Saturday, February 18, 2012

This Week's Review -- February 17, 1979

By listening to all the songs in this week's list of Billboard singles, you'll have a pretty good idea of when they came out even if you don't recognize many of the songs at first. There were nine singles but only three reached the Top 40. Of those three, two rose into the Top 10 and one reached #1. In keeping with the dance craze of the time, six of the songs are Disco tunes. Not surprisingly, the three non-Disco songs are also the three that fared the poorest among the list. However, they are among the three most interesting as well (not necessarily the best, mind you, but the most interesting).

There are several back issues of Billboard magazine over at Google Books, including the February 17, 1979 edition. The full Hot 100 can be found on page 92. There's a little bit of history mentioned on page 1. Stephen Stills had just done the first-ever digital music session for a rock artist. Page 3 informs us that the Cultural Revolution didn't seem to prevent China from opening a Disco in Shanghai. Two pictures feature attempts at humor. One on page 59 shows Parliament head George Clinton visiting with a member of the "real" Parliament in London. A less subtle picture on page 40 (appropriately enough) has Ray Stevens getting a walker as a present for his 40th birthday. Finally, much of the issue is devoted to Epic Records and its 25th anniversary as a label.

Wolfgang's Vault - Deal of the Week

Sarah Dash - "Sinner Man" Sinner Man - Club Epic: A Collection of Classic Dance Mixes, Vol. 4

(Debuted #81, Peaked #71, 4 Weeks on chart)

While the records show that "Sinner Man" was Sarah Dash's first single to reach the Hot 100, she was no stranger to the chart. Before recording as a solo artist, she was one of the members of LaBelle (which were called The Bluebelles before 1971) and one of the voices on the million-selling "Lady Marmalade."

"Sinner Man" was a disco-fueled tune that definitely used Dash's voice as a tool. However, the song is more about the flash of its time than it is about Dash's voice, as it sounds like she's trying her best to sing above the rest of the musicians. It was the Disco era, and record companies were sometimes more interested in whether a song got the listeners out on the floor than whether it showcased the talent of the artist.

As a result, Sarah Dash would return to backing vocals in the 1980s, supporting The Rolling Stones as well as Keith Richards on his solo project. There were some additional attempts at solo material, but nothing ever really played out into a career like the one enjoyed by fellow LaBelle members Patti LaBelle and (to a lesser extent) Nona Hendryx.

The Jacksons - "Shake Your Body (Down To the Ground)" Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground) - Destiny

(Debuted #82, Peaked #7, 22 Weeks on chart)

"Shake Your Body (Down To the Ground)" shows Michael Jackson just before he became a phenomenon. He was still known primarily for the work he did alongside his brothers than for his solo work, even though he'd scored a #1 hit with "Ben" and a pair of Top 10 singles on his own earlier in the decade. By the end of the year, his LP Off the Wall came out and began to change that perception.

After leaving Motown and moving over to Epic in a celebrated split that caused them to change their stage name, the former Jackson 5 specialized in funky dance songs. That was a natural progression, as they were already starting down that path while still at Motown ("Dancing Machine" was their last major hit there). "Shake Your Body (Down To the Ground)" was written by Michael and his younger brother Randy, and was inspired by an ad-libbed line Marvin Gaye had tossed out in "Got To Give it Up."

Running eight minutes long on the Destiny LP, it was cut down to under four minutes for the single in order to fit into radio playlists. A 12-inch version ran more than five minutes and featured a different mix of instruments. The brothers sang it in 2001 for a 30th Anniversary concert. It would be the last song they performed together before Michael's death.

Blondie - "Heart Of Glass" Heart of Glass - Parallel Lines

(Debuted #84, Peaked #1, 21 Weeks on chart)

Blondie was noted for experimenting with a wide variety of different styles on their albums. It probably wasn't a surprise when their LP Parallel Lines contained a Disco tune, and it was probably less of a surprise that it would become their first charted hit. It would be the first of four #1 singles for the group in the U.S. and also reached the top of the charts in the U.K., Canada, Australia and several European countries.

At the time, Blondie was accused of "selling out" by many of its fans and veering from the New Wave scene it had such a big part in building. That said, the same fans should have realized they were always experimenting with different styles and should have known the spinner would land on "disco" eventually. The song was produced by Mike Chapman, who had plenty of experience behind the board for some of the most popular British Glitter Rock bands and gave it a high gloss. Maybe the slick sound didn't sit well with those fans who complained, or maybe it was the promotional video they filmed for it at Studio 54.

There were two versions of the song released, in order to better conform to accepted norms. The album version (which also appears in the video above) contains a line in the final verse that says "soon turned out to be a pain in the ass." Since that would have limited airplay in parts of the U.S. and on the BBC, the line was changed to "soon turned out to have a heart of glass" as a compromise.

Gary's Gang - "Keep On Dancin'" Keep On Dancin' (Extended) - Keep On Dancin'

(Debuted #85, Peaked #41, 10 Weeks on chart)

Gary's Gang was the name given to a project by two Queens, New York based men named Joseph Tucci and Gary Turnier. Actually, despite the band name, it was Tucci who sang and played most of the instruments. Turnier played the drums, but was the person who "bird-dogged" the record to potential labels and finally landed it with Sam Records in Long Island City.

"Keep On Dancin'" was a pure shot of Disco adrenaline. In a way, it was like a cheap knock-off of an energy drink: it does the job for right now if you want it, but you know it might not be so good when the effects wear off. That said, all the instrumental elements of a "typical" disco single are there (albeit it a more synthesized version than the strings that appeared on songs from artists that enjoyed better budgets), and they even make sure a whistle gets added to the mix. It was generic enough to just fall short of the Top 40.

Gino Vannelli - "Wheels Of Life" Wheels of Life - Brother to Brother

(Debuted #86, Peaked #78, 5 Weeks on chart)

After getting a Top 10 hit with "I Just Wanna Stop," Gino Vannelli followed it up with another song from his Brother To Brother LP that was a lot more philosophical. It delved more into the idea of wanting to spend eternity with somebody, but the mention of a pending mortality looming at some point in the future (even though it is most likely a distant future) wasn't something that pop music fans were ready to embrace yet. Not when they were still in their 20s and 30s. As a result, "Wheels of Life" fell far short of the Top 40.

That said, it's one of those songs that I have grown to appreciate as time has passed. Honestly, I wasn't fond of it when I was much younger, as it seemed to drag on. However, it's grown on me. I haven't figured out whether it is a result of my maturity, or because I hear music differently than when I was teenager, or if my personal evolution has let me consider themes I hadn't wasted time with in my youth.

Queen - "Don't Stop Me Now" Don't Stop Me Now - Jazz

(Debuted #87, Peaked #86, 4 Weeks on chart)

Every so often, Google uses a "Doodle" on its home page to honor a special day or pay tribute to a person from the past. Last September, they used the one below to celebrate what would have been Freddie Mercury's 65th birthday using "Don't Stop Me Now." The artwork was well-suited to the band and the performer it spotlighted:

"Don't Stop Me Now" features a soft piano accompaniment below Mercury's vocals, with just the rhythm section keeping time. However, Brian May's guitar is standing by, ready to give a frenetic solo once the song breaks out of its opening gait into a more expressive pace. In a way, Mercury and the boys are letting it be know they aren't going to be held back, and then demonstrate it. The band's signature harmonies are also included in the chorus.

It's a shame the song fizzled out so soon during its chart run, and an even bigger shame that it hasn't really found its place among Queen's best-remembered material.

Kate Bush - "The Man With The Child In His Eyes" The Man With the Child in His Eyes - The Kick Inside

(Debuted #88, Peaked #85, 4 Weeks on chart)

Kate Bush's music is something of an acquired taste. During my college years, I got to see both sides of the equation...there were dedicated fans who listened intently and tried to decipher the message in the lyrics and those who listened more to the music and felt that her voice sounded like a cat whose tail had been stepped on. As I was in neither of those camps, I always saw her as that "weird girl" in school nobody admitted to liking but was sure to be a lot of fun you got her alone. And she's a redhead, which is one of my personal weaknesses when it comes to women.

Her first chart single in the U.S.was "The Man With the Child in His Eyes," a song that was included on her 1978 LP The Kick Inside but written when Bush was 14 and first recorded in 1975. Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour paid for the recording as a personal favor. The words are obtuse enough, but can be about an older man who is seeing a younger woman (probably not Gilmour, though, despite his involvement), or it can be a song about maturing, and others claim it is about masturbation.

In the days before MTV, there really wasn't any outlet for Bush's highly visual expression. Add to that the fact that she did little touring and the record label emphasized Bush's looks a lot more heavily than they did the fact that she was a singer/songwriter, and you get an artist whose influence really didn't amount to chart success. It would take six more years before Bush would break the Top 40 for the first (and only) time in the U.S.

Voyage - "Souvenirs" Souvenirs - Twelve Inch Classics from the 70s, Vol. 1

(Debuted #89, Peaked #41, 9 Weeks on chart)

Voyage was often lumped in with many Eurodisco acts as little more than a faceless studio concoction behind a producer's vision, despite having a dedicated five-person lineup. Things like the Soul Train video above (no band to be seen, just a bunch of dancers "getting down") really didn't help matters. Their albums often borrowed different styles, giving the concept of a "voyage" around the world of music. "Souvenirs" came from their second LP Let's Fly, which continued that concept.

It ended up being the group's only Hot 100 entry, just missing the Top 40. It was, however, a #1 on the Disco chart as the lead track from Fly Away, where albums were included along with singles and 12-inch versions.

Instant Funk - "I Got My Mind Made Up (You Can Get It Girl)"

(Debuted #90, Peaked #20, 18 Weeks on chart)

Instant Funk shows up as a One-Hit wonder, which would be correct if you just look at the pop chart. However, the New Jersey-based group had a handful of R&B and dance hits from 1977-'83 and served as the backing band for several singers. In fact, they provided the accompaniment on Evelyn "Champagne" King's hit "Shame" just before "I Got My Mind Made Up (You Can Get it Girl)" was a hit.

While "I Got My Mind Made Up" might seem like yet another disco song with a gimmick -- a lady asking "Say what?" -- at intervals, it has managed to become a classic over the years. The song (which hit #1 on both the R&B and Disco surveys) has found its way into numerous remixes and Hip-Hop samples, which have given it a second life and a new audience.

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