Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Why Cry When You Can Dance? : “I Wanna Dance Wit Choo”: Disco Tex and His Sex-O-Lettes/ “Try To Remember/The Way We Were”: Gladys Knight and the Pips

“Nostalgia has always been a bit of a bunko scam.”  David Rakoff 

 The current situation has made people nostalgic, but what is it they are nostalgic for? This is the big question, perhaps too big for this modest blog. Is it the 1970s, a time of one actual/manufactured outrage and disaster after another? As a girl growing up in this time I have (for personal reasons that don’t really fit in here) very little nostalgia for this period, as so much of it was so monochrome and repetitive when it wasn’t disturbing and frightening. Yet even there, you can see how for so many anything distracting or weird or indeed nostalgic was attractive, even necessary.* 

“I Wanna Dance Wit Choo” was the second hit single for Bronx-born Sir Monti Rock III and his backing singers – including Four Season Bob Crewe and his writing pal Kenny Nolan, who both dug the disco scene and very much wanted to get involved. I could go into why disco was popular and the people who went to discos, but let’s just say at this point people were already starting to see disco was a ‘thing’ and they weren’t just male-only spaces as they had been before. At the same time, this is a camp single if there ever was one, (with Sir Monti sounding like David Johansen, ranting in English and Spanish**) and it can be heard as either very enthusiastic or kind of annoying, depending on how much you knew about the already outrageous public appearances of Monti Rock (who had been on tv regularly since the 60s, charming Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show.) That said, Disco Tex and His Sex-o-lettes definitely made personal appearances in actual discos, telling people to open up, loosen up and have fun and dance - it's disco time, baby!*** 

While this single got to #2 on the Luxembourg chart, Disco Tex and his entourage were never going to stay around for long – one more album (Manhattan Millionaire – but of course) and he was off making movies and Crewe and Nolan had already written “Lady Marmalade” and “My Eyes Adored You” which have both fared much better over time than the kitschy, outspoken man from the Bronx. People remember (or they lazily let the radio/media remember for them) certain things, but not others. The 70s was a weird decade, and this being as decisively not played as other obscure #2s from this time shows how people want to look back, for sure, but not that much. 

Also getting to #2 on the Luxembourg chart, Gladys Knight and the Pips (though the Pips are taking a break here; it’s just Gladys) certainly know what nostalgia and looking back are really about. Knight mentions ‘the good ol’ days’ in a way that show that while she knows the pleasures and satisfactions of looking back, they are themselves a bit fatuous and she wonders if the children of the mid-70s will look back at this time – a time of real hardship in Harlem and all of NYC as it was declared bankrupt – if even this time will be recalled with aw-c’mon-it-was-great-really fondness. 

This is a live recording from the Apollo; Knight’s audience is not exactly looking back at the same world as those who heard this song in the context of its movie. The classic line about “what’s too painful to remember we simply choose to forget” (thank you, Alan and Marilyn Bergman) is true, but I know from my own experience that it’s a privilege to ‘choose’ to forget something. It’s far more common (for me) to have to be vigilant about not recalling things and being active in forgiving people in my past in order to move forwards. Let the past be the past. Knight knows people will talk about how much better things were, but she also knows it’s a folly, a way of avoiding dealing with the here and now. 

But people who are living in tough times want fun – and if nostalgia is a way out, they will take it. The 70s was in a way a long process of trying to escape from itself, done in part by trying to remember. Though again, what is being remembered? 

Up next: It’s not how you do it, it’s just that you do it. 

*Nostalgia for the 50s was at a high-tide point round about now, what with American Graffiti more or less begetting Happy Days. The 70s would go back even further in the next year or so. 

** His real name is Joseph Montanez Jr. 

***The Pet Shop Boys song “Electricity” directly mentions Disco Tex – sung from the point of view of perhaps Neil Tennant himself?

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Maximal to Minimal: Minnie Riperton: "Lovin You"

Now I feel we have reached a song that divides people to this day – is it good? Is it unbearably twee and girly and yuck? Certainly the latter was my reaction to it once I had grown up a bit, had my own radio and so on. For all I know this is how some still respond to it, because of Riperton’s high voice, because of the birds tweeting away, because they think music (particularly by women) must somehow involve suffering, and there is no suffering here. There is no struggle here, no abandonment, no imminent collapse or mourning. It is all love, optimism and joy.

I listen to this now and carefully note that this is a heroic tugboat of a song. Happiness with a strong voice (a coloratura voice with four octaves) gliding along emphatically as well as gracefully. She looks forward to the future, knowing in her heart it will always be springtime, there will always be birds chirping and sunshine and and....

Let me back up a bit in Minnie’s story. She met Richard Rudolph as a young woman in the group Rotary Connection, a band on the Chess label which had Charles Stepney producing and (rests gracefully on sadly non-existent chaise longue) among their albums there was one of covers from 1969 called Songs which kludged rock and soul together in a way that still sounds startling. Then two years later came Hello Love and the abundanza of “I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun.” Stepney really should have been nominated for Producer of the Year because WHAT WITH THE WHAT NOW and IT CAN BE DONE BUT ONLY I CAN DO IT reasons. But Producer of the Year didn’t exist then (Thom Bell was the first to win one in 1975).

In between these albums her first solo album, Come Into My Garden, was released in 1970 (produced by Stepney). Rotary Connection had had some bad luck (declining Woodstock, for instance, as it was too far away – instead they opened for The Stooges closer to home) and Stepney was determined to get Riperton’s voice heard. He tried, with the amazing “Les Fleur” but the label she was on (a subsidiary of Chess) was floundering and eventually everyone left for Los Angeles to make a fresh start of things, save for Riperton, who basically needed a rest and wanted to settle down, moving to Florida with Rudolph in 1972. However, Riperton was coaxed into getting back into music a year later (lured inevitably to Los Angeles).

Riperton started to work with Stevie Wonder as a backing singer, and then he produced her album Perfect Angel, where “Lovin’ You” appears. After the ornate and sometimes flat-out overwhelming Stepney productions, Wonder made things simple – just a few birds to add to the perpetual springtime of the song, with Riperton’s voice front and center, as opposed to being part of a chorus. It’s an easy song that Rudolph and Riperton wrote, a kind of lullaby to their baby Maya (you can hear Riperton sing her name at the end).

Is there something guileless about this song? I’m not sure there is, though it certainly can seem that way to hipsters who disdain open sentiment. The remarkable thing is what happened after this was a hit – she made more albums, continued to perform and at the same time had to live with the diagnosis of breast cancer, which doctors told her at first was going to end her life in six months. She had a double mastectomy and kept right on going, becoming a spokeswoman for breast cancer awareness and even recorded her last album while in great pain – presumably at her own insistence.

She died at the age of 31 in 1979, an indomitable force and an inspiration to many musicians (Mariah Carey, Kate Bush and of course Stevie Wonder) and the women who were also dealing with cancer at the time – not a taboo subject these days, but one hardly mentioned in the mid-70s. This song is a song of love, a heroic and happy song of the mother and wife, ultimately a song about being alive itself as a joy.

Next: There’s looking backwards and then there’s taking stock.


*Could someone at Ace Records do a Charles Stepney compilation please? It’s way overdue and there are all sorts of music he did while at Chess. Thanks!


Monday, November 9, 2020

Animal Crackers pts. 2 and 3: The Quick Brown Fox Jumped Over The Lazy Dog: "Fox On the Run" Sweet and "Love Me Love My Dog" Peter Shelley

For the foreseeable future I am going to have to speed up some here at MSBWT in order to get out of the emotional ditch known as ‘the mid-70s’ – perhaps you feel the same way? Though when (for lack of a better word) landmark #2s come along, I will devote more time to them.

Thus, these two very different songs have to be together. They both point to something – the end of the Glam Slam and what happens next. The Sweet, a bit at a loss as to what to do (and politely told by their label to have another hit already), found a song on their album they wrote themselves, rejigged it and lo and behold it was a worldwide hit, just at the time when Glam was pretty much over and this tougher style, I can’t use that word just yet.

They continued to exhaust themselves touring and relying on writing their own material, eventually hitting it big with “Love Is Like Oxygen” in 1978. That is the first time I heard them – however that song is no fun* whereas "Fox On The Run" (not as odd as The Hollies’ “After The Fox” of course) rocks and jumps and struts around its Glam victory lap before disappearing, all shiny and loud and stompy as ever.

Peter Shelley (I’m sure he’s heard all the comments) once wrote songs for Alvin Stardust, but as Glam faded he and Marty Wilde wrote about his dog instead, about how anyone interested in him should appreciate his dog too. Which is.... fine. Every sentiment can get written about, though in this case the song (an NME #2, posted below) has disappeared from the common memory just as “Sugar Candy Kisses” did, hiding somewhere on a European compilation which is lingering in an attic. The song is sincere at least (he appeared on Top of the Pops to perform this song with his loyal dog by his side) and it does add to the odd number of mid-70s songs about animals, including “Shannon” and “Mandy” (originally) and “Wildfire” which I think is about a horse that disappears into the West.**

These were anomalies for the time, little signals of the decade as it turned quite decisively to something else. Disco, reggae, these guys from Germany called Kraftwerk, the Rollers – this replaced Glam***, along with the Soulboy contingent who were into...well, anything from Bowie to jazz-funk to Northern Soul. Any casual look at the charts from this time will show that what was going on wasn’t boring, though if you were fifteen or so you might find a lot of what I just mentioned too...sophisticated? Safe? The very complicated situation (or you could say grown-up) of music meant certain sectors felt a bit ignored and left out.

This is addressed eventually, but for now there’s a homely man and his dog, and a fox disappearing over the horizon.


Next: The birds and the bees et les fleurs.


*It’s them trying to be New Wave, and failing miserably.

**Loudon Wainwright III’s “Dead Skunk In The Middle Of The Road” sort of fits in here, more or less.

***Not that Glam goes away entirely – there will always be echoes of it here and there, the most prominent of them showing up in the due course of time.



Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Animal Crackers pt. 1: The Goodies: "The Funky Gibbon"

“This House stinks of racism!” Cornelius Cardew, October 1981

“We had marvellous musicians on those sessions, but they couldn't get it. They knew what I was sort of trying to do, but I probably listened to that sort of thing more than they did, and it was driving us nuts, so we sent the drummer and the bass-player and the guitarist home. And I had a keyboard player called Dave Macrae, who'd played with Matching Mole and Robert Wyatt and people like that - governor player - and he started playing some clavinet, very Stevie Wonder-type feel to it, and I said, 'That's fine; could you do a synth-bass on it?'

And then I literally started whacking the top of the grand piano. So the actual rhythm-track of 'The Funky Gibbon' has only got me and Dave on it - he plays clavinet and synth-bass and we miked up the top of the piano. Then we got the horn section of Gonzales playing a Memphis Horns-type thing. It was lovely for me to be able to use musicians I liked and try to reproduce sounds which I also listened to. And then put the stupid song over the top of it. The idea that all that effort went into 'The Funky Gibbon'!” Bill Oddie. as quoted in Alwyn Turner's blog The Lion and the Unicorn.

I recently saw a comment about irony and music – its author very clearly stated that he did not appreciate it.  And you know what?  I do understand this point of view.  Most great music does not have a side; it is not trying to do two things at once, though it is possible to hear a song for some time and not know what it is really about.  In that case, you might get upset that you yourself did not realize this or you might project this anger on to the song itself or the person who told you. 

Most songs are very directly what they say they are.  However it is noticeable that anyone trying to express something by saying it with irony or in an indirect way is usually saying something the public at large may not want to hear.  It is entirely possible to enjoy a song and not get its irony*, and irony comes in many levels, of course...

I did not expect “The Funky Gibbon” to be in one of these spirals of irony, but it is the 1970s, when juxtapositions were all over the place.  The beginning is simple enough – jazz/funk fan Bill Oddie wanted his comedy troupe The Goodies to have a song for their hit tv show, and came up with something suitably dumb lyrically – the trio had an association with gibbons, doing a song called “Stuff The Gibbon” when they were on the BBC radio show I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again in the 1960s.  (I will also note that before they made total fools of themselves on The Goodies, Oddie, Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor had a tv show called Not So Much A Programme, More A Way Of Life which was a faux-documentary show that hardly ever gets mentioned.)

Oddie was on the fringe of the UK jazz scene and had the good fortune to work with the Mike Westbrook Band’s Dave Macrae and Gonzales’ horn section, as explained above.**  The song reached #2 on the Luxembourg chart and got them on Top of the Pops – I doubt if they expected the song to do so well, but the kids loved it and so it happened.  It’s a catchy song and you could imagine it spreading around to the parents of children, to certain ears.... the ears of a certain composer who had been in various modernist trenches for many years, doggedly loyal to political ideas which may or may not have helped his music; a man who led a group of musicians (the Scratch Orchestra) that worked bottom-up and was too avant garde to be mistaken for another early 1970s conglomeration of musicians, Centipede.***  By 1975 the composer was beginning to shift his thinking to writing popular hard-left songs for people to hear and be moved by (politically at least).  Take the ideas straight to the people, with language and melodies they can sing and understand.

Cornelius Cardew’s need to make overtly and transparently popular music was not perhaps what was expected of him, but it is what he (once a disciple of Stockhausen) wanted to do – and so in 1977 he wrote “Smash the Social Contract.”  This is the chorus:

So smash, smash, smash the social contract

It’s the cry of workers all over the land

No to class collaboration      

We’ve sorted out your lies and deception


Sure to be a hit, right?  Well in a way, it is.  (And yes, the chorus’ melody sounds an awful lot like...”The Funky Gibbon.”)  Cardew’s instinct – that he had to bring his political ideas into popular music, not just live them with whatever free-jazz avant garde music he was doing for the greater good (as self-effacing/self-satisfying being in AMM or the Scratch Orchestra must have been) was in keeping with the times.**** I don’t know if he wanted this to be a hit or just something played to striking workers; I don’t even know if he knew about the Goodies, though having two sons the right age to be into them must have helped.  He seemed happy to compose lively tunes to, well, non-rhyming and just clunky but sincere revolutionary lyrics.  His being arrested for disturbing Parliament (during a speech by Enoch Powell, quoted above) shows how committed he was...I can't say his works have been hits, exactly, but Cardew is a fine example of English rebelliousness and I sense the establishment still isn't really ready for him yet.

I don’t know if Oddie ever heard this song, but the whole idea of the one song lifting from the other would have been (I’m guessing) more amusing to him than anything else.  You can’t really sue someone poor and Cardew at this point – while in demand and travelling around spreading the word – wasn’t exactly wealthy. 

And so we have the story of a dumb but reasonably catchy song entering the revolutionary atmosphere, fitting into a lively song about the deconstruction of the world as we know it. If this can happen, what else is possible?
Next up:  Exit, pursued by foxes.


*”Good Times” by Chic is the gold standard here.  Sadly I won’t be writing about it as it only reached #5 in the NME and regular charts. 

**I can imagine he wanted something between Rufus Thomas’ “Do The Funky Chicken” and Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothin.’”

***Both groups had a short lifespan, both groups had (live, at least) Brian Eno as one of their members.  Coincidentally, the Oblique Strategies cards Eno helped to make appeared around this time:  go here to get a random card if you like... 

****Cardew, by the way, had no interest in punk – he called The Clash “reactionary” and I can’t imagine he had much time for Citizen Smith either.  This despite him looking a bit like Joe Strummer in the early 1970s.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

A Cookie Crumbles: Guys 'n' Dolls: "There's A Whole Lot Of Loving"

I sometimes remember the 1970s as a mostly regular time, but with jarring oppositions too. It was in many ways a bluntly realistic era, but there were a lot of very determinedly happy things to balance that out, including the smiley button (I wore a variation on it myself as a child), not to mention a lot of cheery upbeat music, including this song.  Now, I could go down the path of picking a side in the perpetual tug-of-war between oh-so-sensitive singer-songwriters and the manufactured production line of producer/songwriters/singers*, but this song would not exactly fit in to the debate.  Oh it has songwriters (Chris Arnold, David Martin and Geoff Morrow) and singers (Tony Burrows and Clare Torry) but uh, wait a minute.  It came from a commercial?  For cookies?

Yes, we have reached the stage where a song from a McVitie's fruit shortcake tv ad can be recorded and released as a hit single.  The song itself has nothing to do with cookies and a lot to do with the natural hugeness of the United States (the songwriters were American).  It’s a proper song, not a jingle fleshed out.  The loving going on is abstract; the love could be for anyone, but it’s heartfelt and the wholesome goodness of the song’s sing-a-long style matches the Hoover Dam mention.  It could be straight out of a musical, though usually there’s a bit more plot in a stage song.

I don’t know if this was expected to be a hit – but it was.  So, what to do?  On very short notice, a group of male and female singers were put together so they could appear as Guys 'n' Dolls for promotional purposes – miming the song and dancing on variety shows (one of them being Julie Forsyth, daughter of Bruce – do you see how showbiz this is?)  There was no time to re-record the song with the new group, however. It worked, at least at first.  The main problem was that the lead singer of the group, Dominic Grant, didn’t sound anything like Tony Burrows.  He sounded more like a wannabe Scott Walker, completely pointless as the actual Scott Walker existed and at this time was plotting the return of The Walker Brothers.**  

The group had its problems as you might expect and two of the six were dismissed for (I am guessing) wanting to do things in a different way. Guys 'n' Dolls were essentially there to fill the gap before The New Seekers reconvened, before the Brotherhood of Man made this kind of music uncool for a whole generation.  They had one more hit in the UK but were far more popular in Europe, where they had hits right into the 1980s.

This scam, if you like, did have one unintended consequence.  A few years after their being relieved from Guys 'n' Dolls, Theresa Bazar – the female of the pair – approached the studio bass player, one Trevor Horn, to see if he would be interested in working with her and David Van Day, the male of the pair.  He was and so they did – as the duo Dollar.  And so from late 1974, the tiny seeds of something different were being sown. 

 Next up:  keep the red flag flying, kids!


*There are times when I don’t mind singer-songwriters, and then there are times I just want to avoid them as much as possible.  I don’t know how common this is amongst those who grew up in the 70s.

**There are certain voices that are inimitable, and Walker’s is one of them.  There’s a song by The Herd where the lead singer does a Walker-style vocal and it’s awful.  No wonder Peter Frampton left to start Humble Pie.

Monday, May 4, 2020

When Is A Song An Unsong?: Mac and Katie Kissoon: "Sugar Candy Kisses"

What is it like to listen to a song that has fundamentally been...forgotten? This song is essentially no longer part of what I (guess) is the musical “canon.” Of course this may not be a bad thing, but in a time when people seem to obsess over the past in a way which is unhealthy (look at the current album charts – how much of the music is from the past or are greatest hits from the past? A lot) it is rare.  If you are me, trying to find the new is increasingly difficult but the past seems to loom and even interrupt, making the new (and interesting) harder and harder to locate. 

Do people deliberately like bad things?  Do people deliberately like mediocre things?  These were my first thoughts upon regarding this song.  But I have had a bit more time to think these things over.  This song is neither bad nor mediocre; but it is in a unique and unenviable position of being utterly forgotten.  Finding a 70s compilation with this song on it – and there are so many 70s compilations – is nearly impossible.  It has been virtually erased from music, been turned into a non-song.  An unsong, if you will.  This is a rare feat, as so much of radio (in the UK at least) is fixated on the 70s, as the album charts to this day show.  Almost all songs from the 70s which were big hits (that can still be played, of course) are still being given airtime somewhere (if not on Radio 2 then on 6 Music or elsewhere).  The overwhelming narrative is not just on the radio but on these compilations; for a song to only be available on a Disky (Dutch) box set is saying something.  It is saying only Europe still cares; the UK has effectively turned its back on this song and Mac and Katie Kissoon, denying its existence and leading us, dear reader, straight into the void that I somehow instinctively knew was at the heart of the 70s UK single charts.  With this song we are beyond the edge; we are in the world where things disappear, and must go forth carefully.  This is not The Fog as much as what The Fog has been hiding.

Of course, there are many songs which managed to get into the charts which are, for any number of reasons, no longer played – singles are, lest we ever forget, supposed to be evanescent things, things which strike at the moment acutely, moments that reach out to the listener directly as if taking up a conversation, adding their voices to the discussion. (By the way, while I remain ambivalent about the 70s personally, I think they are far more interesting than radio generally lets on.)  They can be good or bad or indeed mediocre, but they all hope (or the songwriters and performers do) to be at least remembered and even celebrated. The music industry loves (in part because this is how it survives) to remind us of the past, even if it is just the recent past of the NOW series. 

For a song to be left out of all this is a puzzle, particularly as these two were already part of the UK  musical world – Katie Kissoon had been recording since the 60s (under the odd name Peanut) solo and with her brother Jerry (stage name Mac).  This song was their big chance for a hit in the UK, and as it was as deliberately written* as The Rubettes’ “Sugar Baby Love” and it worked, getting to #2 on Radio Luxembourg and #3 in the UK.  (That a love song is being sung by siblings was something blithely ignored at the time I am guessing, especially since Donny and Marie were also popular.) 

I can think of a few reasons this song has been...left behind.  It sounds as if they are singing the song – their voices are genuine and sweet enough, but somehow still there is no punctum. It is, even by 1975 standards, a bit square; like a music box it dutifully revolves and then fades abruptly once it’s done.  It is professional music, done by professionals; Mac and Katie Kissoon are and have been very much part of the business as in-demand backing singers** since their heyday (mostly in Europe) was over.  They are doing their best with a song that is just too rote and routine to spark any actual fervour, the sort of song done on variety shows.

Ultimately this song shows that just being a hit is not enough.  Being in the charts at all as we have seen is not really enough either. There is something amiss about the charts themselves at this time – which I will address in due course.  A whole other thing is quietly and determinedly already existing and growing, music which is not perhaps as technically good as this...but that will not, in time, matter.  Alongside this in February 1975 Margaret Thatcher becomes leader of the Conservative party.  The end of “the 1970s” is not in sight...yet.

Next up:  a different pair with a different future.


* The composer credits are Bickerton/Waddington, who also wrote "Nothing But A Heartache" by The Flirtations. 

**Katie is a favourite with Van Morrison in particular, though I should note she has also worked with the KLF and Dexy's Midnight Runners.. I should also note that as Mac and Katie they had the first crack at “Love Will Keep Us Together” before the more famous version, and had the US hit version of "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep."