1979 Pazz & Jop: The Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll (Almost) Grows Up

A few weeks ago two rock critics were gossiping on the phone, something rock critics do more than ever now that there aren’t any press parties. Both were among the many newcomers asked to contribute to the sixth or seventh annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, and both were awed by this responsibility, as is only mete. One of them, however, was apparently overawed, he — I assume it’s a he, since most rock critics are — told my informant he felt like he’d been knighted. A jest, of course, but nevertheless — I mean, I’m obviously not the only one who takes this thing seriously. Every year I am beset by late ballots via special delivery and express mail; messengers and living critics come up to the fifth floor to hand me and my fellow Poobah their lists. And for what? No one is paid, and very few ballots are reprinted. As the poll gets larger the power of any individual to affect the result diminishes. But people actually listen again to dozens of albums, agonize, call long distance to clarify our chronically incomprehensible letter of invitation, all to assure that the tally reflects their deepest convictions. Ain’t representative democracy grand?

Representative of what, you might ask, and I admit I could be happier with the answer. This was to be the year the P&JCP grew up; I vowed that in 1979 I’d start tackling the problems of regional and racial spread early. But that vow, like others before it, went down to defeat. Instead I spent two days in mid-December working phones with co-Poobah Tom Carson. Our method was simple — frantic calls to acquaintances all over the country to ascertain who was actually reviewing records where, never mind how well — and its effectiveness scattershot. We did better in Minneapolis than Chicago and lousy indeed through the southeastern and Rocky Mountain states. It doesn’t bother me that L.A. and Boston are disproportionately represented, or that New York provided 66 of the 155 critics who responded. Those are the cities where the outlets are, and anyway, this is still a Voice poll — all Riffs contributors who hear a lot of records are included in automatically. But nobody from Nashville or Denver or Omaha or New Orleans was even invited, and this is a good time to mention that any regularly published rock critic with access to most of the important releases who’d like in should write now and I”ll file his or her address. Go knight yourself.

Racial balance proved even more difficult to come by. Our informants were useless, and consultation with black journalists around here yielded few new names. Finally, around New Year’s, I resorted to record company publicists specializing in black music, but most of the 30 or so invitations that resulted went out so late that I got only 11 back in time, enough to suss certain patterns but not enough to see them fully realized in the tally. The post office was a big problem in general. A lot of people got our instructions 10 or 12 days after they were mailed, or never, and when no first-class letters were delivered to the paper on deadline day we were forced to postpone the final count for 24 hours. Even so, late ballots kept dribbling in afterwards, including several from black critics and several others from regional punkzines, which were also contacted late. Next year we’ve got to get organized.

As it was, though, I think the poll ended up pretty much what it should have been in a very enjoyable but critically inconclusive year. Four “r&b” acts (the term is returning to favor) made the album list, expanded this year from 30 to 40 in honor of an enlarged electorate and the curly-headed kid in the third row. More black input would have meant more commanding finishes for all four — crossover queen Donna Summer, comeback prince Michael Jackson, disco pacemakers Chic, and elder statesman Stevie Wonder — as well as for Ashford & Simpson (Stay Free, 44th), probably Dionne Warwick (Dionne, 52nd), and possibly Millie Jackson (Live and Uncensored, 55th). More punkzine input would have helped the nouvelle vague concrete of Pere Ubu, the reggae agitprop of Linton Kwesi Johnson, the maximal minimalism of Philip Glass, and the elderly statesmanship of Iggy Pop, as well as pushing Off White (45th) and/or Buy the Contortions (47th) — James Chance’s two albums, which totaled 139 points on a spottily distributed independent label — into the top 40, and perhaps aiding XTC (Drums and Wires, 49th) and Wire (154, 53rd) as well. Both constituencies would have boosted Bob Marley, and either might have gone for the jazz records that got scattered mention: not only the Art Ensemble’s Nice Guys, but also Mingus at Antibes (48th) — three Mingus albums totaled 121 points — Air Lore (51st), and Blood Ulmer’s (excuse me, I mean James Blood’s) Tales of Captain Black (60th). And they would have upped the disco discs and imports on the singles chart.

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But especially if allowances are made for Nashville and Denver and Omaha and New Orleans, it’s hard to imagine any other album cracking this year’s top five: Armed Forces, by last year’s overpowering winner, Elvis Costello; Fear of Music, by Talking Heads, up from fifth in 1978; the confusing American version of The Clash, which in its 1977 English edition showed up on a lot of best-of-the-decade lists; Rust Never Sleeps, generally regarded as Neil Young’s best album since Tonight’s the Night; and this year’s model, Squeezing Out Sparks, by Graham Parker & the Rumour, who placed their first two albums at two and four in the 1976 poll but haven’t made much noise among the voters since.

The 1978 P&JCP’s consensus was, in the immortal words of my editor, a “triumph of the new wave,” with 16 of the top 30 albums falling clearly into the category and lots of others on the fringe despite increased participation by suspected conservatives. Not that I considered the triumph unmixed — my punkophile elation was undercut by my natural distrust of hegemony, especially defensive hegemony based on ressentiment. Commercially, after all, Saturday Night Fever and its trentuple platinum was spearheading its own victorious vanguard, and I detected in the sweep some of the racism and homophobia of “disco sucks,” then a mere slogan rather than an arrogantly out-of-it prefab “movement.” But it did seem that new wave was over the bottom line — that the best artists in the style (or whatever it is and was) were going to make albums for quite a while — and that print media were part of its success. It had always been a truism of the record manufacturers (and of music journalists) that good reviews don’t sell enough product to keep anybody but the reviewers in business. But recently it’s become apparent that between the prestige they impart and the core audience they generate (especially in the absence of adventurous radio), good reviews do keep good bands, in the immortal words of the Bee Gees, “stayin’ alive.”

That was last year. Since then, an arrogantly out-of-it prefab industry has taken a nasty fall, with some blame due both trentuple platinum (and the consequent lure of overproduction) and disco (now regarded once again as a cult music with crossover potential). As a consequence, there are rock and roll propagandists who’ll tell you that new wave’s triumph isn’t just artistic — that last year’s critical consensus is next year’s big thing. As usual, I don’t believe it’ll happen, and furthermore I don’t want anyone else to. I’m delighted that Blondie’s Parallel Lines, which finished 25th in the 1978 P&JCP, subsequently achieved the AM airplay and platinum sales its inspired popcraft deserved, and pleased enough that together with, yes, Get the Knack, (86th), it’s made it easier for similar bands to record. I even find a good many of the resulting power pop albums fairly likable. But a world of Blondies and Knacks would hardly be rock and roll heaven, and I worry about unreasonable expectations, which after a few foolish bidding wars could make new wave a no-no just like disco. Who needs them? Rock’s capital crisis is a drag for would-be Foreigners, but for good bands it’s a blessing. What ought to make new wave attractive bizwise isn’t mass appeal so much as strong regional roots in an era of prohibitive travel costs and strong simple music in an era of studio parsimony. To hell with superprofits. I’ll give you power pop if you’ll give me all the independent labels that have come over from Europe this year — I.R.S., ZE, Stiff, a revitalized Mango, a reorganized Virgin. May they prosper modestly, just like such U.S.-based companies as Alligator, Rounder, and Ralph.

In short, I haven’t spent years learning how and when to ignore the Hot 100 just so I could get all het up when Blondie makes number one or CBS makes a boo-boo. It was a great year for rock and roll — in a class with 1978, which was the best ever for the hard approach I prefer — because of all the good-to-great new records. Admittedly, it’s only over the past month, which I’ve spent in a continual state of desperate delight catching up with stuff I hadn’t found time for, that I’ve become fully convinced. And I think more of my finds are good than great — I’ll probably end up with 50 A or A minus albums from 1979, a few more than last year, but where in 1978 I wished I could squeeze 14 records into my top 10, now I could stop comfortably at seven. My top 10 would be even thinner if I hadn’t given up and included jazz records that enriched my rather inchoate rock aesthetic — that spoke to my shifting ideas about rhythm and electric noise, pop and folk, “accessibility.” (In other words, I eliminated all jazz in the pure music tradition first asserted by my favorite jazz style, bebop, including Thelonious Monk’s Always Know and Ornette Coleman/Charlie Haden’s Soapsuds, Soapsuds, which I love, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Nice Guys, which — to my own discredit, I’m sure, since it came in number 29 this year, the first time an acoustic jazz record has ever placed — I never quite got.) Anyway, here’s my own list, with Pazz & Jop points appended to the top 10. It’s my custom to joke about how permanent the order is, but this year my listening is still in such flux that I won’t bother. Believe me, these are damn good albums, and there are others (by Irakere, Midnight Rhythm, the Heartbreakers, David Bowie, maybe Smokey, maybe Toots, maybe Cleanhead, maybe James) waiting in the winds:

1. The Clash (Epic) 18. 2. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Rust Never Sleeps (Reprise) 17. 3. Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (Chrysalis) 14. 4. Van Morrison: Into the Music (Warner Bros.) 11. 5. Air: Air Lore (Arista Novus) 11. 6. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista) 9. 7. The B-52s (Warner Bros.) 5. 8. Nick Lowe: Labour of Lust (Columbia) 5. 9. The Roches (Warner Bros.) 5. 10. Arthur Blythe: Lenox Avenue Breakdown (Columbia) 5.

11. Tom Verlaine (Elektra). 12. Donna Summer: Bad Girls (Casablanca). 13. Talking Heads: Fear of Music (Sire). 14. Wreckless Eric: The Whole Wide World (Stiff). 15. The Only Ones: Special View (Epic). 16. Shoes: Present Tense (Elektra). 17. James Monroe H.S. Presents Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band Goes to Washington (Elektra). 18. The Buzzcocks: Singles Going Steady (I.R.S.). 19. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Live Rust (Reprise). 20. Marianne Faithful: Broken English (Island).

21. Linton Kwesi Johnson: Forces of Victory (Mango). 22. Dave Edmunds: Repeat When Necessary (Swan Song). 23. Fashion: Product Perfect (I.R.S.). 24. James Brown: The Original Disco Man (Polydor). 25. Gary Numan & Tubeway Army: Replicas (Atco). 26. Michael Jackson: Off the Wall (Epic). 27. Culture: International Herb (Virgin Internatioal). 28. Chic: Good Times (Atlantic). 29. Millie Jackson: Live and Uncensored (Polydor). 30. Living Chicago Blues Volume 1 (Alligator).

31. Lene Lovich: Stateless (Stiff/Epic). 32. Tom Robinson Band: TRB Two (Harvest). 33. James Blood: Tales of Captain Black (Artists House). 34. Cory Daye: Cory and Me (New York International). 35. Mutiny: Mutiny on the Mamaship (Columbia). 36. Steel Pulse: Tribute to the Martyrs (Mango). 37. Blondie: Eat to the Beat (Chrysalis). 38. Roxy Music: Manifesto (Atlantic). 39. George Jones: My Very Special Guests (Epic). 40. Elvis Costello: Armed Forces (Columbia).

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But though record albums dominated rock in the ’70s, they’ve never been the whole story, as both new wave and disco have demonstrated. Somewhat belatedly, the P&JCP has expanded to reflect this: In addition to 10 albums, contributors were asked for unweighted lists of up to 10 singles and three local bands. From disco adepts like Mike Freedberg (“it’s impossible to poll disco, or even black slow music, fairly from LPs alone”) to r&b oldtimers like Robert Pruter (“my record-buying friends have always bought singles and always preferred them to albums”), black music fans were enthusiastic, and so were new wavers, many of whom commented that it was hard to keep their lists to 10. “Rock” people, on the other hand, complained (Noel Coppage of Stereo Review: “I’m too old and elitist for this shit”; Blair Jackson of Bay Area Music: “Aah forget it. I hate most singles”). Since I spend most of my working (and waking) hours listening to albums, I had no trouble containing my list, but the following 10 singles definitely weren’t the only ones to make a dent on my life this year:

The Brains: “Money Changes Everything” (Gray Matter); Michael Jackson: “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” (Epic); the Clash: “1-2 Crush on You” (CBS import); James Brown: “It’s Too Funky in Here” (Polydor 12-inch); Sister Sledge: “We Are Family” (Cotillion 12-inch); McFadden & Whitehead: “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” (Philadelphia International 12-inch); Kleenex: “Ain’t You” (Rough Trade import); the B-52s: “Rock Lobster”/”52 Girls” (B-52s); the Records: “Starry Eyes” (Virgin); Machine: “There but for the Grace of God Go I” (RCA Victor).

The new category in which I had more trouble limiting my selections was local bands, an appellation that was left vague to find out how the voters would define it. For me, there were two musts: the Feelies, whose avant-garde surf music thrilled me frequently before they withdrew to the big time, and the James “Blood” Ulmer Quartet, whose second set at the Tin Palace May 23 rivaled the Clash at the Palladium for intensity and who also fused me at CBGB and Hurrah. But I passed on the Lounge Lizards and In the Tradition — not to mention Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns, whose visit from Austin impressed a lot of people, as we shall see — reluctantly, only so I could pay my respects to Richard Hell’s lamented Voidoids.

New York seemed bound to dominate the local band competition — on demographics, if not sheer vitality. And indeed, the winner was predictable, a shoo-in with 14 votes: Anya’s Bad Boy himself, James Chance, a/k/a James White and the Blacks, a/k/a the Contortions. (This year we’re giving out awards with the poll and we’re wondering whether James would prefer his across the backs of the thighs.) But after that the New York vote broke up, so that three out-of-town bands scored more mentions than the local second-runner. Most impressive by far was the aforementioned Senor Carrasco, who divided 10 votes between Texas and New York — his band sounds like a speedy synthesis of every Farfisa group that ever tripped over a hook, and you’d better listen up or they’ll pass you on the left. After that, with six mentions, came X, from Los Angeles, and Human Sexual Response, from Boston (though as a sexually responsive human I must register my doubts about the latter). New York’s Fleshtones strolled in fifth with five. Other strong showings included four votes for New York’s Feelies and L.A. Alley Cats, and three for Curtiss A (Minneapolis), the Beat (San Francisco and CBS), Greg Kihn (Berkeley and Beserkley), Robin Lane (Boston and pretty soon now Warners, plus an indie EP that scored on our singles chart), the Lounge Lizards (New York), the Naughty Sweeties (L.A.), the Nervous Eaters (Boston), Prince Charles and the City Beat Band (Boston), the Speedies (New York), Blood Ulmer (New York), and the Zippers (L.A.).

It may say something about local-band consensus or lack of it that although I spent more time seeing groups in clubs in 1979 than ever before, my most unforgettable moment was not provided by Blood Ulmer or the Feelies or even Pere Ubu. It came one frigid night in February when three of us slogged uptown to catch the Only Ones and instead stumbled upon a seething mass of well-kempt youths who were dancing to rock and roll. Mercy day, I said to myself, this ain’t no Mudd Club, or CBGB — this is the “rock disco” Hurrah, only it has normal rock and rollers in it. Straight weekend escapists, on leave from Fordham and Farleigh Dickinson and high school, they danced stiffly, except for a few scattered punks, but there they were, shaking ass to Cheap Trick and the Cars and Devo and the Ramones. Suddenly I believed yet again that rock and roll was here to stay.

This wasn’t the punk-disco fusion I had posited wistfully at the end of last year’s P&JCP roundup, but it was a start — a primitive one, as it turned out. Six months later art-punk and electropop were melding into dance tracks as empty as the most soulless Eurodisco, and if you wanted to step out to Cheap Trick you had to go to Brooklyn, or anyway Heat — suddenly rock discos were all over the place. But by that time the B-52s had proven that they really were “a tacky little dance band from Athens, Georgia” — it was on the dance floor rather than in my living room that they made my top 10 — and white people were once again catching up with the black music of an earlier time, in this case James Brown funk. Bizzers began talking about DOR — dance-oriented rock — instead of disco, and a real punk-disco fusion was achieved by two notable records, which oddly enough ended up on top of the first P&JCP singles chart: Ian Dury’s “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick”/”Reasons To Be Cheerful, Pt. 3” and M’s “Pop Muzik.”

I must now interrupt this program to explain how singles were counted. P&JCP contributors are asked to limit their album choices to domestic releases so as not to split support for the many new albums released in different years on different sides of the Atlantic. But singles are about immediate impact, and critics who care about them usually buy (or trade for) imports. So rules were kept to a minimum, and we got votes for all kinds of stuff — not just EPs and disco discs, which were encouraged, but promos, even album cuts, the latter of which were expressly forbidden (and not counted). Multiple editions, configurations, and mixes presented worse problems. In the end we decided not only to add all versions of a song together, but — as a tribute to the ancient concept of the two-sided single — to combine the votes for two songs that appeared on the same record. This is how Ian Dury beat out Robin Scott (a/k/a M), whose “Pop Muzik” was certainly our song of the year. Not everyone who voted for “Rhythm Stick” or “Cheerful” has even heard the 12-inch that included both songs; some may (foolishly) disapprove of the disco mixes. But it seemed fairest to consolidate all of Dury’s votes.

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Although singles actually played and possessed by critics would have been preferred, we got a lot of lists of radio favorites. This was fair enough. Both the r&b trend in disco and the popularization of new wave have once again “made the radio fun” (J.D. Considine); 1979 was the year when Donna Summer heated up her stuff and Nick Lowe produced pure pop for real people. But even the best radio stations don’t play all the most interesting music, and away from the likes of BCN and PIX it’s still hard to hear imports and indies. Which is why the showing of the Brains’s privately produced and distributed “Money Changes Everything” — a little too slow for DOR, much too obscure for AOR, and tied for ninth anyway — is doubly significant. And why the Pretenders, who without a U.S. release got more votes than any singles artist except Donna Summer (in addition to “Stop Your Sobbing” and “Kid,” “Brass in Pocket” was on seven ballots), can be expected to make considerable noise with their debut album.

I must admit that I found the singles chart more interesting than the generally unexceptionable album selections. That’s what’s so great about the singles — they’re quirky. I especially enjoyed the tie for sixth — “My Sharona,” which brightened the radio as surely as Fantastik takes the enamel off your refrigerator, and “Tusk,” the weirdest 45 issued by any megagroup since the defeat of George McGovern. I was pleased that Funkadelic, who dipped almost as precipitously as Ian Dury in the album voting (Dury went from 13th to one mention, Funkadelic from 27th to 89th), could score in its long suit. I was glad so many high school intellectuals manque admitted their crush on the grown-up teen schlock of Peaches & Herb. And I found the five-way tie for 22nd laudable in five different directions.

It’s worth pointing out that the singles list is hardly a triumph of the new wave. Given the presumed bias of the electorate, it’s more of a triumph of disco, with two consciously compromised (and quite enjoyable, don’t get me wrong) punk-disco fusions beating out two irresistible examples of the real thing — except, of course, that “Hot Stuff” is as much a conscious compromise as “Pop Muzik.” The real new wave triumph goes to the Pretenders, who did it with a Ray Davies song. Hmm. Perhaps after triumph comes growth, consolidation, and some looking around, eh? That’s the way the album vote looks to me.

First of all, despite (or maybe because of, as they say) the plethora of new wave albums released in 1979, the number of them in the top 30 is down from 16 to 14 — not a big dip, but enough to make room for Michael Jackson and the Art Ensemble. Moreover, even the staunchest new wavers seem to have broadened their listening this year — Donna Summer and to a lesser extent Chic got votes from all over, and it was the hard-core punks who brought Linton Kwesi Johnson home. Also, the new wave grows older. Of the nine debut albums in the top 30 last year, seven were outright new wave, an eighth was David Johansen, and a ninth was the Cars (who fell to 61st this year, which may say more about the fickleness of pop fans than the fickleness of the Cars). This year’s eight debuts include the Roches, Marianne Faithfull, Rickie Lee Jones, and Linton Kwesi Johnson as well as the B-52s, the Buzzcocks, Lene Lovich, and Joe Jackson (hurray for all the women in that catalogue, by the way — last year we were down to Blondie and Patti Smith). And if the widespread support for Pere Ubu’s gruesome, funny, resolutely experimental, subtly hooky Dub Housing is a shot in the arm for the futurists among us, the equally strong showing of Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes is a shot in the mouth.

Petty got this year’s Bruce Springsteen Memorial Rock and Roll Verities vote. Damn the Torpedoes is a pretty good record, but a measure of its appeal is that of 18 first-string daily critics, always the conservatives, 12 voted for it. (None, by the way, selected Pere Ubu; one of them, in fact, is reputed to have once — literally — pulled the plug on the band.) Damn the Torpedoes is a breakthrough for Petty because finally the Heartbreakers (his Heartbreakers, this Live at Max’s fan should say) are rocking as powerfully as he’s writing. But whether Petty has any need to rock out beyond the sheer doing of it — that is, whether he has anything to say — remains shrouded in banality. And in this he establishes himself as the fave rave of those who want good rock and roll that can be forgotten as soon as the record or the concert is over, rock and roll that won’t disturb your sleep or your conscience or your precious bodily rhythms. It’s fun in small doses — about three minutes is right — and it beats state-of-the-studio smuggeries like those of Supertramp (tied for 66th) or the Eagles (69th). But if Tom Petty ends up defining rock and roll heaven, then Johnny Rotten will have died in vain.

I don’t mean to imply that the 1979 P&JCP is a triumph of let’s-boogie revisionism, and a good thing, too. But as a 37-year-old pro, I’ll trade insults myself with any ageist putz who claims it’s impossible for other aging pros to make exciting rock and roll, and I think that, basically, this happened to be a year when old guarders — from artists like Neil Young and Van Morrison to craftsmen like Ry Cooder and Fleetwood Mac — managed to translate their vitality and courage to vinyl again. Morrison’s return was especially auspicious; he shows signs of turning into Ray Charles with lyrics. But the voters pretty much knew it wasn’t happening: Old guarders who made tired albums, like Randy Newman, were rewarded in kind (43rd), and those who flubbed altogether, like Joni Mitchell, got theirs (two mentions). And I believe the great El Lay hope of Rickie Lee Jones is a chimera, the same goes for the great post-punk hope of Joe Jackson. There are no stylistic rules; lots and lots of good records are being made; collectively, the critics have a pretty accurate idea of what they are.

And so, upon reflection, I think that Squeezing Out Sparks is an entirely apposite winner. Graham Parker is a genuine transitional artist. Surfacing a little earlier than fellow pub-rock veterans like Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello, he never assumed the kind of protective pop irony they’ve perfected. Though his lyrics are knotty, their passion is palpable — Parker speaks directly. And his music, while a long way from Robbie Robertson, isn’t reticent about its blues and country roots. Rhythmically and dramatically he’s not above corn, but it would be risky to call him safe — he might [spit] in your eye. I found that the masterfully hooked-up Squeezing Out Sparks wore thin after a powerful initial impression, but the memory of its craft and commitment stayed with me, and apparently many felt the same. The kind of critics who voted for Rickie Lee Jones or Ry Cooder often picked it number one, but those of us who preferred Neil Young or the Clash (both of which got as many first-place votes) still felt inclined to pay our respects, which is how it amassed its solid margin. If this be compromise, I just might settle for it myself.

The Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll has grown quite a bit since its semi-official quasi-beginning in 1974. Once it was a survey of a few writers I especially respected; now I’ve never read half the people whose ballots I tabulate. It’s based on what may be a naive belief — that people who listen long and hard enough to formulate their opinions on paper have special judgments to make. That assumption is holding up pretty well so far.

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Selected Ballots

ADAM BLOCK: Ian Dury & the Blockheads: “Beat [sic] Me with Your Rhythm Stick”/”Reasons To Be Cheerful, Pt. 3” (Stiff/Epic 12-inch); Roxy Music: “Dance Away” (Atlantic 12-inch); Records: “Starry Eyes” (Virgin); Nick Lowe: “Cruel To Be Kind” (Columbia); Jacksons: “Blame It on the Boogie” (Epic 12-inch); M: “Pop Muzik” (Sire); Pearl Harbor & the Explosions: “Release It”/”Drivin’ ” (415); Sister Sledge: “We Are Family” (Atlantic 12-inch); Ray Charles: “Some Enchanted Evening” (Atlantic); James White and the Blacks: “Contort Yourself” (ZE 12-inch).

TOM CARSON: M: “Pop Muzik” (Sire); Lene Lovich: “Lucky Number” (Stiff/Epic); Ian Dury & the Blockheads: “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick” (Stiff/Epic); Dave Edmunds: “Girls Talk” (Swan Song); Marianne Faithfull: “Broken English” (Island); Sister Sledge: “We Are Family” (Cotillion); Sid Vicious: “My Way” (Virgin 12-inch import); Talking Heads: “Life During Wartime” (Sire); The Kinks: “Superman” (Arista 12-inch); Anita Ward: “Ring My Bell” (T.K.).

GREIL MARCUS: Essential Logic (Virgin import EP); Brains: “Money Changes Everything” (Gray Matter); Donna Summer: “Hot Stuff” (Casablanca); Pretenders: “Stop Your Sobbing” (Real import); Blue Oyster Cult: “In Thee” (Columbia); Marianne Faithfull: “Broken English”/”Why D’Ya [sic] Do It” (Antilles 12-inch); Moon Martin: “Rolene” (Capitol); Foreigner: “Dirty White Boy” (Atlantic); Public Image Ltd.: “Memories” (Virgin import); Delta 5: “Now That You’ve Gone” (Rough Trade import).

JON PARELES: Brains: “Money Changes Everything” (Gray Matter); Ian Dury: “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick” (Stiff/Epic); Fleetwood Mac: “Tusk” (Warner Bros.); Donna Summer: “Hot Stuff” (Casablanca); Elvis Costello: “My Funny Valentine” (Columbia promo); Gang of Four: “At Home He’s a Tourist” (EMI import); Pop Group: “We Are All Prostitutes” (Rough Trade import); Robin Lane & the Chartbusters: “When Things Go Wrong” (Deli Platters); Machine: “There but for the Grace of God Go I” (RCA Victor 12-inch).

GEORGE ARTHUR: Blondie: Eat to the Beat (Chrysalis) 15; Dave Edmunds: Repeat When Necessary (Swan Song) 12; Rickie Lee Jones (Warner Bros.) 12; Lene Lovich: Stateless (Stiff/Epic) 12; Nick Lowe: Labour of Lust (Columbia) 10; Kinks: Low Budget (Arista) 9; Rachel Sweet: Fool Around (Stiff/Columbia) 8; Jerry Lee Lewis (Elektra) 8; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Damn the Torpedoes (Backstreet/MCA) 8; Get the Knack (Capitol) 6.

LESTER BANGS: Van Morrison: Into the Music (Warner Bros.) 25; Marianne Faithfull: Broken English (Island) 20; The Clash (Epic) 20; Talking Heads: Fear of Music (Sire) 5; Lou Reed: The Bells (Arista) 5; Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Live Rust (Warner Bros.) 5; Charles Mingus: Mingus at Antibes (Atlantic) 5; Miles Davis: Circle in the Round (Columbia) 5; Heartbreakers: Live at Max’s Kansas City (Max’s Kansas City) 5; Patti Smith Group: Wave (Arista) 5.

BRIAN CHIN (all 12-inch disco discs): Fern Kinney: “Groove Me” (T.K.); Jackie Moore: “This Time Baby” (Columbia); Love De-Luxe: “Here Comes That Sound Again” (Warner Bros.); Don Armando’s Second Avenue Rhumba Band: “I”m an Indian Too”/”Deputy of Love” (ZE); Bionic Boogie: “Hot Butterfly” (Polydor); Machine: “There but for the Grace of God Go I” (RCA Victor); Claudja Barry: “Boogie Woogie Dancin’ Shoes” (Chrysalis); Carrie Lucas: “Dance with You” (Solar); Black Ivory: “Mainline” (Buddah).

TOM CARSON: David Bowie: Lodger (RCA Victor) 14; The Clash (Epic) 14; Elvis Costello: Armed Forces (Columbia) 14; Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (Chrysalis) 12; Graham Parker & the Rumour: Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista) 10; The Roches (Warner Bros.) 9; Nick Lowe: Labour of Lust (Columbia) 8; Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Live Rust (Warner Bros.) 7; Lou Reed: The Bells (Arista) 7; Iggy Pop: New Values (Arista) 6.

DAVID JACKSON: Millie Jackson: Live and Uncensored (Polydor) 15; Talking Heads: Fear of Music (Sire) 10; Art Ensemble of Chicago: Nice Guys (ECM) 10; Steppin’ with the World Saxophone Quartet (Black Saint import) 10; Van Morrison: Into the Music (Warner Bros.) 10; Miles Davis: Circle in the Round (Columbia) 10; Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Live Rust (Warner Bros.) 10; Robin Williamson and His Merry Band: A Giant at the Kindling (Flying Fish) 9; James Blood: Tales of Captain Black (Artists House) 8; Bread and Roses (Fantasy) 8.

GREIL MARCUS: Van Morrison: Into the Music (Polydor) 20; Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Rust Never Sleeps (Reprise) 15; Fleetwood Mac: Tusk (Warner Bros.) 15; Peter Green: In the Skies (Sail) 15; Tonio K: Life in the Foodchain (Full Moon/Epic) 10; Graham Parker & The Rumour: Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista) 5; David Johansen: In Style (Blue Sky) 5; Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (Chrysalis) 5; Randy Newman: Born Again (Warner Bros.) 5; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Damn the Torpedoes (Backstreet/MCA) 5.

REGGIE MATTHEWS: Brenda Russell (Horizon) 15; Heath Brothers: In Motion (Columbia) 13; Ron Carter: Parade (Milestone) 12; McCoy Tyner: Together (Milestone) 11; Kinks: Low Budget (Arista) 11; Michael Jackson: Off the Wall (Epic) 10; Donna Summer: Bad Girls (Casablanca) 10; Graham Parker & the Rumour: Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista) 7; Ashford & Simpson: Stay Free (Warner Bros.) 6; Jeff Lorber: Water Sign (Arista) 5.

MARIE MOORE: Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants (Tamla) 10; Chic: Risque (Atlantic) 10; Ashford & Simpson: Stay Free (Warner Bros.) 10; Crusaders: Street Life (MCA) 10; Cameo: Secret Omen (Chocolate City) 10; George Benson: Live Inside Your Love (Warner Bros.) 10; Dionne Warwick: Dionne (Arista) 10; Stephanie Mills: What Cha Gonna Do with My Lovin’ (20th Century-Fox) 10; Michael Jackson: Off the Wall (Epic) 10; Commodores: Midnight Magic (Motown) 10.

JON PARELES: Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (Chrysalis) 15; Talking Heads: Fear of Music (Sire) 15; James White and the Blacks: Off White (ZE) 15; Philip Glass/Robert Wilson: Einstein on the Beach (Tomato) 15; Art Bears: Winter Songs (Ralph) 15; David Bowie: Lodger (RCA Victor) 5; XTC: Drums and Wires (Virgin) 5; Police: Regatta de Blanc (A&M) 5; Wire: 154 (Warner Bros.) 5; Tom Verlaine (Elektra) 5.

DOUG SIMMONS: Iggy Pop: New Values (Arista) 25; The Clash (Epic) 15; Buzzcocks: Singles Going Steady (I.R.S.) 10; Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (Chrysalis) 10; Linton Kwesi Johnson: Forces of Victory (Mango) 10; Nick Lowe: Labour of Lust (Columbia) 5; Dave Edmunds: Repeat When Necessary (Swan Song) 5; Inmates: First Offence (Polydor) 5; Heartbreakers: Live at Max’s Kansas City (Max’s Kansas City) 5; The Boston Bootleg (Varulven) 5.

TOM SMUCKER: Gino Soccio: Outline (RFC) 20; Chic: Risque (Atlantic) 20; Tom Robinson Band: TRB Two (Harvest) 14; Merle Haggard: Serving 190 Proof (MCA) 11; Donna Summer: Bad Girls (Casablanca) 8; Tammy Wynette: Just Tammy (Epic) 6; Sylvester: Stars (Fantasy) 6; Shoes: Present Tense (Elektra) 5; Blondie: Eat to the Beat (Chrysalis) 5; Arlo Guthrie: Outlasting the Blues (Warner Bros.) 5.

Top 10 Albums of 1979

1. Graham Parker & The Rumour: Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista)

2. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Rust Never Sleeps (Reprise)

3. The Clash: The Clash (Epic)

4. Talking Heads: Fear of Music (Sire)

5. Elvis Costello: Armed Forces (Columbia)

6. Van Morrison: Into the Music (Warner Bros.)

7. The B-52s: The B-52s (Warner Bros.)

8. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Damn the Torpedoes (Backstreet/MCA)

9. Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (Chrysalis)

10. Donna Summer: Bad Girls (Casablanca)

Top 10 Singles of 1979

1. Ian Dury & the Blockheads: “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick”/”Reasons To Be Cheerful, Pt. 3” (Stiff/Epic)

2. M: “Pop Musik” (Sire)

3. Donna Summer: “Hot Stuff” (Casablanca)

4. (Tie) Sister Sledge: “We Are Family”/”He’s the Greatest Dancer” (Cotillion)
The Pretenders: “Stop Your Sobbing”/”The Wait” (Real import)

6. (Tie) Fleetwood Mac: “Tusk” (Warner Bros.)
The Knack: “My Sharona” (Capitol)

8. Blondie: “Dreaming” (Chrysalis)

9. (Tie) The Brains: “Money Changes Everything” (Gray Matter)
The Flying Lizards: “Money” (Virgin)

— From the January 28, 1980, issue


Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.



The Queen of Soul is sometimes also the queen of “undisclosed health reasons,” which is why 72-year-old Aretha Franklin’s January Radio City dates are happening tonight. With recent shows topping out at a dozen or so extended numbers over 90-some minutes, the slimmed-down diva replaces stamina with nuance, blending full-range jazz improvisation with just enough full-throttle gospel flair to remind you who you’re dealing with. Perhaps echoing the Motown musical currently on Broadway, her big band includes a half-dozen backing singers and a fulsome horn section. Franklin’s next album is reportedly a concept project on which she covers female pop faves including Donna Summer’s “Last Dance,” Barbra Streisand’s “People,” and perhaps even Beyoncé, with Babyface and Andre 3000 producing.

Sat., June 14, 8 p.m.; Sun., June 15, 8 p.m., 2014


Gloria Offers an Answer for the Age of the Ageless

We’ve entered an age in which people have no idea how old they are. Fifty-year-olds lament, “I still feel 30 in my mind,” and sometimes dress like it. Some 30-year-olds may cling to the destructive habits of their twenties, but plenty more march dutifully into full-on family-and-career–building mode, perhaps acting older than they need to. Now that people are living and staying healthier so much longer, self-invention can go on seemingly forever. The bad news is that we’re perpetually in between, and sometimes it’s hard to know how to be.

The heroine of Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s exuberant semi-comedy Gloria is right in the middle of the fiftysomething version of that in-between. We join her story already in progress but get the idea pretty quickly: Gloria (Paulina García) has been divorced for 13 years and would, quite simply, like to meet a guy. The movie opens at a dance club filled with people around her age. The women are decked out in spindly high heels and sparkly dresses that stop just short of trying too hard. The men are neatly dressed in jackets, though somehow they all look a little more shopworn, maybe a little less moisturized, than the women do. And still, the women want them. The music floating through the ersatz disco night is a mating call from ancient times, Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” A polite-looking guy strikes up a conversation with Gloria: “Are you always this happy?” It’s a wonderful question and a hard one, and it makes Gloria laugh, which is an answer in itself.

By day, Gloria works at some unidentified but stable and well-paying office job in Santiago. She’s close to her children, but they don’t have as much time for her as she’d like. She has plenty of friends, smart, engaged adults who kick into spirited political discussions at dinner. She lives in a nicely furnished apartment where a neighbor’s scrawny, hairless cat keeps sneaking in to visit her — she complains to her housekeeper (Luz Jiménez) that its denuded tail is “like a mouse’s,” and she’s right, though the housekeeper responds with a plea for feline tolerance in the form of a fantastical story about the origins of the common house cat. (Apparently, the lion on Noah’s ark sneezed one out of each nostril.)

Gloria does meet a guy, the more-or-less dashing Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), who seems enchanted by her. He looks fit, thanks to the gastric-bypass surgery he readily confesses to. And he, too, is divorced, though more recently than Gloria. He’s a former naval officer who runs an amusement park where paintball figures prominently — that ought to be a deal-breaker right there, but Gloria coasts with it. The suggestion is that a woman Gloria’s age can’t be that picky — and maybe it really is Rodolfo’s only flaw.

Guess again. While much of Gloria tracks the ups and downs of the Rodolfo affair, it’s really all an excuse for us to get to know her. Lelio — whose best-known movie, in the States at least, is probably 2005’s The Sacred Family — seems to know what he’s got in his star. García’s Gloria is radiant, in an averagely pretty way. Even her adamantly retro oversized 1980s glasses can’t diminish the delicate vibrancy of her features. Gloria looks her age, whatever that means for a woman in her late fifties in this age of non-ages. But the point, as García implicitly suggests, is that no matter how young you may feel, the whispering reality is that time is running out. When Gloria’s eye doctor diagnoses her with glaucoma and tells her she must use eye drops “every day for the rest of your life,” the flash of disbelief on her face says everything. That’s such a very long time — or maybe not such a long time at all.

García won the Silver Bear for best actress at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival, and it’s a bummer that more U.S. critics’ groups didn’t pick up on this astute, alert performance. (Gloria was the official Chilean entry for this year’s Academy Awards, though it didn’t earn a nomination.) When I saw the movie last year, I overheard someone call it a “midlife crisis drama.” The comment was clueless for lots of reasons, most notably because there’s no crisis in Gloria at all, which is what makes it so marvelous. It features several sex scenes in which middle-age bodies — really post–middle-age, when you think about it — are fully revealed, yet not gaudily or cruelly displayed. These sequences work as a counterpart to the hungrier, more romantically libidinous ones in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color — they simmer rather than cook, but they’re no less moving.

Gloria doesn’t need a guy; she just wants one. This is what desire looks like when it’s freed from desperation. A friend in his late sixties once asked me, with genuine, yearning curiosity, “When do you stop wanting it?” There’s no universal answer, but it’s hardly a new question. Gloria offers an answer for the age of the ageless.


Kelis: Mother of the Year

The Kelis we’ve known, as pop followers and fans, is dead. The perennial almost, the ice queen with as many misses as hits, the firebrand mostly remembered for her few charting clunky club-raps (or clubby clunk-raps), is long gone. You may have already assumed so, given that she dropped out of pop music nigh five years ago to pursue some kind of real life—husband (Nas), baby, coursework at the Cordon Bleu—leaving behind the not-inconsiderable legacy of “Milkshake.” Her last known address, 2006’s “Bossy,” had a longer shelf-life as a ringtone and battle cry for impudent tweens everywhere than it did on the radio. But even in those flashes of mainstream acceptance, she was always an anomaly, with her staccato sing-song delivery that made everything sound like a taunt. She did not fit either existing archetype for women in hip-hop, being both serious and sexy; she was more of a bitch’s bitch, with money and sex and power all tangled up. Manipulation was her lifestyle.

With her new Flesh Tone, then, what we get isn’t a reintroduction—it’s something just shy of a whole-cloth reinvention. Like another soulful single mom before her, Dusty Springfield, she sings of being brand-new. Literally. “Now I’m brand-new/Rename me/Baby, claim me/I been changed, see?” she sings on “4th of July.” This serves as Kelis’s rebirth announcement, blooming into the heart-bursting flower of new motherhood, her Technicolor toughness traded out for gold-flake disco-diva transcendence. While her music has always slouched toward the club, this is unabashedly a dance record, packed with contemporary, high-gloss house and techno via producers like Ibiza foam-party king David Guetta playing the Giorgio Moroder to her Donna Summer. The big diff is that this time the love-to-love-you-baby is an actual infant.

The result makes apparent that after years of foundering and being too outré for rap (oh, the pre-M.I.A./Rihanna days when “kooky pop diva” wasn’t so much a paying position), Kelis should’ve turned diva long ago. With her husky voice and will-to-survive trope, she’s a natural, sounding more relaxed and real than she ever has before. The big surprise isn’t how far her new, fabulous world of synthetic, revving rave is from the old her, but what isn’t here. Flesh Tone has break-up album overtones, but no discernible bitterness—not exactly what you’d expect given that, at the time of recording, she was six months’ pregnant and enduring ever-messier divorce proceedings from her husband—a battle that put her name back in headlines for the first time in years. Laser bass and love-lights a-shining aren’t what you expect from a mid-divorce, mid-career artist, let alone from this one.

In recent interviews, Kelis has insisted that she returned to the studio and made Flesh Tone to support herself and her son. That determination is significant—and audible—throughout. On “Brave,” she credits her baby for saving her. On the previous song, “Emancipate,” she’s doling out lessons in self-help, demanding, “Emancipate yourself!” again and again. But on the bridge, she switches to first-person—”Like the phoenix from the ashes/Sunrise off in the distance/I’ll try again/I’ll try again”—and it’s clear she’s pep-talking herself more than anyone. Her comeback isn’t just professional, it’s personal—she’s demanding it of herself. These songs, for all their Top 40 disco glitter ( signed her to his label and executive-produces here), compel with their tradeoffs between vulnerability and euphoria, though if you aren’t paying attention, they’re slick enough to pass as merely exceptional pop-radio or club-floor fodder. The experiences she sings about, and how she sings about them, enter her in a rarefied though slim canon of diva-motherhood types—slotting her between Kate Bush, Annie Lennox, and Björk, where she rightly belongs.

The album’s best track, “Song for the Baby,” is a heartbreaker, an open letter to her son built on a pouncing piano and warm horn sample that sounds lifted off a Chicago album and sifted through a Daft Punk–ifier. When she sings, “I’ll never sugarcoat any life lessons for you/’Cause I wanna make you equipped for the best/And I can’t always be here to rescue you when life gets crazy/But I love you more than you’ll ever know,” she sounds earnest and emotional, proving that this new Kelis is a product of personal evolution, not (pop) market-ready positioning, as some detractors have suggested. Such tender-hearted confidences are seemingly at odds with the radio-ready rave backing here, but it’s easy to imagine Kelis strapped with a Baby Bjorn, cooing these same lines to the new (little) man in her life.

Kelis plays the Music Hall of Williamsburg July 28


Vince Aletti’s Disco Diaries

On my way to interview former Village Voice art director (and current New Yorker photography critic) Vince Aletti, I happen to pass a poster proclaiming, “Disco Is Back! Now playing at Bloomingdale’s.” This is strangely appropriate, as I’m meeting Aletti for lunch to discuss the publication of his first book, The Disco Files 1973-78: New York’s Underground Week by Week, which, as its title attests, collects five years’ worth of articles he wrote about the burgeoning disco scene as it happened.

So with this mighty new tome of his, is Bloomingdale’s right? Is disco back? Aletti laughs at the notion: “I feel that disco never really went away, as much as it was declared ‘over’ as the spotlight of the media moved somewhere else.” Seated across from the sixtysomething scribe in a St. Mark’s Place café, we are but a stone’s throw away from the Ukrainian National Home, which, every few months, hosts David Mancuso’s still-extant Loft parties. First reported on by Aletti in these very pages (June 16, 1975, to be exact, as part of a news story entitled “SoHo vs. Disco” and reprinted in the book), he was the first writer to address disco and the first to pen a story about Mancuso, the inscrutable DJ and consummate party host universally hailed as the genre’s founding father.

Aletti first started going to the Loft in 1972—”David is such an institution,” he says. “It doesn’t surprise me that he would still have a following. Back then, it was very casual, with balloons and streamers, just like a kid’s birthday party.” In the intervening decades, that evergreen party’s vibe has matured, along with its host and audience: “Now I love that it has whole families there, middle-aged people, kids, all these Japanese kids—just this broad range of the kind of people who always flock to his party, but also people who grew up with him.”

Such broad inclusiveness is what first drew the young writer to disco, just as its earliest practitioners and DJs drew on obscure soul, hard funk, Latin music, left-field rock, and fusion jazz to make dancers move, before a more rigid “disco formula” descended upon dance floors across the country. Aletti’s weekly column for the nationwide industry mag Record World provides the bulk of The Disco Files‘ content and illuminates this point. “It was a constant processing of what’s new in music, week by week,” he recalls. “What was interesting to me about doing the column was being in touch with all of these DJs in every city that I could rely on to be awake at a certain hour, who could tell me what they were playing night in, night out.” Each page runs down four DJs and their selections, as well as Aletti’s own favorites, making it invaluable to crate-diggers the world over. It’s no wonder that The Disco Files (originally printed by White Columns gallery for an Aletti retrospective in early 2008) has now been published by the zealots at the DJ History website, who were also responsible for the classic book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life.

From such a privileged vantage point, it’s remarkable to re-investigate what’s often perceived as a flat music-scape consisting of little more than Saturday Night Fever, “Play That Funky Music,” and Larry Levan (who first crops up in late ’77). Instead, Disco Files reveals a much more nuanced and surprising topography. Club names run from Mind Shaft in San Francisco to the Poop Deck in Fort Lauderdale. Flipping randomly to Aletti’s column from August 16, 1975, we can see recently deceased Times scribe William Safire lauding “The Hustle” as a “return to discipline and responsibility” on the dance floor. That same week, Boston moved to the Boogie Man Orchestra, while in L.A., they dug “Chinese Kung Fu” and “Do the Choo-Choo.” Sure, the Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing” infiltrates every single playlist in 1976, but you also find out that crowds at one New York hot spot went crazy for Loggins & Messina.

On the strength of Aletti’s ear, he ultimately quit his column to do A&R for RFC/Warner Bros., the label responsible for post-disco (but
still totally disco) singles like the B-52s’ “Rock Lobster” and Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” From there, he nurtured his passion for art and photography into a position at the Voice for over two decades before leaving in 2005. Today, he curates shows for the International Center of Photography, writes for The New Yorker, and listens to Mary J. Blige, Madonna, and the Junior Boys. But he has never abandoned his first love: “I loved the idea that disco could be so many things and didn’t have to be Donna Summer. And I loved Donna Summer.”


Donna Summer’s Crayons

Donna Summer is special. You are not Donna Summer. All them other divas who flirted with paganism before discovering Jesus are just pretenders: Donna doesn’t even need to mention them by name. As the chant of ever-circling overdubbed Donnas surrounds you on the self-explanatory “The Queen Is Back,” one of the more memorable tracks on her first album since the first Bush administration, you feel sorry for Mary J. Blige and the other narcissistic infidels who continued Lady Summer’s practice of conceiving albums as installments in the life of someone better than us.

And she was. Blessed by the company she kept—including Harold Faltermeyer, Springsteen, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Stock-Aiken-Waterman, and someone named Giorgio Moroder—she essayed every popular genre of the day, her only discernible motif being that multi-octave bazooka of a voice whose buoyancy signified her sheer joy at being a star, singing these songs, and working with these people (the undimmed power of Summer’s voice scrubs lines like “The more you reject me/The more I want from you” of celebrity vampirism). We don’t identify with the famous—they bring us to them, inviting us to share their magnificence as we sit in our rooms gawking at the cover of Live and More. On Crayons, it’s like no time has passed at all, and of course it hasn’t: As Lloyd Richards says to Margo Channing in All About Eve, the stars never die and never change.

Fans who might balk at the T-Pain chirp in “Science of Love” or the ghetto demotic of “Stamp Your Feet” (“make a big-ass sound,” “you got game”) forget what an avid chart-follower she was back in the day. Summer’s enthusiasm for the big-ass arena-rock dynamics of “Stamp Your Feet” is thrilling to hear in a fiftysomething. Also hear the commitment: Tina Turner’s professionalism looks cynical in comparison. As if to remind us that her weird streak remains intact, Summer attempts the faux Tropicália of “Drivin’ Down Brazil” or the updated blues (complete with slide guitar and harmonica!) of “Slide Over Backwards,” the latter an attempt at Summer’s own “Nutbush City Limits” or something. Once Upon a Time and Bad Girls fans will both agree that Crayons’ second half is a victory lap with no Summer in sight—she’s already past us. She still rides paradoxes as adeptly as she rode Moroder’s sequencers; she’s human because she believes in staying superhuman.

Donna Summer plays the PNC Bank Arts Center June 18 and the Nikon at Jones Beach theater July 19,


Muppet! at the Disco

“If you wanna sex me, give it up,” sings esteemed Muppets bandleader Dr. Teeth in a rare uncouth moment, a plume of smoke billowing behind him as he ribaldly bashes his keyboard. Members of his backing band, the Electric Mayhem, join forces with Miss Piggy and several other slow-dancers (some human, some mutant, one a half-peeled banana) to flesh out the sentiment:

When you wanna sex me
Give it up
If you wanna freak me
Give it up
You don’t have to take me out
Just pick me up and turn me out
Give it up

Jim Henson is doing the Hustle in his grave. For the finest collision of infectious disco and Muppet exuberance known to man, avail thyself of Escort’s video for “All Through the Night,” the zenith of a truly splendid couple of weeks as far as YouTube is concerned. (Its partner in dominance is that bewildering clip of Filipino prison inmates re-enacting the “Thriller” video.) For three and a half mesmerizing minutes, Rolf, Animal, Sam the Eagle, the Pigs in Space, and various other furry personages are expertly synced to the Brooklyn disco orchestra’s fourth and latest single, a Technicolor blast of dance-floor dynamite propelled by a helium-huffing, syllable-stuffing chorus of Giveittomesayittome -workitwithmeif- you’reready- I’mabouttopop. Given the relatively basic mechanics of Muppet speech—few teeth, fewer tongues, mouths just clamping open and shut—they are credibly edited so as to espouse more erotic commentary than you have perhaps grown accustomed to; it’s amazing. Irvin Coffee, a jovial filmmaking friend of the band who’s worked on The Chappelle Show and a documentary called The Beauty Academy of Kabul, sat down with eight DVDs’ worth of raw Muppet material and bashed it out. “Discounting all the technological bullshit, it took three days,” he recalls.

Irvin is relaxing in the “green room” on a recent Wednesday night at the Stuyvesant Town Oval, where Escort has just performed for a crowd of children with balloons. Thankfully, the kids’ parents are either ignorant of or amused by the band’s lyrical lasciviousness. “‘Pick me up and turn me out’ could mean, like, ‘change my diaper,’ ” reasons keyboardist Eugene Cho, an Escort core member and producer along with keys/guitar maestro Dan Balis. Onstage, the crew swells to 13 large, a maelstrom of congas, bongos, timbales, and cowbells of various pitches alongside two guitars, a three-man horn backline, two folks each in the rhythm and string sections, and Eugene in the Dr. Teeth role, blipping out cool Kraftwerk pocket-calculator riffs on a synthesizer. And then, of course, there’s lead singer Zena Kitt, resplendent in a red dress, waving at the half-pint princesses twirling merrily in the front row. She’s a belter, whether thundering through Escort’s own cowbell-saturated “Starlight” or reprising a period gem like Roundtree’s “Get On Up (Get On Down).” Everyone in the Oval is hella smiley, onstage and off, from the pogoing young ‘uns to the twentysomething beanpoles carrying Other Music bags, to the nearby dancing queen who informs me several times that she is (a) 78 years old and (b) really excited. “If they can bring this out in me—a 78-year-old lady!” she marvels. “I haven’t felt this good in ages!”

World domination would seem imminent, but Escort is invading slowly. “All Through the Night” follows “A Bright New Life,” “Love in Indigo,” and “Starlight” in the band’s cachet of singles since Escort coalesced loosely around Eugene and Dan’s production and DJ work in 2005; their sudden Muppet-abetted ascension has raised their profile but probably won’t accelerate their pace. They’d like to tour, sure, but we’re talking about a lotta people. And yes, they are recording a full-length, but the timetable remains unspecified. “We have to write some songs first, and then record them,” Eugene notes.

Achieving abrupt Internet fame has got to be the most surreal experience. It’s hard to know how to even talk about it.

So, uh, what’s it like, being a sort of, uh . . .

“. . . an ephemeral YouTube phenomenon?” Dan finishes, bemused. He gives all the credit to Irvin; Irvin demurs, saying that it was Dan’s idea. In any event, the Muppet motif is certainly apt, given Escort’s unabashedly retro sound: It’s a genuine shock when you’re so busy gawking at Fozzie that you don’t realize “All Through the Night” was released in 2007, not 1977. Their influences are not covert. “I remember Donna Summer,” Zena says. “I remember Chic. I remember, uh, something train—B.T. Express! All of those. But what stimulates me is Donna Summer. I like her style. I like how she handles herself when she’s up onstage.”

“For a lot of people who do production, when you’re digging for samples on disco records, you’re like, ‘Oh, I actually like this better than the stuff that’s coming out now,'” Dan explains. “The engineering’s better, the production’s better—and oh my God, it’s actually musical.” Only Zena’s experiences in the actual disco era are really visceral, though; as Eugene and Dan are “circa 30,” they’re not exactly painting from memory. “You can’t really be nostalgic for something you didn’t experience the first time around,” Dan says.

Perhaps that’s why Escort sounds so fresh and vibrant—for most of them, it really is the first time around. At the Stuy Town Oval, the band’s newly minted originals bleed seamlessly into some of the three-decades-old tracks that inspired them; Zena is particularly dominant on a thundering cover of Geraldine Hunt’s “Can’t Fake the Feeling,” disco’s very own “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” It all sounds vintage without devolving into nostalgia—no mere puppets of retro chic, they’re instead a fully formed instrument of Electric Mayhem, crafting vaguely pornographic odes to sexing and freaking you. Give it up.

Escort play P.S. 1’s Warm Up August 25,



So the Killers are now on record as insisting the (admittedly marginally inferior) Bravery are not a real new wave band or something? What the hell is real new wave? Isn’t fakeness new wave’s whole point? And what, so suddenly now writing a single chorus that rips off Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” turns Vegas pretty boys into Iggy and the Fucking Stooges? Either way, I dare the Killers to take on any nuevo new wave band below. Oneida, for instance: who, in the midst of reining in their long long-windedly heavy pretensions into dainty brevity, initiate the hot 2005 trend (to be advanced in May by the Hold Steady) of fine New York rock outfits performing songs about people named Charlemagne.

Beat the Donkey Beat
(Out of My Mind Music Brazilian-percussioned jazz-rock en español album)

Download “Anarrie” (MP3)

Download “Forro For All” (MP3)

Download “Olivia” (MP3)

Download “Rio de Jamaica” (MP3)

Download “Matan” (MP3)

Copycat Killers
(Scat post-punk glam-rock cover songs album)

Download “I Feel Love” (original by Donna Summer/Giorgio Moroder) (MP3)

Do It Everywhere
(Birds Go South post-punk art-rock album)

Download “Hear You Go” (MP3)

Download “Backwards” (MP3)

(El Cacho Argentine American new wave album)

Stream All Songs (M3U)

Download “I’m Crying For You Argentina” (MP3)

Download “Disposable Song” (MP3)

Stop Movement Stop Loss
(Recording Club post-punk album)

Download “Intent” (MP3)

Download “Quarantine!” (MP3)

( ’80s post-hardcore pigfuck hard-rock CD-R reissue)

Stream “Human Zoo” (M3U)

Stream “Space Angel” (M3U)

Stream “Signs” (M3U)

The Wedding
(Jagjaguwar post-drone-rock baroque twee-pop album)

Download “Run Through My Hair” (MP3)

Download “Did I Die” (MP3)

Subliminal Kill
(Tigersushi Chilean post-punk album)

Stream Album

Random Hymns
(GSL Slavic-rhythmed post-pigfuck art-punk EP)

Mutual Insignificance
(File 13 dub-noised garage-punk EP)

Download “Cold In The Sun” (MP3)

Moonshower and Razorblades
(Custard Czech dance-oriented post-punk album)

Download “Victimisanothernameforlover” (MP3)

Download “Vampire’s Dance Hall” (MP3)

Temper Temper
(Revelation post-punk glam-rock album)

Download “Loaded Life (MP3)

Download “Sexy Little Cuts” (MP3)


Morgan Geist Compiles and Remixes Eurodisco Wonders

The scampy dance collection Unclassics: Obscure Electronic Funk & Disco 1978-1985 presents tracks that once showed up on international dancefloors and charts. The set is compiled and mixed, as well as lightly re-produced here and there, by Morgan Geist, who, as the liner note maintains, understands that these are “weird tracks that remain too earnest to be pure camp, yet are too ‘out there’ to be considered serious.”

The CD is programmed to dart and soar and jump and relax as a DJ set strong on melody. The sequence crests on a Canadian ’84 instrumental, “We Can Make It” by Purple Flash Orchestra, that’s like New Order gone to heaven—and which turns out to move like Ravel, swing like Malibu, and glisten like Euro Disney. Yet Unclassics functions equally as a stellar anthology of electronic disco. The compilation argues that the familiar tracks of ’70s hall of famers (Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer, the Bee Gees) are now exactly as exciting and overexposed as the Beatles. So Geist offers something fresher, less vocal-determined, and spookier.

Most tracks inevitably read somehow as cute and boppy. The genius of Unclassics, though, is that it is not a collection of cute little boppy weird-disco tunes; unfailingly, Geist’s selections find Italians, Russians, Canadians, and others using low disco to attain distinguished results. The effects are rarely achieved with song lyrics or, for that matter, chords; these are songs in love with single-note synth melodies leanly phrased and recorded. They take dulcet neon-analog shape in the air above the beats as though they were previously silenced singers who’d just commandeered microphones and burst free. In Zodiac’s “Pacific,” an ’80s Russian hit, the synth begins with a meek chirp, then keeps going until it streams with a fine athletic confidence; in Pluton & Humanoids’ “World Invaders”—a key track that DJ IF included on his great Mixed Up in the Hague a few years back—a vocoderized chorale warns about something ominous so urgently, against thrashy underlying beats, that the piece comes to be about the anxiety of warnings themselves. Unclassics is not Eurodisco lost in its own obscurity. It upends the rule book of taste.


Listings – 10/12/2004

Bad news for those of you coddling your post-CMJ hangovers: There won’t be any time to rest this week, either. Cazzo Pazzo, the new monthly shindig thrown and DJ’d by Dirty Jean and Andy Butler hosts Chicago house legend Derrick Carter. Thus a bit of a different choice for the gay dance party, but Derrick is gay, and he does play dance music, so it should all be peachy. This is one of those rare opportunities to see a masterful mixer at work without having to trek to a superclub and deal with their super-prices and the super-headache that come with those massive venues. Wednesday @ 10, Luke & Leroy, 21 Seventh Ave S, 212.645.0004

While the big disco, house, and electro hits of the late ’70s and early ’80s always hog the spotlight, you know that the Bee Gees, Donna Summer and Shannon songs were just the tip of the iceberg and that many more treasures are unheralded. However, most of us don’t want to sift for 3,000 hours through records bins to find the gems. Lucky for us, Morgan Geist did all the work for the lazy masses, compiling a record out of the not-famous-but-totally-slamming jams. He spins some of those tunes and many more at this Unclassics release party with like-minded spinner Danny Wang, back from Berlin. Tuesday @ 10, APT, 414 W 13th, 212.414.4245

To convince yourself it’s still 1997 and all the big clubs like Twilo and Tunnel are still around, hosting big techno acts like Ken Ishii, with the fabulous doormen like Kenny Kenny holding the guest list, go to Destination Fridays at Ikon, which we think is the old club Exit. Also playing: Kazu, Hiro, Jason Jollins, and more. Friday @ 10, Ikon, 610 W 56th, 212.582.8282