Friday, June 20, 2014

Disco!

 Suggested during a half-drunken conversation, someone with a relatively less than amorous view of Punk-Rock once stated: "The problem with punk is that the fans have overly glorified it's original era. The truth is that everyone remembers the really good bands and maybe those one or two local bands that were also pretty good, they forget about all the crappy bands in-between. If I did the same thing with Disco, and only showed people about the very best of the era and glorified the whole thing with nostalgia, then everyone would think Disco era was the greatest, too."
  So... okay, let's try that...Very Us Mumblings will now take a good look at a form of music that is 100% dance music, put it in it's best light and see what happens.

  Having lived through the Disco era at a very young age, we at Very Us Mumblings have to state unequivocally that the popularity of Disco music was undeniable. There is no debating this fact. Disco was the most popular music around for about ten years, and Disco music came with a Disco 'Scene' and the scene was dance clubs with the now glorified DJ. It was catchy and got people dancing without fail, often making those with average or worse dancing skills run to studios to take lessons. Sometimes people practiced dance moves along with the dancers on TV shows, usually on Sunday afternoons which were either entertainment featuring Disco artists or game-shows that held disco dancing contests for prizes. The easiest dance to learn was the Bump, the hardest was the Boogaloo which is borderline break-dancing, the most popular was probably the Hustle (and then there was that other Hustle which was actually the line-dance from the movie Saturday Night Fever) But Disco sold more than dance lesssons, game shows and drinks in bars, it sold millions of albums in recorded music, too. Many have said that, jokingly, at the height of the Disco era, you could've recorded the U.S. National anthem with a disco beat and the single would've sold thousands of copies. It seems ridiculous and unbelievable, but Disco was just that popular. Moreover, if you thought Disco was popular in North America, then you underestimate its overwhelming international success. To this day, dance clubs in Europe are still called discotheques, and many of those old songs from the late seventies are still played once in a while, if only just enough to get people dancing.
   The main problem with Disco music was that it was simple, predictable and almost, but not always, completely meaningless outside of a dance context. The subject matter of the songs was usually about going out to clubs, having good times, dancing and getting the girl, or about not letting anyone stop you from going to the dance club and having a good time etc... and that was pretty much it. In an era where Rock, Funk, Reggae and other artists seemed to be really trying to come up with new and progressive sounds to listen to and take advantage of the modern recording technology, while at the same time making a statement about society or the world in general, Disco was a throwback to the most basic musical appeal: Dance-ability! With catchy hooks and an infectious musical jingle-like appeal, it was the epitome of pop music and possibly the greatest development of the pop style. Disco singers may have been vocally tested, especially the female ones, but generally the songs were musically uncomplicated. It was a simple straightforward beat, usually keeping the constant thump of the bass drum, referred to as 4 on-the-floor for hitting every beat in 4/4 time. The structure was usually the typical verse-chorus structure of a pop song with or without a bridge, and all this simplicity was wrapped up with 'production value', which, in the late seventies, meant some kind of additional orchestration usually involving horns or a string ensemble that helped to create a fuller, more powerful sound to what is essentially dance music.

Gloria Gaynor and several others: There were many singers and artists during the Disco era that it was well known were not likely to thrive after the Disco era had come and gone. Singing groups that didn't write their own songs, artists and dancers with little or no ability to play a musical instrument and others who may have only had a handful of really good songs in them. The songwriting team of Gamble & Huff were well-known to write hit songs for numerous artists like Patty Labelle, the O' Jays and several others, including the theme song from the dance show 'Soul Train'.  However, more than a few of these artists were 'riding the wave' so to speak. But that didn't stop these people from selling a lot of singles and for most of these one or two-hit wonders it didn't matter. Short-lived commercial success isn't necessarily a bad thing, and you have to wonder how many Disco hits did they really expect to get from these singers? Among these, Gloria Gaynor had to be the most prominent. She had a few hits in the 70s, but will forever be remembered as the one who sang 'I will Survive' which seems to have 'survived' the test of time.


Borderline Funk: Some Disco songs were clearly on the border between Disco and Funk. Partly because the Disco artists incorporated Funk ideas, but mostly because the Funk groups attempted to get in on the Disco game.
   Funk came first, and in many ways helped give birth to Disco. In another respect, Funk was Disco's competitor, fighting for playing-time in the same dance-clubs where they played Disco music. In the early part of the 70s, Kool & The Gang was originally a full-on Funk band with little resemblance to a Disco group, but as the 70s moved along, the band drifted further into Disco with each new album release.
     Although similar in some sounds, most Funk bands were more inventive and creative than your average Disco band, but everyone wants to be popular and have some commercial success, and so the lure of a having a real money-generating hit song proved too great for many of the funksters of the era and they gave in, succumbing either to pressure from their record company or the straightforward challenge to get a hit on the radio. So Kool gradually switched from 'Jungle Boogie' to writing songs like 'Get Down On It', and along with Hot Chocolate and several other bands dipped their toes into the Disco thing in order to cash in on the craze while the craze was still hot.
   Some bands, however, most obviously Chic was already kind of Disco to begin with, and fully intended to become a more danceable and catchy version of themselves with some funky guitar riffs overtop of a Disco beat. Many of these bands were more than happy to prove themselves capable of getting people dancing and at the same time, they managed to get themselves a hit song or two on regular radio airplay.

ABBA: The Swedish singing/songwriting phenomenon known as Abba were not entirely a disco group. They weren't even mostly a disco group. They were certainly targeting a mainstream audience all through the seventies and they churned out pop songs quite successfully. Most of Abba's tunes had a syncopated beat that mimicked the rhythm of their cultural background, often stemming from swedish folk songs. The themes and ideas were usually simplified for a North American english-speaking audience, thus giving each song a chance at becoming a pop hit. Adding the disco beat came later, but seemed natural to what the group was already doing. At the same time, the group seemed to draw on many different sources for ideas, including using caribbean and latin rhythms for ideas here and there. They also relied heavily on the vocal skills of their female singing duo of Agnetha Faltskog & Frida Lyngstad, who were a Soprano and Mezzo-Soprano respectively.
  This group will inextricably be forever linked with Disco largely due to their writing of a single song called 'Dancing Queen' which is as close to a Disco anthem as can be described. Abba's sound and style were often imitated by a slew of girl singing groups that seemed to appear from everywhere during the 1970s



The Bee Gees & Saturday Night Fever:

The Bee Gees hadn't started out as a Disco group. They were largely born of the late sixties English-hippie era. Their earliest songs were not about dancing and socializing, but more often about loneliness, unhappiness and misery caused by a cruel world. The moody tones of their earlier songs like 'I Started a Joke' would later shift into songs of many differing styles. However, sometime in the year 1976, Barry Gibb decided to start singing falsetto lead vocals and the BeeGees started singing songs about socializing and human interaction, usually in the nightclub scene. They put all these ideas to a disco beat and those songs were incorporated into a movie starring John Travolta that found it's way into theatres in 1977.
    On the two-disc Saturday Night Fever Movie-Soundtrack, half an album's worth of songs by the BeeGees, including 'Jive Talkin'' and 'Stayin' Alive' are joined with 'Disco Inferno' of the Trammps and several other quintessentially Disco songs to create what some view as the 'Holy Bible' of the Disco Era. The Saturday Night Fever SoundTrack is the only Disco album to win a Grammy for Album of the Year, and is one of the highest selling movie-soundtrack albums of all time having sold 15 times platinum in the U.S. and having surpassed platinum or gold sales for Canada, the UK, France and Germany. The only soundtracks that have sold more than Saturday Night Fever are those that are specifically made from movie musicals like 'West Side Story'. Since 1977, however, the only soundtracks to come close to Saturday Night Fever in sales are 'Dirty Dancing' and 'The Bodyguard' with Whitney Houston. The movie itself had excellent box office success, and strong performances by John Travolta and Karen Lynn Gorney as well as many excellent scenes of 'real' Disco dancing.


KC & the Sunshine Band:If there ever was a band that embraced Disco with both arms, it was KC and The Sunshine Band. In 1973, Harry Wayne Casey (KC) began writing songs with Richard Finch and formed a group by adding numerous friends of theirs, mostly studio musicians from Florida.
   The Sunshine Band sometimes consisted of as many as fifteen or sixteen members, and this was used in their live shows to reproduce what is probably the most unabashed version of pure Disco dance music ever recorded.
   KC & the Sunshine Band stripped all the extraneous parts away from dance music and rendered it to it's most essential rhythm and style, with flashy horns and funky guitar embellishment that was all important to this Dance music. Lyrics were reduced  to the catchy phrases and slogans of the time, sung more for the sound than their message. Their song titles often made it clear and simple what they were singing about: "Get Down Tonight", "That's the Way (I like it)" "I'm your Boogie Man" "(Shake shake shake) Shake your booty" The lyrics might have been utterly simplistic, but KC and this band from Florida was incredibly successful in getting people on the dance floor. These songs were, and still are, unbelievably catchy and memorable, even if a person only heard them once in their lives.



Donna Summer: The undisputed Queen of  Disco is Donna Summer. The reasons are many and fairly obvious. In fact, it's difficult to describe the Disco era without coming around to the one person that was probably the greatest singing talent of the whole of dance music in its entirety.
   Divas and great voices have come and gone since, but most of those given excellent vocal ability have usually concentrated their talent and effort into sappy love songs and overly-operatic endeavours such as musicals and so forth. Donna Summer, on the other hand, is Disco music through and through. It's difficult to think of another singer that has put so much effort into dance music, and few have come along that worked so hard as Donna Summer to sing some really great danceable songs and music. 
   Usually, the basic structure of dance track  requires a strong female vocal in order to have any kind of popularity at all. Most of the female voices often 'brought in to studio' to sing for tracks written by DJs or engineers, are female singers imitating or emulating the style of singing that was laid down by Donna Summer in the late seventies.
  Most true dance-music lovers know that, like it or not, it was Summer, along with her producer/collaborator Giorgio Moroder who are largely responsible for the steady rise in most of the obvious factors that exist in dance music now. The use of electronica, the over-extended re-mixes of songs, the pervasive use of drum machines, and the overall way which Dance music and club music has sounded for years is based on what was started by Donna Summer in the 1970s. From the seventies until now, what is commonly thought of as the 'club sound' was mostly based on the songwriting, production techniques and ideas first developed and used on Donna Summer's greatest Opus known as the 'Bad Girls' Album. Small examples of just about everything that any dance-music mix has ever done can be found within the Double-Album by Donna Summer and many of these tricks and techniques have been used over and over again for decades now, sometimes unwittingly, by numerous DJs and artists in any form of club or dance music. Donna Summer was probably the first person to truly experiment with dance music in a way that most others have avoided and most, if not all dance music of today is still using the tricks and techniques that she helped to develop during the height of the Disco era.


Epilogue: At this point in the blog entry, it could be pointed out that not all is as depicted here in this rather upbeat and glittery blog entry. The Disco era began in the early '70s about 1972, and for Rock fans, Disco was often viewed as the enemy, to the point where sometimes the fans of one usually made fun of the other. There were several funk and R&B bands that never went Disco, viewing it as a cheap version of Funk, and even Kool & The Gang later withdrew from the disco sound to a more straightforward funky style. A few rockers, like Rod Stewart and Kiss were criticized by their own rock fans for crossing over to the other side and doing a Disco song or two during their time. Also, at the peak of the disco era, for every Gloria Gaynor there were three singers with one or two minor hits that may not have stood the test of time so well, such as Silvester or McFadden & Whitehead. There were numerous disco/dancing movies that simply didn't make it as big as Saturday Night Fever. And it seemed like there were about fifty to a hundred imitative versions of Abba stemming from various countries around the globe including singing groups like Arabesque, Luv, A la carte and others. Disco was huge, and, at the time, it may have seemed like it would go on forever, but unfortunately, rather than live on and grow, it sort of just ended. By the 1980s, it was thought that maybe Rock or Funk would reassert themselves, or that maybe Punk or 'New Wave' or 'Post-Punk' or even 'Techno' would be the new way, but when the Disco beat had run its course by about 1984, it all simply seemed to move aside to give way to mega-popstars like Michael Jackson and Madonna.