One of the great ironies about music is how unpredictable it is when it comes to influencing the world. Despite the best laid plans of musicians, radio stations, record companies and other assorted commercial forces, there’s no telling what song is going to sneak into the global gestalt and alter it permanently. Thatt’s why despite its legendary status, Let it Be isn’t really all that interesting, why even people who consider him “the greatest” can’t name more than three songs by Jimi Hendrix and why Disco simply won’t die, no matter how hard dumb white guys try to kill it. Despite the best efforts of the rock establishment, the songs with the deepest influence come from the least likely people and places, from the most unguarded moments, sometimes when the artists that created them weren’t actually trying to create anything. In the late 1970s a group of songs showed up that would have seismic impact on virtually everyone for decades. The ripples they caused are being felt right now by people who are about to invent something that we’ll all be talking about one of these days:
The Clash – “Police and Thieves” [April, 1977]:
A top 30 UK hit in 1976, Junior Murvin’s original version would have been iconic enough: A pinnacle of Lee Perry’s Black Ark era, the song is a terse warning to the “Rude Boy” youth of Kingston as well as trigger happy police chasing them, whose skirmishes often resulted in innocent lives lost as collateral damage. Perry gives the song a chilled out, dub-centric sound that Murvin’s Mayfield-esque falsetto floats and glides over. It arrived in London just in time for the Notting Hill Carnival riots that cast England’s racial issues in a starker light than ever before. Legend has it that you couldn’t pass by an open window of some sections of London without hearing it.
Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon has just formed The Clash when they were caught in the rioting and the song stuck to them too, becoming a rehearsal room favorite. They hadn’t intended to record it, but someone heard them jamming the song during a recording break and persuaded them to include it on The Clash. Their rambling, six minute cover breaks the album out of it’s boxy punk sound, with the band dubbing themselves for nearly half of it, as Strummer strains to re-create the sly scatting from Murvin’s version. He can’t of course, but the result is still a warm and loving tribute that set The Clash apart from the other punk debuts that year.
Naturally, Perry and Murvin hated the cover, Murvin claiming the Clash had “destroyed Jah Work.” What Strummer & co. had actually done was kick down the wall restraining punk from becoming anything more than a fad, freeing the punks with actual ideas to find new musical ground past the 4/4 ramalama. In the next few years, bands would experiment with dance rhythms from Jamaica, Africa, Asia, the US…Everywhere. Without “Police and Thieves” it’s a lot less likely that a scruffy bunch of wanabes in Coventry would get into ska and spur a revival that’s still going strong on both sides of the pond, or a crew of intellectuals from Leeds would mix Marxist Theory with funk and no-wave noise, or a a bunch of school friends in Birmingham would form a band to play reggae and dub in their basement and wind up being world famous. For better or worse, this is the point where “Punk” becomes “New Wave” and the Clash themselves begin a public love affair with expanding horizons, defying expectation and stumbling along the rough road to become The Only Band That Matters.
Oh, did I mention it’s actually a fucking great record?
Chic – Le Freak [July 1978]
The backstory is so hilariously apocryphal it has to be true [even if it isn’t]: Grace Jones, then a euro-sensation model turned disco diva manque invited Chic’s Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers to discuss a recording project with her at Studio 54 on New Year’s Eve…but forgot to inform the nightclub staff they were on the guest list. ‘54 was famous/notorious for it’s draconian door policy where co-owner Steve Rubell and his various lieutenants would humiliate and denigrate anybody desperate enough to stand outside in the elements hoping for a chance to get in and mingle with the great and near-great. Despite having a couple of undegroundish dance hits that were often played inside the disco, Rodgers and Edwards were stuck behind the velvet ropes with the rest of the bridge and tunnel losers. Once they’d ruined their best shoes in the grey New York slush, the future geniuses trudged back to Rodgers’ apartment to drown their sorrows in cheap champagne and some impromptu jamming. Rodgers claims the signature riff was no big deal, the real point of their jam was to tell Studio 54 what they could do with their velvet rope.
“Awwwww FUCK OFF!!!”
Realizing in short order that their “protest tune” had a bit of potential, Rodgers and Edwards “refined” the lyrics a bit…first trying the phrase “Freak off” and then settling on the now familiar “Freak Out!’ The duo initially planned to give their “twist song” to [the then hot] Sister Sledge, whom they produced. After a bit more thought, they kept it for their own band, whose name just happened to rhyme with “freak”…
It doesn’t take much imagination to realize “Le Freak” is basically a punk rock record disguised as a disco record. The thing starts with shouting and then stomps onto the dance floor with Rogers’ slashing hi-life riff going toe-to-toe with Edwards’ dirty/pushy bass line. Vocalists Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin are merely bystanders giving play by play perched atop the TSOP-style string section. That this song signifies “disco” to so many of us is added irony, because it sounds like almost none of the disco that was around at the time. The edge and punch and speed of the song [it’s the fastest 4/4 you’ll ever dance to] make complete sense when you learn that Rodgers and Edwards had played in an unsuccessful punk back before forming Chic. “Le Freak” is a dance tune that rocks, boy. What kills about this record is how totally universal it is. You can imagine James Brown and Joe Strummer singing it.
The song was so indestructible it would be a hit for Atlantic three different times and the biggest hit single for parent company Warner Brothers until [Rodgers and Edwards production client] Madonna showed up to overtake it nearly 20 years later. In the meantime, Rodgers’ guitar riff would be swiped by Prince for his first really great record Dirty Mind and David Byrne for the breakthrough Talking Heads album Remain In Light [Though Jerry Harrison claims the swipe was really his idea]. Over in England, the sound would inspire everyone from Glasgow to Leeds to London to Birmingham, where a bunch of fake male models would dress the whole thing up in a MTV-friendly, synthopop wrapper and market their way to being the Next Beatles…for a couple of years there. Rodgers and Edwards themselves would make small fortunes as hired gurus to singers of varying fame and ability in need of a sonic upgrade. And after all that, “Le Freak” still has the power to fill a dance floor at a club, wedding, house party…anywhere that dancers need to feel So Chic. Yowza.
Blondie – Heart of Glass 
While all the bands in the CBGB scene claimed they were different and original, Blondie actually was different and original. They combined Brill Building pop sense with an punk style that also fetishized classic American pop culture years before the Clash would think of iit. They could also play and write real songs and had a stunning blonde nobody could take their eyes off to sing them. Now days, this all sounds like boilerplate, but in the mid 70s Blonde was practically a second front in the revolution.
Despite [because of?] all the stylistic and musical ammunition, Blondie couldn’t find a hit in the US and had only middling success in the UK. For their third album, Chrysalis Records replaced staff producer Richard Ghotterer with legendary hit meister Mike Chapman, an evil genius gifted enough to make bands worthless as Exile and The Sweet into hit makers. One of the last demos the band played for Chapman was an old tune they’d written early on, “The Disco Song.” The band claimed they’d never been able to make it work in the studio, but Chapman’s ears were true. Everybody involved has a different version of what happened next and who’s responsible for what, but the Chapman-produced version, retitled “Heart of Glass” was a bold proposal that shattered conventions on both sides of the Atlantic and would inspire bands and producers for decades to come. Opening with four measures of a [then not cheesey] CR-78 drum machine, the song instantly blossoms into a shimmering Eruo-decadent dancescape of Clem Burke’s hissing hi-hat, the twin guitar licks of Chris Stein and Frank Infante and Jimmy Desti’s pulsing Moroder-cum-Bowery keyboard washes.
Then Debbie Harry starts singing that chorus about glass hearts and it’s game over, man. Pouring her voice over the addictive dance beats like languid honey, by the time she and the band get to the gorgeous verse, there’s no escape. And who wants to escape from Debbie Harry anyway?
“Heart of Glass” detonated on contact, shooting to #1 in the US, UK and everywhere else in the world. It sold over a million copies worldwide and made Blondie international superstars in an era where getting the mainstream to accept anything new was an accomplishment. Blondie would prove to be a durable career act, continuing to break new stylistic ground on each successive album. Harry would become an international sex symbol [not altogether willingly] and it would be impossible to pass a newsstand without seeing her face for years to come. But the real impact of “Heart of Glass” lies in the way it reanimated Disco values under the banner of “Dance Music.” When established acts like the Stones, Kinks or KISS had tried to do dance records, the results were largely comical, and may have helped hasten the end of Disco’s cultural reign. Blondie gave us a template for how to create dance music that was smart and commercial and danceable and immune from the social profile Disco had [rightfully or wrongfully] acquired. “Heart of Glass” is a big reason why your favorite dance club isn’t a paintball range or a storage facility. And it was a gas.
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