Soundtrack To The Seventies: Disco, AOR And Associated Musical Musings On A 1978 Lincoln Continental Town Car


 

 

 

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Happy Birthday!!! Sonny Corleone (no, the other one) turns 40.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking Mario Puzo’s ill-fated member of the fictional crime family but my 1978 Lincoln Continental Town Car. So the first issue to address is…..why the hell Sonny Corleone?

He’s (and here I’m referring to the car) that’s kinda guy. A loveable lug. Powerful as much as powerfully built, dependable and loyal. Protective of all who come in contact with him but sensitive enough to show a girl a good time (at a wedding, no less). Got it? Good.

 

 

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On Thursday 15 June 1978, Sonny Corleone was welcomed to the world, rolling off the Ford assembly line in Wixom, MI, to the cheers of hundreds of assembled factory workers. There was portent in the air; they knew this was something special, despite this plant having largely concentrated on Lincolns since it opened in 1957 (and it was a Town Car that was the last off the assembly line when the facility closed in 2007).

In reality, the Lincoln was shipped off to Rotman Lincoln-Mercury, a dealership in Maquokta, Iowa, about 300 kilometres west of Chicago. But I like to think that Sonny had a parallel existence in some other reality, cruising the streets of New York City as a treasured member of a prestige limousine service. His dayswould be blocked out by stockbrokers and other Wall Street types, pre-generational Masters of the Universe, hoovering up lines of cocaine as they shuttled around town. The nights were blocked out with celebrities, models, disco dollies and more executive types who, depending on their proclivities, travelled from high-end restaurants to Studio 54, Plato’s Retreat or any of a number of bath houses where cleanliness was not a prerequisite.

 

 

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If you were wondering just what these passengers might have been listening to within Sonny’s encompassing velvet confines, here’s just such a list. OK, maybe it’s more what I was and would have been listening to during the same period but same same.

In terms of music, 1978 is one of my favourite years, just as the 1970s is one of my favourite decades. It falls within the Golden Era of disco, rich with lush orchestrations, before the 80s ushered in synthesizers. So we’ll start the list with the most obvious:

 

1/ The Tramps – Disco Inferno: Although initially released in 1976 (when it reached Number One on the Billboard Dance charts), it became an even bigger hit in 1978 with a 10 minute 54 second version via the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. This time around, it made the mainstream charts, reaching Number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100. Coincidentally, I’ve previously noted that I want this song played at my funeral. I anticipate a cremation. Burn, baby, burn.

2/ Bee Gees – How Deep Is Your Love: Again from the biggest movie of 1977-78. It’s difficult to choose just one Bee Gees song off this amazing double album; maybe More Than A Woman, although it wasn’t released as a single, or Night Fever but I’ll stick with this sensuous ballad. Interestingly, Saturday Night Fever is one of only six albums to reach sales of more 40 million. Even more interestingly, it may be one of my favourite soundtracks but it’s not necessarily my favourite disco movie; that honour would go to Thank God It’s Friday.

3/ Donna Summer – Last Dance: Speaking of which, Donna Summer was a HUGE part of my disco years; her first Casablanca single, Love To Love You Baby was in 1975, when it really started, disco-wide, for both Donna and myself. Last Dance was off the Thank God It’s Friday soundtrack, a truly great song, and historically notable for being the only disco song to ever win an Academy Award (Yes, I hear you say, Xanadu was robbed!!!!).

4/ John Paul Young – Love Is In The Air: As much as I was huge Countdown fan (as indeed anyone of a certain age was in Australia), I never saw the 30 April 1978 live broadcast of John Paul Young singing Love Is In The Air. I worked Thursdays to Sundays at an inner city Sydney disco so I didn’t see the first televised performance (or, at least, its most celebrated) but it was impossible to miss this Vanda & Young-penned musical juggernaut, either when it was demolishing music charts around the world (Top 5 through much of Europe, Number 3 in Australia and topped Billboard US’s Adult Contemporary Charts) or since then. I love it still.

5/ Village People – Macho Man: 1978 was the year of two of the Village People’s biggest hits – Macho Man and Y.M.C.A., but it’s the later that stands out. Number One around the world, except for the US where Rod Stewart’s Do Ya Think I’m Sexy blocked it from the top spot. As the song surged up the charts, things became more heated than a bunch of Village People fans in a YMCA sauna when the organisation threatened to sue for breach of copyright. Things were “settled” out of court and the YMCA later officiallydeclared it a “positive statement” about the YMCA. In recent times, co-writer (with VP producer and Svengali, Jacques Morelli) and lead singer, Victor Willis, won his long-running legal battle to have his copyrights restored to him; a consequence is that Willis is now touring with a reconstructed VP without any of the other surviving original group members.

6/ Rod Stewart – Do Ya Think I’m Sexy: Speaking of which, this marks Rockin’ Rod crossing to the dark side, cashing in on disco, as his traditional fans accused him. To anyone who frequented discos or nightclubs (or anywhere really, in the late 70s), it struck a chord in describing the machinations behind the boy-meets-girl scenario and what goes down (no pun intended, no, really) afterwards.

7/ Kate Bush – Wuthering Heights: While I missed the clip on Countdown (like many Australian hits, it was due largely to exposure from this one program), I would have seen it on Donnie Sutherland’s Sounds show (wherever I woke up on Saturday mornings). Like everything else on my list, I love it still although I’m no great fan of Kate’s other work. Honourable mention to another version that populates my iPod playlist; from the UK’s Puppini Sisters, which presents the song as the Andrews Sisters would interpret it.

8/ Bob Welch – Ebony Eyes: Just to prove I’m not entirely disco obsessed, here’s some West Coast rock. On the back of a splendid video clip, it was a much bigger hit in Australia than the US (heeeelloooooo again, Countdown). Welch is probably best known for his time with Fleetwood Mac (part of the ninth line-up along with Mick Fleetwood and the McVies); he left the band in 1974, to be replaced by Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham. The rest, as they say in showbiz, is history. He then formed the under-rated Paris, then followed with a couple of solo albums. The first, French Kiss, from which Ebony Eyes is from, shipped platinum, the others consistently fewer. I still play French Kiss, and the Paris albums, and none of Bob’s Mac work. Go figure.

9/ Dragon – Are You Old Enough: Technically, I could include April Sun In Cuba on this list, although it was released in 1977; that was off the Running Free album which was still yielding singles into the following year. But I’ll side-step the inevitable whinges and choose Are You Old Enough instead. Typical boppy, poppy sunshine rock, I’ll always associate the late 70s Dragon output with lazy summer days, which stretched into lazy spring, summer and autumn months working on my tan at Tamarama or Lady Bay beaches. Dragon was Marc Hunter as much as he was the very essence of the late 70s sunshine lifestyle and he died way too young. Despite their best efforts, I just can’t warm to Dragon without Marc (just as the Doors and INXS could never replicate the magic after losing their lead singers)..

10/ Bruce Springsteen – Because The Night: This choice will court some controversy but demonstrates how rich our legacy of old music has become over the intervening years, repackaging classic albums with bonus and archival material being the norm these days. Strictly speaking, the only version of Because The Night that Sonny would have known in 1978 would be the Patti Smith version; early drafts of this song were written by The Boss and recorded during June and July of 1977, for the Darkness At The Edge Of Town sessions. Bruce wasn’t entirely satisfied with what he had (although the melody and chorus were constants) and it was eventually dropped. Smith, who was recording at an adjoining studio, completed the song and recorded it; it became her biggest US chart hit. According to the exhaustive www.springsteenlyrics.com, the official studio version that Bruce recorded for Darkness had Smith’s lyrics, while alternate versions digressed quite sharply in attempting to imprint his blue collar ethos. He started playing it live, with his own lyrics, during the Darkness tour. It was included on Live! 1975-85 (1986) but the alternate version released in The Promise (2010), which collected Darkness session tracks, has Smith’s lyrics. So maybe we should just stick with Patti Smith.

11/ Andy Gibb – Shadow Dancing: In truth, it should be I Just Want To Be Your Everything (my favourite Andy Gibb track) but that came out in 1977. Gibb, younger brother of Barry, Robin and Maurice, renowned collectively as the Bee Gees, had a fitful early careerwhich didn’t take off until the mid-70s when Robert Stigwood, at that time his brothers’ manager, also took on Andy. The Bee Gees’ involvement in his debut album, from playing to providing songs, worked the right kind of magic. Two Number One singles, including Everything, resulted. In April 1978, the second album, Shadow Dancing, was released with the single of the same name also going to Number One. His tragic death at the age of 30 tinges these recordings with such sadness. Let’s remember him as he was.

12/ Bob Seger And The Silver Bullet Band – Old Time Rock And Roll: Right through the 1970s, it seemed as if most of the music America wanted to listen to was coming out of a virtually unknown part of northern Alabama called Sheffield. Four sessions musicians, known collectively as the Swampers, left employment at the renowned Fame Studios (which had been churning out R&B hits since the 1960s) nearby and set up their own facility, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. While R&B continued to be an important revenue stream, they also extended into mainstream artists such as the Rolling Stones (tracks from Exile On Main Street), Cher, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bob Dylan. Detroit rocker Bob Seger recorded a number of tracks there including one of his most enduring, Old Time Rock and Roll. While Bob’s Silver Bullet Band is credited on the album, the track itself was originally a demo produced and played on by the Swampers themselves for a co-write from George Jackson and Thomas E Jones III. While Bob tried recording the song with both the Bullet and the Swampers, he wasn’t happy with the result; in the end, he laid his own vocals over the top of the demo. And although Bob amended some of the original lyrics, he saw it more as filler than serious chart potential and passed on a song writing co-credit; royalties flow straight back to Muscle Shoals. Bet Bob is still kicking himself.

 

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13/ Steely Dan – Deacon Blues: We unquestioningly accept the rock’n’roll aesthetic; slim, jaded, impossibly attractive young gods, prowling the manicured meadows from centuries-old English manor houses to their stages via green rooms where magnums of French champagne and supermodel groupies await to be plucked from their respective receptacles. Walter and Donald were not rock gods. They looked pretty much the way you’d expect anybody called Walter and Donald would look in the 1970s. Except dorkier. And, please understand, I mean that in the nicest possible way. Like they were on top of calculus and were just marking time until the Atari was invented. Which, as Atari was founded in 1972 and Steely Dan stopped touring in 1974, is maybe a little closer to the truth than anybody suspected. So, as for the perks of being rock stars, when it comes to Steely Dan, the mind enters boggling territory. What would a Steelie Dan groupie even look like? Perhaps it’s best not to know. Whatever, Steely Dan were an integral part of the sound of a generation and that generation was mine. Do It Again, Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, Reelin’ In The Years, Hey Nineteen. I didn’t understand the lyrics then and still don’t. But the sound is unmistakable. Thus Deacon Blues, coming close towards the end of their chart successes, gets my 1978 nod.

With these, and so many other great songs of the 70s, Sonny cotinues – 40 years later, to rumble the bitumen, turning heads and drawing crowds wherever he goes.

Happy Birthday, Sonny. And many more to come.

© David Latta 2018

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Dead Set Favourites: Thoughts On A Final Playlist


Music is a very important part of most people’s lives so why shouldn’t the same be true in death? How many times have we attended funerals and known, without ever saying so, that the music played was wholly inappropriate for the life being mourned?

When it comes to choosing such musical interludes, sandwiched between oratory and final farewells, the deceased’s family generally have far more pressing concerns than making sure the song-list is appropriate. Amazing Grace for a committed rock’n’roll fan? Nearer My God To Thee for a card-carrying atheist?

So, just for the record, and to hopefully kick off an awareness campaign for well-organised music-lovers everywhere, the Top Five songs I want played at my funeral. This is by no means a comprehensive list; I’d prefer a Top 100 list but it may see the service extend a little long and people may run out of nice things to say, if indeed anybody does, before too long.

These Foolish Things – Bryan Ferry

Written in 1936 with music by Jack Strachey and lyrics by Eric Maschwitz under his pen name Holt Marvell. Maschwitz, who also wrote the lyrics for A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square, was one of the more interesting figures of British musical theatre. Aside from a long list of musicals and revues, he also worked in Hollywood, co-writing the adaptation of the 1939 film, Goodbye Mr Chips, for which he won an Academy Award nomination, and during World War II worked with MI6 and the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

He is reputed to have been involved with actress Anna May Wong and These Foolish Things was an attempt to assuage his grief over the end of their romance (Maschwitz was also later married to Hermione Gingold and had a long relationship with Judy Campbell, the mother of Jane Birkin.)

The song appeared in a London revue, Spread It Abroad, to little interest in 1936 but became a hit when it was recorded by Leslie Hutchinson. Since then, it’s been notably covered by such performers as Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Bryan Ferry nailed it so beautifully, creating a heartachingly coruscating rendition of loss and yearning that so many of us can identify with, on his first solo album in 1973.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbSp_xEa3PI&ob=av2n

Beyond The Sea – Bobby Darin

Its origins go back to a French song, Le Mer, written by Charles Trenet in 1946; American songwriter Jack Lawrence, also responsible for Frank Sinatra’s first hit, All Or Nothing At All, composed entirely new lyrics and it became an international sensation for Bobby Darin in 1959. This is pure swingin’ Bobby, a wonderful evocation of a time before he tossed aside Sandra Dee and a particularly hideous hairpiece and remade himself as a politically-relevant folksinger.

Actor Kevin Spacey did a great version of Beyond The Sea in his 2004 Bobby Darin bio-pic of the same name. I’ve included two YouTube clips. The first comes from a 1960 Ed Sullivan Show which shows Bobby unsuccessfully wrestling with his lip-synching responsibilities. The second is Kevin Spacey’s performance from the movie.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u_4_XI8flZU&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GbcjW9SQabc

April Sun In Cuba – Dragon

There had to be an Australian song but I’m ashamed to admit I was quite the snob in the 70s and avoided home-grown music like the plague. It’s only in recent years that I’ve discovered so much good stuff. So it was a choice between Khe Sanh, in my humble opinion the best Australian rock song ever written (take a bow, Don Walker) and April Sun In Cuba (written by Paul Hewson and Marc Hunter). The latter wins out only because I had a grudging respect for Dragon back then and it perfectly encompasses the late 70s summers spent at Tamarama, when I’d head to the beach in August and not come back until March.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BHFFuukk9Y8

Disco Inferno – The Trammps

I worked in a Sydney disco in the late 70s and still love music of this period, when orchestrations were lush and lustily energetic, before disco fell victim to the plague of the synthesizer. I have many favourite disco songs but some, such as I Will Survive, are not quite befitting a funeral. Of course, Disco Inferno is not exactly a safe choice but it’s always been my all-time favourite so bugger propriety. Read into this choice what you will.

Disco Inferno was written by Leroy Green and Ron Kersey; Kersey was a member of The Trammps and also worked with such other Philadelphia disco groups as the Salsoul Orchestra and MFSB. It was a huge club hit in 1976 but gained wider popularity when an 11-minute version was included on the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever. I hope the mourners will perform the Bus Stop around the casket when this plays.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_sY2rjxq6M

Theme from The Love Boat – Jack Jones

Lyrics by Paul Williams. That’s all you really need to know. Paul is one of my favourite songwriters, an all-round nice guy and gentleman and the subject of a future blog or three. I had the joy of meeting him when I was writing the liner notes for a CD retrospective of his work, Songs For The Family Of Man: A Collection 1969-1979, and it’s the one instance I can recall where it pays to meet one of your musical heroes.

Timeless television entertainment of the very best kind, The Love Boat originally aired from 1977 to 1986. As fans of Gopher, Doc and Captain Stubbing will already know, Jack Jones recorded two versions during its run, the best with a sensuously pulsing disco influence. In the final season, Jones was replaced by Dionne Warwick. The song has also been covered by such artists as Charo and Amanda Lear.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZmUlKPthrag&feature=results_video&playnext=1&list=PLB9F82C79012435FF

Words © David Latta. Photographs courtesy of the Glenn A. Baker Archives.

Xanadu – Olivia Newton-John And The Place Nobody Dared To Go


I know of fervent movie fans who play out elaborate rituals before their favourite films. Prom dresses and pigs’ blood for Carrie, chain smoking in the shower and Benzedrine for All That Jazz. And don’t even think about Single White Female.

Xanadu (1980) is one of those movies that never quite achieved its full potential, a coulda’ been shoulda’ been masterpiece, a disappointing sum of numerous wonderfully satisfying parts. It’s a musical that is the glittering wrapping around a grand love story set against a 70s roller disco backdrop.

The best way to fully appreciate this criminally under-rated slice of movie magic is to dress the part: leg warmers and roller skates, the old style not the in-line, and something acrylic and flowing. Natural fibres just won’t give you the same feeling.

Roll up the flokati rug to expose the bare boards. A large unencumbered viewing space is a necessity especially for the final, glorious dance scene when you must skate with your arms stretched above you, wrists crossed, lycra-sheathed hips bumping out the sensuous disco beat, your entire body held straight and proud. Beware of small, enclosed spaces. There’s nothing so humiliating than being in the midst of a major dance number and sprawling across a nest of coffee tables.

The beating heart of Xanadu is Australia’s darling, Olivia Newton-John, known proudly throughout the length and breadth of that great brown land as Our Livvy. Australia has always adhered to a carefully-qualified paraphrasing of the “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” ethos except in this case it’s more akin to “give me your Grammy-winning, Golden Globe-grabbing, Oscar-adorating, million-seller masses from across the oceans and we’ll make them our own”.

Thus, Our Livvy was born in England but, more importantly for our celebrity-embracing culture, settled in Australia with her family at the age of five. The roll call of Australia’s adopted entertainers include Andy Gibb and the Bee Gees (born in England); AC/DC (England and Scotland); The Easybeats (England, Scotland and the Netherlands); Jimmy Barnes and John Paul Young (Scotland); Split Enz, Crowded House, Dragon and Russell Crowe (New Zealand), and Nicole Kidman and Mel Gibson (United States). The best Australia can rightfully claim as their own is one half of Air Supply.

Through the 70s, Olivia Newton-John was a recording sensation, topping the charts worldwide with such hits as If Not For You, Banks Of The Ohio and I Honestly Love You before breaking into the movie big-time with her stellar turn as the squeaky-clean good girl out to snare bad boy John Travolta in Grease (1978).

The hits continued and it seemed as if she could do no wrong. She was attached to Xanadu before there was even a script, not that one actually appeared until well into the shooting schedule.

Our Livvy is cast as Terpsichore, one of the daughters of Zeus and a muse, a goddess who inspires creativity in mortals. In modern day Los Angeles is artist Sonny Malone (Michael Beck), who earns his living from turning record covers into giant advertising murals and fears he will never find his true creative calling.

“Sometimes I see more in the covers than what is really there,” he says tellingly; deep inside, he knows that in the right circumstances he could be the da Vinci of promotional painting. But he anguishes over his craft. “Guys like me shouldn’t dream anyway.”

As an aside, this seques beautifully with a comment I overhead recently at a TEDx conference where two trend spotters were discussing Xanadu. One said: “At its core, Xanadu seeks to examine the deepening chasm between continental and analytic philosophy up to and including Hegel, the emphasis on metaphilosophy on one hand and its repudiation by the continentals and the development of the logical positivist approach on the other; in particular, and it’s a question Wittgenstein agonised over until late in his career, should leg warmers ever really be paired with lycra?”

At the lowest point in Sonny’s artistic journey, Terpsichore and her eight muse sisters spring from a wall on the Venice boardwalk. In a flowing white peasant dress with ribbons decorating her blonde hair, she decides it more prudent to disguise herself lest she be confused with the numerous other muses already flooding Los Angeles and adopts the name Kira.

She straps on a pair of roller skates, leaving her sisters behind to dance to a rock-symphonic Electric Light Orchestra number in an alley and goes in search of Sonny. Her virginal beauty, thick Australian accent and habit of answering questions with more questions while skating in circles, beguiles and inspires Sonny.

Later, Sonny meets up with a clarinet player, Danny Maguire (Gene Kelly). Danny was a featured player in Glenn Miller’s big band in the 1940s but gave up music after loving and losing the girl of his dreams (a dance sequence between Our Livvy and Gene Kelly reveals that girl to be Kira only he doesn’t appear to recognise her; time and bedevilling disappointment has coloured his memories to a fetching shade of Alzheimer’s).

Sonny and Danny set out to find a venue in which to open a disco. Kira magically leads Sonny to the cavernous Pan Pacific Auditorium, a real-life Art Deco landmark located in the Fairfax district near Farmers Market. (It burnt down in 1989, something of a metaphor for the film itself.)

While debating a name for their new club, Kira suggests Xanadu, which implies either she was also a muse to Coleridge or that the lending library on Mount Olympus is unusually comprehensive. When Sonny declares his eternal love for Kira, she discloses her true identity and says they can never be together.

Skating the gravel-pocked pavement of true love, Kira and Sonny fall desperately in love; he travels to the alleyway mural at Venice Beach and leaps through into Mount Olympus which looks like a cross between an empty stage set and Tron, where he implores Zeus for Kira’s hand.

It looks like his quest will be in vain. He returns to the real world in time for Xanadu’s opening where Danny, Sonny and Kira skate in circles for the final dance number leading a cast of hundreds of colourfully-dressed guests; it’s an explosion of satin shorts, feathered hairstyles, lycra, jersey dresses, body shirts, undulating hips, and leg warmers.

Just when all seems hopeless with Danny broken-hearted amidst the celebrations, a waitress who bears a startling resemblance to Kira brings him a drink. Double-take on Sonny’s part and fade out.

On release, the movie bombed badly; one magazine reviewed it with the unnecessarily harsh:  “In a word – Xana-don’t”. The soundtrack, however, with such numbers as Xanadu, Magic and Suddenly, with writing credits split between ELO and long-time Livvy collaborator, John Farrar, charted well.

It’s difficult to know exactly where it went wrong. Our Livvy and Gene Kelly were absolute delights. Michael Beck, with an acting style as wooden as Pinocchio, much less so, although he’d just come off the cult hit, The Warriors (1979), and was considered a hot property. Beck’s passing resemblance to singer Andy Gibb has since created some confusion and many still think it’s Our Livvy and Andy Gibb together in Xanadu; the combination is certainly worth entertaining.

There were also reports from the set that the script was constantly being rewritten throughout production; by the time shooting wrapped, there were six different versions of the script.

Overall, though, Xanadu remains a delight, even if it’s somewhat of a guilty pleasure. It is one of the most comprehensively satisfying movies of the disco genre, just slightly above  Can’t Stop The Music (and that’s saying something, although I’m not quite sure what) and Thank God It’s Friday.

With so many fans and so much timeless attention lavished on this paean to love and artistic inspiration, Olivia Newton-John and roller disco, Xanadu will remain a muse to all its fans.

Words © David Latta