Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Very Strange Vibration: Gloria Gaynor: "Never Can Say Goodbye"

There are few moments better than the one where confusion and doubt are conquered, even eliminated.  We are in disco when this particular and precise emotion happens to make sense, as disco is about that joy, a joy that magnetic and crushing and inexplicable, an energy that cannot be denied.  That it comes in with Max Roach-inspired drumming, swirling strings and an I’ve-lived-this-and-we-can-share-it vocal from Gloria Gaynor (who sounds as caught up in the song as anyone) is just as well.  We are far from the laid-back pleasures of "Rock Your Baby" or the get-down Miami horn blasts of KC & the Sunshine Band here.  Gaynor is singing to be heard, and that this is a Jackson 5 song seems to make no impression on her whatsoever.  She is making this her own.
What those who bought this en masse may or may have not known was that “Never Can Say Goodbye” was the middle of a trilogy from her album of the time – a “mix” really – by Tom Moulton*, which starts with “Honey Bee” and ends with “Reach Out I’ll Be There.**”  This mix was the first to appear on an album – let’s just pause to ponder this – and capitalized on Moulton’s ability as a mixer to really get into the songs – not in a complicated way, just in a way that was supposed to elongate the song, and have Gaynor’s voice in your head *even when she wasn’t audibly there*. Dancing in your head? That the very male world of disco (I have been reading Peter Shapiro’s book on it and early discos were definitely male territory, with disco becoming a more female-friendly phenomenon later on) should have a woman taking on Levi Stubbs’ aria of a song and making it sound like the veritable audio version of the last helicopter out of Vietnam is, to say the least, quite something. 
The power of the song is to worry away in the verses and then dismiss these worries in the chorus with a rising "I love you ssssooooooooooo" that has in it right there a real vulnerability/strength moment which disco (when it wasn't just exhorting you the listener to dance, which it often did) does so well.  Can you stop?  Is stopping on the dancefloor possible?  Tom Moulton didn't want you to stop, and put this together with oh say Eddie Kendricks' "Girl You Need A Change Of Mind" and it won't stop.
Next:  A radio, a woman, a man. 

 *Tom Moulton is the first person to use a 12" single to do the pressing of a song, giving the song more space to breathe, sound better and of course have more time to let the song be itself. That he found this out by accident is charming. 
**We are not done with Motown yet and in a few entries the topic of jazz will appear, with Motown popping up unexpectedly.