The Histories of Disco

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I came across this post in the archives a while back, and it holds up OK. It’s been slightly edited and annotated.  

Scholars who have examined the history of disco place its origins in the early 1970s, and locate them in the gay clubs of post-Stonewall New York City, where newly empowered gays were able to create and openly celebrate their own culture for the first time. Disco reached critical mass with the public in part because several key executives who supported and encouraged their record labels to market disco were homosexual themselves. The first disco records to break through to mainstream Top 40 appeared sometime in 1974 or thereabouts. As celebrities of the mid 70s embraced the disco scene and got publicity doing so, people far removed from the nation’s urban centers became interested in the disco experience, and clubs began to proliferate. The opening of Studio 54 in 1977 was national news, and it helped prime the pump for the disco explosion that rocked the country with the release of Saturday Night Live at the end of the year. In 1978, disco came to Holiday Inn lounges by the hundreds as John Travolta’s Tony Manero and the Bee Gees stood astride the pop world. But by this time, the people who had pioneered disco a half-decade before were proclaiming it dead. And within two years, it would indeed be dying, done in by a rock-n-roll backlash.

This isn’t entirely accurate. Disco never really died; it fell out of mainstream popularity and off the radio, which is not the same thing. The disco at your local Holiday Inn became a sports bar, but the clubs that had been disco clubs before disco was cool continued to thrive. And by 1982 or 1983, beats were back on mainstream pop radio, but in the guise of English bands with interesting haircuts. (*White* English bands, mostly, which opens a potentially interesting window we aren’t going to climb through today.) And it wouldn’t be long after that before hip-hop—with more beats you could dance to—got onto the radio, on its way to becoming the predominant genre in pop music.  

In the Midwestern United States of my teenage years, the history of disco went down another way entirely. For most of us, disco began as a radio phenomenon, although for a long time, it didn’t seem all that different from the rest of the stuff we were hearing on WLS, or whoever we were listening to. I was an R&B fan with catholic tastes, so I wasn’t automatically prejudiced against anything. Gloria Gaynor’s “Never Can Say Goodbye,” “Fly Robin Fly” by Silver Convention, and “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel” by Tavares had a distinctive sound, but they did not seem like harbingers of a new era—they were just other ways to do R&B. Not until disco performers and their records became interchangeable, and you couldn’t tell by listening who was who, did I start to dislike the stuff. And that wasn’t until sometime in 1979.

A couple of years ago, in a Twitter convo, our man Larry Grogan said: “If the culture had stuck to the kind of wide-ranging things you’d hear at the Loft (funky rock, Afro funk, world music), all of which was danceable yet not homogenous, it would have made for a much more robust, interesting scene, instead of the fast-burning shit show it turned into.”

Every history of disco talks about its roots in the gay community—but out in the Midwest, we tended to miss that part of it entirely. To us, the Village People were did not signify particular types of gay men; they were just guys in crazy costumes. Neither did we get the in-jokes of “Macho Man,” “YMCA,” and “In the Navy.” It wasn’t until years later that the powerful symbolism of the Village People became obvious. That’s because in my town circa 1978, we were pretty sure we didn’t know any gay people, and gay culture—even the very idea that such a thing might exist—was a mystery. Homosexuality simply didn’t register. (We would discover in a year or two that one of the guys in our circle of friends was gay, but even after we found out, he seemed no different than the guy we’d known for years, so it didn’t matter.)

Originally posted 10 years ago today. Sweet mama we been at this a long time. 

There But for Fortune

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(Pictured: the New Christy Minstrels perform at the halftime show of Super Bowl IV in 1970. As an indicator of changed times, you can’t do better.)

Since this is a week for potentially dubious historical theorizing, here’s something I wrote in 2012, with annotations.

Among the CDs in my archives is a Time/Life compilation called The Folk Years, released in 2002, which stretches the definition of the genre to snapping. One does not generally think of Otis Redding, Van Morrison, Sonny and Cher, or Nilsson as folk acts, but there they are, and so are Glen Campbell, Chad and Jeremy, and Dion. All of them may have once walked down a street with an acoustic guitar on their backs, but they’re not folksingers the way Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, and Pete Seeger are. [Although they were often folk-inspired.—Ed.] Some of this is because Time/Life repeatedly anthologizes whatever they can get the rights to, which explains why the Lovin’ Spoonful and the Mamas and the Papas are on every Time/Life set having anything to do with the 60s–-Classic Rock, AM Gold, The Folk Years, etc. Some of it is probably to make the set as commercially attractive as possible—Paxton, Tim Hardin, and the New Christy Minstrels won’t move late-night TV viewers to dial that 800 number as effectively as Peter Paul and Mary and the Spoonful might.

So The Folk Years is not anything like a comprehensive history of the genre in its heyday. But when you weed out the questionable inclusions, a couple of impressions remain about what’s left.

[And now to the theorizing.—Ed.]

American popular music repeatedly assimilated African-American forms into the mainstream, from slave-era songs adapted by blackface minstrels in the late 19th century to the development of jazz in the early 20th to the hybridization of blues and country that gave birth first to R&B and later to rock ‘n’ roll in the mid 20th. It occurs to me that folk gives us a glimpse of what American pop might have sounded like without those influences. Baez and Paxton had beautiful voices and the acoustic guitars that accompanied them glittered like diamonds, but there’s no Elvis anywhere in those records. (Elvis was a white guy, but you know what I mean.) Even though folksingers often adopted and adapted Negro spirituals and traditional songs, they sometimes bleached the soul out of them entirely. Example from The Folk Years: “There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight” by the Limeliters, which wants to be a spiritual, but ends up so stiff you start to fear the singers will break a hip. [Compare the version by Joe and Eddie.—Ed.]

Although folk prized its rural roots in addition to its ethnic ones, you do not imagine the artists on The Folk Years singing on front porches; instead, you picture them in ramshackle coffeehouses found on gritty urban streets. The popularity of folk on college campuses in the early 1960s confirms this image. The songs may have celebrated roamers and ramblers, but most fans were neither. I suspect that for some—fans and singers both—folk was fashion, representing how they wanted to be as distinct from who they actually were. In their defense, however, although that sort of thing happened with other genres and fans, and it still does. . . .

Trying to be something you’re not might account for how painfully jive some of this stuff sounds. I’m thinking of the Limeliters again, trying to sound black and being unable to. One of the biggest hit singles of the folk boom, the New Christy Minstrels’ “Green Green,” is marred by Barry McGuire’s faux-gospel exhortations. Folk’s preoccupation with relevance can become wearying after a while (which is why the 1980s-vintage Saturday Night Live game show, “Make Joan Baez Smile” was so funny), but some attempts at levity were disastrous. The Serendipity Singers’ “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down” and “Beans in My Ears” sound like nothing so much as clueless adults trying to do something the kids will like [or: “like something a group of middle-aged middle-school teachers might do to sublimate an unmet desire to get laid”—Ed.]. . . .

All that said, however, folk musicians were capable of astoundingly beautiful music: “Today” by the New Christy Minstrels leaves me beautifully wrecked every time I hear it; “There But for Fortune” might be the greatest thing Joan Baez ever did; the version of “500 Miles” by the Journeymen, featuring future California folk-rock stars John Phillips and Scott McKenzie, just might be the definitive one.

As always, I crave your two cents’ worth, because this is just my opinion and I could be completely wrong.

The Night It Hit the Fan

The video embedded above is from 1970, in which Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam explains how he did a famous piece of animation. A hand repeatedly tries to pull a fig leaf from the crotch of Michelangelo’s David and finally succeeds, to reveal underneath a talking head that says, “We’re not going to allow this kind of filth on screen.” A giant “Censored” stamp comes down and the animation ends. The bit is seen in the Python TV series and also in the film And Now for Something Completely Different.

In 1978, I was co-editor of our high school’s literary magazine, and we decided to participate in the school’s fine arts festival that spring by showing a movie. In those pre-videocassette days, you’d rent a movie on 16MM—there used to be companies that provided them—and show it for a couple of bucks a ticket. With Python-mania at its height in 1978 and several Python fanatics on the staff of the magazine, a showing of And Now for Something Completely Different was perfect. So we rented it, publicized it heavily, and planned to show it on a Thursday and Friday night in the high school lecture hall.

The Thursday night showing was not particularly well attended, as we guessed it would not be. Friday was going to be the big night. Five minutes before Thursday night showtime, however, a whole family showed up—Mom, Dad, their high-school-aged son (who was a year or two behind me), and three much-younger siblings. We were not sure what they were doing there, but we collected their $2 a head and rolled the film for them, and the two dozen other people who had showed up.

And Now for Something Completely Different is an anthology of bits from the first two series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. One of the first sketches involves a phrasebook that mistranslates mundane Hungarian phrases into sexually suggestive English. Another sketch involving a marriage counselor ends with the counselor and the wife undressing behind a screen before a romantic tryst. This is followed a few minutes later by the fig leaf animation.

On this particular night, the fig leaf animation was followed by the family in the audience noisily getting out of their seats and marching up the aisle and out of the hall. The father demanded of the staff member at the ticket table, in Biblical tones, “Who is responsible for this abomination?”

That night, I knew nothing about the brouhaha, or if I did, I ignored it. The next morning, however, I arrived at school to hear myself being summoned by the public address system to the magazine advisor’s classroom. “It has hit the fan,” he said. “That family at the movie last night complained to the school board, and we have to show the movie to the board at 8:00 this morning.” As it turned out, we had to show it to one member of the school board, a woman I had known for several years because her daughter was a classmate. Perhaps that previous personal relationship saved the magazine—and our advisor—from as much trouble as we could have been in. (He told me years later that he was afraid he would be fired.) We were not permitted to show the film on Friday night, but that was the last I heard of the controversy.

It turned out that the family who had left outraged the previous night had come to the Monty Python movie under the impression that it was about an actual circus, with clowns and acrobats and suchlike. They did not own a TV set, having gotten rid of it years before to keep televised filth out of their very religious home. I asked our advisor, “Why is their backward attitude our problem?” Under the circumstances, he did well not to smack me upside the head in response.

If something similar happened today, the family would have gone to the media in addition to the school board, and the resulting shitstorm would have been epic—a Fox News profile of the religious family that was assaulted by pornography with the approval of the public school they support with their tax dollars. We were lucky to have been living in simpler times.

(Rebooted from a post first appearing in 2012.)

In My Distance

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From time to time over the years I’ve written about the seasonal teaching job I have. This season, I am teaching about as much as I normally would, but it’s all online, from the comfortable chair in my office. I miss traveling a little bit. I find that the best thing about the travel, apart from the off-day brewery stops, might be the little epiphanies, the little things you learn about life and everything else when you’re away from home and alone in your head for most of every day. This piece from 2016, slightly edited, is about one of them. 

The other night, I was driving around in the Minneapolis suburbs after teaching my class, looking for a place to get a quick sandwich.

The work is not strenuous—I do not unload freight cars—but it can be wearying. I have to be “on” for my students for up to six hours at a time, friendly and encouraging and responsive, and I spend most of the time on my feet. . . .  And it can be isolating: apart from interacting with my students, the only people I talk to most days are convenience-store and hotel clerks, waitstaff, and the occasional bartender.

Despite all this, I do not necessarily pine for home on these trips. The majority of my other work is always done on the laptop, so I continue to do it wherever I am; being away is merely a change of scene, like one of my trips to the bagel shop extended to a week. If I pine for anything on these trips, it’s the same things I pine for at home: lost innocence, second chances, that kind of thing.

I was in a hurry when I filled up the CD bag for the car ride, so I grabbed a handful of discs from the Time-Life Sounds of the Seventies series, which I bought back in the 90s. . . . I don’t listen to those CDs much anymore. When I do, they don’t contain any surprises—they’re made up of one old warhorse after another.

So I am trying to find a decent sandwich the other night and growing annoyed with my limited options. I am not really listening to the music, it’s just there, as I scan the horizon for something that’s not going to be too heavy for 9:30 at night (McDonalds, Burger King, etc.) or something that’s not Subway (which I eat only when there’s absolutely no alternative). So add to the weariness the growing desire to find some goddamn thing to eat so I can go back to the hotel and take off my shoes.

Then “After Midnight” comes on,” followed immediately by “Green-Eyed Lady” and “Fire and Rain,” all of which were on the radio that first fall I discovered it, the fall of 1970. And there it is: a glimpse of my lost innocence. For about 10 minutes, I am reminded how it was to be 10 years old, unformed clay, about to learn what I am supposed to be. I will learn it from Eric Clapton, Sugarloaf, James Taylor and all the rest of the people on the radio, especially Larry Lujack and the other WLS DJs. And since I am 10 years old, nearly all of what I have yet to do remains undone, so a river of second chances flows away in my distance.

Those songs, and the other songs from the fall of 1970 and in the years beyond, the ones that I hear in my head even without a radio . . . it occurs to me that they have done everything for me across all the years, everything but save my life, and I suppose they’ve probably done that too.

They told me who I would be, and now they tell me who I am.

If this were fiction, I would crest a hill and find a little diner with a perfect menu and a waitress who looks a little like my mother. But I end up buying a nondescript convenience-store sandwich and a bag of chips, because sometimes it gets late and you really need to get home.

Well, not home, exactly, but back to the hotel. Those old songs had already taken me home, to the place in my head and my heart that’s home, in a way no other place is ever going to be.

Heaven Help Us All

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(Pictured: the Temptations on stage.)

I griped last spring about how when you turn on the radio in this era of political turmoil and rampant disease, the music you hear is totally escapist. It’s not true that no artist has anything to say about current reality, only that the records you hear most often on pop and country radio do not. In our heads, we compare today’s hits to those of 50 years ago, “War” and “Ohio” and “Fortunate Son,” and we think that all pop music was politically aware and had something to say. But back in 2012, I wrote this:

[I]t’s worth remembering that even at the height of the 1960s, when the personal became political and many people read revolution into every act, many stars avoided saying anything. Even the Beatles, avatars of the counterculture, didn’t sing against the war in Vietnam—their message was, well, foggy enough not to offend anybody: “all you need is love.” (John Lennon would eventually take a clear stand, but it was more generally anti-war than it was specifically anti-Vietnam.) Neither did the Beatles sing about injustice, poverty, racism, sexism, or any other -ism.

At Motown, the Temptations began engaging with the real world once Norman Whitfield moved into the producer’s chair on records including “Runaway Child” and “Ball of Confusion.” Stevie Wonder’s 1970 hit “Heaven Help Us All” is one of the most powerful and wide-ranging political statements ever to hit the Top 40. Each of the three big singles from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On forced listeners to confront a different critical issue: the legitimacy of young voices (“What’s Going On”), the environment (“Mercy Mercy Me”), and economic inequality (“Inner City Blues”). It’s interesting to note that the Temps and Stevie kept singing about political issues well into the 1970s, long after most white artists had given it up.…

I’d correct that paragraph to say that the Supremes’ “Love Child,” produced by a team of Motown staffers called the Clan, beat “Runaway Child” to the radio by a couple of months at the end of 1968. Also, I might have better described “Heaven Help Us All” as a “social statement.” Moving on:

By the middle of the 1970s, however, there was precious little political content in radio pop. I remember reading one commentator who suggested that the lightweight goofiness of the Top 40 circa 1975 was a reaction to the politics of the previous decade, Vietnam to Watergate—that people wanted to escape when they turned on the radio, and there’s definitely something to that idea. It would be another decade before the real world intruded on the radio in any significant way, with Band Aid and Live Aid and USA for Africa, and they were qualitatively different from the political pop of the late 60s and early 70s. The issues involved were held at arm’s length—practically nobody listening to those songs knew a starving person in Africa, but in years before, millions knew people affected by the war in Vietnam, people suffering in urban poverty, people oppressed by racism.

It’s true that in the late 70s, the first wave of punk rock addressed Britain’s reality after several years of economic and social crisis, but it had a relatively small number of rabid American fans. Moving further on:

As the Me Decade turned ever more inward, it would occasionally produce music that inadvertently commented on the wider world. In 1978, Dan Fogelberg and Tim Weisberg recorded “The Power of Gold.” Its lyric was intended as a personal zinger—but it can also be read as an indictment of a whole society and our individual responses to it. And that indictment is even more potent now than it was [42] years ago.

You’re a creature of habit
You run like a rabbit
Scared of a fear you can’t name

And also:

The women are lovely
The wine is superb
But there’s something about the song that disturbs you

We’re busted: we know that the way we live and perhaps even the way we think are unsupportable, but to acknowledge it directly would be admitting that we’re interested in changing it. And although we give lip service to change, we are in no wise ready to make the necessary sacrifices that would result in change.

We’re more used to sacrifice than we used to be, but is it enough? Millions of us masking up, staying home, and washing our hands hasn’t been enough to stop the virus. Is voting for new leadership to stop the political rot enough? What is still required of us? What else must we do?

Len Barry, by the Numbers

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(Pictured: the Dovells, with Len Barry on the far left.)

Len Barry came out of Philadelphia at the turn of the 60s, out of Overbrook High School (alma mater of Wilt Chamberlain and other pro sports stars, along with rapper/actor Will Smith and members of the Delfonics) and the Coast Guard, at a time when when record moguls tried to make stars out of any young man who could carry a tune. He joined the Dovells, a vocal group that scored a handful of hits between 1961 and 1963, most famously “You Can’t Sit Down,” “The Bristol Stomp,” and “Bristol Twistin’ Annie.”

In 1965, Barry hit under his own name with “1-2-3,” which was a smash, going to #1 in Cash Box and #2 on the Hot 100. Thanks to oldies radio, it was once one of those records everybody knew, at least until oldies stations stopped playing 60s music. Among the musicians and singers backing Barry on “1-2-3” were guitarist Bobby Eli, a childhood friend and longtime collaborator of Barry’s who became one of Philadelphia’s major studio stars, especially with the group MFSB; keyboard player Leon Huff, future architect of the Philly soul sound; trumpeter Lee Morgan, famed jazz player pickin’ up a check one year removed from his hit “The Sidewinder;” Valerie Simpson, future Motown songwriter; and members of the Tymes, who had hit in 1963 with “So Much in Love.”

Barry continued to chart after “1-2-3,” but nothing broke as big. In 2011, I told the story of what happened next—one of the great moments in record marketing, a speculation on my part that nevertheless has the ring of truth:

Flash forward to the summer of 1968. Len Barry, three years removed from his biggest hit, is on a new label, and the new label is looking for a score. The thought process is easy to follow: Len Barry is best known for “1-2-3.” Ergo, if we want to get radio stations to notice his new release, shouldn’t it be called “4-5-6”?

Not an unprecedented thought in the entertainment biz then or now—if people like something once, make it a second time and they’ll probably like it again. But there was a flaw in the plan: Somebody would have to write a song called “4-5-6.” What in the hell would a song called “4-5-6” be about? A house number? An area code? A batting average?

It was at this moment some anonymous record executive was seized with a stroke of brilliance worthy of an era 40 years in the future, when no promotional gimmick is too shameless and people will fall for anything. Barry had recorded a song called “Now I’m Alone,” a weeper about a man who has lost his wife and family. In June 1968, that song was released under the title “4-5-6 (Now I’m Alone).”

Never mind that the numerals 4, 5, and 6 do not appear anywhere in it—a radio programmer who remembered “1-2-3” might be persuaded to give it a listen when it crossed his desk, just because of the title on the label.

As it turned out, “4-5-6” didn’t become a hit, although a few stations picked it up. At WRIT in Milwaukee, it rose as high as #14 in August 1968.

A more successful Barry project was the 1969 instrumental hit “Keem-o-Sabe” by the Electric Indian. He originally produced it for his label, Marmaduke, which he co-owned with Philadelphia DJ Hy Lit, although it didn’t become a national hit until after United Artists picked it up. Although Barry likely wrote “Keem-o-Sabe” (and recorded a vocal version of it), it’s credited to Bernice Borisoff, Barry’s mother, and another Philadelphia record mogul, Bernie Binnick. The musicians are all Philadelphia studio cats including Eli, Vince Montana, and other future members of MFSB. Wikipedia claims Daryl Hall is on it too.

From the 70s to the new millennium Barry stayed in the entertainment biz, producing and performing, and he even wrote a novel about growing up in Philadelphia. He died in his home town last week at the age of 79. There’s more about his life and career here.

One More Thing: I was on the air Saturday when the major news organizations called the presidential election for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, so I got to tell the people about it. I even broke the format to do it—on the country station, talk breaks have been severely curtailed for a couple of months now—but old radio dogs know when to bark, and it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission anyway. Reading that bulletin was one of the highlights of my radio career.