Monday, June 16, 2008

Disco Beatles

It's been a bit Beatle-heavy 'round these parts lately, and well... why stop now?

While the Beatles together blazed countless new trails for rock and pop music in the 1960s, each man went his own way in the 1970s and while each created their own niche (John: predominantly aggro-rock, Paul: power pop, George: penduluum between eastern mysticism and western pop and Ringo: well... camp Ringo, really), none of them proved to be quite as trail blazing and each actually found themselves dabbling in the popular music of the era.

And when you think of the 1970s, what's the first genre that comes to mind? If you're a snobby smartass, you say punk, but if you've a general cultural compass, you think of that funk/disco hybrid that spawned silly movies and 12" remixes and sent the Bee Gees' 1960s catalogue unfairly buried in favor of near-annoying falsetto wailing.

And John, Paul, George and Ringo? Yes, each tried their own hands at it and put their own individual character into their attempts. Ladies and gentlemen, the disco/funk Beatles!

John Lennon – What You Got

This stacked scorcher from 1974's Walls and Bridges is one of the highlights of a rather uneven album. Though recorded in New York, the bulk of material was written while Lennon was on his near-2-year "lost weekend" that saw him separated from Yoko and out in LA drunk or heavily drugged for the most part. Funnily enough, it produced some of his most aggressive music but most depressingly self examining lyrics. Lennon would have a more famous crack at the emerging disco scene a year later when his duet with David Bowie, "Fame" became a big hit, but as far as a John Lennon disco song goes, this is pretty much what you'd expect. Heavy on sounds, aggressive singing and a good hook. Not quite a Paul McCartney-good hook, but certainly catchy enough.

Paul McCartney – Goodnight Tonight

McCartney came to the disco/funk scene a bit late -- mostly on 1979's Back to the Egg album and this standalone single. Most of his Wings work features heavy basslines, but most seemed to swing back toward the Lite FM pop market (e.g. "Silly Love Songs," "With a Little Luck"). This is a cut that features a great bassline and a beat that wouldn't be out of place at Studio 54, but the flamenco touches and the sound effects that start washing out the last third of the song get to be a bit much. Still, this is the kind of song that Paul could knock off in five minutes and when you consider that you'll have the chorus stuck in your head for the rest of the day, that's a pretty impressive feat. Can now be found on the Wingspan collection.

George Harrison - Woman Don't You Cry For Me

Hari kicked off his 1976 album, Thirty-Three and 1/3, with this barnstormer, and while the rest of the album is quite good, it never gets THIS good again. Of all the Fabs' forays into disco/funk, I think this one easily reigns supreme, and considering how much more self-aware and spiritual George was becoming in the 1970s, this track is kind of a surprise. It's kick isn't that suprising considering the musicians George enlisted for the album, including Willie Weeks on bass and Billy Preston on keys, but isn't it cool how when George lays down that slide guitar lick over the top, all the funk/disco thoughts just disappear and this becomes just a great George Harrison song? Few musicians can pull that off. Great driving song, too.

Ringo Starr - Sneaking Sally Through the Alley\

Ringo's 1970s albums seem to whittle down to two that matter: 1973's Ringo and 1974's good, but far less impressive Goodnight Vienna. Ringo continued to be Ringo in the 1970s -- he never took himself too seriously, his songwriting never proved THAT good and he padded out his albums with a lot of covers he grew up loving. The music style always carried a faux-cabaret quality, so to find disco/funk from Mr. Starkey, one has to really dig deep and peruse the later 1970s albums that NO ONE bothered picking up, like 1977's Ringo the 4th. It's an unimpressive album and it surprisingly features none of the other Beatles, but there's definitely a dancier vibe to proceedings, and this cover of Allen Toussaint's tailor-made hit for Lee Dorsey actually comes off as more than passable. Hell, I'd dance to it. In fact, I do.

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