Tag Archives: Disco

Emotion – Samantha Sang

Saturday Night Fever was a 1977 film, but it was released to theatres in December, so its true impact wasn’t felt until 1978.

When it was – kaboom.

The Bee Gees owned 1978. It was obscene. The Billboard year-end Hot 100 singles? By my count, the Bee Gees wrote, performed and/or produced nine of them. Nine! Their three Saturday Night Fever songs (Night Fever, Stayin’ Alive and How Deep is Your Love), plus Yvonne Elliman’s If I Can’t Have You, Samantha Sang’s reading of Emotion, Frankie Valli’s Gibb-penned title track from Grease and no fewer than three songs by Andy Gibb, all written for him by Barry. I would imagine that More than a Woman, Jive Talkin’, You Should Be Dancing and If I Can’t Have You were still picking up heavy airplay, too. Oh yeah, and the Bee Gees’ new single, Too Much Heaven, was a number one in November, only missing out on the year-end chart as it was released at the end of the year. When you consider that level of pop domination, it almost makes the Disco Sucks riot at Comisky Park understandable.

Barry Gibb had been helping out Samantha Sang since the late 1960s, when an 18-year-old Sang travelled to the UK to pursue a pop career. Gibb heard her and urged his manager, Robert Stigwood, to sign her. He did, and she released a single (Love of a Woman) that Barry had written for her, but it was only a minor hit in a couple of countries, and not a hit at all in the UK. Sang eventually returned to Australia after her visa expired.

She continued her career down under for a few years until Gibb invited her to Miami, where the Bee Gees were based. He had a song he thought she should cut, but Barry being Barry, by the time she got there, he’d written a better one. So Sang ended up cutting Emotion, and (Our Love) Don’t Throw it All Away went to Andy Gibb (who took it into the Top 10 – this was truly a year in which everything Barry touched turned to gold).

Now, I do think Samantha Sang did a very good job with Emotion, and her decision to sing it in a breathy head voice (very like Barry’s own voice) suited the material, but at this point the world was clamouring for more Bee Gees, and no one in the US knew who Sang was. So Emotion is mixed in such a way that she is virtually a guest on her own record. The bridges and chorus feature Barry’s backing vocals so strongly that Sang is nearly drowned out. That being said, her version is better than any Bee Gees-only version I’ve heard, but it’s a measure of how besotted the world was with the Bee Gees in 1978 that after this great song dropped out of the charts, its singer was all but forgotten immediately.

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Shame – Evelyn “Champagne” King

Shame is one of those rare things: a disco song without a disco beat.

The essence of disco is the bass drum played on each beat of the bar: one-two-three-four, boom-boom-boom-boom. This straightforward rhythmic chassis is what made disco so successful, so appealing and so democratic; with a beat that simple, just about anyone could dance to it. It’s what also made it possible to produce for enterprising and/or cynical souls to knock together a disco version of pretty much any piece of music, from Walter Murphy’s ingenious rearrangement of Beethoven’s Fifth to Ethel Merman singing There’s No Business like Show Business over a thumping 4/4 beat, any piece of common-time music could be underpinned with four-to-the-floor on the bass drum and, just like that, instant disco.

Many producers, writers and performers surely felt this rhythmic simplicity to be a creative straitjacket, but few of them were brave enough to buck the trend when disco was such big business and DJs were in constant need of new records. Evelyn “Champagne” King and her team – songwriters John H Fitch Jr and Reuben Cross and producer Theodore Life – were up for the challenge though. Shame forgoes that standard four-to-the-floor kick drum pattern in favour of a “heartbeat” rhythm more usually employed in rock music (it’s a Fleetwood Mac signature, particularly associated with Dreams, but you hear it frequently).

This rhythm, playing constantly underneath the bassline, would undoubtedly have made the song feel different on the dancefloor, even if the dancers weren’t necessarily aware of what exactly set the track apart. But that’s not the only thing that the song does differently to its peers. It also goes without the orchestral arrangement that disco routinely employed to create a lush, luxurious and aspirational sound. Shame is small-band music: bass, drums, guitar, a tambourine and a saxophone. King herself sings all the backing vocals. Were it not for the glorious depth of sound – Raymond Earl’s bass guitar as deep as an ocean – you’d almost call it lo-fi disco.

This depth, notably, is not present in the standard album mix, but was created by remixers Al Garrison and David Todd for the 12-inch version, which today is much more widely known than the 3-minute album cut. It’s an example of the power of a mix engineer to completely change the feel of the music with judicious use of equalisation, compression and even the simple act of panning a signal to a different point in the stereo field; the 12-inch mix is notably wider mixed and more spacious than the album.

In its original form, Shame is a decent, slightly unconventional disco track. As a remix, it’s an undisputed dancefloor classic.

Lotta Love – Nicolette Larson

So here’s an embarassing confession. I wrote this on an evening train from Manchester to London only to find the next day that I’d already published a piece about this song! Oh well, I like this one better, so I’ve junked the old one. This is what happens when you’ve been running a blog for three and a half years and lack of Wi-Fi means you can’t check your archives…

Imagine an album produced by Ted Templeman, and featuring the instrumental talents of Paul Barrere, Victor Feldman, Michael McDonald, Billy Payne, Klaus Voorman, Herb Pedersen, Fred Tackett, Albert Lee, Chuck Findlay, Jim Horn, Plas Johnson and Eddie Van Halen. Released on Warners, with a cover photo by Joel Bernstein. That record would be basically the most 1970s thing ever. Or maybe the second-most 1970s thing ever, after Rickie Lee Jones’s first album.

That record is Nicolette, the solo debut album by Nicolette Larson, which spawned a huge hit single in her version of Neil Young’s Lotta Love.

Larson had sung backing vocals on Young’s Comes a Time, which featured his own ramshackle reading of Lotta Love, on which he was backed by Crazy Horse rather than the Stray Gators, who were on the rest of the record. Lotta Love, Young has said, was his response to his road crew playing Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours day after day. That isn’t exactly the same as an attempt to write a Fleetwood Mac-style song, and Lotta Love didn’t have the lyrical depth of a Stevie Nicks composition, the deceptively lushness of a Lindsey Buckingham arrangement, or the steady groove of anything graced by John McVie and Mick Fleetwood. Frankly, it’s a little hard to hear Young’s reading of Lotta Love as in any way Mac influenced.

Larson’s Lotta Love (which she claimed Young encouraged her to record after she heard the song on a cassette tape Young left in his car), on the other hand, sounds like Stevie Nicks being taken to the disco. The standard mix of the song, rhythmically, is pure Mac, with Fleetwood’s trademark heartbeat kick-drum pattern (most associated with Dreams) present throughout verses and choruses, with a subtle hint of disco in the middle-eight’s four-on-the-floor kick drum and busier hi-hat figures. On top of this rhythmic chassis is electric piano, a prominent sax riff and soul-influenced rhythm guitar, all of which take it a way away from FM territory. Ted Templeman (Doobie Brothers, Van Halen) was an astute producer who knew what would sell. Fleetwood Mac playing disco? In 1978? That’d sell. It did.

Fortunately the record feels a lot less cynical than that makes it sound. Larson had a quite wonderful voice, and on Lotta Love her enthusiasm for the material was palpable. In harmony with Young on Comes a Time, she sounded a little like Emmylou Harris, but on her own record, her voice stood revealed as its own thing: soulful, sweet but slightly husky, and touch of grit in her higher range. With such strong material to work with, the success of Lotta Love was the most natural thing in the world. Unfortunately, Larson (not a prolific songwriter herself) would seldom have such strong material to work with; a forgettable duet with Steve Wariner is her only other notable chart success, and her albums are stuffed with little-known songs by fine writers of the calibre of Andrew Gold, Jackson Browne and Holland-Dozier-Holland, almost as if she was hunting for another Lotta Love in the overlooked work of these big-name writers. It never quite happened;  not as simple as it seemed, Lotta Love’s brand of deceptively casual perfection proved impossible to recreate.

Larson died in 1997, of liver failure and cerebral edema. She was 45 – far, far too young.

larson

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 7: Nights on Broadway – The Bee Gees

Nights on Broadway is, as much as any other song, the one where the Bee Gees become the Bee Gees that live on in popular memory, the late-seventies Bee Gees of wide collars, tight trousers, leonine hair and innumerable bad impressions.

The latter is of course the key. The first single from 1975’s Main Course was the deathless Jive Talkin’, with its squelchy synth bass, disco bass drum and the metrical tricks (in the instrumental section) of which Barry Gibb was always fond. And unlike Nights on Broadway, Jive Talkin’ is on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. But Gibb sang Jive Talkin’ in a something like a conspiratorial whisper, with the falsetto in the chorus harmony coming from Maurice, until then the usual supplier of the highest vocal parts on Bee Gees records.

But while recording Nights on Broadway, producer Arif Mardin asked the brothers if any of them could scream in tune, Barry gave it a go and for ever after the Bee Gees had a new hook: not so much a scream as a piercing bleat, it could drown out traffic noise, the din in bars and clubs, any amount of general background noise. Some records just cut through in this way, seem to come out of the radio twice as loud as all the others. Thanks to Barry’s falsetto, every new Bee Gees song did this. Perhaps that’s why they became as huge as they did.

A readily identifiable sonic signature sure helps a band to become huge, but if you want to play R&B music – and it can’t be stressed enough that in 1975 that’s what the Bee Gees thought they were doing: Jive Talkin’ was not custom-built as a disco song – you simply have to have a great rhythm section.

The Bee Gees did. Maurice Gibb remains an underrated bass player, but the drummer they had in their glory days, Cardiff-born Dennis Bryon (a veteran of Amen Corner), is criminally overlooked.

Sometimes it’s easier to hear why one version of a song works by comparing it to a performance that doesn’t. When the Bee Gees played Nights on Broadway live in the late 1980s in Melbourne on their One for All tour, it was all wrong. The tempo was too quick, and the drummer pushed both kick and snare until he sounded half a bpm ahead of the band. Contrast that with Dennis Bryon’s masterly studio take and an excellent live version on the Midnight Special. It’s a busy performance – complicated kick drum pattern, 16th notes on the hats, frenetic whole-kit fills – but a tasteful one, full of little details, in the hats especially. Listening to his drum track soloed allows you to hear how he accented certain strokes and underplayed others, giving the 16ths on the hats a rising and falling feel within each bar. 16th notes of unvarying dynamic would get really boring really quickly. The groove just wouldn’t be the same.

Bryon’s abiliity to insert a shape to an 8th- or 16th-note hi-hat pattern was key to what made him so perfect for the Bee Gees during their disco years, when a great deal of their songs were built on top of the same basic 120bpm, four-to-the-floor chassis. While Nights on Broadway wasn’t a disco track rhythmically, it shows all the qualities he brought to that kind of material while also displaying his ability to play more complex patterns with the same easy musicality.

Dennis Bryon
Dennis Bryon, funky Welshman

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 1: The Groove Line – Heatwave

It’s back.

It’s time, once again, to discuss underrated drum tracks. For the third consecutive year, I’ll be doing a series of posts, each concentrating on one song with a great, and comparatively unappreciated, drum performances. They may be well known songs, but if they are they’ll be songs that tend to be discussed for elements other that the drums.

OK, here we go then.

Heatwave were a truly international bunch. Two American vocalists (both former GIs who had been stationed in Germany), two Englishman (one of whom went on to become trusted right-hand man of one of popular music’s most legendary producers, but more of him later), a Spaniard and a Czech.

The latter was Ernest Berger, nicknamed “Bilbo”, a portly, baby-faced drummer, gifted with one of the most solid right feet and funkiest left hands you ever did hear.

Disco comes in two basic flavours: 16th notes on the hats or eighths (quavers). Whichever you play, the snare will be on two and four, and the kick will be on every quarter note. The kick being played on every beat (which is often known as a four on the floor beat) is fundamentally what makes it disco. Not every disco song has this kind of drum pattern, but the vast majority do.

A disco track is nothing without a good steady pulse, but a machine can provide that if that’s all that’s required. It’s the ways in which a drummer can impart his or her own feel that really lifts a song. If you want to hear this for yourself, import Billie Jean into a DAW, chop out everything except the drum intro and loop it. Listen to it, feel it and absorb it. Then quantise it and play it back. Quantising is a process whereby a musical performance (usually a part played on a MIDI keyboard or a drum part) is snapped to a predefined grid, so that every event happens on a precise subdivision of a bar). Quantise the opening drums to Billie Jean and you’ll realise pretty quickly that something pretty major, and obviously detrimental, has happened. In the manner of funk drummers since time immemorial, Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, the drummer, played the backbeat on the snare late – not late as in, not in time; late as in, on the very back of the beat. It’s the push and pull between the kick that hits on the middle of one and three and the snare at the very back of two and four that makes it feel so great.

Ernest Berger did the same thing on Heatwave’s hits, notably The Groove Line and the deathless Boogie Nights. The basic groove (a 16th-note pattern) is supplemented by handclaps, which add to the funky feel; they seem to “drag” the backbeat even more. Berger’s performance is full of cool little details and live-sounding fills, but my favourite details is how he modifies the hi-hat pattern for the choruses (under the lines “Rain, shine, won’t mind, we’re riding on the groove line”), switching to a swingier feel for a few bars, playing two strokes strokes on the hat on the hats between the 1 and 2 (kick, left, right, kick/snare, left, right, etc). It’s a fantastic detail to really lift the choruses.

The song itself was written by the band’s keyboard player, Rod Temperton. The blackest white man ever to come out of Lincolnshire. The story, oft told by both, is that Quncy was flabbergasted to hear that the guy who’d been writing some of the baddest R&B, funk and disco hits of the era was a geeky-looking white guy from England. Hugely impressed with Temperton, Jones took him into his inner circle. Temperton’s songs are on Off the Wall (Rock With You, Off the Wall, Burn this Disco Out) and Thriller (Baby Be Mine, Thriller, The Lady in My Life), and he also wrote Give Me the Night for George Benson and hits for Patti Austin, James Ingram, Jeffrey Osborne and Rufus.

Night Walker – Yumi Matsutoya

Yumi Matsutoya (born Yumi Arai, and known to her fans as Yuming) has been one of the biggest stars of Japanese pop music for forty years, having released her first single in 1972, aged 18. She’s sold 42 million records and was the first artist to notch up two million sales in Japan for an album. She continues to have hits, and to write them for other artists. Compare that to the commercial fortunes of her western equivalents (even artistic and one-time commercial giants like Joni Mitchell and Carole King) in the same span of time and the scale of that achievement becomes clear.

I first heard this song wwhen reading a thread on the I Love Music message board. Someone posted asking for recommendations for songs by jazz-inflected singer-songwriters; I guess they were thinking of stuff in the vein of Paul Simon’s late-seventies work. I’d never heard of Yumi Matsutoya, but I was intrigued to listen to a Japanese take on a Western form. It’s a very close take, too, but I’m not sure how the ILM poster heard this and thought, “Hmm, yes, jazzy”. Sophisticated, though, I’d have agreed with. The use of the orchestra suggest the influence of Barry Gibbs’s production work on Barbra Streisand’s Guilty, the steady mid-tempo rhythm suggests Fleetwood Mac (as does the use of the heartbeat kick drum pattern made ubiquitous by Fleetwood’s use of it on Dreams), there’s a bit of Boz Scaggs in there in the electric piano and soul-derived guitar licks – everything about it signified LA around 1979. That is to say, it was a live-and-in-the-wild Japanese take on yacht rock. It’s astartlingly accurate take on a form of pop music that was just beginning to recede in popularity at the song’s parent album, Reincarnation, was released. In 1983, smoothness – as exemplified by Scaggs, Kenny Loggins (pre-Footloose and post-Messina), Michael McDonald and so on – was out and the old guard were having to modernise to retain their careers as hitmakers. Few managed the transition in the US or UK as well as Matsutoya did in Japan. For all their longevity, Scaggs and McDonald haven’t sold 42 million albums.

The sound of Matsutoya’s voice is the central appeal of this for me, as it must be when the language barrier prevents me understanding what she sings. I played the song to my friend Yo Zushi one evening after a recording session, and he confirmed something I’d read about her online, that her understated and unshowy voice is rather unusual for a Japanese female singer, among whom it’s more usual to adopt a cutesy, coquettish tone or emote stridently. From some fishing around on youtube it seems that the production of her records tended to shift with the times (perhaps lagging slightly behind fashions in US and UK record making, as we have observed of Night Walker). A shame, since her songs and voice were matched well with this type of arrangement. It’s a consciously adult sound and probably would not have sold many records after the mid-eighties, but reaching to far outside their comfort zones in a bid to stay relevant rarely did veteran artists any favours. Hopefully she never tried anything too desperate and dropped the pilot or charmed that snake.

yumi

Give some to the bass player, part 8 – Gloria by Laura Branigan

The endearing thing about Italo disco is how unashamed it is. It’s totally committed to the idea of being pop music. While never hugely popular in the US or UK, several Italo or Italo-derived records did hit big, Ryan Paris’s Dolce Vita from 1983 and Gloria (originally by Umberto Tozzi), but covered by Laura Branigan (with English lyrics by Branigan and Trevor Veitch) in 1982 among them.

Made in California her version may have been, but Gloria retains its Italo ethos: from the endlessly repeated three-note synth hook to the trumpet fanfares in the coda, no idea is too obvious and no hook is too crass. Branigan, 27 when the song hit and a one-time backing singer for Leonard Cohen, sings it with throat-tearing commitment. It’s a big excitable dog of a song.

We often associate disco with complicated, funk-derived bass lines (Chic’s Good Times and I Want Your Love, Teena Marie’s I Need Your Lovin’, Narada Michael Walden’s I Should Have Loved You, that kind of thing). When hi-NRG appeared in the wake of Donna Summer’s epochal I Feel Love, it did away with much of the funkiness in the low end which had been one of first-wave disco’s calling cards. Before long, root-octave basslines at brisk tempos (130-140, as opposed to the classic disco tempo of 120 – try walking down the street Travolta-style to Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel and see how long it takes you to keel over), had been normalised within dance music. Hence, when Branigan and her producer Jack White picked up Tozzi’s 1979 track Gloria, they substituted the original’s straight-eight bassline for an eighth-note root-octave line.

There are two bassists credited on the album Branigan, Bob Glaub and Leland Sklar. I always assumed the player on Gloria was Glaub, as Sklar is primarily known as bassist from the section, the LA studio band who backed Carole King, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and other such 1970s singer-songwriters of the mellow school. Tonally it doesn’t sound like Sklar as I recognise him (it sounds like it was played with a pick). But more than one article I’ve read about Sklar has credited Gloria to him, so who knows.

Whoever it was, it’s a great performance. It sounds suitably machine-like in the verses, with a clear debt to Moroder’s pioneering I Feel Love bassline (created with a delay – if you want to hear the original line, listen to the left channel only), but in the chorus sections (“You really don’t remember”), the line becomes more fluid and melodic, with scalar passing notes providing a marked contrast to the roots and octaves that dominate the verses. All of which, we should again stress, is played at a pretty damn fast tempo.

Branigan’s discography contains one other unimpeachable classic, Self-Control from 1984 (a song I really should write about in more depth), but she’ll always be remembered for Gloria and her Tiggerish performances of it. She died in 2004 from a cerebral aneurysm when she was just 47.

LauraBranigan
Since I don’t know who played bass on Gloria, here’s Laura Branigan instead; she’s definitely on it