"That’s the way of the world, baby."

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.

5 Comments on “"That’s the way of the world, baby."”

  1. The movie sounds fascinating–never heard of it, but I'm definitely going to check it out.

    But as a fan of disco I must speak out in protest…most of those 70s tracks were done with live musicians, orchestras, full horn sections and the like. Great booming divas and plenty of songs written with Brill Building flash and polish. The best of that era, like any era, stands up with the very best popular music ever made! Loleatta Holloway ("Runaway"), Ashford & Simpson (Stay Free), Babe Ruth (the Mexican), MTSB, Barry White, George Macrae, Isaac Hayes…on and on.

    And just think: the genre as we know it was basically invented by KC & the sunshine Band! How bad could it be?!

  2. Tim, you either love disco or you hate it. Guess we know where Alex stands.

    Alex, you are probably one of the few authors who could write a vampire novel that I can stomach. Mostly I want to whine, “Why’d you go and write a vampire novel?” But since another Eddie LaCrosse novel is coming out next year as well, I’ll forgive you!

    The setting sounds like it could bring back the memories. I was only 9, but still.

  3. Tim, your defense of disco is well-reasoned but for one thing: most of the artists you cite were primarily soul and R&B musicians before the disco revolution, who jumped on the mirrorball bandwagon in a desperate attempt to stay relevant.

    This excerpt from Night Moves: Pop Music in the Late 70s by Don & Jeff Breithaupt, captures disco as I remember it:

    A look inside any of the country’s ten thousand discos presented a superficially celebratory but ultimately dispiriting picture. Surrounded by flashing lights, dry ice, and jackhjammer-level sound, humanoids in genital-crushing designer jeans whirled and bobbed in predetermined patterns, blowing their tiny “disco whistles” at intervals as though officiating at some cybernetic sporting event. An endless stream of drum and bass information left room neither for conversation nor contemplation. Above the antiseptic din, a detached female voice chanted an ironic reprise: “I feel love, I feel love….” Disco, the century’s most popular dance music, seemed the opposite of fun.

    But I, too, have a soft spot for KC.

  4. Touche, Alex–I’m really thinking of pre-Saturday Night Fever disco (great music but horrible movie). TGIF had a few high points but then it was a quick stumble to “Disco Duck”. I guess you could say it got sucky when it was commodified, like any genre…same with early rock, early brit invasion, early punk, early rap. it was only 2-3 years from Public Enemy’s first album to Vanilla Ice!

  5. oh, and joe strummer was a r&b guy and mick jones wanted to be mott the hoople, so everybody comes from somewhere!

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