Wanna Funk?

Don’t know about you, but I have definite chapters in my life, chunks of years that are marked by an event or series of events, some pleasant, some traumatic. They are handy bookmarks as I look back. I haven’t decided if they’ll be useful in looking forward.

Years 0 to 4, lots of strange illnesses, mostly croup (does anyone get croup anymore?), with long evenings spent in a steam-filled bathroom to help me breathe better. The molestation at age 5 started the next chunk of time, lasting until maybe 12. At 13 we moved to the Virgin Islands, and I grew up and became sexually aware in a strange paradise. Then a couple more chunks: college; first independent steps in life and career.

Midway through 1982, another new chunk began. Hard on the heels of my father’s death, I started my coming-out process. Many weekends were spent at Friends, a fabulous D.C. piano bar, in the company of a dear girlfriend; it was always fun when the Gay Men’s Chorus came in, and we’d get an impromptu concert. We’d close down the bar and go dancing at The Exile (or, as its sign proclaimed, eXile), a dizzyingly hot after-hours club. Somewhere around dawn we’d head to Georgetown and have breakfast at Au Pied de Cochon, eating lobster and fried eggs. Then home to bed.

It was a heady time. AIDS had not yet decimated the community, though it was definitely starting to raise its ugly head. The dance clubs were at their steamiest and most intense. There was freedom without a great deal of responsibility (and what a double-edged sword that turned out to be!). And the music reflected that.

Peter Gabriel’s “In the Air Tonight ” (1981) wasn’t dance music per se, though I certainly danced to it plenty of times. It was brooding, atmospheric, angry, yearning. As one DJ and writer put it:

Musically, it’s an extraordinarily striking record, because almost nothing happens in it. . . . It’s the drum sound in particular that’s amazing. You don’t hear it at all for the first two minutes of the song . . . then there’s that great doo-dom doo-dom doo-dom comes in, and the drums come in half way through the song, setting the template for all the Eighties drum songs after that.

For some reason I’ve always associated that song with another: “This City Never Sleeps” by Eurythmics, from their famous Sweet Dreams album (1983), though I can’t put my finger on why. It may be the song’s darker rhythms. Then again, I also associate “This City” with a completely unrelated album, The Flat Earth by Thomas Dolby (1984), so I’m thinking I must have listened to them all around the same time and they just stuck in my mind together.

At any rate, here’s “This City Never Sleeps”:

But back to dance music.

As the disco era was dying, Hi-NRG music was taking over, and Sylvester was its high priest. Known for singing in falsetto (despite a rich baritone voice), he is also considered one of the first Hi-NRG artists and the first “male diva” of disco.

His 1982 single, “Do Ya Wanna Funk,” was tremendously popular, and was a particular favorite of a friend, Jim Waldrop, who died much too young:

One of the biggest songs in 1982 was certainly “It’s Raining Men.” Written by Paul Jabara and Paul Shaffer in 1979, the song was offered to (and rejected by) a who’s-who of female singing legends including Donna Summer, Grace Jones, Diana Ross, Cher, Chaka Khan, Gloria Gaynor, and even Barbra Streisand, before being accepted by two relative unknowns, Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes.

Wash and Rhodes began their music careers as backup singers for Sylvester. As such, they were responsible for providing much of the firepower behind several of the late singer’s earliest releases — often their voices were mixed so that Sylvester’s voice was actually in the background and Wash and Rhodes were up front. When the two plus-sized singers left to pursue a career on their own as “Two Tons o’ Fun,” they struck paydirt with a handful of successful disco-oriented tracks — reaching their commercial zenith with the release of “It’s Raining Men,” which prompted the duo to rename themselves The Weather Girls.

I happened to hear the debut performance of the song, before it had been recorded, at a huge San Francisco dance club that was celebrating its last night of business. They were dazzling. To say that the crowd went wild is the height of understatement.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood‘s biggest hit was 1983-84’s “Relax.” The song itself was banned from the airwaves in the UK because a prominent DJ found it obscene, despite the fact that it was #6 in the charts at the time, and would soon rise to #1 and stay there for five weeks. The music video became yet another cause célèbre, and was banned in both the UK and on MTV here in the States, prompting filmmaker Brian De Palma to direct a second, more acceptable, video to coincide with his film Body Double.

Here is the original banned version:

And the Brian De Palma version:

Anybody wanna dance?


~ by Craig R. Smith on 17 September 2007.

7 Responses to “Wanna Funk?”

  1. About to start my workday and sharing the hotel home office with Tim, so I can’t play the vids yet…but really looking forward to it. Yummy post.

  2. Craig, my dear friend, let us take this blog (this is an incredible series, by the way) one point at a time.

    First, Kudos and Kudos on the only, the ONLY correct use of the word ‘decimate’ I have seen since I watched a History Channel special on the Roman Legions nearly three years ago. Yes, HIV/AIDS infected nearly ten percent of the large city populations in 1983. It went to about sixteen percent by the end of the eighties.

    Next . . . O heavens, how shall I say this? . . . That’s Phil Collins, my friend, not Peter Gabriel.

    I am a big fan of Gabriel but he always times his concerts with the broke periods of my life.

    Collins, with the help of a recording engineer named Padgham, developed that sound while in Genesis in the days Gabriel was involved and pushing for more experimentation. The sound you hear, and one reason nothing seems to happen but it is, nonetheless, driving, is the reverse-gated drums on a cymballess drum set.

    The snares are fed through electronically and reversed. LOUD with increased reverb that comes at the attack instead of the decay.

    And the lack of cymbals makes something that is driving feel slow. It has the feeling, to me, of steady, slow glacial power.

    In the mid-eighties, I, in my twenties and having had no real teenhood, asked my dear sweetie, older than I and already through the party/club scene, to go to a Coconut Grove club with me. Come dancing. (I’m a big Kinks fan, by the way.)

    That evening, Yvonne arrived at the house. Lee had asked a friend of mine to take me out. We went to the Grove and went clubbing.

    We drank a bit. I haven’t drunk since then. I smoked two puffs from a cigarette. I haven’t smoked since then. We danced some until I realized I was not dancing to the Bangles “Walk Like an Egyptian” but to the parody “Walk with an Erection.”

    I then looked at the bar and realized people were doing things with each other I really think ought to be saved for home. And it made the bar rather unsanitary.

    Of course, I had only been doing such things for a year, being the late bloomer I am. And I’m not saying I didn’t pick up a tip or two, but I certainly wanted a to pick up nothing more than that, and so we left to walk the grove, look at the fellas being led on leashes and the other torture-chamber regalia folk were sporting.

    Once was enough.

    I watched the Frankie vid. I watched it then. I watched it today. I know there are things in it I am not getting. I ask only that you not explain them to me. I think I’m still a bit too young.

  3. ACK! ACK! ACK! I cannot believe I typed “Peter Gabriel” instead of “Phil Collins.” My only explanation is that I have a Peter Gabriel day coming up, and I had all these YouTube videos bookmarked together, and when I was copying the link, I must have been thinking ahead of myself. I know that Collins wrote the song while he was working on a track for former bandmate Gabriel’s solo album; maybe I had that in my head. The third possibility is that I had nothing in my head whatsoever — that’s by far the most likely explanation. Mea maxima culpa.

    Thanks for the background on the creation of that sound.

    I am terribly pleased that I have a friend who is such a (relative) innocent. My past is so checkered, I could be a tablecloth in an Italian eatery.

    But I will happily accept your kudos for using “decimate” correctly. Its misuse is one of my perennial irritants; I realize that language is fluid, and that a word’s use is what determines its meaning (and that nowadays “decimate” can be stretched to mean “massive slaughter” rather than “selecting every tenth person to be killed”), but I’m still too much of a curmudgeon to allow myself to use the word improperly.

  4. Ah, Phil Collins, of whom Julie Burchill so pertly said, “He is the only man alive who looks as if he is wearing a stocking over his head even when he isn’t.” He has a lot to answer for, if you ask me: just look what he did to John Martyn.

    That video is amazing: I’d forgotten all about it. It wouldn’t get on now, would it? But then we have gone backwards as the veneer of tolerance gets harder yet more and more brittle. . . .

    Well done, for loving “decimate” so purely, chaps: it’s amazing that the word has even survived, given that they hardly ever did it anyway, and certainly not in later years (those barbarians weren’t going to fight for you if you made them kill their mates).

    Perhaps its corruption in use comes from its being so inescapably random and severe. It can be “your fault” as part of a group, but still completely unjust for you as an individual. How about this for a poetic example, though?

    And while peeking around re: Phil Collins, I found this guy you may like.

  5. I meant the video of ‘Relax’, of course, not Phil Collins, and either veneer of tolerance or, it strikes me now, venery. Take your pick.

  6. “Venery,” as in the gratification of sexual desire, or as in collective nouns for groups of animals (in which case you might find this piece an enjoyable diversion)?

  7. Maybe venery was the sublimation of sexual desire in hunting (Galahad, anyone?). Myself, I think that someone came up with ‘Murder of crows’ and ‘exaltation of larks’ and then realised they were never going to top those and were still stuck with the rest of the beast and fowl. It’s completely hopeless trying to do modern ones.

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