“Muzak had better watch its step.” This line, followed by a trail of susurrant z’s, is how Newsweek ended its short review of the first environments record. Published on November 10, 1969, just after the LP was released on college campuses, this is the earliest major mention of the series. The review is endearingly camp, and Irv often used its headline “Sonic Tonic” on subsequent recordings. This short piece, along with other generous early publicity, vaulted the series from a cocktail-party thought to a nation-wide hit.
Writers seem pulled toward grandiloquent imagery when reviewing environments. LIFE said of “Psychologically Ultimate Seashore,” “it soaks the mind… cheaper than booze, safer than pot.” The legendary San Francisco Chronicle journalist Herb Caen also mentioned the LPs in his daily column. The pioneering rock station KMPX played nothing but environmental sound from 8 a.m. to 12 midnight during a switch in programming and the stunt gained enough popularity for Caen to pen an unforgettable line: “the Pacific Ocean may yet make Top 40.”
The first environments disc appeared in late 1969 in a number of college campus stores, including the Harvard Coop. In January of 1970, The Village Voice wrote that “college students are tripping over a new stereo LP called environments.” Irv states in several interviews that inquisitive students helped propel the recordings into the mainstream. It’s easy to imagine the records’ futuristic design and self-aware tone catching the eye of anyone seeking subtly different sounds. In the first year, environments 1 appeared in Newsweek, The Village Voice, LIFE, and Rolling Stone, astonishing for a record with “no music.” Irv assured curious journalists that his LPs didn’t need to get radio play to sell. They were “functional, like a bar of soap, not a form of entertainment.”
Of course not everyone thought these LPs were useful. Lester Bangs lists “Dawn at New Hope, PA” on his list “The Ten Most Ridiculous Records of the Seventies.” He also includes Songs of the Humpback Whale, a boon for the environmental movement, which helped launch the “Save the Whales” campaign. Perhaps Bangs’ brutal lifestyle didn’t leave much room for nature. Robert Christgau, another prominent rock critic, described Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music as “Reed’s answer to Environments [sic]” and a “blatant rip-off” of the concept. MMM was simultaneously brushed aside as a dud to fulfill a contractual obligation, lauded as proto-industrial music, and praise
d by the likes of Lester Bangs who wrote a tongue-in-cheek follow-up to his review titled “The Greatest Album Ever Made.” environments’s widespread reach throughout the 1970s gave it plenty of press—both positive and skeptical—from those in the trenches of rock and punk.
-Jonathan Een Newton