Monday, May 21, 2012

Disco "era" revisited

I was on bus a few years ago when two girls sitting nearby were trying to impress the surrounding patrons with their singing. The song they were singing was immediately recognizable to me, which I found surprising given the tendency toward tone-deaf “music” that comprises the greater part of contemporary tunes. “Emotion” was a song originally performed by Samantha Sang in 1978; it was written by the Bee Gees, and people who remember the song can’t help but note that Barry Gibb’s “background” vocal overwhelmed the hapless Sang; a “live” lip-sync performance by Sang that I watched was chuckle-inducing as she “sang” Gibb’s vocal. I told the girls that I knew the song, and who performed it; they looked at me as if I was insane. They had no idea who the Bee Gees or Samantha Sang were. All they knew was that it was a “Rhianna” song. Well, at least we can credit Rhianna with “good taste,” which is in short supply in the music business today. Outside of Katy Perry and a (very) few others, no one has any idea of what a “hook” is and what it can do.

I bring this up because Robin Gibb, part of the trio that comprised the Bee Gees, has just passed away—on the heels of the passing of Donna Summer, who like the Bee Gees was synonymous with the infamous “Disco Era” of the second half of the 1970s. I can’t help but to compare the passing of Summer with that of Whitney Houston as far as their treatment by the media; I am reminded of two other passings that came within weeks of each other, Princess Diana and Mother Theresa. There is no doubt that in the grand scheme of life, Mother Theresa had a far more admirable existence, mostly in the shadows of impoverishment; the princess, on the other hand, died while trying to escape the media attention that created her and that she so craved and courted. And predictably, it was that media creation who became the center of the known universe for a time, and she is still incomprehensibly spoken of in reverent tones. Mother Theresa, on the other hand, is almost completely forgotten. And so while Donna Summer was fondly remembered in a passing fashion by those who remembered when she vied with the Bee Gees as the most popular musical act of the latter half of the Seventies (Barry Manilow who?). Houston, on the other hand, became for a week or so the tabloid and reality show “celebrity” she reduced herself to; despite the fact that not all of her tribulations could be blamed on others (such as her continued use of cocaine when she claimed to be “clean,” and increasingly irrational behavior), she was the subject of many an extravagant tribute and sympathetic commiseration.

I might as well take this opportunity to defend the “era” of my youth, meaning the one involving disco music. First off, let me say that disco did not “dominate” the pop charts as has been alleged. As a genre, it was certainly more recognizable than others, but it was hardly the only music being played. If you look at the Billboard Hot 100 single charts from 1975 to 1979, the number of “disco” songs that attained the number one position are no more than a significant minority of the total. There was a run of a half-dozen chart-toppers of the disco ilk in the first half of 1979, but then disco simply fell off the map, or off a cliff. Although Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall album—perhaps the best dance-pop album of the “rock” era—incorporated elements of disco (“Burn this Disco Down,” “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough”), it’s pure pop and genre elements signaled a turn away from the simplistic rhythms of disco; Quincy Jones’ stockpile of production eclecticism had not ended with the Brothers Johnson’s neo-psychedelic (at least to my ears) hit “Strawberry Letter 23.” As it happened, the last gasp of disco would be Lipps, Inc’s “Funkytown” in 1980.

But one cannot dismiss disco music as some awful aberration; the truth is that the best disco hits stand as the “pinnacle” of the lavishly-produced pop single. That is not to say they were all great songs; few songs of the genre carried the lyrical “heft” of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin' Alive.” But then again, pop music wasn’t necessarily known for its “heft”—although I would counter that “album” artists employed lyrical pomposity to conceal a lack of melodic sense. Pop music touched something primal in human emotions; it didn’t try to intellectualize an “artist’s” bullshit. In any case, Summer’s On The Radio singles compilation was, along with the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, the two most important documents of the Disco Era. They peaked at a time when top-40 radio was never so awash with lush sounds, otherwise only heard on some lonesome classical music station. Although groups like KC and the Sunshine Band and Earth, Wind and Fire led the charge, Summer and the Bee Gees were not just the focal point of the genre, but representative of its most competent application.

At a time when every week Casey Kasem’s American Top-40 radio countdown was filled to the rim with certified hits (unlike today, when you can barely find 10 songs at any one time worthy of being called a “hit”), the Bee Gees and Summer combined had 21 top-ten hits—12 of which hit number one—and 6 platinum and 6 gold singles. We’re not talking a couple thousand legal and illegal downloads; this is people going out to the local record store and purchasing vinyl 45s by the millions per title, when songs were actually that good. The Bee Gees’ utter dominance of the free-for-all charts from late December 1977 to July 1978 was something not seen since the Beatles; over a 32 week period, the Bee Gees’ three hits from the SNF soundtrack topped the charts for 15 weeks, while three songs penned and produced by at least one Gibb (and performed by either brother Andy or Yvonne Elliman) spent another 10 weeks atop the charts. Nevertheless it was a temporary anomaly, fueled by the popularity of the film starring teen idol John Travolta.

It must be admitted, however, that disco was not everyone’s cup of tea. It only lasted for as long as a fad would be expected to; after all, clothing styles change, and who wanted to be seen in those garish polyester suits and platform soles their whole life? People grow-up and move on with their lives, just like Sixties’ flower children and hippies. Although among my 2,000 or so mp3 files there are more than a few disco “classics,” when I choose songs to put on my mp3 player, I find that beyond a few songs by KC, the Bee Gees, the odd song or two by the likes of Leo Sayer or Heatwave, my song list is bereft of disco. “Oldies” stations specializing in Seventies music tend to avoid playing stuff like “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” and “More, More, More.” I know of one station in town that sets aside Saturday nights to play disco, and it reminds that while the songs were unbelievably catchy, there were also like candy: If you eat too much of it, you get sick. Variety is the best antidote for that sickness, which is something that today’s music scene could learn from.

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