Tuesday, May 22, 2012

You Don't Know What You Got 'Til You Lose It

Looking back on my early teens, I have noticed the huge seismic shift that took place in American popular culture practically overnight, particularly in terms of popular music.  At the end of the 1970s, the Billboard singles charts were dominated by disco and MOR and light pop-rock acts such as John Denver, Olivia Newton-John, and Leo Sayer.  As we turned from the seventies to the eighties, though, disco all but vanished from the pop charts, and most of the light pop acts who shared the charts with it disappeared almost overnight.  Yes, Olivia Newton-John had a huge hit with her single "Physical" - eleven weeks on top of the Billboard charts in late 1981 and early 1982, a bestseller in 49 states - but the Olivia Newton-John who sang that song was not the sweet, innocent, Doris Day-type MOR Olivia of the mid-seventies.  It was a new Olivia acting as if she never had been mellow, or for that matter, wholesome.  Note that I said that  "Physical" was a bestseller in 49 states.  That's because it was banned in Utah. (Newton-John later said she realized that she had succeeded in breaking her good-girl image, much like her character in Grease did, when she heard how upset the Mormons were about the record.)
I bring this up because of the recent deaths of two late-seventies pop icons, Donna Summer and the Bee Gees' Robin Gibb.  Back in the late 1970s, the Bee Gees and Donna Summer both enjoyed numerous hit songs and LPs, each beginning their string of hits sometime around 1975 and continuing for the rest of the decade.  As their popularity grew, so did an antipathy to their music.  Heavy rock fans, too enamored with the guitar solos and heavy drums of bands like Led Zeppelin or Bad Company, were increasingly hostile to the cosmopolitan dance sounds of Summer and the three Gibb brothers, not to mention the teen-idol pop stylings of the Bee Gees' younger brother Andy. This backlash metastasized into the infamous and ugly display of racism and snobbery at the Disco Demolition Night event that took place in July 1979 at Chicago's Comiskey Park baseball stadium (in which several disco records were blown up, causing a riot in the middle of a double-header White Sox game), which summed up the anti-disco movement for a lot of people . . . though I believe that many people disliked disco for musical rather than for elitist reasons.  Nevertheless, the deaths of Summer and Robin Gibb have caused many rock music fans to admit that, while dance music may not have been their cup of tea, it was still good music . . . and many a scribe in the pop press has pointed out that the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, the Bee Gees' own Main Course and Spirits Having Flown LPs, and the long list of Donna Summer's hits have influenced popular music for the past quarter century (and Summer, for her part, did have a couple of hits in the eighties after laying low in the early part of the decade).  You turn on pop radio today and  you still hear their influence.  You turn on the radio and look for the influence of '70s hard rock on contemporary music, and while you'll probably find a station playing such music, it will likely not be a mainstream one. 
Looking back at the turn of the decade, though, I can understand why so many people were eager to dump the pop styles of the seventies so quickly.  It wasn't just the overexposure of disco and its progenitors (like the Bee Gees), and it wasn't just the disdain for the MOR acts of the time.  Americans didn't just want to put seventies pop behind them; they wanted to put the seventies behind them.  It was a decade that had shaken America to the core, beginning with Vietnam and ending with Americans held hostage in Iran (and in their own embassy), with two oil shortages and a persistent economic downturn in between.  Nineteen eighty was all about putting that decade in the past as quickly as possible, and that desire was reflected in all aspects of popular culture.  Ford stopped making the Pinto in 1980.  President Carter was voted out of office in favor of Ronald Reagan.  And "Charlie's Angels" wasn't exactly the big TV hit it had been a few years earlier.  (The repudiation of the 1970s was summed up by the commercial failure of the 1980 movie Can't Stop the Music, starring the seventies vocal group the Village People, seventies actress Valerie Perrine, and seventies athlete Bruce Jenner.)   
More to the point, the fleeing from the seventies was reflected in rock music as well as pop. The Eagles decided to break up that year, Led Zeppelin disbanded when their drummer John Bonham died, Elton John's profile had diminished somewhat (and what hits he did have at the time featured lyrics written by someone other than Bernie Taupin), and art rockers like Yes were on the wane. Also, after being more overexposed than even the Bee Gees, Kiss released Unmasked, the last Kiss album credited to the original lineup  - although drummer Peter Criss, who left the band shortly thereafter, didn't actually play on it - for eighteen years.  It peaked at number 35 on the Billboard album charts.  The Kiss Army had gone AWOL, and the band would wander through the wilderness for a few years.   Only a few rock and pop performers - Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson - managed to survive this abrupt change of tastes.
But was it all bad? Didn't Donna Summer put out some records worth listening to - I mean, apart from her misguided duet with Streisand? And how could you not like "Tragedy" and "Too Much Heaven," two songs from the Bee Gees' Spirits Having Flown, just a little? Pop fans threw out the baby with the bathwater in the early eighties, and not just with Summer and the Gibb brothers.  And the downturn in the record business at the time didn't help matters either, particularly when new performers like Elvis Costello were trying to establish themselves commercially.              
So, yeah, most of those Donna Summer and Bee Gees records weren't so bad after all, even if you weren't into that style.  There was more craft that went into those records than in the records of today.  And it's worth noting that both Summer and the Gibb brothers had started out with different styles in the late 1960s - Summer sang in a psychedelic band before becoming famous, and the Bee Gees of course specialized in Beatlesque ballads, a style that carried them into the early seventies. Both acts only stumbled in the late seventies when they revisited the past - Summer with her commercially successful but still unnecessary cover of "MacArthur Park" and the Bee Gees with their colorless Lennon-McCartney covers for the Sgt. Pepper movie, both from 1978.  Maybe that's why they adapted and re-imagined their sounds going into the eighties - Summer made a reggae record, for goodness sakes ("Unconditional Love," with the children's reggae band Musical Youth).  Because that's what artists do.  They change and grow.  Those of us who didn't do so in the late seventies missed a lot of good pop music, even if it wasn't rock.  Now, given what's on the charts today, we wish we still had it.    

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