Those of us in thrall to charity shops will know the feeling of staring all too often at shelves crammed with commonly discarded CDs. Occasionally, just occasionally, something will magically appear which seems so spectacularly out-of-place that the imagination whirls with wonderment: “How on earth did that end up there?” It’s what keeps us looking. It’s what we pretty much live for. One such gloriously illogical example is when a CD of Gerson King Combo Volume II popped up in the local British Heart Foundation shop. What was that all about?
I like to think I know a thing or two about Brazilian music, but I have to confess this record was one I was completely unfamiliar with. There was no way I was going to leave it behind though. The Samba & Soul stamp was enough of a clue, but the cover photo of an imperious Mr Combo resplendent in white top hat and tails and massive gold chain pretty much clinched it. And it’s one of the best spur of the moment ‘blind’ purchases I’ve ever indulged in. A lot of it is glorious James Brown-style exhortations and Barry White rumbling thunder ‘n’ satin sheets seduction. But there are a few tracks that veer towards more of a disco sound as befits its 1978 vintage. The opener, Pro Que Der e Vier, in particular is a winner.
A good reference point for the Gerson King Combo sound would be Tim Maia’s Disco Club from pretty much the same time. Disco Club, however, has rather more of a full-on disco sound which makes it completely irresistible. In terms of Brazilian soul/funk sounds Tim Maia has a pretty much untouchable position, and you can’t go wrong with any of his ‘70s recordings. But the exuberant Earth Wind & Fire big band feel to Disco Club is exhilarating. And there is a kind of appropriateness to that as Kool & The Gang in their world domination enterprise phase were closely associated with Eumir Deodato whom I’m sure someone somewhere has argued laid foundations for disco with his funky reworking of Also Sprach Zarathustra.
Brazil and disco were not words I always immediately put together. After all, if you can’t dance to ‘classic’ Brazilian sounds you can’t dance, so why worry about the disco beat? But it was thanks to the unique logic of YouTube that several doors opened at once. I’d looked up Restricted Code’s Love To Meet You, a reforgotten classic pop single from 1981 by an Edinburgh group Paul Morley had included in his new pop manifesto at the end of 1980, describing them as “for radio, dancing and escaping from this room into that room, the fall popped up: pop to fall over with, still young (and) so right ...” YouTube then helpfully suggested I play the video of Corações a Mil by Marina, which turned out to be a glorious slice of Brazilian disco-infused pop from 1981, and if there is anything that should sum up what that year was supposed to be about it would be playing Restricted Code followed by Marina.
Again I have to confess I wasn’t familiar with Marina (Lima) or the TV show Fantástico on which the adorable video had been shown. But looking for clips from the programme of a similar vintage was a revelation, not least because it led to a cache of clips from another show at the height of the disco explosion, Mofo, featuring the irrepressibly over-the-top host Carlos Imperial and some of the most gloriously anarchic TV stage settings ever as Brazilian pop stars struggled to perform their hits amid a mass of showgirls and a screaming audience all keen to steal the show. If you think of Brazilian clichés, from Carnival to Copacabana, and magnify them by a thousand, you get a sense of the madness on these shows.
Nevertheless the mayhem did lead to some joyous discoveries, such as the fantastically named As Freneticas, an all-singing all-dancing troupe whose take on disco was rather on the Emotions’ Best of My Love anything-but understated side with definite Hollywood musical leanings along the lines of Donna Summer’s I Remember Yesterday or Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. I guess the Ritchie Family might be an apt reference point, particularly as that outfit started out with a disco take on Brazil which I’m sure is not entirely irrelevant and it is particularly fascinating when musical ideas ping back and forth. An even better discovery was Lady Zu, who was conveniently cast as Brazil’s answer to Donna Summer though that only hints at her magnificence. Her two late ‘70s LPs, A Noite Vai Chegar and Femea Brasileira, are absolutely essential Brazilian soul masterpieces.
Sifting through the clips from Fantástico I came across Sandra de Sa in 1980 singing Demônio Colorido. Sandra’s was another name I was unfamiliar with, underlining how much there is still to learn about Brazilian music. Sandra’s early ‘80s LPs are really worth exploring, particularly where they head into the treacly ‘last days of disco’ territory of, say, Shalamar’s Night To Remember or Patrice Rushen’s Forget-Me-Nots on tracks like the superb Guarde Minha Voz. It’s tempting to collar a Brazilian soul freak and force them to hand over details of other ‘secret’ 1980s works in a similar style.
Flirt with Brazilian disco sounds and you’ll inevitably come across Rita Lee, a far more familiar name for those of us who have approached via bossa and tropicalia. I love Rita’s post Os Mutantes work as it’s a bit of a confusing mess, particularly her late ‘70s recordings where you’ll get a fantastic mix of punchy, crunchy rockers and infectiously slinky disco pop. Search in the Fantástico archives and you’ll hopefully stumble across a glorious video of a rollerskating Rita singing Lancia Perfume. Rita’s disco numbers were incredibly popular in clubs, but not I understand to the liking of the funk/soul purists. That’s life!
You could spend a lifetime untangling disco’s roots, and it all depends where you start your untangling from. Jorge Ben’s 1973 LP Ben for example begat the track Taj Mahal that was later used infamously by Rod Stewart on one of his disco hits. In the late ‘70s and into the early ‘80s Jorge Ben himself recorded more explicitly disco-infused material, and as with all his other work up until that point you really can’t go wrong. A quick search on YouTube using the Fantástico code will bring you to a glorious 1979 video of Jorge Ben I think we can safely say thoroughly enjoying his work, singing Waimea 55000, a number that is by all accounts a bit of a lost b-side and had been something of a secret weapon in the armoury of those DJs inclined to play the best in Brazilian disco sounds . Now we can all know ...