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Posts from the ‘Disco’ Category

“Hi, everybody, I’m Archie Bell…”

archie-bell-1

Among the select group of great pop singles that last no more than two and a quarter minutes, “Here I Go Again” by Archie Bell and the Drells stands pretty much supreme. From Bobby Eli’s electric sitar opening to the jammed fade, not a single one of its 135 seconds is wasted.

It was written and produced in Philadelphia in 1969 by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and arranged by Bobby Martin and Thom Bell. The principal musicians will have been Eli and his fellow guitarist Norman Harris, Ronnie Baker on bass guitar, Earl Young on drums and Vince Montana on vibes (or possibly, in this instance, xylophone). I give them special prominence because the heart of the record is not to be found in the vocal verse and chorus but in the little four-bar instrumental interludes that punctuate the song so memorably.

The record starts with a 12-bar intro featuring Eli’s Danelectro Coral electric sitar before going into the 16-bar verse and the eight-bar chorus, all built on an E flat-A flat-B flat sequence and a blithe backbeat with double-time bass guitar fills. That’s followed by the first of the four-bar interludes, in which the rhythmic emphasis changes subtly but significantly, driving deeper into the “one”, anchored by a grunting baritone saxophone; more important, there’s also a radical harmonic shift from the E flat base (by my amateur musical forensics, which someone more expert might well correct) to a G-B-A-D pattern*. The combined effect of the two elements gives an exhilarating lift to this mini-break, somehow heightened by the absence of a solo instrument.

The effect is like suddenly changing the lighting in a room — and then back again, just as suddenly, when the tension is released by a return to the original mode. They run through the 16-8-4 pattern again, and then the chorus is repeated once more before the instrumental section returns and is played three times, with Archie Bell wailing on top this time, to the fade. And then it’s over, quite abruptly, and you want to play it again.

When it came out on a 45 in the US in 1969 it was as the B-side to “A World Without Music”, which failed to make the US Top 1oo. Three years later, however, it was discovered by Northern Soul dancers, who took it into the UK pop charts, where it peaked at No 11. Archie told Blues & Soul magazine that when he was informed of its belated and unexpected success, he had trouble recalling the song.

It’s included in Let’s Groove: The Archie Bell & the Drells Story, a new 2-CD anthology on Big Break Records. The compilers include the obvious hits, beginning with the first from 1967, introduced thus: “Hi, everybody, I’m Archie Bell and the Drells, from Houston, Texas. We don’t only sing, but we dance just as good as we want.  In Houston, we’ve just started a new dance called the Tighten Up. This is the music we Tighten Up with…” That rough but irresistible debut single, “Tighten Up Pt 1”, duly went to No 1 in the pop and R&B charts.

I confess that I never kept the closest watch on their career, and among the 44 tracks are many that are new to me, including “A Soldier’s Prayer 1967”, a ballad in which Archie — who was wounded in Vietnam — sings about the experience of thinking about his family while preparing to go into combat. (This turns out not to be quite true: see the comment below from Blaise Pascal.) There’s also the charming “Archie’s in Love”, written by Philip Mitchell, produced by Brad Shapiro and Dave Crawford, and introduced with a nostalgic snatch of a country waltz before snapping into a hip-swinging 1971 disco beat.

The second disc includes a selection of the dancefloor favourites they recorded for Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International label in the second half of the ’70s, many of them produced by John Whitehead and Gene McFadden. In”Let’s Groove”, “The Soul City Walk”, “Dance Your Troubles Away” and the rest, the textures are smoother, the grooves slinkier, and the instrumental breaks much longer. It’s the generic disco music of its time, washed in the spangled rays of a mirror ball, beautifully executed and captured by a great bunch of session musicians and studio engineers. But nothing, I have to say, beats the magical 135 seconds of “Here I Go Again”.

* It’s quite possible that the speed of the track was altered during mixing or even mastering, and that the respective chord sequences might originally have been E-A-B and A flat-C-B flat-E flat.

Summer of ’89

Donna Summer 1I always felt Donna Summer belonged in the second tier of female soul singers, below Aretha, Gladys and Dionne and alongside Irma Thomas, Candi Staton and Dee Dee Warwick, which isn’t bad company. What she had going for her, the thing that marked her out, was a hint of sadness in her tone. Even when she was at her most exultant and ecstatic (the obvious examples being “Could It Be Magic” and “I Feel Love”), there was a darker emotional undertow. I imagine it was that sense of ambiguity which caught Giorgio Moroder’s attention back in the mid-’70s. And somehow it was rendered even more potent by the contrast with the Munich producer’s machine-tooled beats.

Long after she and Moroder had parted company, she put her name and voice to a pop-disco masterpiece that illustrates better than anything what I’m trying to describe. And it came, much to my astonishment, from the team of Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman, with whom Summer decided to work after hearing the hits they’d made with Rick Astley. That was in 1987, and things weren’t going well in her relationship with David Geffen’s label. Her last hit, “She Works Hard for the Money”, had been four years earlier. Looking for a new angle, she made an album with Stock, Aitken and Waterman. But when Geffen heard it, he didn’t like it. As Waterman relates in the notes to the newly remastered and expanded reissue of Another Place and Time, the record company president asked for more guitars. Waterman, quite properly, told him where to get off and a stalemate ensued.

To break it, Rob Dickens, the head of WEA, Geffen’s European distributors, played the unreleased album to Ahmet Ertegun, who loved it. Which is how it came to be released, on the Atlantic label in the US and WEA in Europe, two years after being made. And how Donna Summer came to make her way back into the top 10 in the US and the UK with a perfectly standard, upbeat and affectless SA&W song called “This Time I Know It’s For Real”.

But the track Ertegun heard first, and the one that sold him on the project, was the one I’ve always been crazy about. Another SA&W composition, it’s called “Love’s About to Change My Heart”, a slice of pure pop-soul-disco that plays to every one of the singer’s strengths. From an out-of-tempo intro to a Moroder-ish four-on-the-floor that qualified, in 1989, as a retro gesture, aided by the producers’ meticulous attention to building and releasing tension constantly throughout the track, Summer takes a good tune and a lyric worthy of Hal David — “I’m waiting for the doorbell to chime / I always lived one day at a time / I thought that I was getting on fine / Never felt that I was alone until you changed my mind” — and soars. Give her a song like this, and she could make it sound like she’d lived it.

The three-CD reissue of the album contains many remixes and offers no fewer than nine versions of “Love’s About to Change My Heart”, which shows what a dancefloor favourite it was, even if it failed to make much noise on the charts. But the version I love is the first one I heard, the producers’ own mix for the original issue on a 45rpm single. Everything about its beautifully detailed three minutes and 43 seconds is perfect, including two moments of absolute pop transcendence created by the producers. The first comes at 2:24, when Summer is reflecting on her changed emotional state. “What did I know?” she asks, and her own voice suddenly appears from another direction, overlapping and repeating the final syllable with a gospel howl, like her subconscious mind bursting out from beneath the narrative. If you were dancing you’d throw up your arms and howl along. And then, at 3:02, the pounding 128bpm rhythm is cut for a full 10 seconds, leaving Donna and the backing choir hanging in the air, a cappella, until the beat comes crashing back in, with the choir commenting — encouraging or warning? — like a Greek chorus: “Changin’… changin’… changin’…” until Donna joins in — “Change me… change me…” and the piece starts to fade. Weirdly, that touch of genius isn’t on the album version.

Luckily, the single version is the last of the nine extra mixes on the third disc of the reissue. It’s a record I’ve loved for 25 years. In fact I’m going to play it again now, over and over again, as loud as I can get away with.

The photograph above appears on the reissue of Another Place and Time, on the Driven by the Music label, credited to the Donna Summer Archive.