Segarini: When Radio and Records Ruled the World Part 11 – Doin’ the Hustle, the Blow, and the Chick (or Guy) in the Feather Boa

Part 10 can be found here

It was 1973. The Wackers had never played very often in Ontario, but the band was winding down and we decided to play some dates there before we threw in the towel. The last date would be in Ottawa, a week long gig in a hotel bar, but the first date in Ontario was in Toronto, at a bar called The Generator. Although we were aware of a new and currently flourishing in Montreal musical diversion, this was our first exposure to its escalating popularity, and the first time we witnessed first hand what it was doing to the rock clubs we were so used to playing…

The Generator was a beautifully laid out club with several rooms connected to the main one, a decent sized stage with a dance floor in front of it, and well spaced tables with linen table clothes and comfortable chairs. They served food if I remember correctly, and when we arrived there about an hour before our first set, the place was already packed. We must be more popular in Toronto than I thought, I thought. Dinner music played quietly on the house sound system. We noticed that this was one of the best dressed crowds we had ever played for. The women all in dresses and looking hot, the men (some wearing suits) looking like they were on their way to the Senior Prom or a business dinner. Eventually the house lights dimmed, the stage lights came up, and the dinner music faded out as we launched into “I Started to Rock”. It was standing room only.

As always, The Wacks gave 110%…we played our usual mix of covers and originals, stalking the stage like the professionals we were, and having a great time playing the music we love. There was polite applause after every song…and nothing more. No one danced, no one ‘YAY!’d…nadda. We were perplexed. The sound was good, the band was spot on, but the crowd, looking strangely overdressed and smiling, were oddly subdued. We were not used to that kind of response, or lack thereof. What, I asked myself, could the matter be? We got our answer at the end of the set. After a blistering version of “On the Way Up/Love the One You’re With”, we ended the set with a big flourish, and I stepped up to the mic and said, “We’ll be back after a short break, have a great time.”

That’s when the house sound system, sounding ten times louder than our P.A, launched into gut punching, ear splitting, action, the lights started blinking off and on, and everyone ran to the dance floor and started dancing, or at least, attempting to dance (I don’t think Soul Train was available on Canadian TV yet). Randy and I were sitting on the edge of the stage, twirling skirts and dresses lightly slapping against our cheeks.Rand turned to me and said, “Disco.” I said, “Yep.”, and we headed for the bar.

Most people mark the Disco Era from 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, but the truth is it has been around a lot longer, depending on where you want to stick a pin in the musical history map. One of the first disco tracks I ever heard was a remake of a much loved song from 1952 when I was 7 years old. A Latin flavoured recording by one of my favourite vocal group of all time, the Four Freshmen, called Poinciana. Imagine my surprise in 1973, when I heard this.

So while Southern Rock, with it’s mullet sporting followers, hard rock bands growing their hair long and straight , Power Trios like Cream and Hendrix with their psychedelic clothes and lyrics, and the more experimental music that was unleashed during the San Francisco music explosion was readily available on FM radio stations, AM radio continued playing a smoother, less demanding form of popular music. The rift between the radio frequencies was widening, and when AM embraced ‘Disco’, the separation was complete. The first number one record of the disco era was this infectious track by George McCrae (looking like a real-life Cleveland Brown) which opened the floodgates and once again sent record companies into a feeding frenzy. While a large number of us still navigated the clubs looking for live music, and tuned into FM to hear our rock faves and discover new artists, an ever growing larger number fell prey to the simple words and beat of the new disco music, traded in their tie-dye and roach clips, and went shopping for leisure suits and polyester shirts with gigantic collars, and a gram of coke, which, thanks to the disco community’s gay sector, was now ironically called ‘blow’.

So how did gays, urban blacks, hippies, the British glam movement, and middle class white folk from the suburbs come to bring different elements together to produce this pot luck smorgasbord of music, environment, fashion, and lifestyle? As far as I’ve been able to surmise, here are the disparate pieces of this jigsaw puzzle that somehow all fit together to create what was to become the biggest polarizing musical movement in radio and record’s supreme reign.

A Little History…

During the Second World War both Occupied France and Germany had hidden dance clubs where anti-Nazi factions could socialize, dance, and listen to American swing music. The music was provided by either a jukebox or a record player. The clubs, called ‘Discothèques’ (French for ‘Nightclub’) were moved frequently to avoid detection, not always successfully.

In 1947, after the end of the war, a permanent club was opened in Paris called the ‘Whiskey A Go Go’, and in 1953, a young woman who had been part of the Franco-Jewish community hidden from the Nazis by the French Resistance, came to manage the club, removed the jukebox and had two turntables installed so the music would never stop, and people could dance the night away without interruption. Her name was Regine (pictured here), and she was 24 years old, and by the mid ‘70’s she would own 25 clubs around the world bearing her name. After moving to New York, she would help make Discothèques and Disco music the biggest draws in every major city on the planet. Her role as the first club disc jockey (a term coined by Walter Winchell in the ‘40’s) in this new form of Nightclub would create an army of others who would bring creative touches to mixing the records, extending certain passages, blending two songs together, and going back and forth from one track to another seamlessly, as though the music had been recorded that way.

She also brought theme nights (pictured here: Garter Party 1963) and flattering lighting (most party people looked like shit halfway through the night, coked out, drunk, whatever) by putting pink lampshades over all the light bulbs, giving party goers that healthy “I’m not as fucked up as you think” glow.

The Hippies, specifically the San Francisco chapter, brought the incredibly massive and loud sound systems, the ever changing lights, smoke bombs, strobe lights, bright colors, and free love mind-set. They didn’t, however, bring the drugs…that honor went to the Gays, who brought style, urban chic, elaborate costumes and immaculate grooming to the party, as well as Disco’s drugs of preference.

Marijuana and hash, the Hippie and rock musos preferred buzz, did not really fit in all that well with the kinetic energy and strobing lights, packed dance floors, and acetate, form fitting shirts that would instantly become full of smoldering holes if even a hot cigarette ash fell on them. Some psychedelics made the cut, but unless the acid was really good, the strychnine left in badly made batches would tighten your throat muscles and make you very susceptible to sudden noises, disorienting sights and sounds, and unable to drink alcohol. The Gay community, on the other hand, had the necessary drugs to enhance your disco experience without causing you to want to go on a killing spree. The first and foremost of these, was cocaine.

There was certainly cocaine use by musicians, record, and radio people before disco, but it was the perfect fuel for long nights of drinking, dancing, and debauchery and whose hard to ignore appeal drew in just about everyone that ventured forth into the discos. It actually became fashionable, to be shared and discussed openly, not hidden away or done discreetly. Men and women alike wore necklaces with silver or gold razor blades or tiny coke spoons around their necks. It became cool to have a gold tube or rolled up 100 dollar bill on your person at all times. (Pictured here. The inscription reads, “All I Want is More”) Men offered it to seduce women, women offered it to attract men, and everybody shared freely, knowing that if they ran out, more was available all over the club. It killed inhibitions, gave confidence, and supplied the energy you needed for dancing and sex, both of which were available in abundance in the clubs.

Then there were amyl nitrates or ‘poppers’. These little puppies were broken under the nose of heart patients to restart the old ticker or revive someone from having fainted. Taken as an enhancement and purely for recreational purposes, it made you feel like every organ in your body, including your brain, were placed on a vertical rocket sled and slammed 10 stories above your head in an instant. Used on the dance floor, as well as during sex at the moment of truth, and where the expression ‘head rush’ came from.

The Gays also brought free love’s uptown brother, ‘promiscuity’ to the mix, and everybody was having a lot of sex. One thing you can say for disco music is it really addressed the body electric, its rhythms matching perfectly the body’s ebb and flow during love making. There were couples in the bathroom stalls, hallways, staircases, banquettes, anywhere that afforded a little privacy, but no one seemed to care if they attracted a crowd, and sometimes the crowd would join in. This led to an offshoot of disco clubs called an ‘On Premises Sex Club’. A famous one, Plato’s Retreat in New York continued long after Studio 54 and the bulk of New York discos went out of business. Disco also became connected with the burgeoning Porn Industry and Al Goldstein’s landmark tabloid, Screw.

The Brit Glam movement and the Gays brought androgyny, drama, and costumes to the discos. Men wore makeup, women would sometimes wear men’s suits, people dressed up like it was Mardi Gras with elaborate headdresses and long feather boas. Men would show up dressed in drag, caricatures of Mae West or Marilyn Monroe, and amazingly enough, there were no fist fights, name calling, or racial or sexist insults. There were rivalries, to be sure, but drama was an integral part of the sideshow, played out nightly between strutting cliques, part of the ongoing mosaic that accompanied the loud, pulsing music. The music that spawned this subculture, and its heart and soul. (Pictured; Disco ‘Diva’ Sylvester)

The Black community brought the music, and would soon be joined by artists of every stripe in redefining dance music…again. Move over Twist…here comes the Hustle.

Once again, black music was being ghettoized on radio. With the exception of Motown’s mainstream music, there was very little else to be heard. The music in the discos was another story….and it was about to explode on the airwaves.

Before we get to that, we’re going to take a little side trip to 1969 to have a look and a listen to two songs and artists many believe to be precursors of the disco music that was about to take over radio in 1974, Jimi Hendrix (!?) and  Sly Stone.

Add to those two songs this track from 1972. Wikipedia has this to say:

Soul Makossa” is a 1972 single by Cameroonianmakossa saxophonist Manu Dibango (pictured here). It is often cited as one of the first disco records. In 1972 David Mancuso found a copy in a Brooklyn West Indian record store and often played it at his Loft parties. The response was so positive that the few copies of “Soul Makossa” in New York City were quickly bought up. The song was subsequently played heavily by Frankie Crocker, who DJ’ed at WBLS, then New York’s most popular black radio station. Since the original was now un-findable, at least 23 groups quickly released cover versions to capitalize on the demand for the record. Atlantic eventually licensed the song from the French record label Fiesta. Their release of it peaked at #35 on the Billboard chart in 1973; in 1999 Dave Marsh wrote that it was “the only African record by an African” to crack the top 40. At one point there were nine different versions of the song in the Billboard chart. It became “a massive hit” internationally as well.

“Soul Makossa” was originally recorded as a B-side for “Mouvement Ewondo,” a song about Cameroon’s Associations Football team.

It is probably best remembered for the chanted vocal refrain “mama-se, mama-sa, ma-ko-ma-ko-ssa”, which was adapted (“mama-se, mama-sa, ma-ma-ko-ssa”) and used in Michael Jackson’s 1982 “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” (albeit in a different key with a not-so-monophonic melody) during the song’s final bridge. It is also sampled in the hip hop song “Face Off” by artist Jay Z on his album In My Lifetime Volume 1 as well as the single “Don’t Stop the Music” by Rihanna. The song is also sampled on the intro to The Carnival, Wyclef Jean ‘s first solo album. The phrase “ma ma say ah, ma ma coo sah” also appears in the fourth verse of the song “Rhythm (Devoted to the Art of Moving Butts)” by A Tribe Called Quest, and in “Mama Say,” the debut single by the Bloodhound Gang. Dirty Beatniks, sampled the song for their 1997 dance track “Latinhead.” “Makossa” means “(I) dance” in Duala, a Cameroonian language.

Radio caught up fast. By mid 1975, 30 of the top 100 singles were disco hits. Discos were popping up in suburbs and small towns, and something big was about to begin.

One of the dance songs on the charts in 1975 was a comeback single for a group that had been part of the tail end of the British Invasion. I was a big fan, and really liked the record. By now the Wackers were history and Kootch and I were in a kind of local supergroup in Montreal called All the Young Dudes. With the release of our album came a bonus…we would be touring Canada with the band I had so admired in the ‘60’s, and who now were burning up the charts with a single that was a complete departure from their previous recordings. Nevertheless, it was a great record, and in less than two years, this once washed up band would be the biggest group on earth, and set records that have yet to be broken. Here’s the track that would start it all.

Next: When Radio and Records Ruled the World Part 12 – From Funky Town to Punky Town: The Great Disco Backlash.

Segarini’s regular column appears every Monday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

Bob “The Iceman” Segarini was in the bands The Family Tree, Roxy, The Wackers, The Dudes, The Segarini Band, and Cats and Dogs, andnominated for a Juno for production in 1978. He also hosted “Late GreatMovies” on CITY TV, was a producer of Much Music, and an on-air personality on CHUM FM, Q107, SIRIUS Sat/Rad’s Iceberg 95, (now sadly gone), and now provides content for radiothatdoesntsuck.com with RadioZombie, The Iceage, and PsychShack. Along with the love of his life, Jade (Pie) Dunlop, (who hosts and writes “I’ve Heard That Song Before” on RTDS), continues to write, make music, and record.

3 Responses to “Segarini: When Radio and Records Ruled the World Part 11 – Doin’ the Hustle, the Blow, and the Chick (or Guy) in the Feather Boa”

  1. Excellent, as always, Bob.

  2. Amazing stuff. A great read, and I’m still learning after all these years.

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