In which we look at once common curiosities of pop culture that don’t exist anymore, be it because of changing tastes, the fragmentation of culture, or merely the fickle nature of fads.
In the late ’70s in the Netherlands, most disco music came in bootlegged medleys on 45, in which popular dance songs were strung together with a cohesive beat, or the music of one band, say, the Beatles, was remixed with a generic 1-2 drum beat and some synthetic hand claps. Dutch music publisher Willem Van Kooten got wind of this trend when he heard a mix that included a danced-up version of “Venus,” of which he owned the copyright. He decided to record a legit dancebeat-assisted disco medley, using “Venus” as well as some Beatles songs as recorded by studio musicians who he thought sounded like John Lennon and Paul McCartney. (They didn’t.)
Because of copyright reasons with the Beatles’ songs, Van Kooten and Stars on 45 had to list the name of every song in the medley in the song’s title: “Intro”/“Venus”/“Sugar, Sugar”/“No Reply”/“I’ll Be Back”/“Drive My Car”/“Do You Want to Know a Secret”/“We Can Work It Out”/“I Should Have Known Better”/“Nowhere Man”/ “You’re Going to Lose That Girl”/“Stars on 45.” The medley, credited to the generic-sounding Stars on 45 studio creation, went to #1 in the Netherlands…and then around the world, including the U.S. in 1981. For this, I blame Mark David Chapman, whose assassination of John Lennon ignited a wave of Beatles nostalgia to the point where a medley of their songs recorded by a guy with a Dutch accent could hit #1.
But as disco fever and Beatles nostalgia gave rise to Stars on 45′s success, Stars on 45′s success gave rise to a two-year period in which medleys were really hot shit, not just in the (albeit dying) disco club scene, where dance mixes are appreciated by the throngs of cocaine-addled partyboys and Donna Summer lookalikes, but on the radio and in record stores, too. A few dozen medleys hit the charts, almost all of them carrying the same 1-2 beat and hand claps as the Stars on 45 medley had done. Among them:
• “More Stars” by Stars on 45 went to #55 in 1981, featuring studio musicians recording and getting down to those hot dance classics “A Horse With No Name,” “Cracklin’ Rosie,” and “Eve of Destruction”
• “Stars on 45 III: A Tribute to Stevie Wonder” (#28, 1982)
• The classical medley “Hooked on Classics” by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (#10, 1981)
• “The Beach Boys Medley” (#12, 1981)
• And coming full circle, “The Beatles Movie Medley” (#12, 1982)
Of course, the concept of merging songs together with a cohesive beat or musical segues was nothing new—it was a hallmark of nightclub acts of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, who would often run through a bunch of well-known crowd-pleasing songs in a few minutes, using cheesy bridges like a word from the ending of one song serving as the first word in the next section, or little dance breaks between the numbers while the band transitioned. Nightclub culture died out when older adults fled to the suburbs and didn’t go out for nightly entertainment in the big cities anymore, and the acts took their shows to Vegas, the road, or record. Nightclubs were replaced in the cultural landscapes by discos—and medleys carried over, because patrons didn’t want the music to never stop not ever. (Also, both involved billowy shirts and shiny pants.)
The dance medley was a clear indicator that disco was on its last throes, as the dance music moved from the club to the home. Like nightclubs, people weren’t going out anymore. Disco itself was a fad, giving way, with medleys as a bridge, to the dance-pop and synth-pop of the 1980s. And even then, there were medleys, notably Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go?”
But still, by the ’80s, the medley was both a relic of the older generation’s entertainment forms, and a fad associated with the last days of disco. A few still managed to get popular—Will to Power’s soft rock remake of “Baby I Love Your Way/Freebird” in 1988, the Jive Bunny and the Mixmasters stuff, that Grease “megamix,” and “Weird Al” Yankovic’s polka medleys of pop songs come to mind. Medleys were probably ultimately doomed as a mainstream form by the Sweeney Sisters sketches on Saturday Night Live. They just seemed so silly, so pandering, and forever the provenance of a low-rent nightclub act.