The other day, I stumbled upon an online article (including video clips) about a 1974 German TV appearance by rootsy rock band Dr. Hook. Dr. Hook is/was primarily known for their single “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” and their collaborations with sometime-children’s author Shel Silverstein. In the early 70’s Dr. Hook seemed a pretty ragged band of druggies. Some of their music was okay, but a lot of it was a bit too stoned and/or sleazy for its own good.
By the time of this 1974 show, the band seemed to be on their last legs. Singer Dennis Locorriere, referring to their then most recent album, says from the stage “It’s called Belly Up, and it’s been out about two years and nobody knows about it yet.” Their next album would be titled Bankrupt. (Yup, both albums really had those titles.) The band here seem washed out and washed up. So, it was an incredible unlikelihood that they would continue for another 11 years and have a major hit in 1979 with “When You’re in Love with a Beautiful Woman”. And not just a hit. A Disco Hit (well, pretty close to disco). Watch this video and compare it with the German TV appearance just 5 years earlier. How did they get from that to disco salvation!? It’s a question I can’t really answer, but it’s odd how many other rock bands tried switching over to disco in the late 70’s, or at least dabbled in it. Some conversions were as far-fetched as Dr. Hook, the musicians probably jumping on the bandwagon for the financial rewards more than the artistic.
As a result, things could look pretty awkward. Witness Ray Sawyer of Dr. Hook (the one with the eye patch) – despite the band’s new found smooth commerciality Sawyer still looks the same as he did earlier in the decade with his cowboy hat and denim (he sure can shake those maracas, though, huh?). Whereas, Locorriere has cleaned himself up, gotten a haircut and looks like he’s part of the “Up With People” cast.
We see some similar parallels in other bands of the time. The “bad boys of rock”, The Rolling Stones, recorded a thick slab of disco in 1978 with “Miss You”. It wasn’t so hard to picture Mick Jagger deep in the disco scene, but Keith Richards was a bit harder to fathom (he looks both bored and uncomfortable at the same time in this promo video). In 1979, Kiss, who just two years previous were doing songs like “Hooligan”, put out “I Was Made for Loving You”. Seeing Paul Stanley doing disco wasn’t so hard to believe, but Gene Simmons was a bit more difficult (echoing the Jagger/Richards dichotomy). Then again, with Simmons’ money-mindedness, it would have been surprising if Kiss didn’t jump on the disco bandwagon. Queen released the million selling, bass-infused disco-rock “Another One Bites the Dust“. As with Jagger and Stanley, Freddie Mercury as disco maven was easy to accept, with his flair for the theatrical. Guitarist Brian May, not so much. “…Bites the Dust” was more successful than most rock/disco mergers, however, with it’s tough, urban attitude. Queen would go on to release an entire album of disco/dance songs called Hot Space not long after, but it wasn’t nearly as successful (artistically or financially).
Even Pink Floyd snuck in some disco in “Another Brick in the Wall” and “Run Like Hell”. It was a bit more subtle than the Stones, Kiss, and Queen but it’s there if you listen for it. The story goes that it was The Wall producer Bob Ezrin’s idea to make “Another Brick in the Wall” a disco song. Guitarist David Gilmour says in a Guitar World article: “It wasn’t my idea to do disco music, it was Bob’s. He said to me, ‘Go to a couple of clubs and listen to what’s happening with disco music,’ so I forced myself out and listened to loud, four-to-the-bar bass drums and stuff and thought, Gawd, awful! Then we went back and tried to turn one of the song’s parts into one of those so it would be catchy. And it doesn’t, in the end, not sound like Pink Floyd.”
Disco was so pervasive in pop culture by 1978 that even the hippie, counter-cultural Grateful Dead would play a bit of the Bee Gee’s disco anthem “Stayin’ Alive” in concert occasionally (track #4 here). It wasn’t just a poking fun at disco tease, though, when they released the unabashedly disco heavy “Shakedown Street” later in the year. In fact, “Another Brick in the Wall” and “Shakedown Street” go nicely together if you mash them up, as Grateful Dead Hour radio show host David Gans did (listenable/downloadable here, under title “Brickshake #7”). Muddying things even more, listen to this mashup of “Another Brick in the Wall” with “Stayin’ Alive”.
Then there were others who dove headlong into disco, totally abandoning any ties to their rock past. Up to the mid-70’s Rod Stewart was recording bluesy rock and convincingly sensitive, gritty folk songs with The Faces and solo (“Every Picture Tells a Story” ) but was now at the forefront of disco with the embarrassing (when weighted against his previous works) “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”. Stewart, in a way, symbolized the trashy, coked-up, shallow side of disco as much as anyone at this time.
Speaking of slick sounds, drugs, and excess, it’s most interesting how some of the Southern California rock musicians responded to disco. Two of the biggest, the Eagles and Jackson Browne, also tried to keep their feet in both the rock and disco worlds, with different results. The Eagles had dabbled in some disco textures early on before there was really a disco scene to speak of with the title song to the One of These Nights album. One would expect the Eagles, as business-like and focused-on-the-bottom-dollar a band as Kiss, to record at least one more overtly disco song in the late 70’s. There really wasn’t one to speak of, though.
This can perhaps be chalked up to the huge backlash against disco which was occurring at the same time as it was dominating the charts. “Disco sucks” became a popular slogan for shirts and bumper stickers and it all culminated with a “disco demolition night” at a major league baseball game in Chicago in 1979. A large crate of disco records was blown up on the field by a local radio personality, which started a riot that had to be dispersed by the Chicago police force. It was a bit of an overreaction to what was really just a style of music. Music writer Dave Marsh commented on the event “It was your most paranoid fantasy about where the ethnic cleansing of the rock radio could ultimately lead.”
Actually, the Eagles did make one more nod to disco, with “The Disco Strangler” on their final album of the 70’s. In the song, however, discos are places of danger as a serial killer stalks the empty, shallow dancers. The song can also be interpreted in a more abstract way as saying that discos and the disco life will “strangle” the dancers. It has a jittery, off-time beat, almost intentionally a beat not able to be danced to. The Eagles had apparently decided which side they were on in the disco wars.
Jackson Browne, though, didn’t seem so sure where he stood. “Disco Apocalypse”, a soft rock disco-lite song on his 1980 album “Hold Out”, is on one hand as defensive as “Disco Strangler”, with lines like “People move into the sounds and sights / Like the moth is drawn into the lights / Like the tight-rope walker into the heights”. There’s something self-destructive and dangerous about the disco (we’re not sure what, but Browne doesn’t really expand on that too much). In addition, the dancer’s “hearts are weary through and through”. Yet, he also sings about the fun he’s going to have dancing. In fact, he’s gonna “dance right out on to the edge of time”, no less, and “the lights are flashin’ / And my hearts-a-thumpin’ /And I feel the passion / And the world is right there waiting at my finger tips.” But, it’s a “disco apocalypse”, right? And an apocalypse ain’t good. Is it an apocalypse that disco is bringing to the world or the end of disco itself that he’s singing about? In a way, Browne’s song (despite containing some of his weakest lyrics), is the best summation of the reaction of the disco-era rock and roll musician, recording in an ever more corporate music business world: confusion and uncertainty.
Bonus: an amusing look back at the Disco Demolition Day in 1979:
(For the record, I think every kind of music has it’s pluses and minuses. I even like a fair bit of disco! I also like a fair bit of Thin Lizzy. Who, you’ll recall, did not record a disco song….)
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When I was younger – I was definitely in the “disco sucks” camp – but over the years I’ve come to appreciate some of it – esp. Donna Summer, some of the Bee Gees stuff and some Earth Wind & Fire. Dave Marsh got it right, though. The rockists’ behaviour was pretty appalling, especially when you consider what became of most metal and mainstream rock in the 80s. Of course, they’ll blame disco for that, too. Disco, for the most part, was about sex and making music sexy again. I love prog and progressive music, but I’m the first to admit that it’s not sexy at all. The same view caused Gaz Cobain to turn away from the pure electronica of FSOL and venture into psychedelic territory with Amorphous Androgynous.
Excellent, Rob! Lots of good info. I was never a huge Disco fan (having grown up on the BEST, Classic Rock) but I do like some of it, just as I have learned that I actually like *some* Rap.