Sunday, 9 September 2012

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Disco Fever


(#194: 10 December 1977, 6 weeks)

Track listing: Yes Sir I Can Boogie (Baccara)/So You Win Again (Hot Chocolate)/Float On (The Floaters)/The Crunch (RAH Band)/You Don’t Have To Be A Star (Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis)/Too Hot To Handle (Heatwave)/Red Light Spells Danger (Billy Ocean)/I Think I’m Gonna Fall In Love With You (The Dooleys)/Magic Fly (Space)/Baby Don’t Change Your Mind (Gladys Knight & The Pips)/Silver Lady (David Soul)/Angelo (Brotherhood of Man)/You Got What It Takes (Showaddywaddy)/Telephone Man (Meri Wilson)/Naughty Naughty Naughty (Joy Sarney)/Do What You Wanna Do (T-Connection)/Dance & Shake Your Tambourine (The Inner City Express)/Isn’t She Lovely (David Parton)/It’s Your Life (Smokie)/Looking After Number One (BoomTown Rats)

“Will my whole life depend on fading memories?”
(Hot Chocolate, “So You Win Again”)

“Be strong and leave the past behind.”
(Gladys Knight and The Pips, “Baby Don’t Change Your Mind”)

It comes down to a battle between Beethoven and the Sex Pistols, although it’s not really a battle since each side realise they are fighting a common enemy. Towards the end of Abigail’s Party Laurence gets into an argument with Beverly about “art.” She, he protests, understands nothing of art. Getting nowhere, he tells everybody to “SHUT UP!,” places a record in the radiogram and sits down in rapt and silent attention. He is listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; Beverly is hiding her face in outsized orange sleeves of embarrassment. As he listens, the heart attack that the whole of the play has been building up to comes on; he utters a few whimpers of pain, then lapses into unconsciousness. In desperation, Beverly rings for an ambulance, and her neighbours get Laurence down on the floor and attempt mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The scene is played for farce, and maybe only Mike Leigh and 1977 could have gotten away with that. From the house next door we can hear the muffled thud of “Pretty Vacant.” Eventually, Angela, the neighbour who is also a nurse, realises Laurence cannot be resuscitated; Beverly is slowly drawn over to his body. She bends down, still railing at what she perceives as psychosomatic shirking, and without moving her yell turns into a terrible, elongated howl. The rest of the cast shout “ABIGAIL!” but she is as invisible and unnecessary as Godot. Blackout.

And so Laurence dies without knowing that within a year Beethoven’s Fifth will appear, in a new arrangement, on a number one album, and that the Sex Pistols will effectively have ceased to exist. But what of Beverly? Like other writers, I am drawn towards the fuller lives of fictitious characters; what happens to them both before and after the play or story or novel or film in question. What happens to Beverly after she is widowed is outside the scope of the drama, but still we must ask ourselves, what kind of fate is set for someone who has so categorically failed to realise the difference between actions and opinions – one draws humans together, the other keeps them apart – and how their perception of reality may be their perception alone, that is, if we think of feelings and thoughts as interchangeable, or at the very least mutually dependent?

In this context, I am concerned about what happens to Beverly afterwards. I suppose she will try to “soldier on,” to use that loathsome phrase – life as an unending procession of fights – and that her neighbours will, excuse me again, “rally round” her. Can she remember what life was like before she met Laurence, and by doing so decide how she is going to live after him? She might remember the dance hall, and that it was all about dancing, and people coming together, and so someone, perhaps even Abigail, decides to give her a special present that Christmas, while she is being invited to everyone else’s party, with varying degrees of embarrassment. Remembering how things used to be, she might have decided to give her a copy of the K-Tel compilation Disco Fever: “20 Original Disco Hits” as it says in several places on the sleeve and labels. Hits of now and recently, a bit of everything, nothing too outré for her. I am not sure how far she would allow herself to be convinced.

I can fully understand why the millions who bought Disco Fever did so; from the cover onwards, the clear target keywords are: Christmas, parties, drunk. For this truly is a record which you would have to dance to while drunk in order to comprehend it. And yet, like so many other compilations of its type, it exudes an area of sober cheapness. I passed the old K-Tel offices on Western Avenue often enough to guess that the cover shot was taken in these offices, using their own staff; note how you don’t clearly see any of their faces – are they laughing, or crying, or hiding? And, if they are hiding, what the hell are they hiding from? The future?

Then I examine the small print, see that of the twenty “Original Disco Hits,” only nineteen were actual hits as the British Market Research Bureau would understand them, and the microscopically printed, syntax-challenging codicil that: “To ensure the highest quality reproduction the running times of some of the titles as originally released, have been changed.” For “changed,” read “edited”; in their keenness to cram as many tracks onto the record as possible, the general policy is to surgically extract the middle section from the hit without a drunken pair of ears noticing, frequently rendering the affected hits senseless. Why cut “Do What You Wanna Do” into random shreds and excise a whole Floater (Paul, who likes “all…women of the world”) from “Float On” yet let things like “Angelo” and “It’s Your Life” run uncut?

The compilation album as prototype mixtape, then, chopping and changing as partygoers allow, but do “Silver Lady” or “Naughty Naughty Naughty” really belong on a “disco” album? Of these twenty tracks, about a quarter at most would qualify as disco; the rest is a scattergun jumble bazaar of MoR, pop-soul, AoR, novelty and the odd soupcon of new wave. Moreover, while I am sure anyone could draw up a list of great singles from 1977 and easily run into the hundreds, no more of a handful of these make it onto Disco Fever. I would call its contents a collective exemplar of what Lena calls “The Void,” but some of these songs are still revived on radio, while others are only played when absolutely essential (e.g. retro chart shows, TOTP reruns). Still, hardly any of them would give the visiting Martian the merest insight into what the year of 1977 was supposed to be all about.

And would it really cheer poor Beverly up? I have my doubts. So many of the songs are concerned with loss, or frustration, or can’t-get-any or its twin don’t-you-dare, or (in one case) accentuated morbidity. “Yes Sir I Can Boogie,” for example, the first of five number ones on the album (how accurately can the record be summed up by whom or what it doesn’t include), spends most of its (unedited) time morosely denying that anything’s good. There is little more embarrassing in pop than a record which pretends to be smarter than it actually is, so all the “I already told you in the first verse” business is not clever, New Pop-anticipating fourth wall intertextuality, but bored entitlement, designed to divert the listener’s ear from the song’s remarkable structural similarity to “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” “So You Win Again,” another cheery ditty, was a long service medal to Hot Chocolate, who had been trying to get a number one for the best part of eight years; but for Errol Brown’s remarkably committed vocal – his mature despair makes you sit up and want to take the song seriously – it’s far from one of the group’s best; a Russ Ballard song composed with the aim of, well, getting a number one, and as meticulously and heartlessly calculated a song as you’d expect.

“Float On,” like Deniece Williams’ absent “Free,” has an umbilical link to psychedelic soul and doo-wop in its undertow (the later Dells sides, for instance: “Stay In My Corner,” “Don’t Try To Change Me Now” etc.) with a rather silly audio dating service on top and an extraordinary, extended free-form coda which recalls nothing as much as Steve Miller’s “Fly Like An Eagle.” I have no idea how Beverly might have responded to such crass come-ons. Nor to “You Don’t Have To Be A Star” in which the two former stars of the Fifth Dimension agreeably articulate how the sort of stuff on which Beverly has built her “life” just doesn’t matter. “You Got What It Takes” tries to convey the same message, but what works as knowledgeable banter between Dinah Washington and Brook Benton flounders badly under the elephantine feet of Showaddywaddy, as depressingly British as depressing British things come.

In instrumentals, too, she may have noticed, if she cared about such things (which I doubt she did), that Britain’s attitude was still lagging behind those of other countries. It would be so easy to label “The Crunch,” an advertising jingle turned into a novelty hit, as a “glam synth stomper” (as the cover of the CD The Crunch And Beyond would have us believe, before leading us into several dreary leagues of what Richard Hewson actually believed in, namely insipid sub-CTI MoR fusion workouts) and as a precursor or parallel to punk (mainly because of the doubles pulled in to be “The RAH Band” on TOTP, as Hewson himself, not thinking for a second that it might be a hit, was otherwise engaged) but I remember hearing it that autumn on the North Pier in Blackpool – we were there for the Illuminations – and again several decades later on Brighton Pier, and thinking: yes, seaside schaffel.

But “Magic Fly,” maybe the one true work of genius on the whole record, was already several galaxies ahead; France, as always, came through and united the future with the past (“Telstar”). Such a melancholy melody, which could have come from Saint-Saens, or Ravel, or (especially) Satie (see Rod Argent’s synthesiser arrangement of “Gymnopedies Number Three,” released as a single late that year, for a useful comparison point), but could equally have come from David Guetta, or Daft Punk, or (especially) Air. Even in its abbreviated form – find the similarly-named album, despite the dodgy titles of some of its other tracks, for the full-length glory – this record sounds and feels utterly perfect; there is nothing I would change in it, and all this pulled off without the need for words. Along with the absent “I Feel Love,” it was the 1977 disco record whose greatness even punks had to acknowledge. Thirty-five years on, it still feels like 1893 or 2199.

Not far behind are Heatwave, with their wonderful “Too Hot To Handle” and its even more wonderful composer Rod Temperton; here too is a glimpse of what pop’s future will look like, the Doric arches of chord changes, as natural as de Chirico’s and as driving as Norman Whitfield’s, the nyah-nyah tongue-out horn section, the chants of “What’s? Da? Funk a-BOUT!” and “SHAWWWWWTER! And SHAWWWWWWTER!!” – now we are really in something approximating disco. It’s the same with Miami’s T-Connection; please find one of the many excellent TK compilations available for the full “Do What You Wanna Do” (and 1978’s even better follow-up, the phenomenal “On Fire”), but there is still a manifest seriousness at work here, and plenty of fun to complement it too. Strangely, or not so strangely, the one track on the album that wasn’t a hit – “Dance And Shake Your Tambourine,” a British cover of a Patrick Adams original (issued under the unbeatable name of The Universal Robot Band; the original 12-inch is well worth finding) - seems to look forward most assuredly to early eighties Britfunk, with its extended percussion breaks and furtive basslines; again, it takes the disco remit seriously.

What does that leave to say about the rest of the record? Is Beverly even still at the party, or has she just fallen asleep after one Warnink’s Advocaat too many? The best I can say is that it is as confused a mess as Beverly’s mind. Ben Findon – so good when writing with Billy Ocean (the superb “Red Light Spells Danger,” even if it does owe something to “Gotta See Jane”), so crap when writing for the abysmal Dooleys (I say “abysmal,” but “I Think I’m Gonna Fall In Love With You” is so generic and Seaside Special unaffecting that it’s almost unnoticeable; if you want a missing link between the Osmonds and the Nolans, there they were. To be fair, their follow-up, “Love Of My Life” was both their best record and their second biggest hit). “Baby Don’t Change Your Mind,” overplayed on oldies radio to this day, finds Gladys Knight and her boys trapped in Van McCoy’s evil evening-out dungeon; great if all you want out of life are handbag dances, not so great when you remember how great her “Help Me Make It Through The Night” was (actually the anonymous party types on the cover remind both Lena and me of those “friends” who come in and help eat Nigella Lawson’s meals at the end of her TV show; you know from the absence in their eyes that they’re not really “friends” but “actors”).

“Silver Lady” and “Angelo” “disco”? And yet, both number one in this most exasperating of years. Hutch, disembarking from the Greyhound bus in the middle of (I guess) Indiana, wandering down the road, jacket slung over shoulder, as happened at the end of every episode of The Incredible Hulk, begging for said Lady’s forgiveness for being, basically, a bastard and running out on her into a world of “back street walkers” (cue clichéd honky tonk piano flourish) and “no star motels.” If I were her I’d take his “last chance” and ram jam it up his Egyptian reggae and go off and live with Paul-Michael Glaser.

And “Angelo,” and the Brotherhood of Man in general – is this just bad Abba, or prototype Throbbing Gristle, as it focuses again and again, like a rubbernecker who can’t tear himself away, on two dead bodies lying on the sand? It isn’t a song, as such; just a cursory (or minimalist) verse and endless repeats of the chorus which do not cry out “overthrow society” so that poor shepherd boys and rich girls wouldn’t have to top themselves to prove they love each other. I can’t remember this being played at all at the Uddingston Grammar Third Year Christmas Disco, or if it was I’ve happily blotted it out of my memory.

Novelty, novelty, anything but facing the world; again, it’s America versus Britain, but can you imagine anybody whose head was decisively turned in 1977 giving a nanosecond of attention to “Telephone Man” or “Naughty Naughty Naughty,” both of which depend on one-joke scenarios (or, in Joy Sarney’s case, no jokes) which quickly outstay their welcome (to be fair, the “additional vocals” on “Naughty Naughty Naughty” might have helped inspire the Shamen)? Can you imagine passing over, say, One World or Aja (just to mention a couple of non-punk head/mind-turning records from 1977) in favour of this supermarket, ooer vicar crud? Did Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell die in vain? David Parton’s Hot Hits cover of “Isn’t She Lovely” made me rush to the shelves for Songs In The Key Of Life, just to cleanse my head (a comparison with Pat Boone un-doing Little Richard in the fifties to satisfy complacent but solvent white audiences springs to mind). Smokie – what the fuck were they doing here, or in any year? A vehicle for Chinn and Chapman to exorcise their “Tom Tom Turnaround” side, perhaps? The joke being that the writers at the time thought this, not their glorious Sweet/Quatro/Mud runs, their “proper” work. I note the “Baby You’re A Rich Man” wannabeisms of the middle eight and the fact that “It’s Your Life” narrowly avoids turning into a Hot Chocolate record before its pretentious pause (pretentious as a pejorative because, like Baccara, Smokie think they’re smarter and artier than they are).

And then, right at the end, what I imagine someone at K-Tel interpreted as being a major kick in the arse – a blast of Punk Rock! Actually, being the Boomtown Rats (“BoomTown” is how they’re credited on the sleeve), it’s more a bleat of Pub Rock, but it’s still a perverse thrill to hear the younger Geldof standing up for his Self and fuming “Don’t give me charity!” while concluding the whole record with a clarion call for the Thatcher generation: “I’m gonna be like ME!” Retrospectively, this could be seen as something of a coup; end the record with a guy who thinks charity is a “stupid idea” and who ends up the only person on the record who actually changes things. But nobody in 1977 could have known that; so it acts as a bit of a frisson, an exotic spicing of wham-bam to tail an excessively polite and mind-its-p’s-and-q’s record.

Another year over, Beverly thinks, and what have we done?

Pop music? That died in the dressing room of the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, during an interval in a production of Orton’s Loot, where it was playing the part of Inspector Truscott.

Or it died as an inpatient of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, of natural causes (and only in its forties); so little work had come its way that it had resorted to making custom birdcages.

Or it died backstage at a small theatre in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, following a rather over-exuberant performance.

Or it died onstage, in front of television cameras, in the middle of its act, in Her Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket, London SW1. The audience, not knowing it wasn’t an act, gave pop music the biggest round of applause it ever received.

Or it died of an overdose of barbiturates and vodka in a small, nondescript flat near Euston station; an open verdict was returned.

Or it got ONE LAST BIG FUCKING BRILLIANT HIT then fell on the bed, fell asleep and never woke up.

Or it was like Beverly Moss, who I would like to imagine came through all the grief and painstakingly rebuilt her life, rather than dying alone in a damp bedsit in Wanstead, consumed by cigarettes and booze, sometime in 1985, surrounded by memories, or sentiments at any rate, but just before the light went out forever she stretched her hand out, and it touched Laurence’s

6 comments:

MikeMCSG said...

I had my heart in my mouth when I saw the tracklist and imagined you might diss "Magic Fly" ( a record which grabbed the 12-year old me like John Hurt's face-hugging friend on first hearing and wouldn't let go) but no such worries and you're close to the mark with all the other tracks too.
So that wasn't Hewson in that ridiculous balaclava/bin liner combo on TOTP ? How much did he pay someone to appear like that ?
The Dooleys were abysmal but I thought "Wanted" was half-decent. Your view ?

Marcello Carlin said...

The "RAH Band" that appeared on TOTP was nothing to do with Richard Hewson; he says that when he told his record company he couldn't do TOTP they found another bunch of people (RH doesn't know who or where, except that in his opinion they couldn't play for toffee) to go on the show as "The RAH Band"; they were also used for interviews and possible tours, and RH had to do some serious legal stuff to make them cease and desist (so serious that, as I recall, HE ended up having to pay THEM not to be the RAH Band). All a bit unnerving for what was never intended as anything more than a novelty dance record.

Mark G said...

The 'lead singer' of this fake Rah Band went under the professional name of "Telescope".

He released a solo single, "Bye Byes Ain't Nice", apparently it's quite good and is worth a few bob now. (Check Youtube, I know it's there)

George said...

Your mention of the Brotherhood of Man put me in mind of what is for me the most excruciating moment in all music. It’s the ending of “Save Your Kisses For Me”. This is one of those horrendous (and now possibly illegal) songs where you’re supposed to think the singer is addressing his affection to a full grown adult but it turns out to be a child. The last words go “Even though you’re only three.” And at this point the instruments come away with a cutesy sigh. You can actually hear the instruments SAY “Awwwwww!” As Theodore Adorno would probably put it, the music seems to supply its own response to itself. The listener is redundant.

alephnaught said...

George, the Brotherhood of Man actually *acted* out the cutesy sigh bit at their Eurovision performance. They might have toned it down by the time time they appeared on Top of the Pops, as I don't remember seeing it there.

Regarding the innapropriateness of the album title given the contents, I'm wondering if this was a ploy by K-Tel to exploit the market value of whatever was popular and use that to title all their chart compils, as opposed to "Super Chart Hits #457!!" I've got a K-Tel compil called "Rock 'n' Roller Disco", which manages to conflate disco, roller disco, and rock 'n' roll in a single title, and as might expect, it caters to neither satisfactorily, although it does contain their well known roller disco classic "Death Disco" by PIL.

Richard Day said...

So cheezy. I bought it for just £1 off e'bay and gave it to my 8 year old daughter who plays it all the time. Now I find myself humming certain tracks in the car. Particularly Yes Sir I can boogie.... Arrgggh please make it stop..!