Adolescent Awakening: KC and the Sunshine Band's "Get Down Tonight"
In 1975, an aimless teenager goes to an obscure discothèque in Boston and discovers “Get Down Tonight” -- just the kind of funk he's looking for.
Disco: the word sums up an era, a feeling, much more exactly than the words jazz or rock. The timeframe is specified: the '70s, perhaps peaking between 1975 and 1979; but there have been permutations up to the present. Basically, it’s dance music; it’s easier to draw a line between disco and house (for example) than between house and swing, though you would have to agree that house sounds quite different from disco.
A few years after I bought “Get Down Tonight” (the 45rpm 7-inch single) disco came to be vilified while paradoxically dominating the market, the airwaves, not to mention the cultural zeitgeist. The disdain towards disco is understandable given its saturation, its formulaic repetitions; record companies, producers, and all kinds of singers jumped on the bandwagon.
On the other hand, the “Disco Sucks” movement or sensibility also became an over-bearing counter-trend; the criticisms of the genre could also come across as rote. Sadly, as has been previously noted, the complete dismissal of disco usually came from white rockers, or punk rockers, or any other white follower of those other more “authentic” genres. This aesthetic dichotomy, knowingly or unknowingly, delineated a racial divide -- disco was fundamentally black music, which is why I listened to disco; my record collection was already full of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and Aretha Franklin.
I am white and I found a white disco hero: Harry Wayne Casey, the “KC” in KC and the Sunshine Band. Not that I was looking for one. As far as the stereotype of disco, an accurate representative of the genre, KC and the Sunshine Band fit the bill. For one thing: they appear on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack album, an almighty touchstone of that particular moment in musical history.
But I would easily pick “Get Down Tonight” over their next two number one hits -- “That’s The way I Like It” / “Shake Your Booty” -- which indeed begin to approach formula. I can still hear “Get Down Tonight” just as I first heard it in a one-off discothèque in downtown Boston called “Rhinoceros”. I don’t know why we went there, a friend of mine must have heard about it, he took us there, and now I believe only a chosen few would remember anything about it. It was right downtown, in the historic part of town, nearby iconic locations like the Old Granary Burial Ground, and directly adjacent to the three-story Woolworths department store where I would later buy the 45rpm single.
I didn’t or refused to comprehend that discothèques were certainly about dancing but the purpose could also be geared towards “taking someone home”. It was easy enough to find someone to dance with, a young woman. I danced with a stranger. I crossed racial lines with a stranger; but I was dumb enough to leave it at that. Too dumb. I hardly said a word to anyone. But in the interim, I sidled up to the DJ booth because I heard “Get Down Tonight” for the first time and I wanted to know who was making that noise. This was an indicator of the new era: I wasn’t spinning the radio dial, tuning into the broadcast, listening for a hit -- the broadcast was happening on the discothèque floor and I needed to know what that song was -- the DJ’s secret weapon.
The song starts with a bang, literally: drums, bass, horns sound a single note in unison, an excellent pumping segue for the club DJ. Wake up, here it comes. Furthering the explosion, eliciting the crowd’s whooping acknowledgment, a double-speed playback of an electric guitar solo comes right on the heels of the initial bang; a distinctive sound for any pop hit of that era. And then the song begins in earnest.
Those white listeners who wanted to dispense with an all out rejection of an African-American genre, began to distinguish their taste by saying something like, “I don’t like disco, but I like funk”. Wikipedia places KC and the Sunshine Band within both genres. Ironically, the nascent hip-hoppers in The Bronx began to draw the same distinction, leaning towards the heavy funk that wasn’t being well promoted on the radio. Funk, both as a word and a musical genre, has a long lineage, most definitely of the African-American sort. If we only have one finger to point with, and we were asked to point at Funk (as in music) I believe we would indicate James Brown. James Brown didn’t invent it (though he might have you believe he did) but many a musician has vamped on his funky inspiration.
When that savvy juxtaposition of weird (double-speed electric guitar) to pop burst out of the speakers of the Rhinoceros discothèque, I didn’t think “James Brown” or “Funk”. I just thought it sounded good. I was hooked, “the hook” had gotten to me. “Get Down Tonight” could certainly have been handed over to (or down from) James Brown, but there's something distinctly KC about “Get Down Tonight”, something that had me neglecting the funk/James Brown connection for years.
Harry Wayne Casey considered it R&B: “Well, we were R&B. Disco music wasn't out when we were successful. It was after two years or in '78, after we'd already been out for three years. All of a sudden Saturday Night Fever came out and now everybody was disco.” In his teenage years, he jump-started his career by hanging around TK Records in Hialeah, Florida. “Actually, the first time I asked them to hire me, they said they didn't have any openings. I kept hanging around and I really didn't get paid for boxing up records. They would kind of give me free copies of records or something for doing it.” (quotes from Gary James Interview with Harry Casey, ClassicBands.com)
TK was soon to become a key player in disco; its co-owner, Harry Stone, had already founded a slew of independent labels, notably the Alston label, which had worked with (for instance) the R&B stalwart Betty Wright. Eventually Stone let the persistent KC work it out in the studio, hooking him up with TK engineer Richard Finch -- nothing like an unpaid or underpaid intern to fiddle around and crank out a massive number one hit. For the time being, and for whatever reason, KC and Finch seemed to have the golden touch; their first collaboration produced “Rock Me Baby” (sung by George McCrae as the imagined vocals were too high for KC’s range) -- a number one hit both on the R&B and pop charts. Under his own name, “Get Down Tonight” was KC’s first number one hit.
At the moment I bought the 45rpm single of “Get Down Tonight”, I was just out of high school, working my first full-time job. I was tasked with carrying a paper bag full of diamonds and jewelry on the subway from Chestnut Hill to downtown Boston, dropping off and picking up items in the “Jewellers’ Building” on Washington Street. Given that I was unmonitored during those errands, I was basically honest within my clocked hours; but I regularly swung by the second floor of Woolworths and scoured their record bins.
This was an America early '70s context, a nation significantly approaching its bicentennial. In an upside down or parallel but skewed universe I was playing out a version of the Saturday Night Fever script, slogging through my first full-time going-nowhere job, idly planning my next creative move into the unforeseen future, just as the young KC (somewhere around my age at the time) was paying his dues at TK Records, waiting for his break ala John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever. For sure, my scenario would have been a low-budget indie production with interminable new wave cinema tangents unknown to the other two, something far from the flash of Saturday Night Fever or “Get Down Tonight”. Nevertheless, there was a narrative line that went right through disco and came out on the other side.