R.I.P. Robin Gibb

The world has lost a second disco icon in almost as many days with the passing of Robin Gibb. He died yesterday at the age of 62 after a hard-fought battle with liver cancer and intestinal problems. His passing comes a mere three days after the death of Donna Summer.

Robin Gibb made up one third of the Bee Gees along with his brothers Barry and Maurice. They first achieved fame in the 1960s as part of the British Invasion. Their Beat sounds of the Sixties gave way to the popular disco sound in 1975 with “Nights on Broadway.” But it was in 1977 that the Bee Gees reached the pinnacle of their career when they provided the soundtrack for the disco movie “Saturday Night Fever.” The brothers Gibb lent their falsetto harmonies to a string of hits, including “Stayin’ Alive,” “More Than a Woman,” and “Night Fever.” Almost every one of the songs on that soundtrack went on to be a hit single, and the album went platinum 15 times over.

Robin was predeceased by two of his brothers. His youngest brother Andy, who also enjoyed fame in the disco era as a solo artist, died in 1988 at the age of 30. His twin brother and fellow Bee Gee Maurice died in 2003 of a twisted intestine. It was this same ailment that contributed to Robin’s ill health during the last several months of his life.


R.I.P. Donna Summer

Donna Summer passed away yesterday of lung cancer at the age of 63. She will best be remembered for her string of disco hits in the Seventies, including “Last Dance,” “MacArthur Park,” and “Bad Girls.” I was always bummed when “MacArthur Park” came on the radio because that song seemed to go on FOREVER! I remember singing “TOOT TOOT, heeeeeeey, BEEP BEEP!” with my friends in the junior high locker room. We thought it scandalous that “Bad Girls” was about ladies of the evening. But “Last Dance” in particular reminds me of being a child of the Seventies, listening to the AM stations on my parents’ old 60s radio that I had sitting atop my radiator cover in my childhood bedroom. I loved how it started out slow and then built up to a frenzied disco beat. It’s my favorite song of hers. Rest in Peace, Donna.

Music Monday: Donny and Marie

In the Seventies, you could find me glued to the television set every Friday night at 8:00, the manual dial turned to Channel 7. That was when The Donny and Marie Show was on. The wholesome, toothy brother and sister singing act and Dancing with the Stars alums had their own variety show that ran on ABC from 1976 to 1979.

My dad at the time worked for a company that manufactured, among other things, tape cassettes. He would bring home the latest album releases. Once he brought home “Layla” by Derek and the Dominoes. I didn’t know who Eric Clapton was back then, and the album didn’t really appeal to a nine-year-old. So I never listened to it. But one day my dad brought home “Songs from the Donny and Marie Show.” It was a couple of weeks before the album was released in stores, and my sister and I were thrilled. It was the best gift my dad ever got us (without my mom’s help or input, that is).

I listened to the album on my portable Radio Shack cassette player. My favorite song was “Deep Purple,” which I played over and over. To play a song over, I had to hit the rewind button and keep stopping the tape until I got it at the right spot at the beginning of the song. If I went too far back then I had to hit the fast forward button, and if I went too far forward I had to hit rewind again. You kids with your iPods don’t know how easy you have it these days.

I also had the Donny and Marie dolls from Mattel. They were like Barbie and Ken but with the faces of Donny and Marie. Marie borrowed the bent arms and microphone in hand from Superstar Barbie. The Donny and Marie dolls’ outfits paid homage to “Deep Purple.”

Variety shows were big in the Seventies, but you don’t see them on t.v. anymore. Sadly, it’s a dead format. Donny and Marie made a brief return to television in 1998 with their own talk show. It was just one of a slew of celebrity talk shows in the Nineties that tried to capitalize on the popularity of shows like Oprah, and it lasted only a couple of years. But this week it was announced that Donny and Marie are coming out with a new album, their first in thirty years. Say what you will about Donny and Marie, but no one can harmonize like those two.

R.I.P. Poly Styrene (1957-2011)

Poly Styrene passed away yesterday. She was the lead singer for the late-Seventies British punk band X-Ray Spex. Born Marion Elliot-Said, she adopted her punk persona as a teenager in 1977 after seeing the Sex Pistols perform. Her shrieky vocals, accompanied by equally shrieky saxophones, gave X-Ray Spex their distinctive sound. More melodic than the three-chord wonders that passed for punk bands in those days (but just as loud), X-Ray Spex released one LP, “Germ-Free Adolescents,” in 1978. They broke up a year later, but reformed in 1995 with a new album “Conscious Consumer.” The clip above shows them performing their first single, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” on British television circa 1977.

Poly Styrene passed away of spine and breast cancer after a short illness. She had just released her third solo album,”Indigo Blue,” last month in the UK and was promoting it when she became ill. The album launched today in America.

Rest in peace, Poly.

Music Monday: Rex Smith

“Sooner or Later” was a made-for-television movie that was released in 1979. It catapulted singer Rex Smith into an overnight star and spawned the Top-Ten single “You Take My Breath Away.” Rex Smith played Michael, a seventeen-year old (cough!) guitar teacher and object of the affections of thirteen-year-old (cough!) Jessie, played by sixteen-year-old Denise Miller. The cast also featured such notable actors as Barbara Feldon (Agent 99 in Get Smart), Judd Hirsch of the hit television show “Taxi,” Morey Amsterdam (Buddy Sorrell in The Dick Van Dyke Show), and Lynn Redgrave of “Georgy Girl” fame.

In the video above, Jessie waits for Michael to jog past, then joins him as if she’s out jogging too and just happens to run into him. Who wears suspenders and a neckerchief while jogging, I ask? And is it just me, or does Rex Smith run like a girl? His arms flail around as much as his hair does. But hearing this song for the first time in over thirty years, it strikes me that, as hokey and contrived as a manufactured teen idol Top-Forty song can be, it’s pretty nonetheless.

Marie, my best friend in 7th grade (the same friend who owned the Candies that I coveted) loved Rex Smith. She had the book based on the movie, as well as Rex Smith’s album of the same name. That was when albums came in vinyl format, kids.

If Denise Miller looks familiar, you may remember her from “Fish,” the “Barney Miller” spin-off in which Abe Vigoda’s character Detective Fish and his wife Bernice adopted five rowdy foster children. Denise played tough-talking Jily Papalardo. Marie and I referred to her as “the girl from ‘Fish'” because we didn’t know her name. (You may also remember “Victor,” played by John Cassisi, who played “Fat Sam” in the all-child-actors gangster movie Bugsy Malone).

Here’s another clip from the film featuring Jessie jamming with Michael and his band as Michael sings “Simply Jessie.” Jessie makes it look so easy to play the guitar while simultaneously looking adoringly at Michael. Rex Smith is rocking that Andy Gibb/Peter Frampton/Leif Garrett long hair that every late-Seventies rocker dude sported, but Jessie’s hair looks glossy and lustrous too. They both look like they used hot rollers and Breck shampoo.

Many thanks to Mary on Facebook who posted about this movie and brought back so many memories.

Music Monday: Marvin Gaye

I wasn’t really into this song when it was a hit for Marvin Gaye in 1977. It’s only now, after rediscovering it, that I can appreciate the message behind the funk. Gaye’s falsetto voice describes a wallflower at a party overcoming his shyness in a social situation to find romance by getting up the courage to dance. Gaye recorded the song somewhat reluctantly at the urging of his record company, Motown, to record a dance hit at the height of the Disco era (label-mate Diana Ross having just had success with her disco number “Love Hangover”). Although it’s more funk than Disco, “Got to Give It Up” was an instant success and went to Number One on the Billboard Charts in June of 1977.

I don’t know what show this performance was recorded from, but it looks like it could be an appearance on “Soul Train.” As a child in 1977, when Soul Train came on it meant that the Saturday morning cartoons were over. But today Gaye’s song lives on to inspire wallflowers everywhere to stop being shy. After all, you got to give it up.

Music Monday: The Slits

The Slits were one of the first all-female groups to emerge during the punk movement of the mid-to-late Seventies. They consisted of vocalist Ari Up, who was the stepdaughter of Sex Pistol’s frontman Johnny Rotten; guitarist Viv Albertine, bassist Tessa Pollitt, and drummer Palmolive, who left the band shortly thereafter to form The Raincoats. The Slits formed in 1976 when Ari was only fourteen. Ari’s raspy, vibrato vocals and Viv’s jangly, choppy guitars gave The Slits their distinctive sound. Sadly, Ari Up passed away in October 2010 of cancer. At 48 years old, she was way too young.

“Typical Girls” was the first Slits single I bought, as an import record, in the 1980s when I started buying imported New Wave and punk singles in earnest. The song is a sardonic look at the typical, harmless pursuits expected of teenaged girls.