100 Essential CDs – Number 67 – Silver Convention- The Best Of: Get Up And Boogie

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The Best Of: Get Up And Boogie – Silver Convention (Hot 1994)

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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.

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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.

Silver Conention 3 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Silver Convention 7That 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.”

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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100 Essential CDs – Number 34 – Kylie Minogue- Light Years

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Light Years- Kylie Minogue  (Parlophone 2000) 

UK Chart Position – 2

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By the Millennium Kylie Minogue had been churning out UK hits for twelve years but things had gone just a little awry.  After her excellent 1991 album for PWL “Let’s Get To It” (another of my Essential CD’s) attained disappointing sales Kylie moved away from the security of Stock and Waterman and joined the more street-cred label Deconstruction where her first single release “Confide In Me” became her 7th single to reach number 2 in the UK charts.  The subsequent album was her second to give her a name check but this time she had matured to “Kylie Minogue” rather than the more teen-sounding “Kylie” of the first album.  The number 4 placing gave her biggest album success for 5 years and produced two more hit singles demonstrating a cooler Kylie.

Where it went a little wrong for me was with the follow-up where Kylie became so cool that she seemed to have distanced her original fans and became embroiled in indie-chic which just didn’t seem like the Kylie we had known and loved.  “Impossible Princess” was actually Kylie’s most personal work, as she had co-written all the songs and had a significant part to play in production and the whole image of the album.  This was the Kylie that she wanted to be at that time and there were collaborations with the Manic Street Preachers and Dave Ball from Soft Cell. Unfortunately (and somewhat surprisingly) the title of this album was deemed inappropriate in the UK following the death of Princess Diana and it was referred to as “Kylie Minogue” – her second album in a row titled thus.  It was a top 10 album although sales in her usually supportive UK were deemed disappointing.  In Australia it did reach number 4.  I never bothered to get it as it was a Kylie that I didn’t really buy into at the time.

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Confusingly, both Deconstruction albums had the same title in the UK

Following this disappointment Kylie left Deconstruction and got herself a deal with Parlophone and made this clever “comeback” album which won back all the fans who were no longer sure as well as many more.  It became her first album to top the charts in her native Australia, gave her a UK number 2 (her previous chart-topping album had been 11 years before), scored her a 5th  UK number 1 single as well as three more Top 10 hits.  The Kylie that we knew and loved was back with a vengeance. She may have gone on afterwards to have bigger selling albums but for me this is the career highspot and still sounds excellent 17 years on.   Of the 14 tracks on show Kylie received co-composition credits on 9 of them – other names involved in the writing include Robbie Williams with hit-making partner Guy Chambers and 80’s mega-star Paula Abdul.  There is one cover version, a highly successful version of a Barry White song recorded for his girl group Love Unlimited.

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Spinning Around in gold hot pants

Opening track “Spinning Around”certainly spun things around for Kylie when it entered the charts at number 1 in July 2000, her 27th Top 40 hit, prior to the release of the album.  It’s a great club track helped by a video in which Kylie sported what became an iconic pair of tiny gold hotpants.  The song itself was written by a pair of future American Idol judges Kara DioGuardi and Paula Abdul with the intention of being on a comeback album for Abdul whose eleven year career had tailed off somewhat.  With that album being temporarily shelved the song was given to Kylie, for whom it was perfect.

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Paula Abdul who could have been Spinning Around at the top of the charts

“On A Night Like This” became the follow-up single released just before the album and became her 8th number 2 hit.  It has more of a Europop feel than the opener, enhanced by the odd touch of a Spanish guitar sound and the whole thing feels very Ibiza.  This fits in with the concept of the album with artwork by Vincent Peters being based upon a photoshoot in Ibiza. I actually think this is a stronger track than the chart-topping opener.

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Kylie gets the first of her nine writing credits with “So Now Goodbye” which feels like a classic disco track and the first of three tracks produced by Johnny Douglas.  It’s a great singalong song with strong hooks.  It’s not the greatest of the Disco-tinged tracks on offer but if it had been on most of her previous albums it would have been the stand-out track.  On “Light Years” the quality has been seriously upped.  Further proof of this is “Disco Down” which perfectly recreates the time when Kylie could “boogie in my dreams/To Le Freak and Dancing Queen”.  It’s not subtle but it is great.  The vocodered male “burn this disco down” interludes makes it feel really quite funky with Douglas on production duties it is a real crowd-pleaser.  The whole thing builds beautifully.

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Kylie and Robbie Williams

The sublime disco continues with “Loveboat” written by Kylie with Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers,  a track with as much summer in its pores as Wham’s “Club Tropicana”.  The “ba-ba-ba” vocals give it a Pearl & Dean coolness, there’s French lyrics and the whole thing is exquisitely Mediterranean (or what a couple of Brits and an Australian see as Mediterranean).  Kitsch levels are ramped to high with its nod to the ultra-camp 70’s TV series of the same name- but unlike this series this track certainly goes somewhere.  It’s also a perfect track for the kind of highly visual performance which would go on to dominate Kylie’s career.

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All aboard the Loveboat baby!

Things get just a little rockier with “Koocachoo”, but in a finger-snapping cool rock world.  It takes us away from the Disco camp for a four minutes but we are certainly plunged back with the anthemic “Your Disco Needs You” – the greatest Kylie track not released as a UK single, although it charted in some territories.  The power of Disco is here seen as the cure to world’s ills and Kylie is the recruiting officer.  It’s as tongue in cheek as the best of Robbie Williams, who with Guy Chambers took on writing duties.  From its opening Pet Shop Boys influenced “Go West” vocals (something Robbie was still using with his 2016 release “Party Like A Russian” ) from the breathy reprise of the word “ass”, to the French section (translated into other languages for different markets), to the great build of female operatic voices and its explosive ending, this is a real statement and a “follow that!” track.  It is for me the undoubted highspot.

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Following that is the much more gentle but classy Spanish influenced track “Please Stay” with it’s handclappy castanet feel and guitar sound.  As the fourth single off the album it reached number 10 and provides the perfect cool-down after the previous track. It is another of the first-class tracks. Things get even gentler for the only ballad on the album, the very pretty “Bittersweet Goodbye” written by Kylie with producer Steve Anderson.  Although some might think of “Light Years” as Kylie’s disco album, when you listen to the whole thing the range of styles of tracks is impressive.  The same writing team works on next track “Butterfly” although this is produced by American club DJ Mark Picchiotti and it is back to the more contemporary club feel of the opening tracks .

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It takes a brave artist to cover a Barry White song with their lushness and complex arrangements but Kylie gives Love Unlimited’s  1973 hit “I’m Under The Influence Of Love” a great go.  There isn’t quite the build as there is in the original  but this is a very good Kylie cover even if it doesn’t eclipse the original where I love the soon to be  Mrs Barry White’s Glodean James’ vocal and the whole girl-group sound his production gives this.  I do love the swirling opening bars of Kylie’s version .

Kylie vs Love Unlimited – both under the influence!

The William/Chambers/Minogue next collaboration “I’m So High” is the least successful of their tracks and is the only track which smack a little of album-filler.  It leads into the duet with Robbie, “Kids”, which became chart runner up number 9 when it attained second position when released as the third single.  It feels more like Williams than Minogue, with its “Let Me Entertain You” rocky vibe, but it doesn’t feel out of place and saw the duo paired in a swimming pool for the closing moments of the video with its typically unsubtle Williams champagne cork popping for the video’s climax!

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Closer track “Light Years” has the feel of Giorgio Moroder and sees Kylie as our space age purser for the trip of our lives.  It’s “I Feel Love” meets Crown Heights Affair’s “Galaxy Of Love” with a great heap of Kylie kitsch.  A strong closing  nod to all that has gone on before.  With this release Kylie had tweaked the image somewhat and the public was back with her.  Her next album “Fever” contained the international smash hit “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head” which topped the charts in over 40 countries and gained sales of over 5 million.  That album saw her back at number 1 in the UK, Australia, Austria, Ireland and Germany amongst others and took her to number 3 in the US Billboard charts, returning her to the worldwide market stronger than she had ever been.  “Fever” is another first-class, but not essential album.  Kylie’s subsequent albums have been strong but have never attained the heights of the two early Millennium albums.

Kylie may have started out with a music career tacked onto her soap star celebrity status but through hard work and a shrewd awareness of what was going on around her, perhaps even more successfully than the Queen of Reinvention, Madonna, she has remained much loved for thirty years.  She has battled breast cancer and many broken relationship headlines (There are rumours which link her currently to Prince Andrew).  The public have always adored her.  We, of here consider her a national icon and she is not even British!  In 2010 she was proclaimed the most powerful celebrity in Britain in a survey of brand identification and only The Queen has had more Madame Tussauds waxworks made of her – showing the sheer power of her longevity and ability to reinvent.

“Light Years” , for me, remains her finest moment.

Just in case you doubt the power of disco here’s Kylie recruiting the whole of the Royal Albert Hall!

Light Years  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £2.53 and used from £0.01. It can be downloaded for £9.99. In the US it is currently $8.15 new and used from $0.56 and downloaded for $12.49.  In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify. 

100 Essential CDs – Number 93 –Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes – The Very Best Of

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The Very Best Of Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes (Sony 2014)

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It was back in 1954 that Philadelphian Harold Melvin formed a doo-wop group.  They had a good reputation, were a popular live band and recorded on a number of small record labels.  Commercial success eluded them.  The best of the early tracks is a song called “Get Out (And Let Me Cry)” which became popular in the UK Northern Soul Scene.  (It reached number 35 in the UK Pop Charts in 1975 when re-released on the Route label).  Fifteen years into their existence a drummer joined their touring band.  His name was Teddy Pendergrass and when lead singer John Atkins left in the early 70’s Teddy took over the role of lead vocalist.

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In 1971, 17 years after their formation, this struggling group got a break and were signed by the very up and coming Philadelphia International Records by the two men behind the label Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff who saw the raspiness of the Pendergrass voice as an excellent foil to the lush orchestration which was to become the selling point of this new Philadelphia sound.

At long last success came, but they are still very much an under-rated group and should have been bigger commercially.  The hit single tally is 4 US Pop Top 2o hits and five UK Top 40 hits for the Philadelphia International label, all of which are included on this seventeen track album.

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When fame came there was always going to be an issue and that was the group’s name.  By the early 70’s we were used to performers in groups being pushed to the front – Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, Diana Ross and The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles the list goes on.  But here the problem was Harold Melvin was not the lead singer, even though the casual listener would have assumed he was.  Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes featuring Theodore Pendergrass was tried but just didn’t exactly slip off the tongue.  It was going to cause tensions.  There were four albums before the group were faced with Pendergrass’ departure.  Even within these Melvin was experimenting with other voices on the tracks, including female singer Sharon Paige. The record label, seeing where the unique selling point of this group was kept Pendergrass on as a solo artist, where he became an R&B legend.  The group found a new lead singer in David Ebo and moved to ABC records and a return to relative obscurity.

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These seventeen tracks are taken from the golden four year period and have stood the test of time.  They are a combination of classic soul ballads and uptempo numbers which due to the lushness of the Philly orchestration are early disco classics.  For a long time this group was not best served by compilations.  I favoured the ten track “Super Hits” (Epic Legacy 2000) but there are obvious omissions and a couple of the tracks in their full-length version are a little over-realised.   This compilation adds seven more tracks, generally in their single length or Part 1 versions and is therefore my choice as an Essential CD.

 

Some of the other hits compilations that have been available over the years

The album kicks off with a bang and one of those early disco classics which is here presented in its full-length six and a half-minute form.  “Bad Luck” became the group’s third US hit in 1975 when it reached number 15 but never became a UK hit.  The opening funky bass-line would have perhaps been more recognisable to us Brits as it was used by The Ritchie Family in their hit disco-medley “The Best Disco In Town”.  From this it explodes into a sing-a-long stormer from the group- not their best uptempo track but close to it.  The standard is maintained for the O-Jays-ish “Satisfaction Guaranteed (Or Take Your Love Back) which is archetypal uptempo Philly Soul and reached number 32 in the UK when issued as a single in 1974.  This track is inexplicably absent on the “Super Hits” compilation so it is great to hear it here.  It was one of the stand-out tracks on their second “Black And Blue” album.  It features one of the great in-intro grunts on record, sounding  like a bear being awoken from its slumbers.

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“Wake Up Everybody” was very much a swan-song for the group, their last US Pop hit reaching number 12 and number 23 in the UK in 1976.  Philadelphia were quite hot on political message songs with songs such as “Love Train”, “Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto”, and “Let Em In” doing well for the label.  In fact, the output of the label was very much either love songs, message songs or have a good time dance tunes.  “Wake Up Everybody” is the Blue Notes’ most significant message song, intended to stir us out of our mid 70’s lethargy and self-centeredness.  (Things haven’t really changed).  Headed off by a lovely piece of piano glissando this is a great tune.  Message songs can come across as naive but there’s something about Teddy’s call to get motivated to help out the community which I’ve always found appealing.

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The big hit is next which really kick-started the Philadelphia International career for them.  “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” is a true soul classic and one of Gamble & Huff’s best songs and productions.  It seems like Teddy, in a ten year relationship, is not going to change so it’s a bit of a like it or lump it situation.  In late 72/early 73 this reached #3 in the US and #9 in the UK.  The chart honours for this particular track, however, go to Mick Hucknell of Simply Red who took it to the very top of the US charts and number 2 in the UK in 1989.  I’m sure even he would admit that the original version is the best.

There’s still a couple of disco anthems to be enjoyed beginning with “The Love I Lost” (US#7, UK#21 in 1974).  This benefits from being shortened from the album version where the “I lost you, sorry I lost you” refrain goes on too long.  As a three and a half minute single it is perfection. This song also had a new lease of life in 1993 when West End featuring Sybil took it to number 3 in the UK.  And talking of a song with an extended lease of life…

“Don’t Leave Me This Way,” a Gamble and Huff song written with Cary Gilbert began life as an album track on the “Wake Up Everybody” album.  A slow moody start, with tom-tom intro it ripples into an impassioned disco track.  Over at Motown they decided to give it a Hal Davis “Love Hangover” treatment for Thelma Houston which just exploded causing the Blue Notes version to race up the charts in the UK alongside Thelma.  In the US it gave Thelma her only US number 1 single, the biggest hit of her career.  In the UK it became Harold Melvin’s biggest chart success peaking at number 5 where Thelma had to make do with a number 13 placing.  I love both versions of this song.  To complex matters there was a third even bigger excellent version nine years later when The Communards topped the UK charts in 1987.  I’d be hard pushed to pick my favourite of the three versions of this song.  By 1977 when the group were in the UK Top 5 there was no chance of them capitalising with new material as by this time they were Teddy Pendergrass-less and recording for ABC.  The impetus caused by this re-release did see their ABC debut “Reaching For The World” getting a limited amount of UK action, reaching 48, but that is beyond the scope of this album.

Don’t Leave Them This Way – The Blue Notes, Thelma Houston & Communards

The writing on the wall can be heard on the track “To Be True” which comes from their 1975 album of the same name as the vocalist here is none other than Harold Melvin himself.  It’s a nice enough track but I find myself willing Teddy to make an appearance.  It is certainly still Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes but it’s not Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes as we knew them and that shows why this group was unlikely to do that much after Pendergrass’ departure.  To a certain extent I feel this way about the two tracks which feature Sharon Paige, “Hope That We Can Be Together Soon” is very much a Paige/Pendergrass duet and did in fact top the US R&B charts.  Sharon is given a bigger bite of the cherry with “You Know How To Make Me Feel So Good” and my reservations here apply.  It looks like I’m pushing Teddy into his solo career here, but I’m actually not.  What I really like is the juxtaposition between the group’s vocals and the lead.  You can tell their roots are in doowop and really like Gladys Knight and The Pips it is this interplay which make this group great.  This works so well on the bluesy “Yesterday I Had The Blues” and in the magnificent disco treat of “Tell The World How I Feel About Cha Baby”.  Here they are certainly not relegated to backing singers as they have the song’s hooks  but the group sound and the Teddy lead just work really so well.

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Elsewhere on the CD, away from the hits, you get the excellent “Where Are All My Friends” a time-old tale of friends vanishing when you hit on bad times, “Be For Real” which is a musical lecture from Theodore to his lady who looks down on people and “I Miss You” one of the great soul songs about loss which is almost animalistic in its howling passion, which can make it a little difficult to listen to.

The song that really feels out of place is the one minute 45 section snatch of the show-tune “Cabaret” sung in harmony very much in the same style as Motown would occasionally employ with The Four Tops (with “Mame”) and The Temptations (with “That’s Life” and “Hello Young Lovers”).  Was this an attempt at broadening the appeal of the group?  Berry Gordy over at Motown would at one point deliberately record tracks like these for his acts in order to chase the lucrative older white album-buying market which would lead to lucrative supper-club bookings but it feels a little late in the day (1973) to be doing this.  Was it just a way to show that this group were every bit as good singers of more traditional fare as the Tops and the Temps?  I’m not sure but it is less than two minutes out of an hour-plus of super-soulful sounds.

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Harold Melvin continued to plug away with various incarnations of The Blue Notes and died in 1997.  Teddy recorded two of the best singles of all time in his long solo career, his debut release “The Whole Town’s Laughing At Me” which promised so much and even better than that is “Can’t We Try?” which contains one of the most heart-felt male R&B vocals ever.  I preferred him more as a loser of love than the Barry White-esque Love God he was sometimes made out to be in tracks such as “Turn Off The Lights” and “Close The Door”.  In his homeland he recorded a run of big selling albums and was an essential live performer.  In 1982 things changed overnight when a horrific car accident left him paraplegic.  There were years of health issues over the years with musical comebacks and much charity work.  He died in 2010 at the age of 59.

These are the glory days of these Philadelphia International’s superstars career.  Listening to this album shows what a great ballad group and also what a great group of uptempo material they were.

The Very Best Of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.99 and used from £2.72. It can be downloaded for £6.99. In the US this CD is harder to come by but other compilations are available.  In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.

100 Essential CDs – Number 4 –Fame– Grace Jones

Fame- Grace Jones   (Island 1978)

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What’s this then?  Two consecutive Grace Jones studio albums in the Top 5 Essential list.  I’m making no apologies for this.  After the superb “Portfolio” we were offered more of the same and I for one lapped it up.  Released a year after the debut, sales were lower and this has gone out of print more often than its predecessor but it still sounds as good as when it was released and is an undervalued cult classic from the disco era.

True, there wasn’t a great deal of moving on from “Portfolio” but disco was still hot in 1978 and a great deal of energy had been lavished on Grace to ensure that the quality was there so why change things too much?  Tom Moulton was back on board as producer – some of the same musicians and backing vocalists (The Sweethearts of Sigma) are back doing sterling work.  Perhaps some of these tracks were even recorded at the same time as those on the debut.  Information is a little vague on this.  The quality artwork by Richard Bernstein is back, which went a long way to mythologizing the image of Grace Jones, a tactic which would be employed throughout her career.  The back cover of the vinyl edition (although not the CD copy I own) contains perhaps one of the most stunning Jones illustrations ever, in a sailor’s cap, looking like Marlene Dietrich crossed with a panther. Pencils and paint on the front cover show that Jones is being viewed as a piece of artwork –and remember this is some years before Jean-Paul Goude famously begins to really play around with the visual image of the performer.  The cover would have been seen as ultra-fashionably chic, once again cementing the Jones philosophy of merging the modelling and the music, the performance and the person.

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Musically, there is some movement.  The first side of Grace’s debut was her Broadway medley of three cover versions of recent show tunes, reformed into disco tracks.  Perhaps by 1978 this particular bubble had burst and Grace is given three original songs to combine in a medley which is perhaps one of the greatest segues of three tracks since Gloria Gaynors “Experience” album and her (Casanova Brown/Do It Yourself/How High The Moon) trilogy.  On “Portfolio” you had to wait for the beginning of side 2 to find the jewel in the crown, here Grace kicks off with the best track on the album and one of my all-time favourites.

By 1978 Disco had become far more European in flavour and Donna Summer’s megahit “I Feel Love” from the previous year had been a game-changer in that music had become more electronic.  Here, however,  Jones, always a radical, has eschewed the synthesizer for that big orchestral sound and some of the best session R&B musicians around, giving the lushness of the very best of the Philadelphia International sound – ironically from an artist who would find greater fame by stripping her music back to its bare minimum.  But here in 1978 the fuller sound was having one of its last hurrahs with  musical arrangements carried out by John Davis who had a number of club hits as the man in charge of his Monster Orchestra. He replaced another orchestra leader, Vince Montana from the Salsoul Orchestra who had performed the same duties on  “Portfolio”.

The side one medley was written by Jack Robinson with James Bolden for two of the tracks and Gil Slavin for the third track.  Robinson knew disco as he had written some of its biggest hits, including “I Love To Love” for Tina Charles, the sublime “If You Want It (Do It Yourself)” for Gloria Gaynor, “Strut Your Funky Stuff” for Frantique and would go on to write for that most bizarre of 80’s recording acts, Princess Stephanie of Monaco.

In many ways first track “Do Or Die” can be seen as a natural successor to the Gaynor track but Grace’s vocal imbues the whole thing with an edginess that makes you wonder just what is going on.  Vince Aletti in his much referred to (by me) “Disco Files” tried to sum the whole thing up in his Record World column of July 1978  by stating “Jones remains an erratic singer, subject to bizarre vocal fluctuations that turn nearly every song into a reckless, daring roller coaster ride- both unsettling and exhilarating.”  He felt that she had found a perfect match with Robinson’s lyrics which are “sometimes frankly unsophisticated but often approach the direct spare energy of the great romantic pop songs; a modern equivalent of the 60’s girl group mentality – more knowing, more ironic- but still soppy around the edges.  So the songs are frequently as brash, presumptious, exaggerated and ultimately, endearing as the singer.”  I think he has hit the nail firmly on the head on this and it is this heady combination which brings me joy every time I listen to this album.  I love a bit of irony with my music and the greatest disco music has this in spades- think Chic, “Young Hearts Run Free”, anything by Dr Buzzard’s Savannah Band and/or Kid Creole all coming with a healthy dose of bittersweet irony which adds to their greatness.

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In the first line of “Do Or Die” I think Grace is telling us she is an “operator” (that odd vocal inflection coming immediately to the fore).  She “can sell an Eskimo snow” and there is probably no doubt about that.  There’s a lot going on in the rhythm and percussion department of this song.  It’s boastful and yet she may have met her match as the man she is after is telling her he’s not interested.  Jones isn’t taking no for an answer, even if he is chasing her with a gun (!).  She’ll get her man if it is the last thing she’ll do and boy, do we believe her.  That other great one-off Eartha Kitt covered this song on her album “I’m Still Here” but Jones’ version has the full-frontal attack which makes this great.  It was released as a single by Island in 1978 and attracted considerable attention in the clubs in the US, Canada and Spain it did not cross over to the pop charts.  For a disco record it’s surprisingly uncommercial.  There’s a subtle(ish) key change into “Pride”, a song which feels a little like “Sorry” from the first album as it is more understated.   In the complex world of Jones emotions Pride is being both proclaimed and rubbished “what good is pride alone at night?”  There’s a good little percussion breakdown mid-way with some funky bass guitar by Jimmy Williams doing battle with the percussion of Larry Washington and the Sweethearts of Sigma offering some very Salsoul Orchestra sounding support before Grace storms back into the song with her usual gusto.

“Fame” is another tale of lost love.  In fact, there’ s quite a bit of unrequited love in this album.  For the first album Grace was defiant, yet here there’s more vulnerability and maybe this change is another reason it gets the thumbs up from me.  This track doesn’t quite have the magic of the preceding two.  Grace is both claiming and blaming fame here.  Taken as a whole these three tracks add up to eighteen minutes of high quality disco.

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The second side of the vinyl copy opens with a track which unashamedly follows up from the high point of “Portfolio”, but as “La Vie En Rose” was the best thing Grace ever recorded perhaps it’s no surprise that there would be an attempt to re-create this.  It’s Grace’s version of another French standard “Autumn Leaves”, known originally as “Les Feuilles Mortes” written by Jacques Prevert with English lyrics by Johnny Mercer.  The introduction has Grace whispering in French over a violin solo by the quaintly named Piggy Pigerino, then the “La Vie En Rose” feel kicks in.  It lacks the amazing build which that track had.  There is, however, a nifty bit of what sounds like steel guitar after the first verse.  By mid-way through any intention that this isn’t “La Vie” part 2 gets thrown out of the window and even the “La Vie En Rose” chant by Grace is substituted by “Les Feuilles Mortes”.  There’s the same combination of the two languages with Francophile Grace slipping easily between the two.  There’s no marks for originality here but you can’t blame them for trying and it still all works.  It was released as a single in France where “La Vie” had been a big hit, but it did not chart.

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“All On A Summer’s Night” is this album’s “That’s The Trouble” thematically and Grace is back in casual mode after a one night stand.  Wah-Wah guitars hit a groove while Grace intones that it “may be love or it may be just the wine” and “maybe I should feel a twinge of shame/we’re almost lovers, I don’t know your name”. The percussion break is a little static, which sounds a little dated nowadays but Grace pulls this one off with great aplomb.  “Am I Ever Gonna Fall In Love In New York’s City” sees Grace looking for the real thing in a song which is so delightfully corny and cheesy.  She’s just the girl from Tennessee searching for love and lamenting that “There’s no future in single bars/nothing but the one night stars”.  Grace really sings in the introduction – probably more than for entire albums of her later career .  The song is repetitive and I think this might be a case of a song which only Grace could get away with.  That deadpan vocal delivery allows her to pull off kitsch with panache.  Everything is thrown at this song and Grace emerges shining.

Closing track “Below The Belt” unites Grace with Pierre Papadiamandis who penned the original songs on “Portfolio”.  It’s not as good as those tracks although it has that Philadelphia International sound and is certainly more subtle than some of the tracks on display here and does not reduce the sense of exhilaration this album gives me.  Vince Aletti aptly concludes in his contemporary review of the album- “Fame is a marvellous combination of chutzpah and charisma from which Grace emerges quite triumphant.”

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Artists and their muse – Warhol, Jones and Keith Haring

But once again the anticipated commercial crossover didn’t happen.  In Both Italy and Sweden she found herself getting her second Top 30 album (Italy 15, Sweden 22) and it did make a very brief appearance in the US Top 100 albums, which “Portfolio” had missed out on.  But the club scene loved it enough for Island to try for three in a row the following year with “Muse”.  By 1979 Disco had gone completely above ground and with everyone from Ethel Merman to Johnny Mathis and The Rolling Stones making disco and an underground artist with cult appeal would find it harder to compete.  “Muse” is not an essential album by any means as it begins to feel like over-treading a formula.  It was an album that took Grace’s plan for world domination almost back to square one.  It is not without its merits, particularly the track “Don’t Mess With The Messer” and the Disco meets Gospel of “Saved”.  Once the 80’s came along many Disco Divas were finding their recording contracts being terminated.  However, Island Records could see that Grace had a shelf-life beyond Disco and by returning her back to her Jamaican roots gave her the fame that “Fame” only promised.

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I have such a huge soft spot for the disco stylings of Grace Jones and anyone wanting to explore this period of her career should seek out the three CD set “The Disco Years” which packages the first three albums together for the first time.  The fact that this was not released until 2015 shows there is still a great demand for these early tracks.  Deservedly so.

The edited version of “Do Or Die” below comes from an Italian music show and words will fail you………………………….

 

 

“Fame” is available from Amazon.co.uk from £6.99 and it can be streamed from Spotify For more Grace the three disc set “The Disco Years” is currently available for £11.46 (it is also newly available on vinyl).  In the US it is available used from $16.21 but the three disc set can be bought in a number of audio formats.

100 Essential CDs – Number 1 – Portfolio – Grace Jones

Portfolio- Grace Jones   (Island 1977)

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So here it is – the album which I will save above all others from the theoretical burning building (at least I hope it’s theoretical- I don’t want to actually have to make the choice).  This is the CD I play probably more than any other and have done really since its release back in 1977.  It was not a big seller yet has remained consistently available.  It is the ultimate cult album from one of the ultimate cult artists.  It did establish Grace as a hit artist in a number of markets gaining a Top 30 placing in Australia (27), Sweden (22), Italy (9) and The Netherlands (8).

Grace Jones was born in Jamaica and had a very strict upbringing.  Things got tougher for her when her parents migrated to America, aiming to settle there before bringing the family over so Grace and her siblings were brought up for a time by very devout church-going relatives.  Grace was always going to rebel.  She eventually joined her parents in Syracuse and the awkward tall teenage girl drifted into acting and then modelling.  It became clear to Grace that if she wanted to make it as a model she would have to get away from the USA as her brand of exoticism was too much for the conservative model agencies.  She moved to Paris where she became for a time one third of a modelling agency where the two other girls on the books were her friends Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange.  It was the image of Grace Jones that first caught my attention.  I remember a photo of her being published in “Record Mirror” and I bought this debut album on the strength of that photo without hearing a note.  Never has an impulse buy paid off so well.

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Grace was in France really not knowing of the disco explosion that was happening in New York in the mid 70’s.  She had made some demos in Paris and a New York couple called Sy and Eileen Berlin, who had been in the clothing industry but were looking to move into music took note.  Grace’s early tracks were lined up for a label they had planned called Beam Junction.  The popularity of the early singles led to a record label with Island Records the home of many Jamaican recording artists and  run by the man who would become a great friend of Grace’s, Chris Blackwell.  Grace, in her 2015 autobiography “I’ll Never Write My Memoirs” had this to say;

“The fact that I made disco music was an accident, really.  When I made my first records, I didn’t think of them as being disco.  I made them in France and the word discotheque is a French word, but it did not have the meaning that it was beginning to have in New York.  I didn’t characterize them as anything.  They were simply songs with a little bit of soul and rhythm, echoes of singing in church, a sense of something showy whipped up by being in Paris with all the fashion, around all the people making it happen.”

Back in America genius record producer Tom Moulton was brought in to mix the tracks Jones had already recorded and eventually to put together the other songs which made up this seven track debut.  Grace may have not been aware of disco initially but she recorded the perfect disco record which clearly illustrates what disco was all about.  As well as the rhythm and melodies there was the hedonism, the camp sensibility, the excellent production values and for me most of all the chutzpah of Grace the artist with a voice that could hover towards the flat end of the scale performing with such gusto that she just had to become a household name.

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Producer, re-mixer and disco legend Tom Moulton

The look of the album also suggested something different.  I have held onto my vinyl copy because the CD could not reproduce fully the look and feel of the album.  The Warholesque artwork was not by Andy, who would become Grace’s big Studio 54 disco pal but by Richard Berenstein who worked for Warhol’s “Interview” magazine who was one of the first of many who would manipulate the image of Grace Jones from photographs.  Grace’s face is in tones of purples and greens on the striking blue background of the front cover and on the back as a disembodied head in reds and purple with a glittery tongue.  Grace Jones had arrived.

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The first side of the album also summed up Disco.  Grace was not the greatest singer yet the idea was to get her to tackle three demanding recent Broadway tunes which would segue into one another and would use some of the greatest Philadelphia session musicians.  Vincent Montana Jnr, the vibe player and brains behind the Salsoul Orchestra was brought in to do the arrangements and the celebrated backing vocalists, known as The Sweethearts of Sigma, Barbara Ingram, Carla Benson and Evette Benton were on hand should Grace find herself deviating too far from the melody.  The result is around eighteen minutes of sheer joy, which I turn to whenever I need a boost- the ultimate guilty pleasure.

It wasn’t that original to disco-fy old songs.  Gloria Gaynor had exploded onto the pop charts and was heralded the Queen of Disco by raiding the Motown songbook and older songs such as “Tangerine” (Salsoul Orchestra), “What A Difference A Day Makes” (Esther Phillips) were becoming mainstays of this recent form of music.  The song chosen for Grace’s Broadway medley were quite recent showstoppers.  The whole thing kicks off with “Send In The Clowns” from “A Little Light Music” (first produced on Broadway in 1973) which had that year already just survived a vocal version by Elizabeth Taylor in the film version but whereas Taylor seems apologetic Grace is going for it.  Grace’s vocal is unique and gells excellently with the “sweet” background vocals.  Her unusual phrasing, long notes and just-on-key performance are all used for excellent effect.  There’s great work going on in the piano and rhythm section. The track moves with a flourish  into “What I Did For Love” from 1975’s “A Chorus Line”.  There is no doubt that Grace is camping this up with a vengeance.  The backing girls are given more to do here and their harmonies are sublime.  The rhythm, crashes, builds, breaks down and builds up in a template for the disco sound.  The third track is the weakest of the three, but then the song “Tomorrow” came from “Annie” which opened the same year as this album was released so would have been less familiar  and Strouse and Charnin’s song is never going to be of the same quality as the Sondheim and Hamlisch tunes that precede it.  Once again Grace gives it her all- although it does get a little repetitive before the end.  It does however, perfectly fit the concept and the production and musicianship is excellent.

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Grace at Studio 54

If the producers had gone for more of the same for the second side then maybe we would have a very good solid disco concept, not startlingly original and probably not essential.  It is the second side that makes this album for me – bringing remixed versions of her tracks originally recorded in France with another French standard which is one of the highpoints of the whole Disco era.

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The second side kicks off with Grace’s finest moment  of her long music career, her version of a 1945 song with lyrics originally written by France’s most famous chanteuse, Edith Piaf.  “La Vie En Rose” needs to be heard in its seven and a half minute glory. (The video below from a 1977 European pop show is the edited single version).  The lengthy introduction with woodblock and guitar builds things up beautifully into a kind of bossa-nova feel which would have ensured this went down a storm in Latin discos.  It’s coming on for two minutes before Grace makes her entrance, speaking in French before easing into the familiar melody.  This works because of its sense of exotic – the French lyrics, the latin rhythms and Grace soaring her way vocally.  This track is often a staple of live shows and Grace has said of the song, “That’s a very special song to me. Oh God, I cry every time I sing it. I had quite a few French lovers, so every time I sing it I think about them.”  I love Grace’s vocal on this.  At the time of its release music journalist Vince Aletti was writing a column in Record World which he put together in the five-star rated book “The Disco Files” .  This is what he had to say about this track;

“building to an emotional peak from a minimal, delicate, seductively languorous arrangement of piano, guitar and percussion.  Grace, singing in both French and English, uses the simplicity of the production as the perfect foil, strutting across it, purring, growling, shouting and whispering like an actress working her lines for all they’re worth.”

I couldn’t put it better myself.  This track gave Grace her first international hit single going Top 5 in France, Italy and the Netherlands.  In the UK Grace had to wait another nine years for it to be re-issued as a double A side with “Pull Up To The Bumper” where it did more than help that track get to number 12.  Grace has never had a Top 40 hit single in the US, so that decision to make a move to France to find fame might have been the right one after all.

Grace goes unusually passive on the next track, the apologetic “Sorry” which certainly has that Philadelphia feel.  It’s a tale of jealousy written by Jones alongside Pierre Papadiamandis.  Jones has been caught out after a rendezvous with an ex-lover . The rap “he loves me too and he’s not jealous of you” shows where Jones is coming from.  The song is basically trite but Grace pulls it all off with panache.  This was a double A sided single with “That’s The Trouble” written by the same song-writing team and this is a great, infectious track where everyone appears to be having a good time.  Taken at quite a fair old pace, Grace laments being followed by men who fall in love with her instantly.  “Every man I see taking every little thing so heavily”.  Grace isn’t into commitment but those around her seem to be.  This is establishing the Grace Jones image of a strong, attractive, desirable woman.  She performed this song many times live in nightclubs, including Studio 54, and those booking her really did not know what they were getting- occasionally bare-breasted, painted, or even with a leopard on a chain – this lady was certainly coming from a different place from previous disco divas.

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Her gay appeal was established very early on with her first single release which becomes the closing track of the album.  In “I Need A Man” Grace is not going to be wasting her time cooking (it was hard to imagine Grace cooking!).  She ‘s out to get her man “then at night I won’t be lonely/knowing I’m the only one”.  The song is predatory, sexual and yet has a yearning which shows the contradictions of being Grace Jones.  It also has a fervour which could almost be described as gospel-esque, although it’s not religious salvation Grace is looking for. The track was an instant success in the Discos and took Grace to the top of the American dance charts.  In a track from her later “Slave To The Rhythm” album,  (“The Frog And The Princess” ) narrator Ian McShane relates the words of her lover and manager Jean- Paul Goude who spoke of the ambiguity  of his first viewing of Grace watching her sing “I Need A Man” in a New York nightclub “Les Mouches”  and looking like a man, to a room full of gay men.  He knew then that this radical, electric performer would be his muse.  When Grace ends the track with the spoken “perhaps that man is you!” you can’t help but smile nor have a slight shiver up the spine!

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The complexity of the artist is evident from this first album.  Rebellious and radical yet prepared to perform a Broadway medley this is just what Grace Jones was all about.  Predictably unpredictable merging the worlds of fashion and music, a punk sensibility with disco.  I knew she was going to go far.

Portfolio is is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £7.33, used from £1.97 and as a download for £6.93.  In the US it is currently $8.99 new,  used from $1.79 and download for $5.99.  It is also available to stream on Spotify in the UK .

100 Essential CDs – Number 70 –Off The Wall – Michael Jackson

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Off The Wall – Michael Jackson  (Epic 1979)

UK Chart Position – 5

US Chart Position – 3

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1979 and disco music is dominating the airwaves.  A little late to the party were a group who were made for the uptempo disco sound – The Jacksons.  Since leaving Motown they had dabbled with Leon Gamble and Kenny Huff who imbued them with the smooth Philadelphia International Sound.  Although “Show You The Way To Go” became the first UK number 1 for the group in 1977 the hits had tailed off, especially in the US where this UK chart-topper only reached #28.  However, things revived for them as towards the end of 1978 the group were back in the UK Top 10 with “Blame It On The Boogie”, a cover version of a song written and recorded by British songwriter Mick Jackson.  This set off one of those chart battles which saw Mick reach number 15 with the original and The Jacksons get to number 8.  The US passed on both versions, surprisingly, as over here it is one of the disco songs that the group is best known for.  Fortunes changed when they kept with the disco theme and released “Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)” which took them back to number 7 in the US (their first Top 10 hit in three years) and to number 4 in the UK.  This funky little dancer gave a boost of confidence to the lead singer and got him thinking about more solo work.

Chart battle – Jackson v Jacksons

By 1979 Michael’s child solo star days were well behind him.  His last couple of albums for Motown had not been big sellers and the twenty-one year old had emerged from an awkward adolescence not exactly brimming with confidence about his future in the music business.  He was excited about the ascendancy of Disco music and was an occasional visitor to Studio 54.  He had never had much creative control of his music when he was with Motown and began looking for a producer who he could work with and who would be prepared to encourage and nurture him as a songwriter and performer.  He contacted Quincy Jones, who had produced him on the movie soundtrack for “The Wiz” and Quincy suggested himself.

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Quincy Jones

This was a good match right from the start.  Quincy had been around for years and had won Grammy awards as a Jazz musician, producer and arranger and had scored a number of films.  From the mid 70’s his solo work (solo in that it was released in his name, but really ensemble pieces with artists who he would work with for many years) had formed into a sound that was very much his own, a blend of sophisticated funk.  This crossed over into the pop charts with his work with The Brothers Johnson, especially “I’ll Be Good To You” (US#3- 1976).  Jackson could easily be incorporated into that sound.  Michael was brimming with ideas but needed some help in bringing them alive.  In J.Randy Taraborrelli’s biography “Michael Jackson: The Magic And The Madness” (1991) he quoted Jones remembering that Michael was “very, very introverted, shy and non-assertive.  He wasn’t at all sure that he could make a name for himself on his own.  Neither was I.”

During their work together, choosing a selection of songs for the album more than a little magic obviously happened because the end result when it was released in September 1979 was a sensation. For me it remains the best solo Jackson album, even though it wasn’t his biggest seller.  Michael Jackson, the adult superstar had arrived.   The fact that something special happened was backed up by Quincy Jones who had certainly changed his tune when he prophetically said;

“We accomplish so much in a single session, it stuns me.  In my opinion, Michael Jackson is going to be the star of the eighties and nineties.”

It’s not so much of an album as a laying out of wares.  Jackson is putting out the shop stall which will see him right for the rest of his career.  The opening track, and first hit off the album was a game-changer.  Jackson mumbles his way through the intro (we hadn’t heard that before, but we’d hear it again) there’s an early showing of what becomes a trademark “Whoo!” and for the first time Jackson is singing in a falsetto voice, so very different from the hard-singing belt it out juvenile of “I Want You Back”.  We’d not heard Jackson like this before and we liked it.  The song itself, written by Jackson, has great production but is, dare I say it, a little empty and repetitive.  It was good enough in 1979, however, as it became the lead single for the album.  “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” became his first US number 1 pop hit for 7 years and reached number 3 in the UK.

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With history behind us we might think that this album would have been one of the biggest hits of the late 70’s, but it did not top the charts either in the UK or US (it did in Australia).  It did, however, hang around the charts for ever and has been a solid seller ever since of over 20 million, which is a paltry amount compared to the 65 million+ of “Thriller”.  It did become, however, very much a singles album as it was the first album ever to have four US Top 10 singles taken from it and on a ten tracker that is pretty impressive.  It’s as if Jackson needed this album as a springboard to becoming a phenomenally selling album artist from this point on.

Jackson has three compositions on “Off The Wall”, one written with Louis Johnson of The Brothers Johnson and he keeps his contributions very much geared towards the dance floor.  “Working Day And Night” is a solid dancer but for me my favourite of the three is the Jackson/Johnson track “Get On The Floor”.  However good Jackson’s own tracks are there are better on show.

The real find was British songwriter Rod Temperton who had to this point been known as a songwriting member of British band Heatwave, most famous for “Boogie Nights” which closing track “Burn This Disco Out” has the definite feel of.  Temperton is responsible for two of the stand-out tracks which both became hit singles.  “Rock With You” is a subtle little dancer, which gave Jackson his second US number 1 in a row (UK#7) and “Off The Wall” (US#10 UK#7) marries this new Jackson sound with the Quincy Jones sound perfectly.  With the backing vocals and feel of the song Quincy would incorporate this sound in later recordings both attributed to himself, and with George Benson and Patti Austin amongst others.

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Rod Temperton

It may have been the lack of confidence as to how well this album would sell which would lead to song selections of two of the biggest superstars of the 70’s.  Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It” was written alongside the then-Supreme Susaye Green and with its Stevie Wonder feel is a nod back towards the Motown days as well as sounding very contemporary.  “Girlfriend” is written by Paul McCartney, starting off a musical relationship which would lead to one of the poorer tracks on “Thriller” and a reciprocal arrangement on the ex- Beatles 1983 “Pipes Of Peace” album –  “The Girl Is Mine” and “Say Say Say”.  McCartney has Jackson as something of a tell-tale in this song – a role he had certainly played before in the Jackson 5’s “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” in which he is a right snitch and which for some reason I have to listen to every Christmas.  I think “Girlfriend” is the best of the Jackson/McCartney association.

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Carol Bayer Sager and David Foster’s song “It’s The Falling In Love” had already been a US chart-topper in 1975 for Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds.  It reached #33 in the UK as we were not so fond of this type of country influenced soft-rock over here and it sounded like it was by a team of solicitors! Jackson and Jones transformed this into a lovely soul ballad and drafted Jones’ musical muse of the time Patti Austin for some lead vocal lines and this ends up certainly one of the tracks that has got even better with time.

This leaves us with one track, another game-changer.  “She’s Out Of My Life” was an early example of the frail, fragile ballad that Michael and also sister Janet would return to again and again in their careers.  It really shouldn’t work – it is so full of emotion that the whole thing could come off as cloying.  The vocal purposely lacks confidence and the vulnerability of the singer shines through.  There’s even what was reputed to be real tears towards the end causing the vocal to further crack.  This is miles away from the vocal on “Got To Be There”.  It’s understated and performed with such honesty that it won the public over getting to number 10 in the US and performing better with us sentimental Brits getting to number 3.  It always feels like we are eavesdropping into something we shouldn’t be and any song which features the word “cavalier” is alright by me.  For anyone who wants a less understated version of this song written by Tom Bahler let me point you in the direction of Patti Labelle and her “Classic Moments” CD where she matches Jackson in the overwrought stakes yet typically gives it all she has got.

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Michael Jackson reaffirmed his superstar status with this album.  He had hoped that sales would have been higher and he was disappointed with only winning one Grammy (Best R&B vocal performance for the first single).  He told everyone he would try harder next time.  Reuniting with Jones the pair came up with “Thriller” in which they went for a more broader appeal.  For me that album has a rockier and poppier edge (and that is even more the case with “Bad”) than the more R&B styled “Off The Wall”, which is why I prefer this first collaboration.  However, there might very well be 65 million people who disagree with me.

Off The Wall is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.00, used from £2.83 and as a download for £6.99.  In the US it is currently $4.99 new,  used from $1.00 and download for $9.99.  It is also available to stream on Spotify in the UK .

Postscript:  As I am doing this run-down of Essential CD’s alphabetically rather than chronologically my next 100 CD post will be the one I have put at the top of the pile.  Any ideas what that could be?  A look at those I have favoured might give you some inkling – but I don’t think I’m that predictable….Only two weeks to wait.

100 Essential CDs – Number 35 –Gloria Gaynor – The Very Best Of

imagesThe Very Best Of– Gloria Gaynor (Polydor 1993) 

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A compilation album from the lady who back in 1976 was officially crowned “Queen Of The Discos” and who is still with us today, probably performing one of her hit songs  somewhere on this planet as I write this.  Her “coronation” was performed at the nightclub “Club Des Jardins” in New York City and received a lot of publicity.  Disco was then a hot, still evolving form of popular music which was just beginning to take the world by storm.  Some may say that others who came after her eclipsed her reign but she was the original “Disco Queen”.

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Gloira became one of the early protégés of American music mogul Clive Davis, then President for Columbia Records who has overseen the early career of so many superstars (Whitney Houston, Earth Wind & Fire, Barry Manilow, Billy Joel, Aerosmith, Alicia Keys –the list goes on and on).  Her first single released on Columbia embraced the new disco craze and was a huge success in nightclubs  but failed to set the pop charts alight.  This was “Honey Bee” which appears on this CD in its full six minute glory.  It’s a catchy enough track and garnered enough interest for Gloria to be hooked up with a production team to produce an album which changed the face of popular music.  The production team was Meco Monardo (later to top charts in his own right with his disco-fied “Theme From Star Wars”), Tony Bongiovi and Jay Ellis.  The decision was made to fill the first side with three songs which seamlessly moved from one to the other without any breaks providing 19 minutes of uninterrupted dancing.  First up was the tried and tested “Honey Bee” but the second song of the three was the one that changed everything.

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“Never Can Say Goodbye” was a song written by Motown song-writer Clifton Davis, originally for the newly Ross-less Supremes but actually given to the Jackson Five to record.  As a dreamy mid-tempo track it became their 6th Top 3 single in a row in the US in 1971 (#2) although in the UK it was their least successful to date only reaching 33.  Perhaps the fact that the song was less familiar in its original format for us Brits may have explained how well we received Gloria’s version.  From its unforgettable swerling introduction to its outstanding production I just had to have a copy of the single and played it so much I virtually wore it out.  Gloria’s debut hit got to number 2 in the UK (held off by the very likeable but surprise number 1 “Ms Grace” by veteran US Pop/Soul Group The Tymes) and number 9 in her homeland.  The version on this CD is the one you really need to hear- the full length album version of over 6 minutes which follows on from “Honey Bee” just as it did on the original studio album (although not continuous as on that).  The recording technology at the time meant that single releases had to be edited to fit the 7 inch single (and to be played on radio).  The twelve inch single was some years away which allowed for longer tracks but placing a full version on an album side also did the business too.  This allowed for what became the staple of disco music the instrumental “break”.  I had an Uncle who we used to subject these records to and he’d always say of Ms. Gaynor “Oh, she’s gone off on her tea-break again” when the instrumental section kicks in and I always think of that every time I hear this.

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This dance trilogy of tracks was completed with another Motown track .  Much more familiar to us Brits was the Holland-Dozier-Holland  Four Tops track “Reach Out I’ll Be There”.  This had topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and unsurprisingly Gloria in her version beefed up the clip-clop beat.  It’s not as good a track as “Never Can Say Goodbye” but sounded brilliant in the context of the album and here we get it in its full-length version (with the odd tea-break for Gloria in the middle).  Somewhat hastily released as a single in the UK it reached number 14.   Probably 99% of the people who bought Gloria’s debut album did so for the three tracks segued together.  The second side was a less explosive selection of songs with a more traditional R&B feel.  It was as if they were hedging their bets somewhat – one side the new-fangled disco tracks the other appealing to an older audience.   The album made the Top 40 in both UK and US, which was at the time unusual for a debut African-American female artist.  A further track from the album which was the lead track on Side 2 “All I Need Is Your Sweet Lovin’” sounded very much like a Motown  track and just missed out on the Top 40 when released in the UK  in the summer of 1975.  This is also included on this “Best Of” CD.

Towards the end of 1975 Gloria was back again with a second album which, unsurprisingly, followed the pattern of the first.  In my opinion, the first side of “Experience Gloria Gaynor” was better than its predecessor and contains three of Gloria’s greatest tracks.  This album, released in time of Christmas, and at the very top of my Christmas list had two original tracks in its pack of three and one old standard which dated from 1940.  What is unusual about these early disco tracks on the first two albums is that they are very much songs which tell a story.  Within a short space of time the actual song part of a disco track took increasingly a back seat, often becoming chants over the disco beat (think “Le Freak” by Chic or “In The Bush”by Musique, both great disco tracks but not great songs).  Gloria was always keen to tell a story.  The story begins with “Casanova Brown” a super-cool dude who picks Gloria up against her better judgement when she is in a nightclub “sipping on some wine”.  This is a great track with a feel of what girl groups like First Choice  (“Armed And Extremely Dangerous/Smarty Pants”) had been hitting big with.  There’s a great sax solo when things get a bit much for Gloria and her head is spinning all around by this charmer.  I’ve seen other compilations which does not feature this track so it is great to have it hear in its full-length version.  The second track is even better and features Gloria’s maxim for life because “this is what my Daddy used to say”.  The message he gave her was “If You Want It (Do It Yourself)” and the instrumental section of this is an absolute dream.  Both this and the track which comes after it are my two all-time favourite tracks.  Gloria’s version of “How High The Moon” a song best known in its 1951 version by Les Paul and Mary Ford rattles along at a galloping pace.  If I can remember the sleeve notes of the vinyl edition the string section (real orchestra, no synthesizers in these days) was the fabulously named Tony Posk Strings and the job they do is absolutely amazing as this has probably the best string work on any pop track (with perhaps Cilla Black’s “Love’s Just A Broken Heart” an exception).  Tony Posk has his string players sawing away like mad to keep up with this track and the whole thing is quite sublime and very exciting.  Once again Side 2 of this album featured a range of slower tracks which allows Gloria’s vocals to shine but ends up with a very good version of  Bacharach and David’s “Walk On By” given the “Never Can Say Goodbye” treatment with a great “Stop!” hook.

This second album was not as successful.  Only “How High The Moon” made any impression on the Top 40 (UK#33) and it did look like the writing was on the wall for Gloria’s brand of orchestral disco, especially when the electronic sounds of Donna Summer took over that Disco crown.

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Gloria continued to record and in 1978 needed a b-side for her cover version of an unlikely UK chart-topper, the rather lumbering “Substitute” from South African girl-group one-hit-wonders, the attractively named Clout.   Producers Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris (of Tavares and Peaches and Herb fame) quickly came up with a tune which might have been fitting as Gloria was in pain and wearing a back brace at the time of recording.  That song “I Will Survive” was rumoured to have been written on the back of an envelope and recorded.  Public demand got the record label to flip the single, making the B side the A side and the rest is history.  Millions of copies sold, the most sung song in Karaoke history, this tale of female empowerment floored everyone.  It became a gay anthem and has inspired so many people that Gloria herself has written a book about it.  “We Will Survive: True Stories Of Encouragement, Inspiration and the Power Of Song” (2013) collects together the tales people have told Gloria over the years as to how this song has touched their lives.  It’s a great song whose greatness has really grown over the years.  When it was released it sounded a little old-fashioned, it had the crisp, clear orchestral sound which had largely by then gone out of vogue – it was far more of  a song than disco tracks had become, there were none of the ubiquitous backing singers or changes in pitch and rhythm which were disco music staples.  There are two versions of this song on this CD.  It opens with the single version and closes with a 12” remix by Phil Kelsey which (showing the longevity of this song) reached number 5 in the UK Charts in 1993.  I personally would have preferred a track from her “I Got You” album’s disco sequence, “Let’s Make A Deal”, which rarely appears on compilations but the 1993 remix is one of her biggest hits so probably deserves its place here.

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“I Will Survive” topped the chart on both sides of the Atlantic and became the first and only winner of the “Best Disco Recording” Grammy.  By 1980 in the US there was a backlash against Disco – known as the “Disco Sucks” movement which was more motiviated by racisim and homophobia than anything else which led to Dance  music going underground and ended the chart career of Gloria Gaynor and many others.

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What a line-up! Sister Sledge, Gloria Gaynor, Grace Jones and Chaka Khan

For the UK and European market Gloria had more tricks up her sleeve.  Embracing the gay fans who had supported her from the very beginning (although at times there has been reported tension with her religious beliefs) came “I Am What I Am”.  Taken from the Drag Queen musical “La Cage Aux Folles” Gloria certainly knew what she was singing about when it was “time to open up your closet” although there have been the odd interview over the years when she has reportedly wanted to give it a broader spectrum.  Gloria would have known better than to alienate her loyal gay following (Donna Summer’s career suffered from something she was reputed to have said) as fans wanted to hear those hit songs over and over again.  In the early nineties I saw her perform in the early hours of the morning in a nightclub called “Paradise”  in Islington where she went down a storm.  She’s a hard worker.  Perhaps she’s not the greatest performer on-stage but she knows how to sell her back catalogue and the voice is still in great shape.

This 14 track CD is a generous 78 minutes long and is essential because it features hard to find full length versions.  Length is not always a good thing, however, in the case of the longest track (8min 21) “Let Me Know (I Have The Right).  The cut-from-the-same-cloth follow-up to “Survive” (#32 in the UK) was perfectly good in its single release length but this version is too long and runs out of ideas some time before it finishes.   There’s a couple of less than essential tracks towards the end which show there is more to Gloria than a disco beat – “Let’s Mend What’s Been Broken” from a 1981 album and “We Can Start All Over Again from 1977.  Anyone wanting more Gloria Gaynor than this might well consider the eighteen tracker “The Collection” which has edited single versions of a lot of the above together with some more of her disco-fied cover versions “Going Out Of My Head”, “Substitute” and “Tonight” from “West Side Story”.  A treat of a studio album was released in 2002 (her 17th!) “I Wish You Love” perfectly married the uptempo dance sound with contemporary R&B and if it had a hit single on it could have done very well for her indeed.  It was well received and is certainly worth a listen but for Gloria in her glorious, glory days this “Very Best Of “ CD is a must.

In early 2016 Gloria Gaynor was chosen to open the British National Television Awards, proving she is still going strong.  Her “I Will Survive” is mixed with Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” to good effect.

“The Very Best Of Gloria Gaynor”  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £6.40 and used from £1.21. In the US it can be purchased for $10.73 and used from $3.52.

 

100 Essential Albums – Number 30- Let’s Groove – The Best Of – Earth Wind & Fire (Columbia 1996)

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If you are looking to have one studio album by Earth Wind & Fire in your collection that should be All N All (reviewed here recently). However, to really have an Essential CD collection that would need to be complemented with a Best Of compilation otherwise you would be missing out on superb examples of 70’s Soul and Disco Funk.

The CD I have selected is a 17 tracker released in 1996. There are, however, a couple of serious omissions on this so you may wish to consider the 2014 20 track release “The Ultimate Collection” but as this is the one readily on my shelf and still sells well (Amazon have it currently ranked at 1,811 and in the Top 20 Best Selling CDs in three of their charts, Funk, Disco and Classic R&B) this is the one that is up for review. It didn’t reach the album charts when first released but to see it is still performing well nineteen years later shows how highly this group’s back catalogue is regarded.

In the UK, Earth Wind & Fire scored ten Top 40 hits between 1977-83 and nine of these are featured here (1980’s “Let Me Talk#29 hit being absent). This is obviously a CD geared to the British market. In the USA they notched up 16 Top 40 hits between 1974-1983, five of them are missing here including the fairly essential “Getaway” (US#12 in 1976) and their first three hits, including, bizarrely their only US number 1 single “Shining Star” from 1975. These earlier tracks are ignored for a couple of tracks which seem somewhat random. There is a two track overlap between this and “All N All”, but as one of those is my all-time favourite “Fantasy” you won’t find me complaining.

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The album kicks off with the title track which was very much a last hurrah for the band. Released towards the end of 1981 “Let’s Groove” livened up many an end of year party as it still does today. It eschews all the spirituality that was increasingly creeping into the music and just encourages us to get down and groove. It gave the group their final Top 3 hit on both sides of the Atlantic and matched their highest ever UK single chart placing. It’s a great track but lacks the out and out magic of what comes next. For me 1979’s “Boogie Wonderland” is a song which has aged so well. At the time it seemed a little surprising that Earth Wind and Fire would make an out and out disco song but this is sheer excitement from the very first note of the introduction (which itself has been recycled into at least one big dance hit tune since). Everyone sings for their life and to bring in girl group The Emotions was a stroke of genius. Maurice White had transformed their career in 1977 by co- producing their US chart-topping “Best Of My Love” and this collaboration felt appropriate and their vocal contribution took this track up to another level. There is genuine raw excitement throughout which makes this a Disco Classic “Boogie Wonderland” has become the most fondly remembered and will probably account for a lot of the CD’s sales. It felt like a number 1 single at the time but made #4 in the UK and #6 in the US.  This song is unusual as Maurice White was not involved in the song-writing of it. Having just finished Grace Jones’ autobiography (reviewed here) I was fascinated that Grace claims she was first offered the song to sing but that she rejected it as by 1979 she was ready to move on from her Disco offerings, but what a shame there’s not a demo of it lurking around somewhere. That is a version I would very much like to hear.

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“Boogie Wonderland” came from the 1979 “I Am” album which was the follow-up to the essential “All N All” and was their commercial peak in the UK (Album Charts #5- US#3), so perhaps it is not surprise that five of the eight tracks feature on this CD. “In The Stone” keeps the excitement levels up. We’re back with the mysticism with an excellently structured song with the first class harmonies and punchy brass we expect from the group. “Can’t Let Go” rattles along at a fair lick and features more vocal gymnastics from Philip Bailey, another first class track. “Star” (UK#16)features a lovely introduction and we’re back with the outer-space theme the band loves. This CD closes with their big ballad “After The Love Has Gone”, (US#2,UK#4) which oozes quality, even if that type of ballad now sounds a little cheesy.

Elswhere on the CD we have their first UK hit from 1977 the slick disco-funk of “Saturday Nite” (UK#17,US#21) which combines nursery rhyme characters with the obscure;

“We emphasise to make it clear

Our Stumbling nations atmosphere

While looking through the looking glass

Our vision show, a stormy past

When you gonna wake and see the sun

Stop wasting time and having fun”

The whole thing (lyrics aside) is embued with a playfulness which was often evident in commercial funk in the mid 70’s. There’s also “September”, another of their biggest hits (US#8 and the first of their two UK Top 3 hits). This was much loved enough to re-chart in a remixed version in 1999 (UK#25) .The original version was recorded as a new track on their first “Best Of “ compilation and their version of the Lennon/McCartney “Got To Get You Into My Life” (US#9,UK#33) also appears on that album, having first appeared as part of the soundtrack on the misjudged Robert Stigwood produced “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” film, of which, EWF were one of the few participants to emerge with reputations intact. That leaves the pretty if slightly histrionic “Reasons” , the cool Skip Scarborough penned “Can’t Hide Love” (US#39) and the complex but lovely “That’s The Way Of The World” (US#12). The three tracks I would have put on the substitution list are their last UK and US hits – I’ve Had Enough(UK#29) and “Fall In Love With Me” (US#17)and the Latin styled track “Evil” which comes from their 1973 album “Head To The Sky” although maybe of some interest to see how the group blossomed is no substitute for “Getaway”, “Shining Star” or “Serpentine Fire”.

If you’re having a party you need Earth Wind & Fire (any doubts that they are not the ultimate party group should be dispelled if you watch the video below), for a little spiritual uplift with a disco-funk slant choose Earth Wind and Fire, to experience some of the best lead vocals, superb harmonies and funky 70’s brass this band should also be at the top of your list.

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Forty one years after their first US Top 30 hit Earth Wind and Fire are still going strong (there was a gap when they disbanded between 1983-7). They are in continual demand as a live act. Maurice White no longer tours but is still central to the group’s existence as songwriter and producer. For me the albums after 1979’s “I Am” never had the same magic (although 1997’s “In The Name Of Love” is very likable) but if you want to experience this group at this peak this CD (or one of the other Greatest Hits CD’s available) is an Essential choice.

 

At time of writing this CD can be purchased new from Amazon.co.uk used for £5.25 and used from £1.03. American listeners can buy new from $12.45 and used from $2.18. In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify

 

I’ll Never Write My Memoirs – Grace Jones (2015) – A Real Life Review

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This is the book I’ve waited years to be written.  Over the years I’ve completed a number of publisher surveys regarding Celebrity Biographies,  a question often asked is “Who would you most like to write their autobiography?”  Without fail I always answer “Grace Jones” and here at long last it is.

There are a number of reasons I wanted to read this book and ordered it from Amazon so it would be delivered on the day it came out.  Firstly, Grace is a true original, there really is no-one like her.  Also, she must surely have a story to tell, the people she has known, the whole surviving the hedonism of the 70’s thing, the whole Art, Celebrity, Music, Fashion involvement, but perhaps the most significant for me was because the image of Grace Jones is so strong, I wanted to know how much of the real Grace would be allowed to filter through in her life story.

We’re not hiding the ghost-writer here.  This is Grace’s story as told to Paul Morley.  British writer Paul has spent years as a leading music writer, has participated in the madness of the music business itself as member of the Art of Noise and worked with Grace on her 1985 “Slave To The Rhythm” album project.  He obviously has the experience and trust to get the best out of Grace and this is the result.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the importance of image and her background as a model, my first introduction to Grace Jones was through a photograph.  It was probably in “Blues & Soul” magazine or “Record Mirror” in 1977 and through the wonders of the internet I can produce this picture here

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At the time Grace had just released her first album and there were stories of her performing in New York nightclubs with whips and a leopard, arriving on the back of a Harley Davidson, performing in under-dressed extravaganzas which although commonplace today were really quite revolutionary then .  On the strength of the picture alone I went out and bought the album, without hearing a note from it.  I had to hear what the woman who looked like this sounded like.

Grace had got into music through modelling.  Because of her skin colour and her determination not to fit into a round hole she moved to Paris and became at one time one third of a modelling agency whose other two signings were women who became life-long friends, Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange.  She became for a while The Disco Queen; recreated herself in 1980 with a completely different sound and became a household name.  Movies beckoned, most significantly, the part of Mayday in the Bond film “A View To A Kill”.  In recent years we know her for hula-hooping her way through the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Celebration concert and still turning out music with her UK Chart album success “Hurricane” in 2008- over 30 years after her first album release.

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Grace and close friend Jerry Hall

Grace is surrounded in her own mythology.  Part of this has been because of the manipulation of her image by one time lover and father of her son, French artist Jean-Paul Goude which has made her seem at various times warrior-like, masculine, robotic, machine-like, animalistic even insect-like.  Grace has both exposed herself  totally and hidden herself totally and the lines between what is real and what is artistic representation have been more blurred for her than for any other performer.  Her background is chilling – a harsh upbringing amongst a very religious family in Jamaica which saw regular beatings and instilled in Grace the need to rebel.  Moving to be with her parents to Syracuse, USA at a time where there was greater freedom certainly turned her head and  from then there was no looking back, and very few regrets.  Grace is excellent in this book in conveying the difficulties of her background and what that has meant for her life.

But one thing you are never going to find from Grace is her age.  Time is a shifting concept for her and she goes to great lengths to explain why this number cannot be revealed.

“The world likes to know the age of someone, so I would often be asked.  I am honestly never sure, so when it comes to working it out, to work out how old I am,  I take something important, like my son’s age, and if he is thirty-three, and I was, say, twenty-nine when I had him, then I do the math.  So if you ask me now how old I am, nothing comes to mind straightaway.  To some extent, it could be any number.  Even then I am not entirely sure; it’s not because I am hiding my age, embarrassed or annoyed by it, but because it is not something I keep to hand.  It’s not the most important thing about me.  There are more important things about me than my age that will give you a better idea of who and what I am.”

The agelessness of Grace Jones is part of the myth.  She does look much the same as she did forty years ago but her view of time does give a kind of vagueness to all events and this autobiography lacks the usual chronological approach- although then again she can be hot on details.  It’s part of the contradictory thing which Grace admits is part of her make-up.

I was particularly fascinated by her views on the Disco Years, Studio 54 and her close friendship with Andy Warhol.   She gossips a little but not too much.  She is totally open with certain aspects of her relationships with the men in her life but is more likely to chronicle the break-down rather than the good times.  The whole thing is imbued with the philosophy of Grace and that is really quite intriguing.  This book is not therapy as Grace does not believe that helps but she is able to justify, explain and record her actions.  In the UK she is well known for slapping TV chat show host Russell Harty on his television show in an action that was obviously significant for her as it helped to both make and threaten her career.  This she places in context as she does many of her “wilder times”.  The Grace of now is a grandmother, who loves to swim, watch tennis and do jigsaws but can still become the performance Grace, the party Grace , the scary Grace.

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Grace and close friend Andy Warhol

I would have liked more photographs.  There are two sections of photos within the book.  These are slightly random and most come from Grace’s private collection.  There are times within the book when specific photos are being discussed.  I would have liked a third section of photos of those pictures and pieces of artwork relevant to the text.

The title of the book refers to a line in the song “Art Groupie” penned by Grace, which appeared on her 1981 “Nightclubbing” album.  The opening lines are;

I’ll never write my memoirs,
There’s nothing in my book,

After reading this volume that is certainly not true, although Grace said when she wrote these lyrics she believed every word.  I loved being immersed into this world of Grace Jones – I think she is one of the most significant performers of the last 50 years and we should treasure her.  Her autobiography does not shatter many illusions but does a lot to round out the character.  She and Paul Morley are to be congratulated for producing probably the only celebrity biography worth reading this year.

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“I’ll Never Write My Memoirs” was published in 2015 by Simon & Schuster

100 Essential Books – The Disco Files 1973-78- Vince Aletti (DJhistory.com 1998)

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I spent ages reading this book (44 days to be exact).  It wasn’t that it was a slog.  It was such a rich, nostalgic, evocative book that I couldn’t read it quickly.

We’re talking niche writing here and I may only be interesting a small handful of people with my review of this book but that’s fine – It was such a labour of love on behalf of its author that even those with only a limited interest in the subject matter should be encouraged to seek this one out.  Sometimes all that is needed is passion –and Vince Aletti’s certainly comes across in this book. It was that passion and incredible intention to detail I found so captivating.

From 1974-1978 Aletti wrote a column “Disco File” in the American magazine “Record World” and these are his columns, week by week, new release by new release, club chart by club chart  providing an important body of work on disco music and perhaps the most comprehensive, chronological study of a popular music genre.  The dates are significant- Aletti was there right from the start, watched the phenomenon sweep the world, from the underground New York clubs peopled by the initially largely gay, black and Hispanic audience until it imploded (in America anyway) in the late 70’s fuelled by what was largely a racist, homophobic Rock Music backlash.  He is credited as writing one of the first articles about Disco for “Rolling Stone” magazine in 1973 (this article forms part of the introduction). I loved this book and spent quite a bit of money trawling obscure downloads from Amazon and building on my music collection.   I have a thing about obsessives.  Aletti did have a British equivalent, a man called James Hamilton who wrote a column in “Record Mirror” at much the same time.  For a time it became important for DJ’s to know how many beats per minute were in a track to enable them to mix them together without bewildering dancers.  In the absence of any sophisticated way of measuring this Hamilton would reputedly arm himself with wristwatch and count and did this for every track he listed!

Prior to reading this the ultimate disco music reference book has been the very likeable “Saturday Night Forever” by Alan Jones & Jussi Kantonen (Mainsteam 1999).  This work is more important as it is a primary source with which we can see how history has skewed the importance of some artists in this genre (eg; The Bee Gees who for the general public are synonymous with Disco) to the detriment of others who better caught the imagination of their contemporaries.   The development of the clubs over the time, from the sweaty warehouses to the monster that Studio 54 became can also be clearly tracked.

In each column Aletti wrote about what was new, what was happening and published a number of club charts which he collated together to make a Disco File Top 20.  I’ve always been something of a music chart nerd so this might explain some of the appeal of this book to me.  Just opening it at random I am transported back to the 1970’s and Aletti’s column is, like Disco Music itself, full of surprises.

My random opening is August 6th 1977 and in his column Aletti has this surprise to reveal;

“Much of the Demis Roussos album (“The Demis Roussos Magic” on Mercury) is heavy-handed and sentimental and slow, but two tracks – “Let It Happen” (4.04) and “I Dig You” (4.17) are real departures, dipping as they do into the particularly European, lushly electronic sound dominating the disco charts right now.  Roussos’ version is closer to Randy Pie and Barrabas than Love & Kisses and Donna Summer, but there are touches of both styles, and plenty of synthesizers, in these two cuts.  Left field, perhaps, but worth checking into…………..”

Number 1 in the Disco File Chart that week was Donna Summer and “I Feel Love” which was also number 1 the same week in the UK charts showing how mainstream this formerly underground music had become and what about Demis Roussos as a disco star?  Who would have thought….  Actually, in his appraisal of this artist’s  album Aletti may have been hastening disco’s demise as the bandwagon-jumping that was occurring made disco music ubiquitous and began to alienate its original fans.  Rod Stewart, The Rolling Stones began to dip their toes in the Disco Pool amongst many others.  The nadir that is often cited is Ethel Merman who made a Disco album in 1979 (I have a copy of it and it is something of a guilty pleasure). The soundtrack of “Saturday Night Fever” was released at the end of 1977 and became one of the biggest selling albums of all time around the world.  Aletti does not realise that the success of this would also be a millstone around Disco music’s neck. It was just another release amongst many that week.  He recognises the album as

“ a fine collection of new and familiar material, and it certainly whets our appetite to finally see the film.  (It should be noted that disco music also forms the bulk of the material on Columbia’s “Looking For Mr Goodbar” sound track album too).

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By the time Aletti gave up his column, the secret world of disco he loved so much was not so secret any more and the establishments were no longer about the music, but about the money.  The “Disco Sucks” movement drove Disco and Dance music back into the underground in the USA (we Europeans never totally let it go) back to the Latin, gay and African American clubs it emerged from morphing eventually into the Club Dance music which is the mainstay of the industry still today some forty-two years after Aletti began chronicling the rise of this popular music form.

Aletti survived Disco – The author info at the beginning of the book states he went on to become a senior editor at The Village Voice and photography critic at The New Yorker.  “He donated his record collection to the Experience Music Project, but still has one of the greatest collections of fashion magazines in the world.”  Vince Aletti, I salute you!

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“The Disco Files 1973-78” was published in 1998 by DJhistory.com