Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Gateway Records 3534: Hustle, Bus Stop and Line Dances

I have a lot of records, and also I have an 18-month-old daughter. I've found that putting the records she pulls off the shelf ("selects for me") on my playlist is a great way to explore the music I surrounded myself with for the last 20 years or so, now that my rate of acquisition has slowed to just a few LPs a month.

I call it the "Frances Picks" recommendation system. It has its limitations - for example, she's not tall enough to reach records by artists beginning with A, D-E, H-I, L, P-Q, or T-V (not to mention half of S). But it beats my previous system, which involved a random number generator and a lot of counting back from the ends of shelves, and it has a human element.

That's right, I have so many records I need a recommendation system. Why don't I just pick the records I want to listen to? If only it were that easy! The thing is, I can't trust myself with these decisions. So many gems are in there - records I forgot I had, records I don't remember acquiring, records I thought I hated - if I relied on my own picks it would be so boring. Donovan, Thinking Fellers, Donovan, Lightning Bolt, Donovan, Herb Alpert... enough already!

As part of MediaUnbound's continuing project to examine the merits of various recommendation systems, I'm proud to say I've been chosen to evaluate the results of the "Frances Picks" rec engine on a semi-regular basis.

This week, I present: Gateway Records 3534, Hustle, Bus Stop and Line Dances.

Produced by the club "Dancing Oasis" - "located on Manhattan's fashionable East Side" - and promising "nonstop disco music at its best", this album features a number of huge hits of the disco era ("(Shake Shake Shake) Shake Your Booty", "Getaway", "You Should Be Dancing") performed by an uncredited, but energetic and tight, studio group. The focus is on the dancing - detailed instructions are printed on the back cover for a number of popular moves (a sample: "Chicago Bus Stop. Count 1. Touch R heel FWD. Count 2. Touch R toe behind. Count 3. Step RF FWD (1/4 turn R)...")

One imagines a madcap Three's Company setpiece with Jack and Chrissy trying to learn the "L.A. Hustle", knocking over goldfish bowls, trying to explain their sequined getups to Mr. Roper, and so on. In reality probably this record was played 0-1 times by its original owners (it's in like, mint condition, a sure sign of an unplayed album) and sat out the 80s on a shelf by the hi-fi, getting to know its neighbors, no doubt avatars of other fashionable movements (Jazzercise, Richard Simmons, Jane Fonda Workout, maybe a stray Leo Sayer record or two) before being sold in bulk to the store where I likely paid a dollar or less for it sometime in the 90s. A sad story really - unloved, unwanted, just getting in the way for its whole life.

Until the Frances Picks system came along!

The music, usually the centerpiece of an LP, feels almost like an afterthought on this record - just another line item. The producer is credited, in about 8-point type, along with the studio, recording engineer, writers of the dance instructions, cover photographer and "art production", in a tiny box in the lower corner of the back of the jacket, but the musicians and vocalists don't warrant a single mention. I guess the studio must have supplied them.

They sure worked hard for their money! Absent the syrupy string section that normally slogs fungus-like over the post-production surface of most disco records, the crisp arrangements that made the genre so easy to dance to shine out here in stark relief. The female vocalist has a mellow, if indistinct, Diana Ross-like croon, while the male vocalist isn't afraid to get a little dirty on "Lowdown". The spare rhythm section (just bass, a whisper-thin guitar, and a monster drummer) holds the whole piece together. True to the album's mission, the music never stops - the drummer starts each song as soon as the previous one finishes. I want to believe that they recorded the two sides live in one 20-minute take each, but this is just an unlikely fantasy that I have.

These versions don't top the super hits by the original artists in terms of quality - but let's get real here, is quality the only reason to listen to a song? "Getaway" is a pretty great song, but do I really want to throw on an Earth Wind and Fire album? (I guess now that it's the future, I don't need to put on those LPs, I just have to jump on the youtube or whatever. But still) I mean if I really wanted to listen to "Getaway" I could. But I don't. It's much more fun for me to hear it on a record like this, take the personality of the original artist away, hear it as a composition that's open to interpretation, and groove on the human drama going down with the disco club and the recording studio and all the middle Americans buying the dream.

The track "Lowdown" on this record was one I'd never heard or heard of - turns out it's by Boz Scaggs! Who knew? He does that "Lido" song you always hear in the drugstore, but I didn't know he had other songs too! It's pretty good too, the funkiest track on the record (of course, that's a pretty low bar). I find it interesting that since the producers seem to have tried to make this record about the dancing and not the music, they picked the least controversial songs they could think of. But thirty years on, with at least three or four pop culture disco revivals under our belt, it's interesting to look at this document as a reflection of what some people at the core of the movement thought of as the mainstream. KC and the Sunshine Band, the Bee Gees and Tavares ("Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel" from the "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack) are all represented, but so are a few songs that didn't really make it into the Disco Canon: the Boz Scaggs song, Natalie Cole's "Sophisticated Lady" and Lou Rawls' "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine". A record like this gives you a snapshot of the era as it presented itself, distorted perhaps by the individual inclinations of the producers, but undistorted by the multiple lenses of successive decades; a picture of a living, breathing, powerful movement unaware of the doom that would soon be visited on it. For me, that's as much a reason to pay attention to a record as quality.

I JUST REALIZED! "The Hustle" isn't on the record!

So how did the Frances Picks engine (henceforth to be known as the FPE) perform in this case? How do I rate my recommendation? If my criteria are quality of listening experience and likelihood that I would have picked the record on my own, it's an unqualified success. Never in a hundred years would I have selected this record on my own, and I thoroughly enjoyed the playing. I played it three times! I did not try to learn any of the dances though - I think that's probably for suckers. My daughter has taught me that wiggling and writhing are the best dances. Or, maybe that's what I'm trying to teach her.