, seems Exotic, and nothing much seems foreign. The Magic Mill, it came as no surprise to learn, closed down years ago.

Essays   features   Pop