The Best Of: Get Up And Boogie – Silver Convention (Hot 1994)
It’s to Germany we go for this slab of unadulterated guilty disco pleasure and these under-rated early stars of the Euro-Disco music canon. Silver Convention were the brainchild of two producers Michael Kunze and Silvester Levay whose use of synthesized disco predates what came out of Munich by the more famous pairing of Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer.
In the 1970’s we liked to put faces to our acts, anonymous production teams were never going to cut it so a trio of singers were put together to represent the vocals of Silver Convention. Over time, the girls evolved from background singers to much more of a girl group, even representing Germany in the 1977 Eurovision Song Contest, but the vocals continued to take a less important role than the production and were often little more than a chant. There was world-wide success for a short period of time, mainly three albums out of a five studio album career . I am sure they are the only act ever to take part in the annual Eurovision extravaganza having previously scored an American number 1 pop hit. (In the event they didn’t win Eurovision coming a middle of the table 8th in a year when France took the prize). This fifteen track CD represents many of their finest moments.
Kunze and Levay still working together after all these years
In the mid 90’s Hot Productions re-released for the mainly American market Best Of compilations from artists many of whom were making their first appearance in CD format. I bought this CD in Miami which is where the label originated from. Disco stars such as The Ritchie Family, D C LaRue, Carol Douglas, George McCrae, Divine and a number of artists produced in the UK by Ian Levine were recognised and many of these CDs have become quite collectable. Amazon has this CD listed new for £78.99. In the UK a vinyl compilation from 1977 reached the Top 40 album charts. More readily available currently is a double CD from the Dutch Smith & Co label from 2003 called “The Very Best Of..” which does have more tracks but opts for the shorter single releases rather than the full-length versions of the disco classics we have here.
Sylvester Levay, from former Yugoslavia, arrived in Munich in 1972 and teamed up with Michael Kunze, Czech born, who had grown up in Southern Germany and studied in Munich. The two formed a song-writing team and scored their first German chart-topper in 1970 with a song called “Du” by Peter Maffray, the biggest German language song of that year. International success came about when they made a record initially as Silver Bird Convention.
That track, a delightful piece of Euro-Disco entitled “Save Me” was recorded using backing vocalists including Roberta Kelly, who would go on to work with the German productions of Donna Summer and have a Giorgio Moroder produced career of her own including the great Euro-hit single “Zodiacs” in 1978 and even put out a Disco gospel album. At a music convention, one Pete Waterman, then working in promotion at Magnet Records picked up on the track and the shortened name act was signed to the label in the UK. This resulted in a Top 30 UK hit in mid-1975 some months before Donna Summer put Munich on the musical map with “Love To Love You Baby”. It also scored well in Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands.
Considering Levay and Kunze were primarily songwriters they were not going to win any awards with the lyrics of this song which are basically “Baby save me, save me I am falling in love”. Maybe to protect his song-writing reputation (?) Kunze used the pseudonym Stephan Prager for the first two albums. “Save Me” was distinctly wordy compared to the next hit which blew the whole Silver Convention concept sky-high. “Fly Robin Fly” kicks off this album in its full length 7 minutes and 44 seconds glory.
A bass line which I have always found a little chilling moves into soaring strings and the lyrics which contains a total of six words repeated in various combinations “Fly/Robin/Right/Up/To/ The/Sky. It’s the string arrangement that has it though as it rises and descends with the speed and accuracy of the robin onto the worm. The echoey vocals with the slight Germanic accent combine brilliantly and form the blueprint of Silver Convention. In New York, the Disco scene was kicking off and this became one of its early huge hits crossing over to the American pop charts where it topped the charts for three weeks towards the end of 1975 and won the Grammy for best R&B Instrumental Performance. They were the first German act to top the American charts and Euro-Disco was born. It was a huge international hit and topped the charts in Norway and made the Top 3 in, amongst other markets, their homeland, Belgium and Canada. In the UK it went a couple of places higher than their debut reaching #28.
That earlier track, “Save Me” is up next and is less electronic sounding and features a sprightly saxophone solo. My seven-inch single of “Fly Robin Fly” morphed in its last few seconds into “I Like It” which was the B-Side in the UK to that single although on their first album this track preceded it. Here it follows “Save Me”. By the release of these tracks Silver Convention had become Penny Maclean, Linda G Thompson and Jackie Carter, the latter being the only remaining vocalist from the “Save Me” sessions. The quality is maintained with another track from that debut album “Another Girl” which is richer in melody and features the lovely German “V” sound when they sing “Woman”. This is Euro-Disco combined with the sound Barry White perfected for Love Unlimited with just a hint of Abba. Once again the strings vie for dominance over the girl’s harmonies and spoken interludes and this is one of my favourites from the group. I think with hindsight and the explosion of Euro-Disco music which came afterwards from the likes of Boney M, Cerrone, Baccara etc it’s easy to forget how different this all sounded. The album topped the Billboard R&B Charts (certainly the first German act to do so) and reached number 10 in the US pop charts. The “All Music Guide To Soul” rates the album five stars and describes it as having “a uniquely European take on American soul-pop and disco. Arguably the group’s most essential release. “Save Me” is a dance classic.”
They had some reputation to maintain for its follow-up. Lead track from the second album “Get Up And Boogie” is just a tad irritating. It does work better in its full length version included here as you get electric piano solos and good bass work. In the single version the beat is a bit lumbering, the girls’ vocals sound a bit whiney and the “That’s Right” male voice sample makes the whole thing a bit stop-start. The record-buying public gave it a thumbs up and any fears that the group might have one-hit-wonder European novelty status in the US were allayed when it just missed out on being their second chart-topper, getting to number 2. It became their biggest hit in the UK reaching number 7, topped the charts in Canada and made the top 10 worldwide including The Netherlands and Spain.
There were a couple of better tracks from the second album included on this CD. “San Francisco Hustle” is their entry into the geographical hustle stakes which, a year on from Van McCoy introducing us to the dance had hit variations of “The Latin Hustle” “The Spanish Hustle” and was still with us in 1978 when Hi-Tension gave us “The British Hustle”. The San Francisco version provided a very attractive track, although maybe too slow to dance the hustle? It’s a melody-rich track which could have provided another hit, as could “You Got What It Takes”, which once again has that “Voman” pronunciation which always appeals to me.
Their record labels went for “No No Joe” as the next single. It’s a nod towards the sexualisation of disco that had gone mainstream following the huge success of “Love To Love You Baby”. It was probably the same decision making that led to their UK label putting out the album (and a repackaged first album) with handcuffed naked female cover art. For some reason handcuffs had been an image associated with the band since the first album. This caused much publicity with Woolworths refusing to stock the album. The solution was to overlay the cover with splashes of white to cover up anything deemed offensive but actually to make the whole thing more tantalising for those interested. I think it could have been possible to pick off the overlaid white, but I’m not sure. It’s not even easy to find the artwork for these covers nowadays, even on the internet as they were soon phased out, but I had a vinyl copy. In the UK “No No Joe” wasn’t going to attract much radio-play and so was double A-sided with earlier track “Tiger Baby” but it underachieved in most markets.
Third long player “Madhouse” was promoted as a disco concept album, with tracks loosely linked around a “world is a madhouse” theme. It had a poem on the back cover which attempted to link the tracks and was a funkier effort. The 7 minute title track (not included here) felt similar to what Norman Whitfield was doing with Rose Royce and Undisputed Truth but with the Munich strings and German accented vocals. The best track on show was actually the mid-tempo “Everybody’s Talkin’ Bout Love” which brought back the lushness of a Love Unlimited type track and was far more of a song than we’d had from them before. In the UK it reached number 25.
By this time the group’s personnel had changed. Levay and Kunze were still pulling the strings but by now Penny McLean had been joined by Ramona Wulf and Rhonda Heath. Linda G. Thompson had a shot at solo fame with a turntable hit “Oh What A Night”. Ramona also got plenty of club play with a solo cover version of “Save The Last Dance For Me.” More successfully, in 1975 Penny had scored a big international hit with a solo track, the histrionic “Lady Bump” which had topped charts in her Austrian homeland and Germany. (Check out the YouTube video of her doing her best to sing it live in front of a European gyrating audience- it’s a kitsch classic) She also released a solo album.
Levay and Kunze were still very much behind the group and attempted to boost waning sales by entering the 1977 Eurovision Song Contest. “Telegram” is a good piece of girl-group pop, which has morse code punctuating the song and a singalong chorus (a chorus in a Silver Convention song, that’s almost a first!) The trio arrived in London the on-paper favourites but as ever the vagaries of the Eurovision voting system saw them off. (That year UK came second with Lynsey De Paul & Mike Moran’s “Rock Bottom”- a prediction of future Eurovision attempts perhaps?) “Telegram”, although now meaningless in our time of instant e-mails, remains a Eurovision fan favourite and often appears on compilations.
The last hurrah for the group came with “Blame It On The Music” from the fourth album called either “Summer Nights” or “Golden Girls” depending on where you live. This is a great Abba-esque track with flurries of strings which shows the direction the girls could have taken. Soon after the release of this album Penny left the group, and was replaced to concentrate on her solo career and was replaced by Zenda Jacks.
The last two tracks on the compilation come from 1978 album “Love In A Sleeper” which brought them some success in Europe. Here arrangement duties were taken by American disco producer John Davis with some tracks being recorded for the first time outside Munich at Sigma Studios in Philadelphia. Long-term the writing was on the wall and the group slipped away back into obscurity.
The producers Levay and Kunze, however, continued to thrive. Michael Kunze worked on translations of hit musicals and adapted many of the big Broadway shows for German audiences including Evita, Cats, Mamma Mia, A Chorus Line and Into The Woods. He has developed his own musicals including one based on Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca” and with Sylvester Levay again a hit German language musical based on the life of Mozart. Levay himself spent much of the 90s in the US composing TV and film scores before reuniting with Kunze for the theatrical productions. Both have gone on to much respectability in the music business but I hold out a hankering for their early work of swirling synthesized strings, repetitive lyrics and the lushness of the German EuroDisco sound of Silver Convention. Below is the video for the US #1 hit single.
And because looking at these videos have given me so much pleasure the last couple of days here is that Eurovision song entry featuring much of what the Strictly Come Dancing judges refer to as arm-ography.
The Best Of: Get Up And Boogie is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £78.99 and used from £12.99. In the US it is available from $17.35. Other Silver Convention compilations are available. The majority of the studio albums are available to stream from Spotify in the UK.