By the time 1977 rolled around, popular music was again going through one of its redefining moments. For the next three years, during the tail end of the 1970s, rock music began its unparalleled trajectory into what I call sonic schizophrenia. Where else but in the states could you find Disco (the Bee Gees, Donna Summer, ABBA, Andy Gibb, Saturday Night Fever), Jazz Fusion (Jeff Beck, Return To Forever, Chuck Mangione), Soft Rock (Debby Boone, Anne Murray, Barry Manilow), Novelty songs (“Disco Duck,” “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band,” “A Fifth of Beethoven”) and of course Punk/New Wave (The Clash, Ramones, Blondie, The Runaways, The Knack, Patti Smith, Police, Elvis Costello) all “clashing” for airtime on the radio, where station formats were also changing on the fly?
Perhaps, critical mass was reached here, as depicted on this post’s featured image: Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park Chicago 1979. Clearly, the slightly zealous mob that penetrated the baseball diamond that fateful evening was comprised of rockers fed up with pumps, white blazers, razor blade necklaces and a whole lot of Donna Summer and Bee Gees.
According to Billboard from September 1977 through June of 1979 the Bee Gees had six consecutive Number 1 singles, four of which are their top-selling singles ever: “Night Fever,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “How Deep Is Your Love” and “Too Much Heaven.” A good run, indeed. Others might describe it less-than-politely.
Meanwhile from September 1978 for approximately one year, Disco Diva Donna Summer had eight consecutive Top 10 singles, including four Number 1 hits (“MacArthur Park,” “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls” and “No More Tears”) and a Number Two (“Dim All the Lights”). Take that, Bee Gees. The battle was on!
Add into the mix the mega-hit soundtrack albums of Saturday Night Fever and Grease and you can see why several-thousand baseball fans could get a bit amped up with the promise of exploding Disco records.
During this fractious period, my own personal cure for what ailed me in the age of Disco was to seek out the gems—such as they were.
For example, Walter Egan, with help from Fleetwood Mac gave us “Magnet and Steel,” which peaked at #8 in the summer of 1978.
From the 1977 single release for “Go Your Own Way,” Fleetwood Mac’s B-Side “Silver Springs” didn’t make the Rumours LP (that was how ridiculously rich with artistry it was), however, even their album rejects caught fire.
Karla Bonoff arrived in the L.A. scene, and into the limelight, albeit briefly. Often compared to Linda Ronstadt, mostly to her detriment, she may have been the late decade’s most underappreciated female singer-songwriter. To this day, “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me” continues to give me the chills, with its portrait of a heartless city comprised of those seeking some kind of connection.
Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits were a dynamic breath of fresh air in 1978 and into 1979 with their smash debut single “Sultans of Swing,” which peaked in the USA at #4.
In the summer of 1979, I first heard what I could only describe as a more edgy and streetwise version of Joni Mitchell, when the ultra-coolsville Rickie Lee Jones burst on the scene with her Top 10 hit “Chuck E.’s in Love.” I gobbled up the debut LP like a slice of Apple Pan chocolate cream pie a la mode. Even better, the songstress hailed from Olympia, Washington, just down the road from where I attended college. Never was fortunate enough to run into her or catch a show at the Gnu Deli.
Dave Mason is another one of those endlessly underappreciated rock and roll legends—if you can be both! His 1977 release Let It Flow was layered with masterful songs. But “Seasons” stands out to me as his best work of the decade. Rolling, majestic, featuring scintillating harp glissandos, this work scores high on my list for just being a simply perfect song.
Ambrosia, with David Pack and Joe Puerta at the helm, is one of my favorite groups. Their metaphysical 1975 self-titled debut LP ranks in the Top 20 on my all-time list. Songs like “Make Us All Aware,” “Time Waits for No One,” and the irreverent “Nice, Nice, Very Nice” based on Kurt Vonnegut’s writing underscored unique themes such as “so many people in the same device.” “How Much I Feel,” their #3 hit from their 1978 LP Life Beyond L.A. gave me hope that quality rock was still alive and well even as it navigated the pop charts where Donna Summer (“MacArthur Park”), Chic (“Le Freak”) and the Bee Gees (“Too Much Heaven”) plodded along in their pumps.
Easy to call out Disco as the villain. However, was it the catalyst to lead popular music into a new direction—a backlash of sorts. Can’t argue here. Perhaps many of you that graced the dance floors in those white blazers channeling your inner Travolta can speak on behalf of the turbulent and controversial fad? Or, was it not a fad, but was actually a legitimate form of expression?
Conversely, where did music transport from there? Short answer: Art Rock. Big Flock of Seagulls hair. Drum machines that rattled the brain. Arena rock 2.0. Supergroups. Most of it driven by the multimedia mega-machine MTV.
Where do you stand? Did we need Disco? Was it an aberration? Would music have turned to a more visual format regardless of MTV? Or would there have been a v. 2.0 of singer-songwriters and intimate pop-rock if it remained aural, and not a visually-driven medium?
Grab a bean bag and tell me your thoughts.