No matter how rewarding it may be exploring elsewhere, it’s good to get back home. And sometimes when you examine what’s on your doorstep you find it hard to believe the treasures hidden there. So, for example, I recently stumbled across a Marti Caine track from 1981, called Snowbird City, which had a gorgeous disco/lovers rock thing going on. It reminded me of the Carly Simon/Chic collaboration on Why, but it seemed to be from a year or so earlier. The indications were that this was from an LP of Marti’s, Point of View, overseen by Barry Blue, which made a bit more sense. Barry may have enjoyed success as a teeny bop idol, but he was also a songwriter and producer of some stature. He was certainly no stranger to disco, having produced the early Heatwave LPs. He’d also made functional and familiar disco recordings with his fellow former Bell Records heartthrob Miki Anthony for the Bruton Music Library, including what are now much sought-after tracks on the Disco Happening LP.
Marti herself at the time would have been one of the stalwart stars of British light entertainment, a regular on TV variety shows, and a big success on the cabaret circuit with her singing, dancing and comic turns. So in a way it’s no surprise she made some disco recordings. I suspect pretty much everyone who did a bit of singing on the TV variety shows recorded some disco flavoured material in the late ‘70s or in the very early ‘80s. A lot of it is quality stuff, which sounds genuinely great now – not in an ironic or camp way - because they were good singers with access to decent songwriters, musicians, arrangers, studios and session players. And the kick, swish and orchestral swing of disco suited such artists naturally. You just may not come across mentions of such sounds in the books on the history of disco. But those of us who prefer some songs by The Dooleys or The Nolans to, say, hits by Heaven 17 or ABC take a certain delight in unearthing hidden examples of ‘variety show’ disco.
I guess you could call these disco recordings ‘adult oriented’, but I know that term’s been co-opted by Prins Thomas & co. and refers more to the overlap between AOR and disco on US radio. This is something different. I guess very few of the tracks mentioned here were hits, and some languished as b-sides or album fillers. But there is a distinct charm that raises the recordings to another level. While perhaps not every track featured here transformed disco in the same way as Scott Walker did on Nite Flights, there is nevertheless much to celebrate.
The disco phenomenon certainly gave the old school Brit girls a new lease of life. Tucked away on a 1977 b-side, for example, is a gorgeous Cilla Black recording of Kenny Lynch’s Keep Your Mind On Love. The track was produced by Mike Hurst, and his old colleague Dusty Springfield also made a magnificent disco recording in 1979, Baby Blue, which just about reached the very bottom reaches of the charts. In 1983 Kenny Lynch, incidentally, had his own eyebrow-raising delayed disco smash with the astonishing Half The Day Is Gone And We Haven’t Earned A Penny. Lulu it could be said had a little more of a disco pedigree than most of her variety show contemporaries, having worked with Kenny Nolan at Chelsea in the mid-‘70s, and getting a hit with Take Your Mama For A Ride. Towards the end of the decade she may have been a fixture on light entertainment circuit, but she did also make a great LP, produced by Elton John for his Rocket label. Among the highlights of this lost LP is Nice And Slow, which was one of the tracks from Elton’s 1976 Thom Bell sessions which were ‘shelved’ for many years, oddly.
If you were going to generalise about variety show disco then you might mention a mature singer having a whale of a time dancing their way through the number thoroughly enjoying the company of a group of dancers of the opposite sex trying not to look too ridiculous. Something for everyone, you might say. Hunt around on the internet, and you’ll find a particularly fine example of this featuring Clodagh Rodgers singing Your Love Is Deep Inside of Me. Others of, shall we say, a similar vintage managed to keep it a little more ‘real’ like Elkie Brooks with a gloriously sophisticated take on soft disco with tracks like Only Love Can Break Your Heart. Of the new generation Lorraine Chase had a very different career trajectory to Elkie, and found fame via adverts for Campari. As a family favourite she had the chance to make a novelty disco record and eerily 'invented' Lily Allen on It's Nice 'Ere Innit, which was arranged and conducted by Roger Webb, and it shows.
There are so many great examples of ‘experienced’ pop acts naturally adapting to a disco sound, when they wanted to. ELO’s Last Train To London, Paul McCartney & Wings’ Goodnight Tonight, Mike Oldfield with Guilty, the Glitter Band with Makes You Blind, and so on. But it was really the Bee Gees that changed the whole game with Jive Talking and everything that came after. And naturally Bee Gees connections and covers became a vital part of the adult contemporary disco equation. Australian singer Samantha Sang was blessed by the Brothers and so had a hit with the gorgeous Emotions. Yvonne Elliman had If I Can’t Have You. And Blonde On Blonde covered the Bee Gees’ Subway quite beautifully. Not to be confused with the late ‘60s prog/psych outfit, this Blonde On Blonde were Page 3 glamour models Jilly Johnson and Nina Carter, who became national treasures in their own way. Another Page 3 family favourite Linda Lusardi as far as I know didn’t make a disco record in the late ‘70s, which is a terrible shame considering her brother Mark Lusardi was at the time a pioneering engineer in the world of reggae and post-punk. What a missed opportunity!
I think people forget how strange the Bee Gees’ new lease of life courtesy of disco actually was. Saturday Night Fever was such a huge phenomenon. And naturally the film inspired a number of budget copies, like the UK’s charming Music Machine. One of the stars of this very English film was Patti Boulaye, who has been credited with making it possible for a new generation of Nigerian female singers to have pop success in their own country. Patti may not have had much in the way of chart success in the UK but she became a stalwart of TV variety shows, and made some fantastic disco recordings along the way. Patti first found success in the UK on the TV talent show New Faces, as did Marti Caine. The other big TV talent show of the time was Opportunity Knocks, and a couple of its success stories would make some cracking disco recordings long after the hits had dried up. Peters & Lee, for example, released a fantastic country soul-ish disco single in 1976, called Save Me (Feel Myself A-Falling) which was co-written by Mark Wirtz. And former child star Lena Zavaroni made a great lost disco LP in 1979 which featured Somebody Should Have Told Me, a track also recorded quite perfectly by Cissy Houston.
The whole ‘variety show’ disco thing was a truly international phenomenon. Sacha Distel, for example, was a singer who often appeared on British variety shows, effortlessly exuding Gallic charm and elegance. Back home in France in 1979 he recorded the surprisingly avant garde disco number On ne peut plus se cacher. It’s up there as a slice of extraordinary French disco with Franḉoise Hardy’s J'ecoute De La Musique Saoule. Another French variety star Claude Francois worked with Biddu at the end of the 1970s, and in true Biddu fashion the tune Laisse Une Chance a Notre Amour will seem naggingly familiar, particularly to Jimmy James fans. This French disco milieu it should be remembered is one from which Sheila & B Devotion stepped to record Spacer with the Chic Organisation, and the French girls adapted well too, as France Gall demonstrated particularly well. Incidentally our own Petula Clark recorded some very nice French disco in the late ‘70s.
There will be many more examples of ‘variety show’ disco. One particular favourite is a fantastic if lost Twiggy single from 1978, called Falling Angel, which David Essex arranged, produced and co-wrote. Now David was always a bit of an enigma who played around with his image, and his relationship to disco was a bit ambivalent. He recorded a great track called I Don’t Wanna Go To The Disco which I am pretty sure you could convince people is a great lost Ian Dury & The Blockheads recording. But then pretty much concurrently David recorded the theme for the film Silver Dream Machine which is pretty much the pinnacle of inventive MOR disco, and indeed Scars, the Edinburgh group, realised this and did a pretty much concurrent cover.
Twiggy is more usually associated with country/MOR sounds, but rather wonderfully she did make an LP in 1979 which was produced by (her then new friend) Donna Summer and Juergen Koppers in Hollywood. Munich disco legends Keith Forsey and Harold Faltermeyer are among the musicians who worked on the sessions. This was at the time when the Munich stalwarts were moving to the US and adopting more of a rock sound. The LP itself was strangely ‘shelved’ for the next 30 years. It does at least help explain why Twiggy featured prominently in the video for Donna Summer’s Bad Girls. Of course by then the world was in the grip of disco.