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Sunday, October 2, 2016

Under the Big Top # 39: “Disco Still Sucks”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Sister Disco”
Album: Who Are You
Release Date: August 25, 1978 (hey, that was my 16th birthday)

My freshman orientation at North Adams State College (now the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts) in the summer of 1980 included a concert night in the school gymnasium.  The bands sharing the bill that evening were The Fools and The Blushing Brides.  The Fools were a local Boston party band who, truth be known, were hard to take seriously (the band name alone was enough to lower that bar, although I have to say I have always been impressed with their song “Life Sucks…..Then You Die”, because of a reverse-course from the song title in the final take home message of the lyrics).  The Blushing Brides were a newly-formed Rolling Stones tribute band from Canada (a very good one I might add) who went on to write music of their own.

The Fools performed first.  Included in their set was their hit of the day, “Psycho Chicken”, a parody of the Talking Heads “Psycho Killer”.  When the Blushing Brides hit the stage afterward, the first thing out of lead singer Maurice Raymond’s mouth before launching into song was “Psycho Chicken?  What the fuck?”  It was clear the Blushing Brides were not impressed with the band that preceded them.  These Canadians obviously took Rock and Roll very seriously and found it sacrilegious that The Fools appeared to be goofing on that spirit.

I agreed with the sentiment, but disagreed with such a public pronouncement of it.  Even at the age of 17 I knew this; that rock bands shouldn’t shit on each other, particularly when they are performing together.  It’s an unwritten rule or something isn’t it?   And so, the Blushing Brides were honoring one of Rock’s creeds, that being the underlying seriousness of its message, but at the same time they were breaking another; that being the homage one act should pay to a fellow Rock-music performer. These guys were young though, so perhaps should be given some slack for being just out of the gate in 1980.  They were still learning the ropes and it’s the type of slip that I believe the Blushing Brides would not make if the two bands were to perform together today (both are still active).  * Side Note: In hindsight, the cat was already out of the bag with the Fools goofing on the Talking Heads with their parody.  The Blushing Brides were compounding the problem by disparaging The Fools, but from this perspective it seems as if they were somewhat justified.

I lead off with this story to set the ground rules for this entry; that being the mentality that goes into being a Rock and Roll purist.  There was a reason why Rock music was considered a threat to the establishment when it was first rolled out in the 1950s by the likes of Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly.  These performers and their audience came out of left field but were insisting that they be taken seriously.  This was a different ballgame from many of music’s popular genera’s of the then-recent past, which evolved out of the main stream, such as Big Band, Swing and Jazz.  Rock music evolved out of black southern Blues and the ‘subversive’ beatnik Folk scene.  The big difference between Rock and where it came from was that Rock was popular with youth culture and so could be marketed (although that part took a while for the big guns to figure out).  This made the new genre a bit more formidable (and scarier to the powers that be).

The seriousness of how much the Rock purist believed in the art form cannot be understated.  Rock was Astral Weeks and What’s Going On.  It was Blood on the Tracks, The River, London Calling, All Things Must Pass, Exile on Main Street, My Aim Is True and Who Are You.  It was an endless parade of truth in musical form.  Pete Townshend, who pontificated early and often on the subject of the seriousness of Rock, once made an attempt to define the genera in an article he wrote for the British magazine NME in 1977:  "If it screams for truth rather than help, if it commits itself with a courage it can't be sure it really has, if it stands up and admits that something is wrong but doesn't insist on blood, then its rock and roll."  He would soon after put this sentiment to music and lyrics in the Who Are You classic “Sister Disco”. 

In many ways “Sister Disco” is the quintessential Who song (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsilznEYQHs), which is probably why it’s one of Roger Daltrey’s favorites.  Everyone steps to the plate at one point or another.  John Entwistle’s bass lines are wonderfully melodic throughout the complex 3-part bridge (starting with Pete Townshend’s lead singing contribution at 1:14 of the attached, continuing with an instrumental portion – a rare opportunity to hear John and Pete playing in identical note progression, and concluding with a Daltrey lead stanza which begins at 2:10).  Keith Moon’s drumming belies the rock-media criticism at the time of his substandard contribution to the overall sound of the band (he would die soon after the album’s release from the cumulative effect of long-term self-abuse, and so I see the criticism as reaction rather than original thought).  Roger Daltrey sounds passionate and supremely confident from start to finish.  The synthesizer, absent in the band’s previous effort Who By Numbers, is intense.  And Pete Townshend’s acoustic-guitar playing is extremely soulful, particularly at the end of the song (more on that later). 

But the core drive-home messages to “Sister Disco” are in the lyrics; a fictional narrative about a dying “Disco” in her hospital bed and the loyal “Rock” coming to visit and comfort her.  After all, the year was 1978, and disco was fading fast.  As “Sister Disco” unfolds, the Rock character is banged up, but reinvigorated after a long period of battle with this adversary, Disco.  Rock steps out of the hospital into the cold, snowy air; adhesive tape on a bruised nose.  But Rock has survived.  The imagery is fantastic, and it gets better with that aforementioned Townshend-sung bridge:

Bye, goodbye Sister Disco, now I go
I go where the music fits my soul
And I, I will never let go, I’ll never let go
‘Til the echo of the street fight has dissolved

That last line says it all.  Pete Townshend is stating that Rock serves a purpose:  To be there for the lonely and afflicted until the day that the world is at peace with itself.  Heady stuff!  Yes, we can have fun in the process and marvel in the music when it’s done right.  But for the musicians and their audience, the more important part of it all is the deeper insights into the meaning of life (and our role in it) that can be conjured up as we listen, reflect, and contemplate.  The lyrics in “Sister Disco” continue and point out that Rock will “choose nightmares and cold stormy seas” over serenity until all_of_us can be serene.  The song concludes by pointing out that, because Rock has chosen the just path forward, Disco has no choice but to jump off its sinking ship and onto the Rock lifeboat to join the cause (“I’ve got you all looking out through my eyes, my feet are a prayer”).

It was not easy to articulate in 1978 for a young 16 year old, but Disco represented something somewhat sinister to me and my friends.  Disco wasn’t a threat of quality; it was a threat of non-quality.  It was the brain-as-mush, creativity-deprived purple dinosaur shitting in the tree-lined heart of soulful Sesame Street.  Disco was the Orwellian threat of conformity.  Here’s another analogy: If Rock is personified in any character in a movie it is that of the Jack Nicholson character “Mac” McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Disco was “Mac” at the end; an electroshocked shell of himself.  Disco was where the candy-assed Barry Manilow compromised halfwit turned to for entertainment. Disco Sucked! * Side Note: For anyone offended, I channeled my 16 year old self for that last sentence. 

Things were taken a bit far in Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1979 on “Disco Demolition Night”, a riotous evening that centered on kids bringing their Disco records to the Park and piling them up for one big explosion.  It all got somewhat out of hand which gives this event a small historical footnote of infamy.  But the real story is the fact of why this event even took place.  For any future generation to come upon this tidbit of a 70s event and try to understand will be quite bizarre for them unless they put it all into a proper context.  Rock and its serious message had been threatened by this misguided interloper.  Disco was a distraction from the focus and momentum of a youth culture heading in an empathetic and altruistic direction, guided at least in part by Rock and Roll.  It would take some time to right the ship.

The end of “Sister Disco” is my favorite part of the song:  A rare Pete Townshend guitar solo (for a Who record), done in acoustic fashion over a 40 second span.  This is the drive home point, no lyrics needed.  It’s a sprinkle of soul dust at the end of a very well-crafted arrangement:   A gift to the rock purist who knows the deep recesses of the heart when he hears it.

Pete

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