The Last Days Of Disco … Rocked
Everybody knows what happens when you listen to Dark Side of the Moon and watch The Wizard of Oz.
Now, try this one.
Cue up the single version of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2.” It’s the one that begins instrumentally, without the “Happiest Days of Our Lives” intro, and without the scream.
Now, think of “Boogie Nights” by Heatwave, specifically the “boo-gie nights” chant that precedes, and continues through, the first verse.
Now, play the thumping first three notes of “Another Brick in the Wall.” And sing “boo-gie nights.”
It fits perfectly.
“Boogie Nights” was about two years old by the time “The Wall” came out. Usually, the lag between a hit single and the song it vaguely sounds like is closer to a year. (This British hit by Carl Douglas of “Kung-Fu Fighting” fame was exactly a year before “Tragedy” by the Bee Gees. Listen to the stretch between :25 and :45.) But Pink Floyd always took a while between projects, and The Wall was a double album.
I wondered if anybody else had ever picked up on the similarity. When I searched “Boogie Nights” and “Another Brick in the Wall,” only one result mentioned both songs in the context of each other. That was when I found out that James Guthrie had engineered them both, and co-produced “Brick.” And that the band had praised him in particular for the drum sound and the contemporary feel of the record.
Working with Classic Hits stations, I’ve had the opportunity to hear the single version of “Another Brick in the Wall” a lot over the last year. It’s the one that sounds best on the radio. And there’s no denying now that it’s a disco record.
For that matter, “Run Like Hell” is disco, too. There’s no trouble tracing it back to the “rock-meets-disco” records of a year earlier: “(I Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman” by the Kinks and “I Was Made for Loving You” by Kiss. And those owe their existence to the whipsaw electronic pulse of “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer.
I remember thinking “Run Like Hell” was disco at the time. But by early 1980, I don’t remember anybody saying that out loud. Because The Wall had become part of the “disco backlash.” It was part of Album Rock radio reclaiming its cultural primacy, as top 40 further crumbled, and most R&B disappeared from pop radio for nearly two years. It was another brick in, well, you know.
That wasn’t the intent. From Kiss to the Kinks, and from ELO’s “Shine a Little Love” to Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Goodnight Tonight,” many rock radio mainstays weren’t lashing out at disco. They were buying in. It was particularly easy for progressive rock’s keyboard acts, once “I Feel Love” gave them a new template.
For the next year or so, through the disco backlash, rock radio often had a distinctly disco pulse, and prancing four-on-the-floor keyboards. It’s just that acts didn’t talk about it anymore. In April, 1979, most of those songs would have come with a 12-inch remix. Those, as I recall, stopped. But rock hits that were clearly in the pipeline when disco was anthemic, not anathema, continued to come out through 1980-81:
- J. Geils Band’s “Come Back,” eventually eclipsed by “Love Stinks,” but a rock and pop hit itself around the same time as “Another Brick.”
- Pat Benatar’s “We Live For Love,”
- Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue,” although by then there was some grumbling about their third foray into the genre, after “Hot Stuff” and “Miss You.”
- Queen, “Another One Bites The Dust” – Then again, this obvious homage to both Chic and “Rapper’s Delight” came on the heels of “Emotional Rescue” and there was no grumbling, even from rock radio.
- Bryan Adams’ “Hiding From Love” – There was no disguising the intent of Adams’ first solo single, “Let Me Take You Dancing.” This one (a hit only in Canada) was ostensibly more power-pop, but the keyboards give it away. You can only hear a snippet on iTunes but this cover by a Bay City Rollers-spinoff act is pretty close.
- Loverboy, “Turn Me Loose” – Most people never heard it, but as it was climbing the charts in America, an odd keyboard-driven mix surfaced that gave away the song’s true intentions.
- Billy Squier, “In The Dark” – The power-chords are what people chose to hear. But the pulse is disco. And Squier’s breakthrough hit, “The Stroke,” was actually played by some Urban stations.
Research was often used as an excuse by early ‘80s programmers to favor rock over R&B, but some of the “research secret-weapons” that AOR PDs passed among each other in 1980-81 were danceable. The signature records of Detroit’s phenomenally successful WLLZ included:
- Touch, “(Call Me) When The Spirit Moves You”
- 707, “I Could Be Good For You”
- Kansas, “Got To Rock On” (also with a little bit of an R&B/funk element I didn’t pick up on at the time).
And if you’ll give me that the pulse of those songs are disco, there are others you might now hear that way. If “Run Like Hell” is danceable rock, then what is the Van Halen version of “Dancing in the Street”? Or Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen”? Destiny’s Child knew.
For some acts, especially new wave acts, there was no need to camouflage their intentions. Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime” and David Bowie’s “Fashion” managed to be both comments on the disco bandwagon and the disco backlash. And the Heads kept dropping the beat on “Once in a Lifetime” and the Tom Tom Club side project.
Then there was the song that Steve Miller did shelve as the result of the disco backlash. But when “Heart Like a Wheel,” the song he did choose to release in 1981, died quickly, he took the unusual step of putting out another single and album eight months later. That was “Abracadabra.”
By the time “Abracadabra” became a hit, R&B had started to recover some of its ground at pop radio, ironically through the efforts of acts experimenting with rock elements (Rick James, Prince, Gap Band, Ray Parker, Jr., “Beat It”). Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” had achieved an American beachhead, and, from that moment on, rock acts could say they were influenced by new wave, not Donna Summer.
To be clear, I like most of the records listed above. Some are trifles or long-forgotten, but “I Was Made for Loving You” is the Kiss record that holds up best now (and probably the most enduring in pop culture after “Rock & Roll All Night”). There was nothing insidious about the records, just their enthusiastic and irony-free reception by programmers who shut out almost every record alluded to in “Uptown Funk” (and now “24K Magic”). What was only intended as cross-pollination became appropriation.