Thursday, May 19, 2011
Grade 9, Tracks 9 & 10: Disco Sucks! (Except When It Doesn't)
“Miss You,” Rolling Stones
“Stayin’ Alive,” The Bee Gees
Midway through a ringette tournament, between games, I was sipping arena coffee and having one of those passing-the-time conversations with the parents of another player. The dad and I were mulling over how the rock ‘n’ roll scene had, like most forms of entertainment, morphed into an either/or situation where the acts were either entertainment corporations or cottage industries. Corporations don’t mess with The Colonel’s Secret Recipe that got them there, while the cottage industry types continually reformat and regenerate until the road finally wears them down. He and I considered the big names who’d become near-parodies of themselves, performing Greatest Hits concerts to sold-out arenas filled with kids and their shrieking grandparents: KISS, AC/DC, Alice Cooper, The Rolling Stones....
At this point his wife made a face and said, “The Rolling Stones, wow, I dunno: there’s definitely something creepy about those guys.” Her hubby and I glanced at her, our conversation momentarily coming to a full stop. To my mind, the entire band might as well dress and perform like addled pirates, given the extent to which their “creepy” factor has been replaced with camp. But somewhere in this woman’s psyche was a profoundly unhappy memory — probably courtesy of a cute but cretinous little shit who failed high school shop class — that haunts her decades later.
Her opinion was so emotionally genuine it seemed prurient to press her on it, so I left it alone. But as I mulled it over, it occurred to me that if any entertainment corporation has willingly messed with The Colonel’s Secret Recipe, it’s been the Stones. And nowhere is this willingness more apparent than in the 70s, when they dutifully trotted out several disco tunes that, bizarrely enough, don’t sound at all like they were dutifully trotted out.
How is it possible? The back-beat for “Emotional Rescue” and “Miss You” is so tightly strapped down, it actually sounds like Charlie Watts managed to add another button further up the collar of his dress shirt. Ronnie Wood gets his sole moment in the spotlight during “Emotional Rescue” and chews up the scenery for all he’s worth, while Keef slouches off for an extended smoke break (I’m convinced he can actually be heard sneering at Mick and Ronnie’s fannying about during the saxophone solo). For “Miss You,” Richards snuffs the butt and wearily reclaims his guitar, which is why I chose this song, and not the former, even though “Emotional Rescue” is the creepier of the two songs.
But they are both creepy songs, without question. As closely as they adhere to the rigid form of white disco, à la the Bee Gees, they also seem to subtly mock it: Mick by grotesquely aping the freaky white boy falsetto, Keef by strumming so far behind the back-beat it sounds like he’s already defying gravity in the coconut trees of Tortuga. Then there’s the lyrical business of laying claim to a reluctant lover. There’s none of the expected, “Aren’t we all just having a time?” dream-building going on. Nor is anyone getting “wooed” here; “enchanted,” maybe, if only by the dark specter of a Casanova who’s solely in love with himself. These songs are both celebrations of a very particular self-acknowledged egoism. The listener either gets with the program, or leaves the floor.
ANYWAY. The Bee Gees set the template for white disco; the Stones deliberately twisted it with their uniquely dark warp and woof. You get both — in reverse order: because the Bee Gees’ template is the generous one — the one people are still riffing off.