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.
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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.