Saturday, October 3, 2015

'This Ain't No Disco, This Is EJ!'

D.I.S.C.O. Five letters that changed the music business forever. From the use of the hi-hat to the redundancy of countless live musicians the world over. Beginning with it's origins in the gay clubs of New York in the early 70's to the good people of Chicago quite literally blowing it into smithereens at decades end there's a positive pot pourri of characters, vibes and influences swirling around. Positively dancing they were...and dancing in around the sidelines was Elton of course. Like anybody who is unsure of foot then it's best to guide rather than throw all sorts of achievable shapes. Or at best just take some of the moves and use them to one's capabilities. But if you go on the dance floor to throw said shapes and your training has been of a more classical persuasion then the results will never be satisfactory. As we'll see later on.

Without going through chapter and verse of how disco came to be, the basics are fairly simple steps to follow. The funky, slick side of soul was used in the NY gay clubs of the early 70's in order for the community to strike a degree of independence. The clubs became a meeting point and ultimately the focal point of the movement. Starting with Detroit soul and then with the sounds other US cities had to offer it became a national, ultimately worldwide phenomena. The groove being one, not the most, of the important ingredients. The development of the use of the hi-hat became intrinsic; a far more expressive backbeat could now be achieved. A relentless rhythm that was essential for any driving force on the dance floor. But on top of that was the 'sound' and that was achieved by using the very best musicians to be found on the continent.  

Motown had always prided itself in using the very best in house vocal and rhythm sections. But as many of the songs called for a lavish orchestral arrangements then session players had to be called in to fulfill those requirements. As was the case in Detroit and subsequently in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, LA, Seattle and the other major urban sound purveyors. The string and brass players from the major orchestras in those cities were called upon to be scored by the best arrangers in each of those cities. One day Boult or Solti would be swaying the baton over them, the next Gene Page could be leading proceedings. Arrangements that were smooth, confident and vital to the music. And unique to each urban centre in order to provide a separate identity. Twenty years earlier Nelson Riddle had established the blueprint of popular music arranging,, then Lieber and Stoller combined string arrangements with r n’b and everything was set in train. A soul train perhaps.

'The Cause Was Right'

With that base established we'll now look at how Elton fitted into this ongoing change. Initially he was a participant who was well aware of its origins but wasn't aware of just how big it was going to be. Certainly in the summer of 1974 the fuse had been lit and running alongside was Elton recording a landmark stand alone single that paved the way for the crossover. Certainly if you listen to Philadelphia Freedom on its own it is indeed one of the classic 45's of the decade, regardless of its style. The sound is truly unique for Elton; notwithstanding the fact it was recorded in LA instead of Caribou. Hence the fact is more claustrophobic on disc, a deliberate ploy by Gus maybe. Its sound seems to emanate from a dance floor, you're almost hearing it at the door rather than at the DJ's desk. That sound is impossible to replicate live, when expanded it loses that shrunken intensity. The heavy backbeat from Nigel, with snare under tom and to cap it all Ray battening it all down with tambourine. The intro by Nigel on hi-hat is again interesting here, his clever use of it being the future disco motif ploy. Elton's vocal is wildly imaginative. As I’ve mentioned before, his harmonising with his own lead vocal is as good anybody in the field. Jumping from deep expressions to almost feminine reposts behind the main lines, it's as if two different people are singing. Funky electric keyboard also leading the charge. But the key of course to all of this is the arrangement by Gene Page. Huge bright strings, at times all at one on the melody line then the basses and cellos separating and leave a heavy undercurrent on the instrumental breaks as the violins repeat the same strikes over and over. Between the spaces of vocal lines they are incredibly vocal in their expressions, the rest of the time they are bang on the rhythm. Loud brash brass (always a forte of American composers and arrangers through the last century or so) again have a wild range of moods, flute solo to French horn blast. But it's not pure disco, thankfully. Davey's smothers it with his heavy rock guitar, his handling of the riff and the lead lines are never compromised or shunted to one side. The marriage is indeed unique, the sound is timeless but has enough of the groovy elements like the rhythms of soul, the rich orchestral backing coupled with rock infusions. Next step would be bigger and bolder but ultimately the dance would never be completed.

'Work On A Spell'

By 1977 the disco was ablaze in an inferno of popularity. Commercialisied and ultimately the soul origins had been bastardised. Authenticity was getting harder to find but Elton decided to nail his colours with a true originator of the genre, the results that we have are mildly spectacular but ultimately the unfinishedness of the project is clear to see. I've mentioned many times here before about Bell's influence on Elton’s vocals, this time I want to look at how Elton fared when he met up the MFSB and bought lock, stock and barrel into the Philly soul which itself had been taken lock, stock and barrel to Seattle.

This type of sound works best when it's up tempo. That's when the magic is delivered, a constant backbeat with a pacey melody on top. The opening track form the sessions, Nice and Slow, has to be looked at, lyrically first. Taupin, almost certainly on purpose, has presented a covert sexually explicit lyric which at the same time can be interpreted in a more morally neutral viewpoint. The concept of sexually explicit messages being delivered in such a 'cosy;' manner is a disco trademark and it's all over this one here. So it seems the sound is not only tumescent...the slick production at times threatens to stray into a sound that is too soft (where's Davey when you need him) but in saying that the undeniable charm of the melodies carries the day. Mama Can’t Buy You Love and Are You Ready For Love being clear cases of that, both hits decades apart in different regions for differing reasons. Are You Ready is probably the masterpiece here, the simple but effective backbeat and lead vocal switches between Elton and the Spinners interjected with jazzy style closed trumpet only tell half the story. Three Way Love Affair’s opening riff having a nod back to where this style of music began, one of Motown's biggest hits being sound checked. Certainly Elton stayed on the right side of the disco line here, at times he did threaten to stray into a more 'softer' sound but close guardianship on the production (his vocals are excellent here) meant it maintained a large degree of credibility. But of course rather than see out the project with Bell in early 1978 he waited...and waited...until the timing was completely wrong. So wrong that by the time he reset his watch across the Atlantic he short circuited it. And very nearly his career.

'Why Did I Have To'

Timing is everything in music. By the summer of 1979 Elton's timing was like a clock that fell under the spell of a magnet. Quicker than you could say vorsprung durch technik he popped over to West Germany for an afternoon's jaunt and put down some vocals. If he done it for the speaking clock it would have been of more beneficial use, seeing as his watch was out of commission. I'm not going to waste anybodies time, let alone mine, to go through Victim of Love. It's fit for dumping, all of it. A sink hole deep enough to bury every last copy hasn't been sunk low enough as yet. By this time the aforementioned good folks of Chicago had taken over the ball game and burnt disco down in its own inferno. But that’s only giving the album an out for its dismal chart failings and its awful legacy. No matter when or where it was released it would still be rubbish. Even the so called champions of the European disco wing in Munich couldn’t do anything with it. An endless uninterrupted backbeat that by the end of the album Bellote was name checking one of his older hits in desperation such was the paucity of originality. And even that couldn’t carry the day...the opening was a flop so it was downhill after that. If you can make Johnny B Goode sound third rate then the sessions should have been halted there and then. But studio time was paid for so on they ploughed with the synth nightmare. The entire electronic landscape sounding like something with as much as soul any life form would have several hours after the four minute warning had been called Luckily we don't have to continue with it. Elton must have realised his error pretty quickly and before the three legged pup saw the light of day he had encamped to the south of France to write and record with the other late 70s, and far more credible, influence ultimately shining through on the proper recorded material, New Wave.

If the 70's were indeed the best decade for music then disco was the blight. Very quickly it's roots were forgotten as the scramble to reduce to it to the lowest common denominator in the pursuit of cash. The term sold out is used like snuff at awake but it was indeed the ultimate prostitution in music. Record companies up and down the planet churned the garbage out left right and center until the law of diminishing returns kicked in. As I alluded to earlier, the era of the live band was severely curtailed. Rather than paying for a live band to pitch up, the cheap and cheerful alternative of a DJ and his back of vinyls to mix setting up became the norm. As it is the 21st century. 

Thankfully Elton really only flirted with it, and when he did spend an afternoon delight it was such a bad experience for both parties it has ultimately been forgotten. If it had been a success then it would hung around for all the wrong reasons. But Elton is always at his best when he plucks elements of his fancy from genres and turns them into his sound. Philadelphia Freedom being the case in point. Thom Bell sessions stayed the right side of the line...Munich was indeed another in a long line of disasters associated with that city.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Paul. Good stuff. Of course what you are charting is the transformation of disco from being played by musicians to being created electronically by drum machines and the like. The latter not being a happy bedfellow with Elton's music but has of course become the foundation of all current pop music. Makes it all the more impressive fir him to stay reasonably relevant by eschewing the technology for the mostpart. Strength in the songs as ever; not reliant on electronic beats or bass (let's leave Leather Jackets out of this...!)