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-
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.