Day 422: Big Box O’Juke – 70’s Edition

originally published February 25, 2013

It’s time to dial up some tuneage from the distant past, back when cheese was king and fashions looked like rainbows had thrown up onto a jelly bean factory. Yes, it’s another edition of the Big Box O’ Juke, where you learn the stories behind the hits, and probably end up with one of these damn songs ricocheting off the inside of your skull for the rest of the day. I make no apologies; I suffer along with you.

Last month I strolled through the hot-pink neon glow of 80’s hits. I’m not sure if I have more readers who were kids in the 70s or the 90s, but I’m erring on the side of disco balls, ‘ludes and shag carpeting so thick it can trip a rhino.

On New Year’s Eve, 1977, Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers and bass player Bernard Edwards were denied entrance to New York City’s famous Studio 54. They had been invited to join Grace Jones inside, but Grace had forgotten to let the goons running the doors know she was expecting guests. Rodgers and Edwards were pissed, so they did what any self-respecting musicians would do… they wrote a revenge song.

Originally, the lyrics to the chorus of this song – a song which is truly the litmus test of anyone’s tolerance for disco – were “Fuck off!”. Hoping to receive some airplay, Chic changed it to “Freak out!”, though they hung onto the verse lyrics criticizing Studio 54’s long lines, exclusive guests and dickish doormen. “Le Freak” hit number one three times, the first song ever to do so.

The opening track of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album, “Bennie And The Jets”, got a tremendous amount of airplay despite Elton’s steadfast reluctance to release it as a single. Producer Gus Dudgeon got the idea to tack a bunch of live audience sounds to give the impression the track was recorded in concert, including some samples from Jimi Hendrix’s Isle Of Wight record.

As massive a pop hit as the single was, it was also Elton John’s first top-40 entry to the R&B charts, which no doubt tickled him as a fan of soul music. It even netted him a spot on Soul Train. This is also the song that inspired Axl Rose to become a singer, but let’s not hold that against him.

Why on earth would anybody write a pop song with a saxophone riff for a chorus? For starters, Gerry Rafferty never intended “Baker Street” to be so saxual. He’d written the song whilst staying at a friend’s place while his former band, Stealers Wheel, was breaking up. It was one of those band break-ups in which everybody sued everybody else, which I find quite impressive for a band that only has one single I’ve heard of. So while Gerry was “stuck in the middle with” a bunch of lawyers, he sought refuge with a friend who lived on Baker Street in London.

The chorus was originally going to be sung. I don’t know if that means Gerry was waiting for inspiration to deliver him a handful of lyrics, or if he just meant to sing the riff in “lalala” or “dadada” form. I’d like to think there were words:

“’Cause Baker Street is cold,

And Baker Street is real,

And I am getting old, I’m feeling old,

Yeah, fuck you, rest of Stealers Wheel!”

Anyhow, Raphael Ravenscroft suggested he fill the space with a  riff on his alto sax, and the rest is super-saxy history.

Every month I cover the ‘worst’ of things – worst movies, worst TV, worst video games and worst music. This song could, and rightfully should fit snugly into a worst music article. If you’ve never heard Paul Anka’s 1974 chart-topper “(You’re) Having My Baby”, then head directly to the craps tables because you are a lucky person. The single’s very existence is as ludicrous and unexplainable as the parentheses in its title.

Paul recorded the song with Odia Coates, with whom he had had zero babies. As much as the song is derided for its schlock factor, it actually ran into some controversy, due to lyrics that were taken as chauvinist – a precarious path upon which to tread during the Women’s Lib movement of the 70’s. The National Organization for Women objected to the notion it was “My Baby” instead of “Our Baby”. Paul also caught some flak for the lyrics that suggest the woman could have “swept it from (her) life”.

Hey, at least he didn’t suggest they could have sold the baby for parts.

In 1977, the Bee Gees were asked to write a few songs for an upcoming movie soundtrack. They were recording at the Chateau d’Hérouville studios in Paris – the same spot where Elton John had recorded “Bennie And The Jets” three years earlier – and they came up with the song that would forever be intertwined with the dark plastic soul of disco: “Stayin’ Alive”

In what can only be described as a cruel slice of irony, drummer Dennis Byron’s mother passed away during the recording of this song. The Gibbs looked for a replacement, but came up short. Producer Albhy Galuten tried out a drum machine, but didn’t like the results. Then he began to experiment; he took two bars of the drum track on the Bee Gees’ “Night Fever”, and created a loop. This was the track they used – the first ever commercial drum loop on a single. They liked the groove so much, the same tape loop was used on “More Than A Woman” from the same album, as well as on Barbara Streisand’s “Woman In Love.”

“Stayin’ Alive” was not meant to be the first single from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, but it was in high demand once the trailer for the film hit theaters.

I feel as though I should include a track that I truly like to finish off this article. And while there isn’t a lot of trivia intertwined with Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”, it’s such a great piece of 70’s tunery, it deserves a mention.

The song was written after the end of Simon’s first marriage, because as we all know, misery often gives birth to funk. The background singers were all notable chanteuses: Valerie Simpson (of Ashford & Simpson), Patti Austin, and Phoebe Snow. Studio drummer Steve Gadd provided something called a ‘linear drum pattern’ to give the song a swampy groove.

This was Paul Simon’s crowning achievement, at least in terms of chart success. It was his only #1 hit on the Billboard charts, which is a great indication that the Billboard charts, or at least the public’s purchasing decisions that determine them, are wrong.

The 1970’s was a decade of cheese and fluff, but some quality music was able to seep through the cracks. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go sew some sequins onto my bathrobe.

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