We’re just jumping a decade this month into the seventies because the time machine is on a go-slow. Yes I know, a load of twaddle but it’s not easy coming up with a suitable introduction each month which hopefully will catch your attention and maybe encourage you to read on.
This was the decade of disco in all its changing forms and this month was no exception when there was a rack of top-selling acts clamouring for notoriety while one was already in the prime position of superstar – Donna Summer. Our disco diva was nailing her glitter ball presence in an unprecedented way by dominating several of the world’s charts simultaneously with the single “Hot Stuff” and album “Bad Girls”. Both typified the excitement of this growing nightclub scene which only sounded so-so in the privacy of one’s front room. Very soon our Donna was described as the ‘undisputed queen of seventies’ disco’; later cited as one of the top ten “All Time Top Dance Club Artists” by Billboard magazine. Sadly, this enigmatic lady is no longer with us. She died in May 2012 at her home in Florida from lung cancer which she believed was caused by inhaling toxic fumes and dust from the 9/11 attacks in New York. Her musical legacy is remarkable and timeless while her demise was a hard pill to swallow.
Mentioning this iconic artist reminded me of my visit to New York during 2018 when I chanced to saunter down Broadway (as you do) and spotted the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre (home of Motown:The Musical) advertising The Donna Summer Musical. It’s no understatement that tickets were extraordinarily high-priced along this rather shabby street but some low-priced ones were available for the same day I was on my jaunt. Well, the music was magnificent as it pumped around the small theatre, but the actual storyline of the Musical itself was dire. The handful of actors mixed and matched their roles, some just throwing on a different item of clothing to depict a different character. As if that wasn’t embarrassing enough, the actual show was put on hold when the piano got stuck on its way from the back of the stage to the front. The mechanical whatever jammed and stage hands busied away to release the darned thing. By this time I’d lost interest – and so did most of the audience. Such a pity: Ms Summer deserved much better.
Anyway, during June 1979, Donna was in great company on the dancefloor. For starters, there was Amii Stewart who enjoyed a major hit with “Knock On Wood” her upbeat version of Eddie Floyd’s classic. This was one of several charting titles credited to the lady, with “Light My Fire” and “My Guy”/”My Girl”, a duet with Johnny Bristol, among the others. McFadden & Whitehead was another act whose “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” literally burst off the grooves encouraging dancers to strut their stuff. The single proudly wore the Philadelphia International Records’ label, a company founded by Gamble and Huff and which showcased Philadelphia soul, or the Philly Sound as it became affectionately known, via a whole host of equally talented artists. Alongside recording one of the hottest dance singles of the decade, McFadden & Whitehead were also prolific songwriters providing hits for the likes of The O’Jays, The Jacksons, and Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes. I hope you’ll agree; if ever there was a dance single to actually have a forever, “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” was it.
Oh dear. I’m thinking I must be in the minority here because this next little slice of dance from Anita Ward irritated the hell out of me. “Ring My Bell”, written by Frederick Knight (himself a soul singer of high standing), was by all accounts, earmarked for Stacy Lattisaw, then eleven-years-old. Then, somehow, somewhere Anita got her hands on it to sit back and watch it sell over a million copies worldwide. Needless to say I didn’t buy a copy. The story doesn’t end there. It seems the song’s lyrics were inspired by teenagers constantly chatting on the phone. Innocent enough, you’d think. However, over the years they attracted a different meaning and by 1984 were considered to be “sexually suggestive”. What!? A learned industry insider suggested ‘you can ring my bell’ was considered a ‘come-on’ phrase used by our American lady friends. In hindsight, I suppose there’s a modicum of truth in that although Mr Knight once explained he deliberately avoided any overtly suggestive inclinations. Is nothing sacred anymore! I’ll leave it at that and move on to safer ground with Edwin Starr. A dear friend of mine for several years, his “H.A.P.P.Y. Radio” was, and still is, a belter of a single which is still guaranteed to get people dancing. He was an ex-Motown artist who lived in the UK where he enjoyed a fabulous career thanks to the loyalty of his British and European fans. Edwin, with his distinctive powerful, gritty voice, knew what his public wanted when he wrote and produced this song, and being on hand to promote it, he was guaranteed a runaway hit. “H.A.P.P.Y. Radio” has happily lived through the years and when I was broadcasting, it was a regular guest on my programme, dusting off the cobwebs in the studio as the booming dance beat bounced around the sound-proofed walls.
Finally in this disco/dance roundup, Sister Sledge with “We Are Family” which is another that’s easily travelled through the decades. Penned by those Chic guys, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, the single now represents an expression of solidarity on several changing levels. For instance, it’s the anthem of the We Are Family Foundation, a non-profit organisation founded by Nile during 2001, to inspire and educate people about mutual respect, cultural diversity and global problems. From little acorns aye?
So, to the top of the singles chart now where Blondie smugly looked down on others trying to displace them. Released as the follow-up to their number one “Heart Of Glass”, “Sunday Girl” was inspired by the group’s lead singer Debbie Harry’s cat named Sunday Man. It seemed the little moggy had run away from her home but it’s not clear whether he returned or not. Think positive. The song’s composer and Blondie guitarist Chris Stein said “When the cat ran away we were very sad. It was just a sort of evocative number.” So this explained the rather plaintiff mood of the single although I’m thinking, at the time, few listeners realised the true meaning behind the lyrics. “Sunday Girl” topped the UK charts for three weeks and despite its success across the world wasn’t released in America, their home country, for some reason.
Here’s a thumbnail back story. Co-founded by the beforementioned Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, Blondie were among the pioneers of American punk before they jumped aboard the new wave musical bandwagon. Angela Trimble, aka Debbie Harry, kick started her career in music as a support singer for The Wind In The Willows, a folk/rock outfit. From here, she joined and left The Stilettos and with Chris formed the unlikely named Angel & The Snake band. From this Blondie was morphed. At their peak, the group was unstoppable as record sales escalated by the million, with their tours sold out before the ink had dried on the concert tickets. After a series of stops and starts, Blondie are still working today with, I’m told, a ten-date UK arena tour pencilled in for November 2021.
Just below at number two, a patient Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music waited to replace the group named after its lead singer’s hair colour. With the moody “Dance Away” highlighting Mr Ferry’s sultry voice said to set women’s pulses racing, he seductively crooned through the lyrics, with a twinkle in his eye. “Dance Away” was the second single liberated from their “Manifesto” album to become their most successful forty-five yet, despite failing to hit the top. Nonetheless, it earned the distinction of being the ninth biggest selling single of 1979. Moving on from Bryan with his tailor-made suits, unruly hair and handsome looks, we’re thrown into the world of computerised music with M’s “Pop Muzik” sitting at number three. “I was looking to make a fusion of various styles which would summarise the last twenty-five years of pop music” said its creator Robin Scott. He then went on to explain, M was a synthpop music project which he dreamt up while living in London, and credits much of the single’s success to the accompanying promotional video where he was the DJ with an exaggerated turntable set up, flanked by a paid of female models cavorting around like robots. I don’t remember that but recall the single with its catchy hookline and relentless beat. As an aside, the single’s cover shows Robin’s young daughter, who went on to become an accomplished singer/keyboardist, while his wife sang back ups on “Pop Muzik”. Think that’s it.
Rounding off the June 1979 top ten, other notable singles included Abba’s “Does Your Mother Know”, a rock/dance track from their incredible “Voulez-Vous” album. Still at the peak of their career, this slice of magic differed from previous releases as it featured Bjorn Ulvaeus on lead vocals instead of Agnetha and Anni-Frid. The Swedes decided on the change after giving the thumbs up to Bjorn’s guide vocals on the demo recording. And, David Bowie with “Boys Keep Swingin'” returned the singer to the top ten for the first time since “Sound And Vision” in 1977. From what I’ve discovered about this release, I wonder if David actually liked the song as he only performed it live once at his 1995 Outside Tour. However, he said of the single “I don’t feel there is anything remotely glorious about being either male or female. I was merely playing on the idea of the colonization of gender.” My, my, was he ahead of his time or what?
I had a quick peek at the films released this month and two begged to be mentioned; both as different as chalk and cheese. I bet there’s not too many people who haven’t watched or glanced at the television series The Muppet Show, a comedy created by mastermind Jim Henson. Here’s a brief flashback to nudge memories. It was a type of variety show – musical numbers, sketches and loads of interesting activity going on behind the scenes – held together by Kermit the Frog who, himself, was held together by a human out of camera shot. Likewise, all the contributing characters which, well, were quite unique, almost burlesque by nature, as they romped through loads of slapstick, utter nonsense and rather silly humour. Slotted in between this mayhem were regular guest artists who were often subjected to the Muppets’ antics while performing something serious. Diana Ross and Elton John were among the high profile names to succumb on this prime-time entertainment show.
Anyway, such was the surprising success of Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzie Bear, Scooter, Animal, Zoot and other furry friends, plus a pair of extremely grumpy, elderly men named Statler and Waldorf whose job was to heckle the Muppets from their upper balcony box, it was obvious a fully-fledged film had to follow. (In case it’s remotely of interest, the two grumps were so named after two New York hotels – the Statler Hilton and the Waldorf-Astoria.) The Muppet Movie traced their history as they journeyed across America to Hollywood in search of a showbusiness career. On the way they pick up other like-minded Mupps. Add to this, cameo appearances from the likes of Mel Brooks, Telly Savalas and Steve Martin, and the producers knew they were on to a money spinner. I can’t say I’ve seen the whole film as wasn’t that keen on the television show, but the public and reviewers were, to put it mildly, rather ecstatic – “The Muppet Movie is a winner…incorporating the zingy one-liners and bad puns that have become the teleseries’ trademark”…”It’s hip, funny, technically ingenious and utterly beguiling to grown ups and small persons.” However, there’s a major factor here that warranted headlines because for the first time ever, the film showed the Muppets’ feet!!
Being an avid fan, the other film was so much more up my street: Moonraker, the eleventh James Bond outing with the suave Roger Moore beautifully and elegantly playing the lead role. The original plan was to film For Your Eyes Only following The Spy Who Loved Me but due to the rising public interest in science fiction thanks to the phenomenal success of Star Wars, the producers decided to cash in with Moonraker. With a massive $34 million production budget, the film incorporated countless special effects to keep viewers glued to their seats, and also re-introduced a character named Jaws first seen in The Spy Who Loved Me. The formidable Jaws was James Bond’s most dreaded enemy whose aim in life was to assassinate hapless people. Played by Richard Kiel, this popular henchman was skilled at his job as he relied on his brute strength and his flashing steel teeth to dispatch his helpless victims. Having said that, it was one of the most entertaining Bond films of its time based around a space shuttle being stolen and a plot to wipe out the world’s population in an attempt to create a master race. The film delivered everything a fan could wish for, and it certainly ticked all the boxes for this gal.
It didn’t occur to me immediately but this was the third film to feature Shirley Bassey singing the theme song: “Goldfinger” and “Diamonds Are Forever” being the others. Miss Bassey wasn’t the first choice though as the song was intended for Kate Bush who, for some reason, gave it the thumbs down. I wonder if she ever regretted her decision?
So that’s a wrap, as they say, for this time around. Stay safe and we’ll meet again next month.