Saturday, March 5, 2011

Musical Chairs

Those of you who read my essay "American Blandstand" a while back might have gotten the impression that I'm more of a hardass about music than I actually am. In that piece I sort of adopted a snobby attitude as a way of explaining Dick Clark's place in the scheme of things. But my own tastes in music are evolving all the time. If you look at the the music section on my Blogger profile page, you'll see that I have artists as diverse as Janis Joplin and Bing Crosby. More so than literature or even movies, I'm constantly changing, and expanding, my mind on the subject of song.

This started early. I entered high school liking Barry Manilow, and exited a fan of Bruce Springsteen. Lo, these many decades later, how do I feel about those two? Well, I still like Bruce, though I'm nowhere near as fervent a fan I once was. And Barry? Unfortunately for Mr. Manilow, he's currently filed under "What The Hell Was I Thinking?" Maybe in another ten years I'll feel differently.

One act I was snarky about was the Captain and Tennile. In fact, I think Toni Tennile's voice was exceptionally suited for blues and rock and roll. Too bad she never sang any.

I decided to return to the subject of music after listening to an oldies station the other day. First, they played "Money" by Pink Floyd. This is a song that delighted me to no end whenever I heard it played growing up in the '70s, not so much for if its' trenchant critique of capitalism as because back then it was the only time you could hear an approximation of the word "bullshit" on the radio. About an hour after hearing "Money", the same station played "Stayin' Alive" by the Bee Gees.

"Money" and "Stayin' Alive"? Pink Floyd and the Bee Gees? On the same radio station?

You'd had to have been a teenager in the 1970s to appreciate just how truly bizarre that is. Back then, you never heard those two bands played on the same station. The Bee Gees were disco. Pink Floyd was progressive. The Bee Gees were Top-40. Pink Floyd was AOR. The Bee Gees were sequined skin-tight suits, and platform shoes. Pink Floyd was T-shirts, and blue jeans. The Bee Gees lyrics were short and repetitive. Pink Floyd's lyrics were long, philosophical, and symbolic, with the occasional swear word thrown in. The Bee Gees made you want to get up and dance. Pink Floyd made you want to sit down and have a toke.

Pink Floyd emerged from London's underground scene in the late 1960s playing a type of music that many associated with psychedelia, a drug-inspired genre that had emerged from San Fransisco's underground scene (a lot of burrowing going on.) Syd Barrett was the lead guitarist and chief songwriter in those years, and his whimsical lyrics were filled with fairy tail and outer space imagery. Floyd charted a few times, and then Barrett, reportedly driven mad by either LSD or the stress success brings, dropped (or was kicked) out of the band. Within a few years, Barrett had dropped out of sight altogether. So far out of sight, he was routinely referred to in the music press as the "late Syd Barrett" decades before he finally did die! Meanwhile, the psychedelic rock of Pink Floyd and others had gone progressive.

Progressive was an attempt to move rock closer to jazz, or, better yet, classical. Rather than the usual riffs and licks and hooks and lyric-chorus-lyric of traditional pop songs, progressive rock, sometimes called art rock, had intricate melodies, intricate instrumentation, and intricate (and sometimes inscrutable) lyrics. The average song was much longer, and often linked with other songs on "concept" albums to form an epic theme or story. So unsuited for Top-40 was progressive rock, a whole new radio format was created: AOR, short for Album Oriented Rock, which dominated FM for a time. Popular progressive bands included Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and Genesis (back in the Peter Gabriel days.) But the biggest prog rock band of then all was Pink Floyd, and the biggest prog rock album of all time was Dark Side of the Moon (which contained the aforementioned "Money"), on the Billboard chart from 1973 until 1988.

The band had several more popular albums throughout the '70s, but the one that really sticks in my memory is The Wall . A concept album about alienation that featured backing vocals by, among others, Bruce Johnston (author of Barry Manilow's "I Write the Songs") and Toni Tennille (Hmm...I guess she did sing rock, after all.) One song "Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)", which actually did make the Top 40, exploded upon my high school senior class's collective consciousness in the spring of 1980. The song's most identifiable trait was a chorus of British schoolchildren singing, "We don't need no education, we don't need no thought control." The children in my American high school were so captivated by this song, they forgot all about the hostage crises in Iran. Kids wrote the lyrics on blackboards. The song was played over the PA system. One day I walked into study hall and saw the following scrawled on a desk:

IF YOU DON'T LIKE THE WALL

THEN YOU LIKE DISCO

Ah, yes, disco. This brings us to the other group I heard on that oldies station, the Bee Gees. The three Gibb brothers from Australia didn't start out disco. Originally a Beatleslike pop/rock band, they first achieved international success in 1967 with "To Love Somebody", a song covered hundreds of times since. A string of hits followed, but by the mid-1970s they had begun to run out of steam. They decided to give disco a shot. Bullseye! They hit #1 with "Jive Talkin'". Another hit, this time at number #7, was "Nights on Broadway", which featured Barry Gibb singing falsetto for the first time. A year later they hit #1 again with "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing". But their biggest success was yet to come.

Disco had evolved from late '60s funk and soul. It was marked by simple lyrics, soaring vocals, and a 4/4 beat, sometimes called "four-on-the-floor". Synthesizers were also prominent. Nothing philosophical, or inscrutable, about it. It merely asked you to dance. The genre was gradually growing in popularity when Saturday Night Fever, starring John Travolta and featuring the music of the Bee Gees, premiered in late 1977. I can't think of any other movie during my lifetime that had as much of an impact on the overall culture as that one. Sure, Star Wars, which appeared earlier in the year, got a bigger box office, but that movie's impact outside of theaters seemed limited to toy stores. Thanks to Fever , and the Bee Gees three #1 hits, disco was everywhere! Radio, obviously. It helped revive Top 40, which had been flagging of late. It was also all over TV. There were disco specials, disco dance contests, even disco cartoons. It breathed new life, in the form of better ratings at least, into Dick Clark's American Bandstand, which had faced cancellation. In addition to the music itself, a whole kind of style of clothing, mostly influenced by Fever, became popular. And, finally, actual discos, as in discotheques, the buildings where a DJ played a record and patrons danced, became more popular than ever. It looked like the craze would would never end.

Yet, in the flicker of a strobe light, end it did. Why? Some blamed homophobia. The music had originally become popular in gay clubs. Once this became known, it didn't sit at all well with adolescent males, who put a premium on masculinity (never mind that many of these same masculine males had no problem rocking to a band named Queen.) However, with the notable exception of the Village People, most of the performers seemed to be straight. A good deal of them also seemed to be, well, in fact, were, black. Thus, some have blamed racism. However, disco followed the same pattern of almost every other musical form of the last 150 years: invented by blacks, taken over by whites. Thus you had the Swedish, and very Swedish-looking, ABBA. I've already mentioned the Bee Gees. Oh, wait. Barry, Robin, and Maurice had a brother, who performed solo. Only an albino could get much whiter than Andy Gibb.

Racism and homophobia may very well have taken its' toll on disco, but I suspect what really spoiled it for people, especially teenagers, who in that pre-digital era comprised the biggest segment of the record-buying public, was how quickly the music was adopted and co-opted by the some of the most hackneyed and/or over-the-hill figures in the land. Rick Dees ripped off Disney with "Disco Duck". Former pop idol-turned Polish goodwill ambassador Bobby Vinton came out with the "Disco Polka". 70-year old Ethel Merman put out an album of discoized show tunes. Plugging it on a talk show, she exclaimed, "You gotta keep up with the times!" A lot of people were trying to keep up with the times--with the intent of turning back the clock. I remember reading a silver-haired TV critic's review of a new disco show in which he gushed that the dancing was similar to the Big Band era of his youth. The Generation Gap was turned on its' head. The elders wanted you to like this new music. Alice Cooper might have summed up the feelings of many teens when during a concert he said, "Right now your parents are at home doing this!", followed by a John Travolta-like pose.

By the early 1980s, disco had become a term of derision, which it remains to this very day. Yet it may have been no more than a semantic fall from grace. Researching this essay, I've discovered that such recent styles as techno, trance, and house can be traced back to disco (don't ask me to tell you the difference between any of those styles. I'm now over-the-hill myself.)

So, now that I've given you some insight on Pink Floyd and the Bee Gees, and the styles of music they represent, how do I feel about them both being played on the same radio station? Well, as I'm basically liberal, I believe in inclusiveness. I welcome all forms of diversity. It's from you. It's from me. It's a worldwide symphony!

Except...

It's all right to like both Pink Floyd and the Bee Gees, Janis Joplin and Bing Crosby, Bruce Springsteen and, maybe in another ten years, Barry Manilow, once all those artists, whether still active or not, have basically been assigned their place in musical history. But can you like everything in the heat of the moment? Can you like everything and at the same time create whole new musical genres in the heat of the moment? No matter how mainstream or commercialized the two musical styles I've described eventually became, they both had their roots in the "underground". Undergrounds attract rebels. You don't rebel against that you like. Progressive rock grew out of the psychedelia of the counterculture. During that era, young people, at least the most outspoken of young people, rebelled against their elders for liking everything from the Vietnam War to ballroom dancing. Disco was first popular among blacks and gays, two groups who were counterculture before counterculture was cool, each retreating into their respective undergrounds for reasons of practicality and survival, rebelling against those who did not like them. I've left out punk rock so far, but that genre came about partially because, in a London Underground much changed from the one that existed ten years earlier, a young rebel named John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, loathed Pink Floyd as much as Pink Floyd fans loathed disco. People associate creativity with thinking outside the box, but the reason one wants to escape that box in the first place is because they don't like what's inside.

Then again, sometimes it's not so much the artists as their fans who do the rebelling. According to the many Elvis Presley biographies I've read (my mother was an avid fan, and passed the books along to me), he liked Dean Martin and singers of that ilk just as much he liked the blues coming out of Beale Street in the early 1950s. Yet his teenage fans, unaware of this and chafing under a sterile culture, saw Presley's music as a radical break with the past, and it became just that. Although Pink Floyd fans may have loathed disco, the members of Floyd themselves didn't necessarily share that sentiment. My ears were apparently too musically illiterate to recognize it at the time, but while researching this essay, I was surprised to discover that the radio version of "Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)" is a disco mix! Had my classmates, ears apparently as musically illiterate as my own, gotten wind of that, not only would they have burned every copy of The Wall they could find, but also Dark Side of the Moon, Meddle, Wish You Were Here, and Animals as well. But my classmates instead saw the song as a bulwark against disco, and we now have a hybrid for the ages.

You never know what you'll like above ground.

13 comments:

  1. I've missed a great deal of the pop scene because I was such a classical music nerd growing up.

    I'm evolving away from that as I find sometimes a good scream can express more of what I'm feeling.

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  2. Kass--Maybe you should scream WHILE playing something classical, and create a whole new musical genre. I'll be your manager.

    By the way, you're under no obligation to re-read them, but I re-wrote the last four paragraphs because I was a bit dissatisfied with them.

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  3. Changed the last four paragraphs again. Last time, I promise.

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  4. Oh, Kirk, I found you WAY down the sidebar again, but I'm glad I did. This is a wonderful piece of writing!

    Dick Clark makes me twitch. I Googled. I was right. He's older than my parents. I always felt funny looking at his old self next to OUR musicians.

    I, too, listen to a broad spectrum of music. I can't say I've ever followed Manilow, but I see his picture up on the Hilton here. But the fact that you entered liking Manilow and exited liking Springsteen makes an argument for higher education, eh?

    Nice bit of research here, tight writing. You impressed me again.

    Here's my comment on disco: I can even forgive some of the music, but those Danskin skirts for the women and Angel's Flight slacks for the guys. I'm ashamed I was alive!

    WV - foolder. What the John Travolta character did in Saturday Night Fever to Donna Pescow's character.

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  5. Uh...Leslie, I hate to tell you this, but I went in and changed the last four paragraphs one...final...time (Harvey Pekar and Hunter S. Thompson didn't make the cut, I'm afraid). I won't blame you if you don't want to go back and read it. Here's what happened: About a week ago, I had the whole thing planned out in my head. Then I came across something that I JUST HAD TO INCLUDE, and I felt it best to include it near the end (you can probably guess what it was) but it didn't meld all that well with my original outline, which is why I kept writing and re-writing. Normally, I do that when it's still in draft, but I kept wanting to be done with the damn thing, so I said, THAT'S IT, IT'S POSTED! And then, when I returned to the computer the nest day, I said, no, that's not exactly what I wanted to say, so maybe if I just tweak it...

    All this changing after it had already been posted may have been a bit unfair to my readers, but how often do you get to read a first, second, third and fourth draft of something?

    As for your particular points, Leslie, I'll address them in another comment. I'm afraid I may have reached my word limit on this one.

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  6. @Leslie--Dick Clark next to your musicians made you twitch? Well, how about the even older Ed Sullivin? Ironically, he may have been the more musically adventerous of the two. I guess his show was one of the few TV venues for rock in the 1960s.

    A local radio station played a live version of Bruce Springsteen's "Growing Up" when I was in high school and that's what won me over, almost as much for the comic shtick ("leave your kid brother in the car, and Earl Scheib will paint him, too") as for the actual song.

    '70s fashions were pretty weird even before Saturday Night Fever. I think the clothing industry looked back at the 1960s, saw that divide between the way hippies dressed and their more conservative parents, and said, "We'll erase the Generation Gap by making it over the top for young and old alike!"

    There's someting to be said for maintaining a Generation Gap.

    Thank you for your comments. I only wish I found my writing as tight as you do.

    And then, after Travolta fooled Pescow, he lectured her on her morals. Talk about sending a mixed message!

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  7. Yes, I noted that you were rewriting like crazy and I'd submit that YOU and ONLY you know when your piece is right. Then you have to put it up and let US tell you how wonderful it is. I knew immediately you'd researched like crazy for this, juggling a lot of balls in one article about like topics. You did a marvelous job of it. I learned this week to write it, finish it, post it and then wait to hear. It's good to stretch. It's OK to change your mind if that's the right thing for the story.

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  8. Because of certain events in my life I'm afraid (still) of males who look a certain way. Ed Sullivan was such a man, not that I was going to meet him on the streets or anything. He introduced my Beatles that Sunday night in February, 1964, and I just shuddered (about him. I think he was more adventuresome than Clark. But he was fooled into thinking Jagger really would sing "Let's Spend Some Time Together" instead of the song's true lyrics. ;~}

    I guess I think that when one is as pretty as Travolta was at the time, he probably gets by with a lot. Poor Donna.

    Keep writing! You're good.

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  9. GOOD fixing it up to the TOPS of our sidebars! :~}

    WV - lowar. Didn't care for your post in that lowar position!

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  10. have i mentioned lately how effing brilliant i think you are? you write on an array of topics with wit, knowledge, and skill.
    i'm sticking to photos. they're gonna have to do my talking for me.

    the late 70s/early 80s were, to me, gag-producing, both in music and fashion. die, disco, die!

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  11. @Leslie--I temporarily put it back in draft, and thus off the blog, while I did some re-writing yesterday. Before reposting, I schedulded it to appear Saturday morning (Saturday afternoon for me, but Blogger apparently operates on Pacific Standard Time) and, VIOLA, it ended up on the top of everybody's sidebars.

    @rraine--Thank you for the kind words. I'm effing flattered. As for the knowledge I display, keep in mind that I'm connected to the internet. Had I tried to write an essay like this on an ordinary typewriter (remember those?) it would have taken me a month, rather than a couple of days, to gather all the information I need.

    Don't turn your back on writing just because of something I wrote. That last prose piece of yours seemed to get a lot of favorable response.

    "Die, disco, die!"

    Um, rraine, it did die. The name, anyway.

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  12. I love hardrock... it's damn good can express the inner sentiments so easily and freely

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  13. @Sharepoint--I mentioned Janis Joplin during this post. I don't think anybody, including the later heavy metelheads and punk rockers, ever rocked quite as hard as she did while remaining melodic.

    By the way, Sharepoint, does your bosses at Microsoft know you're leaving comments on blogs during working hours?

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