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?

1 comment:

Robin Carmody said...

The concept of "manufactured outrages" in the 1970s is interesting - certainly large swathes of the British Left (including, I would have thought, Corbyn & McDonnell both at the time and now) have always felt that the idea of a crisis at this point was certainly manufactured, that it was only the elite who were suffering and the mass were more comfortable and secure than in most other eras. I've had friends active on the Left at the time, separated from that sense of paranoia among the privileged (related to which, and to Thatcher, Diana, Cameron & Johnson, is an NME number two from the summer of 1976) who told me that they initially couldn't believe Thatcher could possibly get away with it, and only realised her motivations twenty years later when they read up on how frightened the ruling class were feeling.

But the mass isn't exclusively white, and wasn't even then, and the Old Left's biggest fault is its tendency to write out of history what Britain's BAME population were going through, something which unlike the travails of the rich *is*, or at least should be, a natural concern of the Left. Some of the same people, alas, deliberately choose to forget what Savile et al did, because it doesn't fit their agenda and glossing up of history - that tendency very much comes to mind when you hear that line now. As Marcello rightly acknowledged on his piece on the Streisand retrospective which topped the UK (and indeed US) album charts on the brink of Thatcher's coming to power, the context of this version of "The Way We Were" is much more defensible than the original because of the heavy irony of applying such sentiments to the Black experience, and Gladys sounds much more self-aware than Streisand, much less smug, and obviously much less entitled and much less privileged. Streisand, I fear, would never have known that such sentiments are a folly, despite her own Jewish experience (though there will be no Corbynism whatsoever on *that* matter from me, here or elsewhere).

We're pretty much at the point of the EEC referendum now and it's a deep shame that neither Kraftwerk nor Bécaud are part of your story (nothing that peaked that low on the official chart seems to have got that high on Luxembourg's chart, which I don't think was based on actual sales) - but that might tell its own story of the long road to what eventually happened, disproportionately powered by those who could remember 1975 and felt, on some level, that when they went in those polling booths to vote Leave they were getting one over on those of the old establishment who had confined pop to the poor audio of 208 and 247 while Radio 3 had FM.