My next novel, Blood Groove, is set in 1975 for a couple of reasons. Since it’s a vampire novel, I wanted it to be free of the influence of Anne Rice; her landmark Interview with a Vampire came out in 1977. I also wanted it to take place in a time when it was still possible to exploit cracks in the system that computer technology has forever eliminated. For example, it would be difficult nowadays for someone with no verifiable past to create a legal identity, something my vampires need.
But I also chose the era for its music. 1975 was just prior to the advent of disco, the first hugely successful musical form that didn’t depend on an artist. Mechanical beats and producer tweaks were all that was needed to create monstrous dance tracks that ran for over ten insufferable, indistinguishable minutes. This slippery slope has led us to our present dire musical landscape, where “sampling” is considered a valid act of creation.
But was pre-disco music really as pure as I remember? I’ve been forced to re-evaluate my position after stumbling across That’s the Way of the World, Sig (Superfly) Shore’s ’75 film on corruption in the music industry.
Harvey Keitel plays Buckmaster, the producer with the “golden ear” at Mob-controlled A-Korn Records. He wants to record The Group, a black ensemble better known as Earth, Wind and Fire. The company forces him instead to turn the first single by the Pages, a family trio with a homey John Denver-ish sound, into a number one hit.
There are a number of ultra-cool things about this film. Most obviously, we get a taste of real Seventies funk thanks to EW&F, including glimpses of their legendary stage shows (guitarists rising to the rafters, grand pianos turning somersaults). We see Buckmaster use state-of-the-art studio magic to turn the Pages’ inane song “Joy, Joy, Joy Everyday” into something palatable:
We get a glimpse of true Seventies fashion, including pants on Keitel so tight it’s amazing he got any blood flow beneath the waist. And Maurice White, the genius behind EW&F, calls Keitel a “jive turkey.”
But what’s most fascinating, and powerful, is the devastating indictment of the recording industry. The film depicts it as controlled by the Mob, presided over by accountants and completely uninterested in the actual music except as product. These powers-that-be are entirely confident in their ability to convince the public that they actually want this plastic, soulless tripe. Buckmaster, as the lone man of integrity, is forced to use the same underhanded, immoral tactics (justified throughout with the phrase, “That’s the way of the world”) in order to rescue himself and The Group from their deal-with-the-devil contracts.
What surprised me the most about the film (aside from those aforementioned pants) was how contemporary its central dilemma remains. Can we really have progressed so little in nearly a quarter-century? Compare the Pages to, say, the Jonas Brothers and it’s plain that’s still the way of the world. Men in suits (or women with talk shows) can still convince vast hordes that this, not that, is what they really want.
For some persective, consider this passage from 1951, found in The Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler:
“…the public is getting increasingly tired of the kind of film which explores the technical resources of the medium with relentless cleverness, but contains nothing which could be acted out on a bare stage and still make its effect.”
Apparently the issues of art vs. commerce, surface vs. substance, have always been with us. In a way that’s reassuring: it means that when the latest manifestations of these devils (Michael Bay, Miley Cyrus and “American Idol”) rear their pointed little heads, we can at least take some comfort in the thought that their reigns of mediocrity will be mercifully short. Sadly, hydra-like, four more will likely spring up to take their place.