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?