Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Most Absurd Disco Cover Songs of All Time

By the time disco was running full steam in the late 70's, the rush to cash in on the disco craze was so compelling that some rock artists jumped on the bandwagon, much to the dismay of their fans, notably Rod Stewart ("Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?"), Kiss ("I Was Born For Loving You") and even the Electric Light Orchestra ("Shine A Little Light").

In the pursuit of the almighty dollar, disco actually turned its eyes to the classics. No, I don't mean Chopin (he was exploited for Donna Summers' "Could It Be Magic") or Beethoven (Walter Murphy got him with "A Fifth Of Beethoven").

I mean classic rock and folk songs from the 60's and 70's that didn't sound remotely like they should be played in a discotheque and probably should have been left just the way they are.

Disco turned the tables -- literally and figuratively -- on rock and roll.

There has been no musical category too sacred for a disco makeover. Some covers made perfectly logical sense because they were already rhythmic and soulful, like Bonnie Pointer's take on the obscure Motown tune "Heaven Must Have Sent You," Angela Clemmons' straightforward handclapping re-do of the Chairmen of the Board's "Give Me Just A Little More Time," and Donna Summer's synthesized epic "MacArthur's Park Suite."

However, the whole trend moved into the absurd when record executives and producers had the bright idea that the rock, folk and Broadway musical catalogs had to be raided, spiffed up with a 4/4 bass drum, 8th-note high hats, bouncy strings, hand claps, and oh, jacked up to about 125 beats per minute. Many songs were not meant for this destiny, but clearly destiny be damned! And that's what this post is about.

Remember the audience for the pseudo-musical "Springtime for Hitler" on opening night in "The Producers," jaws agape, eyes wide open in disbelief. You know what you are seeing and hearing is so bad, you can't decide if it's really awful or you just want to laugh at the whole thing and pretend it's a joke. You may have the same reaction when you hear and see these heretical disco genre twists.

Yes, here are the 10 most hard to believe songs that somehow found themselves converted into disco hits. You will see another recurring theme here -- the magical year of 1979, when the genre seemed to peak with insanity.

1) Viola Wills -- "If You Could Read My Mind" (1981): Gordon Lightfoot's 1970 slow sensitive breakthrough folk hit about his devastating divorce gets completely overhauled for the dance floor. The sadness of Lightfoot's fallen-apart relationship? Tossed out! Here's Viola Willis on "Solid Gold" with several women finely choreographed in sparkling gold spandex outfit belting out about that sad breakup. P.S. Not satisfied with desecrating one 70's Canadian folk artist, Wills released a disco version of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" too.

2) Rosebud -- "Have A Cigar" (1977): Only a mere two years after Pink Floyd released their prog-rock tribute to drugged-out former bandmate Syd Barrett, Wish You Were Here, Warner Brothers released a 12" single from an anonymous studio band covering Roger Waters' song about, cough, the greed and hypocrisy of the record business. The song kind of takes on a whole new meaning when a funky slap bass and pounding cowbell accompany a couple of unknown singers belting out repeatedly in a rather quantized fashion: "Come in here, dear boy, have a cigar, you're gonna go far (go far-r-r-r-r!), a-ha!"

3) The Raes -- "School" (1979): Continuing the disco-izing of famous 70's prog-rock songs, this Toronto couple took on the opening song of Supertramp's Crime of the Century album. Like Pink Floyd, Supertramp seems have had some traumatic experiences in early UK education and paint a picture of a scared kid being poked around by his parents, friends and teachers. The Raes' version rethinks the song as a duet, where they take that tagline of "He's coming along!" and shout it along with some big cop show horn riffs.

4) Linda Clifford -- "Bridge Over Trouble Water" (1979): Nobody minded when Aretha Franklin made this song into a deep gospel take on Simon & Garfunkel's Grammy Award winning song about companionship even in the worst of times. After all, she was the queen of soul and she could sing the phone book and move the world. On the other hand, I don't think anybody expected this epic tune to feature background singers flittering: "Gonna be a bridge!" And if that point wasn't driven home clearly, here's Linda Clifford, a vision in red while dancing over the Williamsburgh Bridge, belting it out for all the cars driving by and perhaps a jumper who couldn't not believe what they were hearing. Note the jogger running past her at the 1:15 mark!

5) Elton John -- "Johnny B. Goode" (1979): Even the greats make their mistakes. John's career was at its nadir when he released his official disco album Victim of Love, produced by Giogio Moroder partner Pete Bellotte. I bet you didn't even know this album existed! Hoping to capture some of the stardust Bellotte gave Donna Summer, John opened this travesty with an ill-conceived eight minute disco rendition of Chuck Berry's rock and roll classic. Don't choke when you see Elton lip synch the single on TV here. Just keep thinking: "He went on to write 'Little Jeannie' the next year, thank God."

6) The Wonder Band -- "Whole Lotta Love" (1979): Even sacred hard rock bangers Led Zeppelin was not safe from the usual anonymous studio band treatment on this headbanging classic from their album, Stairway to Love. Speeding up that slow throbbing beat, the immortal guitar riff is short and clipped while those singers get their lines in over the hot congas: "You need coo-o-o-olin'! Baby, I'm not foo-o-o-o-lin'!"

7) Amii Stewart -- "Light My Fire" (1979): Making over Eddie Floyd's old Stax hit "Knock On Wood" is Stewart's claim to fame, but she found the time to follow the Donna Summer playbook for The Doors' breakthrough rock classic -- start nice and slow, and then rev up the beat and hold that note on "fi-i-i-i-ire" forever on the tempo transition. Stewart's costume and Egyptian-like dance moves (which clearly seems to have influenced Madonna later on) make this video clip a mesmerizing relic.

8) Sheila & B. Devotion -- "Singing In The Rain" (1977): Words fail me. I'll let the video say it all. A complete 6-minute choreographed routine that easily rivals the "Satan's Alley" finale of the film "Staying Alive."

9) Chilly -- "For Your Love" (1978): Lots of cheesy psychedelic camera visuals... and laughs galore from a group that looks like the cast of "Hair" annihilating the Yardbirds classic.

10) Ethel Merman -- "There's No Business Like Show Business" (1979):This may take the cake. Broadway warhorse with super lungs Ethel Merman was 71 years old when she recorded an entire album of show tune disco remakes, many of them of her own signature properties. I'll spare you "Everything's Coming Up Roses" for this surreal version of the "Gypsy" show stopper.


Witch Queen -- "All Right Now," originally performed by Free
Witch Queen -- "Bang A Gong (Get It On)," originally performed by T. Rex
Salazar -- "Let's Hang On," originally performed by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons
Salazar -- "1-2-3," originally performed by Len Barry
Vicki Sue Robinson -- "To Sir With Love," originally performed by Lulu

(I don't think anybody would mind if somebody redid these as disco songs if they were done well)

"I've Got The Music In Me," originally performed by Kiki Dee
"Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'," originally performed by Crazy Elephant
"Na, Na, Hey, Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)," originally performed by Steam