The Top 10 Biggest Disco Cash-ins by Rock Musicians
If you’re not aware of it, by 1979, there was so much disco on pop radio that you could probably count the number of non-disco songs on one hand that hit the number one spot. And during those formative years for the disco genre, many established musicians decided to cash in with disco tunes of their own.
Established R&B acts like James Brown, Michael Jackson, and Diana Ross were among those cashing in, but disco was an offshoot of the style they were already working with. Bands like Blondie and Duran Duran were helping to define the New Wave movement, blending disco and the edgier sound of punk rock in the late 70s and early 1980s. Bands that started off in other genres were firmly identified as “disco” by the end of the Me Decade, such as the Bee Gees, Frankie Valli, and Abba. Even country stars got in on the act, as Dolly Parton, Linda Rondstadt, Exile, and Ronnie Milsap recorded disco songs. Artists as diverse as Barry Manilow, Herb Alpert, and Ethel Merman were doing disco before it was all said and done.
And it didn’t stop there. When the 1950’s musical Grease was adapted to film, the producers found it necessary to give it a disco theme song. Walter Murphy succeeded into bringing Beethoven into the disco realm. Sesame Street Fever and Mickey Mouse Disco were hooking the kids while they were young. Meco even had a number one hit with a disco version of the Star Wars theme.
Needless to say, rock and roll artists were not immune to this phenomenon. While most rock stars resisted the temptation to cash in on the dance craze that was sweeping the nation, Some just couldn’t stay away from the action. We present you with ten who just couldn’t fight the disco urge, to varying degrees of success.
10. Elton John – “Victim of Love”
Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to hear his duet with Kiki Dee, 1976’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” lumped in with disco, but that was designed as a tribute to the Motown sound. Still, it’s no secret to anyone that the man born Reginald Dwight sold out hard to the disco era. 1979’s Victim of Love is an entire album designed to cash in on the craze. Not surprisingly, it was created without the aid of his longtime songwriting partner Bernie Taupin or his orginal band. Also not surprisingly, it ranks ammong his worst-received and worst-selling albums of all time. Songs such as “Street Boogie” and a regrettable disco-fied cover of “Johnny B. Goode” plague the album, but the title track is quite possibly the worst offender of them all.
9. Chicago – “Street Player”
It’s almost unfair to chastize a rock band with such a leaning toward funk and jazz for making the jump to Disco, but in Chicago’s case, I don’t feel the slightest bit of remorse for doing so. Not only was “Street Player” the only moderately successful single from their lowest-selling album, 1979’s Chicago 13, it also managed to torpedo any chance of keeping their longtime fanbase who had been jumping ship for years at this point, causing the band to reinvent themselves as a lite-rock outfit in the 1980s.
8. The Grateful Dead – “Shakedown Street”
Possibly the least likely rock act of the era to record a disco song, The Grateful Dead released the title track of their tenth album as a single in April of 1979, when Disco was in full swing. Rife with a funky bassline, swirling guitar riffs, harmonized background vocals, and the all-important disco beat, “Shakedown Street” is topped off by Jerry Garcia’s best Barry Gibb impression. Dead fans still love this song, despite its status as an obvious cash-in, but it didn’t have much success on the singles chart, failing to hit the top 40. It’s not like the Dead needed the money or anything.
7. Heart – “Straight On”
One that might not ring a bell right away, but listen to “Straight On” closely: That four-on-the-floor drumbeat and bouncy bassline are unmistakabe disco trademarks. Sure, it might have been recorded a little slower than the usual dancefloor hit, but the sisters Wilson knew what they were doing when they wrote this song from 1978’s Dog and Butterfly. Most of Heart’s fans forgave them for this one, though; it was Heart’s later output that turned off their hardcore fans. By the time the abysmal “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You” hit the top ten in 1990, any past transgression Heart had perpetrated paled in comparison.
6. Paul McCartney and Wings – “Goodnight Tonight”
I love me some Wings. A lot of people hate on McCartney’s post-Beatles stuff, but I dig it far more than John, George, and Ringo’s stuff put together. Intricate rhythms, clever time changes, and unique melodies set Paul’s output apart from the rest. Maybe he wasn’t the lyricist John was, but that’s really a minor issue for me. “Goodnight Tonight” draws from a mixed bag of influences, including a heavy flamenco style, but make no mistake: this was a bona fide disco cash-in. The most amusing thing to me on a recent relisten is that if you were to replace Sir Paul’s vocals with a wispy female singer, it would sound like a lot of the stuff in heavy rotation in my catalog nowadays.
5. The Rolling Stones – “Emotional Rescue”
It’s hard to pick just one song from the Stones for this list. 1976’s “Hot Stuff” was the first single to show off their disco tendencies. “Miss You” took the ball and ran with it, adding more instrumetation and disco-styled vocals over that iconic bass line. But “Emotional Rescue” is easily the trump card in the Stones’ disco trifecta. Synthesizer-heavy and featuring a falsetto voiceover by Mick Jagger, the title track of their 1980 album was a top ten hit in the United States, and achieved quite a bit of crossover success. It also marked a growing rift between Jagger and Keith Richards which led to the band focusing on recapturing their earlier sound.
4. Queen – “Another One Bites The Dust”
It’s not surprising to know that Queen did a disco record. After all, Freddie Mercury and the gang’s catalogue spans numerous styles and genres, from heavy metal to opera, ragtime to rockabilly, Caribbean to the Casbah. Bassist John Deacon wrote the song after hearing Chic’s “Good Times”, which inspires its iconic melody, and recorded it in a minimalist fashion whose primary instruments are only bass and drum. The result was one of the most iconic songs in rock and roll history, and the most successful single in the band’s career. It hit number one in the Unites States, and became a crossover hit on R&B radio as well. And apparently, it has been recommended by CPR instructors as a guideline for administering resuscitation, as its 100BPM tempo is the appropriate speed of applying heart compressions.
3. Pink Floyd – “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2″
Wait a minute. Pink Floyd? Disco? It doesn’t make sense, does it? Still, this hit song just happened to be released during the height of the disco era in 1979, and just happened to have all of the basic elements of disco: the trademark drumbeat, bassline, and guitar riff, as well as droning, repetitive, chant-friendly lyrics. Producer Bob Ezrin suggested the disco motif and releasing the song as a single, which the band initially fought. The second half, which features a long blues guitar solo, is more traditional Floyd territory, but is still underscored by the song’s disco melody. One of the cornerstones of the concept album The Wall, “Another Brick” is the song that much of the world instantly associates with the band. It hit number one in the United States as well as several other countries.
2. Rod Stewart – “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”
Most of the artists who cashed in on the disco craze were eventually able to recover. Whether they altered their style to attract a new audience, or just managed to charm their way back to the old guard, most of them were unaffected in the long run. Rod Stewart is another case altogether. Yes, he continued to have chart success in the 1980s and 1990s, but there was never much credibility lent to those years. It wasn’t until Wes Anderson reintroduced The Faces to modern hipsters that his image was really able to recover. There’s a good reason for this: “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” was such a blatant job of self-whoredom that nobody bought his attempts to justify it, and the fact that he was taken to court by Jorge Ben Jor for stealing the chorus’s melody didn’t help either.
1. Kiss – “I Was Made for Loving You”
Nothing exemplifies the disco cash-in more than this infamous hit single by the kings of selling out themselves, Kiss. Gene Simmons makes no bones about his propensity to market his cash cow in any way he sees fit, and that was quite apparent when “I Was Made for Loving You” became an international smash hit at the crest of the disco era in 1979. Paul Stanley even stated in the biography KISS: Behind the Mask that the song was written to prove how easy it was to create a disco hit. Unlike many of the acts seen here, Kiss seemed to incur no damage as a result of this song’s success. Its album, Dynasty, was certified Platinum by the RIAA, and the song remains a staple at the band’s shows. It has been covered by dozens of artists, turned up in movies such as “Moulin Rouge” and TV commercials in recent years, and has been introduced to a new generation through the Guitar Hero video game series.
Honorable mention: Electric Light Orchestra – “Xanadu”
I couldn’t in good faith put ELO in the top ten, because they were doing all of the things that became associated with disco before disco even happened. “Livin’ Thing”, “Turn to Stone”, “Sweet Talkin’ Woman”, and the entirety of the “Discovery” album (or “Disco? Very!”, as it has been dubbed by fans) are some of the finest proto-disco records in history. But their work with Olivia Newton-John on the roller-disco-fantasy Xanadu was probably one step too far.
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