Features

Boz Scaggs, Silk Degrees (1976)

Paul Pearson
Boz Scaggs in concert at the Chumash Casino Resort in Santa Ynez, California, on August 10, 2006 [Photo: Dwight McCann/Chumash Casino Resort]

The former Steve Miller Band sideman teams up with the musicians who would become Toto to enact the birth of the smooth.


Boz Scaggs

Silk Degrees

Subtitle: Original recording remastered
Label: Legacy
First date: 1976
US Release Date: 2007-02-20
Amazon
iTunes

At one time it seemed disco would live forever. It still does, of course, at wedding receptions for some people's third marriages. But lo, in 1974 and 1975, not only did disco look immortal, but it seemed poised to conquer the dinosaurs of hoary, hairy-headed classic rock musicians. We were only microseconds and some quick maneuvering away from losing Gregg Allman in the strobe lights. Irrelevancy threatened to forfeit his chops and nail his palms to the drum machine, pelted to death by the beanie of Rerun from What's Happening!! Oh, we were close. The breadth of a paperclip.

Disco changed people. They purchased Angel Flights for wearing, only to have to forego them in the 1980s. They began to sport medallions and feather their hair, and if that was not applicable, they combed over. But whatever happened in the halcyon days of Harry Casey and the macabre ritual known as the Hustle, few handled it as well as Boz Scaggs did. Some folks found themselves kicked to the curb, with some half-forgotten phone numbers scribbled on soppy cocktail napkins, complexion in ruins and their liver in a specimen dish. Boz at least produced a great record: Silk Degrees.

Not all of 1976's Silk Degrees was disco: Only four of its ten songs could conceivably translate to the dance floor. I'll give you five, if you've worked out some routine to "Lido Shuffle". I could see Rerun working his charm to that one. But Scaggs was the only representative of his milieu -- we'll make him a classic rocker, based on his association with Steve Miller -- who embraced the slickness, the sleek luminescence of disco (could've been the lip gloss) without sounding like a chump.

Why it worked for Scaggs and not for, say, Dynasty-era Kiss, Rod Stewart, Neil Diamond, or Ethel Merman might be because he more or less did it first. But it's also because Scaggs didn't piss the record away by divorcing his skepticism of disco. He was always a straight-up blues and R&B guy anyway, so at the time moving into disco was conventional for blues and soul musicians. But even they stumbled occasionally -- the only old-timers I can instantly think of who made passable disco records were Johnnie Taylor ("Disco Lady") and Joe Tex ("Ain't Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman)") which was an amusing novelty song at heart).

Say what you will about Silk Degrees' many traits -- Scaggs' vowel-y croon, wisely selected or written material, a band (Toto, more or less) that's obviously pro but nicely malleable -- I think it made it because Scaggs made it commercial without lapsing into parody. He's one of the nicest guys in the history of San Francisco rock, but he ain't no pushover. You're not going to get him to start singing about rump-shaking or rubbery sex. It's still busted and promising relationships, backstreet wise guys, bruised romantics, and a failed prison escapee. More disco should have been like this. We would have saved billions on Aqua Velva.

The big moment was "Lowdown", which had the best opening vamp of any Caucasian disco record that year. Much better bass plucking than the Seinfeld theme. It's a very cool, mentholated song, and Scaggs is cooler than Fonzie singing it. He's acting in an advisory capacity, riffing to a drinking buddy about the downfalls of materialism in the love thang. That's all there is to it, but it's done with some dynamic rises and falls, because it's disco. The soaring instrumental bridge after the chorus was just enough of a satisfied resolution so as not to tire everyone out. Look, sometimes big isn't better. Sometimes huge orgasms make people raid the fridge for cold cuts afterwards. The little hiccups of well-paced doin' it tend to keep the whole thing going longer. I know this. I've watched films.

Boz Scaggs - Lowdown [Live 31 Dec 1976]

The disco songs on Silk Degrees -- "Lowdown", "What Can I Say", "It's Over" and "Georgia"; the first three of which were Top 40 hits -- are all like this: well-paced, nicely stringed up, and without any pretensions or pushiness. And they don't try to say too much. It's just your standard-issue guy problems: casually moving relationships, inexactly disappointing ones, and in "Georgia," being sent to a prison for an unspecified crime. Could be embezzlement, could be murder. We don't know. There's no time to get into details. You want a prison epic, go rent Oz.

The songs that aren't disco on Silk Degrees are, with one big exception, not quite as thrilling as the ones that are. Two of them are love ballads: the very poignant "Harbor Lights" and the very Neil Diamond-y "We're All Alone", which Rita Coolidge covered much less subtly for a top 10 hit. One of them is a serviceable Allen Toussaint cover, another is white-boy reggae, and "Lido Shuffle" is, suspend your disbelief, a shuffle. They're good for pacing.

That leaves "Jump Street", a nasty cut featuring Les Dudek's wisecracking slide guitar. It only sounds idiosyncratic because it's the album's only rocker, not to mention its only truly great lyric. You can't go wrong with a song that opens with a guy waking up in bed after a night of rough sex screaming, "Somebody tell me 'bout this debt I owe!" Best morning-after line ever. The guy's in some sweaty environment getting bowled over by the local talent, ranting about the soiled lust coming at him from all corners. (They may be prostitutes: "Working girls just tryin' to get ahead / Somebody's bound to end up dead.") It turns out that he's wanted by the feds, so there's that extra antsy layer he's gotta deal with too. "Jump Street" somehow pulls a sex romp, a criminal's roadhouse, confused Southern Christian gothic, and a good deal of suspense into one nice little wad of rock. David Allan Coe would be proud, or at least would not kick his ass.

Boz Scaggs - Georgia

And "Jump Street" is the only song on Silk Degrees where the character's unhinged. The rest of the time, he's like Boz's cover profile: smartly dressed in an unflashy suit jacket and aviator lenses, sitting blandly on a park bench with a strange woman in pumps sitting to his right -- Bryan Ferry without the prissiness. Scaggs is unruffled despite the implication that he's next to a hot girl. He may as well be doing sudoku. You just ain't gonna touch this guy.

That's what so many of the dudes who enthusiastically, if clumsily, embraced disco failed to get: You cannot let it change you. You can work with it like Play-Doh and form it around your strengths, not vice versa. Or you can just be sloppy, stick a cucumber down your pants and turn out something crass like "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy." The choice is up to you.

Or rather was up to you. Disco did die. They've since removed that park bench with the girl in the pumps. I think it's a Fotomat now.

* * *

Paul Pearson, a freelance journalist, pianist and former DJ at KAOS in Olympia, Washington, writes the music blog The Benign Comedy. Paul's written work has appeared in The Stranger, Seattle Sound, The Olympian and on MSN Music.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
5

Multi-tasking on your smart phone consumes too many resources, including memory, and can cause the system to "choke". Imagine what it does to your brain.

In the simplest of terms, Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen's The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World is a book about technology and the distractions that often accompany it. This may not sound like anything earth shattering. A lot of people have written about this subject. Still, this book feels a little different. It's a unique combination of research, data, and observation. Equally important, it doesn't just talk about the problem—it suggests solutions.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image