AM Gold: 1978

Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 67

For as much as the duo of Burt Bacharach and Hal David influenced American pop music in the 1960s, it seems the Brothers Gibb did in the ’70s. Whether or not that’s a good thing is a question best left for the comment section perhaps. Suffice it to say that Robin, Barry, and Maurice were almost inescapable toward the end of the decade and into the ’80s. And so they are on this, the third installment of AM Gold: 1978.

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#11: Andy Gibb, “Shadow Dancing” – #1 U.S., #42 U.K.

Jon Cummings – Here’s a minority viewpoint, but one I’ll stick to: The Bros Gibb, on the whole, were writing better singles for Andy between 1977-80 than they released themselves. Apart from the colossus that is “Staying Alive,” I’ll take “Shadow Dancing,” “I Just Want to Be Your Everything,” “Everlasting Love,” “(Our Love) Don’t Throw It All Away,”  and “Desire” over the rest of the Bee Gees’ chart-toppers from Saturday Night Fever and Spirits Having Flown. (Note that I didn’t include “Love Is Thicker Than Water” in that list — I’m not a fan of it.) “Shadow Dancing,” the biggest single of ’78 (if only because “Staying Alive” did much of its charting in ’77), is a perfect representation of what Andy and the Beeges were accomplishing in this era. Like “I Just Want to Be Your Everything,” it’s very much aimed at the tween/teen set — this time with more of an eye on the dance floor — which means that the boys were writing teen-idol pop every bit as winningly as they were writing disco for all ages.

Dw. Dunphy – Andy sounded much more like brother Barry than the other brothers, which is good. This particular song fits into the continuum between “Nights On Broadway” and “Tragedy” so far as the groove goes and veers sharply from the more excessive turns in Gibbdom (I’m thinking “You Should Be Dancing” typifies Bee Gees in full-blown mirrorball form). Would I hunt down an Andy Gibb record for myself? Well that is a difficult question. Let’s just say that I would if you held a gun to my head, but if it was a Shaun Cassidy record, you might have to pull the trigger.

Keith Creighton – This song triggers a painful memory of that awkward time in my life when I had just discovered rock and roll, but still could not tell the difference between music that would show the tough kids I was cool and music that would get me beat up. Hence my mistake of stenciling “Firefall” on my grocery bag book cover, wearing an ABBA t-shirt to class and in this case, hanging up the Andy Gibb poster from Scholastic’s “Dynamite” magazine in my locker. “Shadow Dancing” especially had a sinister groove that I was sure anyone with a Led Zeppelin or Dead t-shirt would admire. Lesson learned. Needless to say, embracing the “Buzzcocks” the following year had similarly disastrous results.

Cummings – Dude, if nobody was mocking your musical choices when you were a kid, then you weren’t livin’.

Creighton – Thanks Jon, in that case, I was living the high life… until I bought the 45-rpm for Andy Gibb and Victoria Principal’s tepid cover of “All I Have To Do Is Dream.” I still beat myself up over that purchase. Though I was watching LIVE the moment they met on The John Davidson Show.

Cummings – Well, that’s $1.29 you’ll never get back. That single is let’s-fling-this-at-the-brick-wall-and-see-how-it-shatters material.

Creighton – Holy crap. I went to the US Inflation Calculator.

An album bought in 1978 for $7.99 (the going mall rate) in 2012 currency would be $28.23 A single bought for $1.29 (what I recall K-mart prices to be) would be $4.56.

Suddenly, prices at the local indie record stores don’t seem half bad.

David Lifton – This has held up a lot better than I remember. It’s got that classic Bee Gees structure, with pre-choruses that build a little intensity and crash into the chorus with a perfect set-up chord. “Night Fever” works off the same template. But I also forgot about the other great touches, the clavinet and guitar interplay, and that figure the strings play.

Jack Feerick – Surprisingly enough, I agree with Dave. This is a pure pop pleasure — and, like a lot of great pop tunes, it’s an assemblage of cool bits from other songs. This isn’t just the Gibb family plagiarizing itself; the interplay of the Rhodes and the clavinet is pure Stevie Wonder, and the microtonal slides in the strings are right out of “Rock On.” (That intro sounds familiar, too, but I can’t quite place it.)

Love the medium tempo, too. So much disco was about sheer energy, but “Shadow Dancing” takes its time and slinks. Like that Boston song we discussed a couple of weeks ago, it just ticks along like a Swiss watch, punching my brain’s pleasure centers ruthlessly.

#12: Yvonne Elliman, “If I Can’t Have You” – #1 U.S., #4 U.K.

Cummings – Between this and Samantha Sang’s almost-as-awesome “Emotion,” the Gibbs also proved they could write huge hits for voices that start out where their falsettos ended up. “If I Can’t Have You” is a disco ballad in the very best sense, packed with drama (the horns! the crescendo of backing vocals!) and sung with actual longing. It certainly showed the boys how they would wind up keeping the gardeners employed once the public turned on them.

Feerick – Pop music has always had a tug-of-war between sound and meaning. Really it’s been more like a pendulum; some eras have been more about songwriting — that is, meaning — and some more about sound. In the 1950s, for example, hi-fi sound was getting better and better, but songwriting — with Tin Pan Alley already in decline and the singer-songwriter scene just a-borning — had grown stagnant. That’s why the era spawned so many records that were immaculately-crafted, elaborately-orchestrated, and ultimately empty of meaning; “Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom)” and the like.

One of the many ways the Beatles changed the course of pop history is by squaring the circle — by pairing top-notch writing with innovative production technique. So the hard binary isn’t necessarily in place anymore. But there are still outliers who value one side of the equation more than the other. Nineties lo-fi, for instance, made a fetish of crappy production — to the point of intentionally failing to even tune up — while dance music has traditionally been proudly meaningless, a showcase for production technique, rather than songwriting per se.

The disco years were another boom time for arrangements, is what I’m saying, and that riff coming out of the chorus of “If I Can’t Have You,” the gargantuan fuzz-tone guitar with the elephantine French horns and the backing vocalists shrieking like grievous angels, is a stone-cold killer.

Dunphy – This is kind of beautiful, and Elliman had already received some attention as a sideperson (sidewoman?) for Eric Clapton, so it wasn’t like she exploded on the scene or anything. The credit can’t go to Elliman alone of course, and if you dropped the beat and changed it for a straight ballad rhythm, it would still work. A lot has to do with the strings and horns which give all of this much more lift than the ordinary dance track would be afforded. You wouldn’t have to hold a gun to my head for this one at all.

Robert Cashill – Elliman was no Yvonne come lately. She toured with JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR for some time, charted with “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” and received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance as Mary Magdalene in the the film version.

Lifton – One of the best pure pop songs of the disco era. Goddamn, they were firing on all cylinders at this point.

#13: Chic, “Le Freak” – #1 U.S., #7 U.K.

Feerick – I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m the youngest of six kids, ranging from seven to sixteen years older than myself. As such, I picked up pop music via the record collections of my older siblings, working my way backwards. Chic was part of the background noise of my childhood, blasting out from my older sister’s bedroom along with A Taste of Honey and the Brothers Johnson. At the time, though, I tuned it out, listening as I was to well-worn copies of Tommy and Chuck Berry’s greatest hits (courtesy of a cheapjack Pickwick compilation whose hideous cover is forever branded on my brain) in my own bedroom. I enevr thought anything of it at the time.

Years later, when I was a New Wave kid in the ‘80s, Nile Rodgers was producing and remixing for the likes of David Bowie and Peter Gabriel, Tony Thompson was pounding the skins for the Power Station, and the critics were spilling a lot of ink about the legacy of Chic. I managed to get it in my head that these guys had been a Big Deal. Still didn’t make me go back and check out the records, though.

But I was still a rockist snob, and I didn’t really come around on dance music for years after that — and then, friends, then Chic blew me out of my chair. If, as outlined above, disco was all about production and arrangement, then Chic was all about doing more with less. Compared to fully-orchestrated tracks like “If I Can’t Have You,” this is positively skeletal; but holy shit is it hot. Nile Rodgers’ right hand alone is enough to make you wanna dance.

Cummings – Nowadays “Le Freak” takes a back seat to “Good Times” as the track generally considered Chic’s high-water mark, and with good reason, I suppose. The latter song’s bassline and guitar riff certainly were more influential. However, it’s a mistake to underestimate the impact of “Le Freak” upon both disco-ites and radio listeners when it was released, and the reaction (good and bad) that it still draws today. It was such a game-raiser above Chic’s previous hits, yet it retained their elemental qualities – and that “AWWWWWWW” is one of the great sledgehammer hooks in pop history. I suppose if there’s one song that music historians could use both to define disco and to serve as the impetus behind the “Disco Sucks” movement, this is it.

Dunphy – Pulling no punches here – in terms of the funk, Chic was rather emasculated. Chic was close to post-“Jungle Boogie” Kool and the Gang mixed with the Fifth Dimension. Amiable, middle-of-the-road funk; but a scoop of vanilla ice cream can be very good all on it’s own (from time to time). Faint praise? Maybe, but it really is praise. Chic is good. Nile Rogers is awesome, and even if this doesn’t quite get up on the downstroke, the redeeming qualities of both “Le Freak” and “Good Times” should be discounted by no one.

Lifton – This came out in the middle of the Carter Administration. Malaise, my ass. Nile is playing like Steve Cropper on speed, Bernard and Tony just need to hold it together, until that instrumental section when Bernard takes over.

#14: Exile, “Kiss You All Over” – #1 U.S.

Cummings – Another classic disco ballad, this time by a group that was on its way to country stardom — a fact that still, all these years later, seems inexplicable. I love everything about this song, from the low note on “Gonna light your fire” to the “yeeeeaaaaahhhh” leading into the chorus bridges, to the bassline to the metronomic drumming. It was, by far, the most explicitly randy pop hit of its era — an era when, as a 12-year-old, I was starting to feel perpetually randy myself — so it made a great soundtrack for impure thoughts.

Dunphy – Better than the twangy version (which still ain’t so bad), and certainly better than Adam Sandler’s speaker-licking version from Happy Gilmore, Exile sure could have taught the goofballs of modern country a lesson. We have in our current understanding songs like “Corn Star,” “Truck Yeah,” and “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” which reduce the country genre to the toothless, goober-pandering turds of commonly held stereotypes. Did anyone suspect the “southern” in this when they first heard it? Maybe not, but the signs are inescapable now. I’m sure you could never hear it the same way again either, and the message of hot, sweaty nastiness sure beats redneck single-entendre any day.

Feerick – I like the way the drums sort of simmer along but never explode, but then the beat made me think of Jane Siberry’s “Sail Across the Water” and I got sort of distracted. Who does this one, again?

Lifton – Another song I’ve always seen listed on “Worst Songs Of The 70s” compilations, and yet it’s no worse than most of the other brainless disco hits of the day.

#15: The O’Jays, “Use ta Be My Girl” – #4 U.S., #12 U.K.

Cummings – What a great melody this track has! It’s certainly not as iconic as the O’Jays’ earlier hits (“Back Stabbers,” “Love Train,” “For the Love of Money”), but it has an assurance to it — a quality that, within a few years, would come to be known as “old-school” — that separated it from other soul-leaning disco during the late ’70s. The Spinners would come close to capturing it with their medleys of ’79, and the Four Tops would rewrite “Use Ta Be My Girl” brilliantly in ’81 as “When She Was My Girl.” All three groups were trying to tailor their traditional sounds to be successful in the disco era, but they might as well have been singing TO disco about the audiences it had stolen away from them … and how eventually, when disco petered out, they would try to get those audiences back. (Interestingly, none did — those discofied hits were pretty much the last pop-radio gasps for all three acts.)

Dunphy – I suppose if there is a flawed track on this week’s list, it is this tune but that only comes about because O’Jays in their prime were so good. When I hear “Used ta Be My Girl” I don’t hear the group that recorded “Backstabbers,” but instead a group that aspires to be Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes. As aspirations go, you could do plenty worse. I’m glad they recorded it and the song is in our world, but if you were to rank the five best of the O’Jays, I couldn’t guarantee its placement.

Feerick – The Spanish tinge is always welcome, but the grammar cop in me cannot help but cringe at that title. There’s supposed to be a  “d” in there, guys!

Lifton – One of my favorite things about this series has been hearing songs from my childhood and realizing that they were touchstones in developing my tastes. It wasn’t just the stuff that still gets played, like The Beatles or Billy Joel, but songs like this. I remember noticing how “ask me how I know/and I’ll tell you so” set up the title line with that cool chord underneath it. One of the worst things about being a young kid during the disco era was that you could easily get caught up in the “Disco Sucks” movement and it would be a good 30-35 years before you could hear songs like this and “Shadow Dancing” and realize how good they really are, because they’ve been given second or third-tier status.

  • mfeldman

    In Will Hermes’ book “Love Goes to Buildings On Fire,” an *excellent* retrospective of what was going on in multiple musical genres in New York City in the ’70s, I learned something I never knew about “Le Freak.” On New Years Eve ’77-’78, Nile Rodgers and Tony Thompson tried to get into the Studio 54 party, but were turned away, in spite of currently having a hit in the Billboard Top Ten (“Dance Dance Dance”). Naturally they were furious; they shouted “F*** You, Studio 54!” in the streets, and then went to back to Tony’s apartment and built a 4/4 jam around the two-syllable phrase, “F*** You!” – ultimately it got funkier and funkier, with a killer guitar hook, and they knew they had a hit, but of course they had to change that two syllable refrain, so it became, of course, “Freak Out!” The following New Years Eve, it was #1, and they could get into any party they wanted.

  • Chris Holmes

    I think Nile Rodgers told that same story on a VH-1 special. It might’ve been one of the I Love the ’70s installments.

  • Sean Orcutt

    man, I really love this website. Where else could I find practically a dissertation on one of my fav songs of the 70’s (who am I kidding, of ALL time): KISS YOU ALL OVER! Any remote sexiness the song gives is immediately erased upon viewing of the video however:

  • jabartlett

    I can’t place the intro to “Shadow Dancing” either, and I too wonder if/where I’ve heard something like it before. It’s pretty righteous wherever it came from–few records jump off the radio in the first two or three seconds like it does. As much as I like it, however, “Shadow Dancing” is what kept “Baker Street” at #2 for a then-record six straight weeks, which I can offer either as proof of the random and arbitrary nature of the universe, or for the existence of a malevolent force that does not wish us well.

  • mfeldman

    Did LPs really cost $7.99 in 1978? I came of frequent-LP-buying age in 1983, at the ripe age of 11, and I recall $7.99 being full price THEN (new LPs would often sell for a sale price of $5.99 or $6.99 but then ultimately would be $7.99), and over those 5 years there was quite a bit of inflation, wasn’t there? Similarly, 45s were $1.49 in 1983, barely higher than $1.29. Maybe vinyl just got less expensive to make in the meantime so that kept the price flat.

    I guess CDs had something similar happen; a full price CD was usually $15 in the late ’80s, and that barely changed over 20 years of inflation. (but of course, that was largely because of the rise of other ways to purchase music).

  • mfeldman

    Did LPs really cost $7.99 in 1978? I came of frequent-LP-buying age in 1983, at the ripe age of 11, and I recall $7.99 being full price THEN (new LPs would often sell for a sale price of $5.99 or $6.99 but then ultimately would be $7.99), and over those 5 years there was quite a bit of inflation, wasn’t there? Similarly, 45s were $1.49 in 1983, barely higher than $1.29. Maybe vinyl just got less expensive to make in the meantime so that kept the price flat.

    I guess CDs had something similar happen; a full price CD was usually $15 in the late ’80s, and that barely changed over 20 years of inflation. (but of course, that was largely because of the rise of other ways to purchase music).

  • MrOktober

    The intro to Shadow Dancing reminds me a little of the intro to Grease, maybe slowed down a little.

  • Guy Smiley

    “Shadow Dancing” especially had a sinister groove that I was sure anyone with a Led Zeppelin or Dead t-shirt would admire.”

    I can see a Zep fan giving you shit, or even taking a swing at you, but a Deadhead? or, at least, some kid wearing a Dead shirt? Not only is that completely so un-Deadhead like to want to pick a fight or bully someone, but I just can’t imagine there were all that many kids wearing Dead shirts around that time.

    They sold a lot of concert tickets, sure, but not to your age group. Ten years later, post-“Touch of Grey” I can see this happening… Lots of people jumped on the Dead bandwagon then (certainly true in my high school). But in 1978?

    They certainly weren’t burning up the charts in 1978 either, although the disco-y sounds of “Shadow Dancing” and the SNF soundtrack weren’t all that different from the “Disco Dead” era of “Shakedown Street” and the like.

    Anyhow, as a diehard fan of the Dead let me apologize for the bullying and ass-kickings. Those kids were just poseurs and assholes.

  • JonCummings

    Well, the trouble for the record companies was that a sufficient number of folks inside and outside the industry always recognized that they were engaging in price gouging at $7.99/LP in the late ’70s, $15.99/CD for many years. By the early ’80s the list price for an LP was actually $8.98 – and there was a massive fit-pitching when MCA tried to set the list price for Tom Petty’s “Hard Promises” LP at $9.99 in 1981, so massive that the labels never succeeded in bumping the price for an LP or cassette that high. They were still $8.99 in 1989, when first the LP and then the cassette began their descent into oblivion as mass-market products.

    The labels always tried to claim that the artificially high list prices were justified by the costs of A&R, if not the manufacturing costs for each LP, CD or cassette (which were minuscule in comparison). However, since production costs never rose (in fact, CD manufacturing costs dropped dramatically through the ’80s and ’90s) and the labels couldn’t justify claiming increased A&R costs as an excuse to raise list prices, music prices avoided inflation and remained stable. Indeed, as time went on and the value of the dollar decreased, the price of music decreased considerably in “real dollars” even before the millennium, when file sharing took off and music-biz profits plummeted.

  • Guy Smiley

    “One of my favorite things about this series has been hearing songs from my childhood and realizing that they were touchstones in developing my tastes. It wasn’t just the stuff that still gets played, like The Beatles or Billy Joel,”

    Interesting that you mention Billy, because I was thinking of him as I read this week’s post.

    As one of the first artists who really appealed to me, so my earliest memories of enjoying music mostly revolve around Billy. 1978 was the year he really hit it big (The Stranger came out at the end of 1977, “Just the Way Your Are” was Song of the Year at the Grammys, and 52nd Street would hit be released and hit #1 before 1978 was out). His absence from this series, and this particular year in general, is as glaring as the lack of The Beatles or Stones.

    A lot of other good rock stuff from 1978 that gets passed over here, in favor of more disco-y/R&B stuff. Clapton’s Slowhand album had some notable hits, the Stones’ Some Girls album (which is fairly disco-y itself), and lots more.

  • DwDunphy

    Yeah, I chalk that up to Time-Life budget constraints, but it tends to throw dust all over their claims of producing the “ultimate” this-or-that. The lack of Billy Joel and some of the Stones’ tamer pop tunes sticks out severely.

  • lisa

    I have never seen the video.. I am laughing so hard I am crying! I still love the song, though.

  • drcastrato

    Just got around to listening to these songs — is this version of Le Freak taken from an actual record (vinyl)? because it really slows down a lot. It’s speed and pitch get really funky (not in the way Chic intended!). I don’t have another copy of it to compare, but that can’t be right, can it?