Disco Lab #33 (Halloween Edition): The Manhattan Transfer – ‘Twilight Zone/Twilight Tone’ (1979)
Sometimes disco was futuristic (robots controlled by the beat) and sometimes it looked to the past (New York high society steppin’ out to mingle). The retro vibe gave a boost to The Manhattan Transfer, a swing-vocal combo formed in 1969 who found a surprise hit with the gospel number “Operator” in 1975. For a few years, the group’s retro ’20s-’30s sound struggled to have hit records in the US, though they broke through consistently in the UK.
All this would change with the group’s fourth album Extensions. One cut, the disco-inflected medley “Twilight Zone/Twilight Tone,” became a surprise hit for the group. It fused the trademark Transfer vocal sound with a spooky, mystical vibe. Extensions was released on Halloween, 1979, which meant that the diehard MT fans had a great supernatural dance party jam for the evening. Everyone else had to wait a year because “Zone/Tone” wasn’t issued as a single until 1980. (Article continues after song…)
The Manhattan Transfer – ‘Twilight Zone/Twilight Tone’ (1979)
“Twilight Zone/Twilight Tone” fuses the theme from the ’60s TV show Twilight Zone with an eerie new composition. Its title perhaps inspired by Duke Ellington’s “In A Mellow Tone,” “Twilight Tone” describes a magical piece of music that sucks its listeners “through a tunnel of the mind” into some alternate dimension. The third verse suggests that swing-band leader Glenn Miller’s 1944 disappearance over the English Channel led to him “play[ing] trombone in the mystic unknown zone.” (Manhattan Transfer had a UK hit years earlier with Miller’s “Tuxedo Junction.”)
The single also pays homage to another mid-20th Century music legend, Bernard Herrmann, who composed the famous Twilight Zone TV theme. (Herrmann passed away barely three years earlier, on the very night he finished recording the Taxi Driver score.) The first minute or so of the record recreates the TV theme, complete with ersatz Rod Serling narration; “Rod” returns later to set the stage for the Glenn Miller segment. (Serling passed away in 1975; one wonders if he’d have been flattered to have been immortalized on a dance record.)
The 6:22 remix (extended only slightly from the 6:05 LP version) plays through the TV intro and the first two verses, then lapses beautifully into a guitar solo. A breakdown picks up the Herrmann theme again via a couple different guitar lines, bringing us into the Serling reprise. After the Glenn Miller section, the record ends disappointingly with endless repetition of the “here in the twilight” lyric, perhaps of interest to present-day vampire-fiction fans but boring to everyone else. At least a boogie-woogie piano solo creates some interest.
This bright and energetic number does a good job of propelling a Halloween party into a “pyramidal locomotion from a mystic unknown zone.” And that’s before the jello shots!
Disco Lab #32 (Halloween Edition): Ernie Bush – ‘Breakaway’ (1975)
For Halloween enthusiasts, there’s no shortage of songs about spooky, supernaturally empowered females. Last week we listened to “Witch Queen,” and earlier in the ’70s the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman” and Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” also presented the allures—and dangers—of these daughters of the night.
But not everyone was on board with these Wiccan sisters. Enter the mysterious Ernie Bush, the disco movement’s self-appointed Witchfinder General. In this, his only known recording, he cautions a magically-inclined woman to give up such risky baubles as “rings on your fingers / And those bones hanging from your neck.” (If I’m hearing it right, he also warns against her “purple slacks.” Sorry, Prince!) In the manner of a scary religious tract, he tells her to “stop fooling with the dead… or you’ll burn, burn in hell.”
For a guy who hates this devilish stuff, Ernie Bush sure likes singing about it. But who was he? Not a clue, though probably he was a British singer; the label credits this to the “Contempo Family of England.” It was arranged by Gerry Shury, who was a British composer and arranger of library music (used for commercials and such). Shury also arranged another spooky record <reviewed here recently>, CJ & Co’s “Devil’s Gun.”
The songwriter’s credits are interesting too. Dale Frashuer gave us the immortal football chant “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” and his collaborator Joe Renzetti became a soundtrack composer for such horror classics as Poltergeist III, Frankenhooker, Child’s Play, and Basket Case 2 & 3. (Renzetti won an Oscar for his rearrangement of rockabilly classics in The Buddy Holly Story, somewhat ghoulish in itself.)
The disco version presented here is a Part 1 / Part 2 style remix. After the vocal section, the track moves into a couple minutes of very tasty instrumental, featuring some vibraphone soloing. Elsewhere we hear a backwards guitar, a sound associated with psychedelic rock music hardly ever heard in disco. Ernie’s cautionary vocals return near the end to drive home his point. Though “Breakaway” was never released as a 12” single in the US, it came out in the UK as perhaps the first disco remix in that format. (Article continues after song…)
Ernie Bush: ‘Breakaway,’ 1975
Alas, Ernie Bush’s witchfinder quest was unsuccessful; around the time this record came out, Stevie Nicks cut a song called “Rhiannon” with Fleetwood Mac. Released as a single in 1976, this tale of a legendary Welsh sorceress became a much bigger hit than Ernie’s very minor disco hit, and a new generation of witchy women was born. Bring on the purple slacks.
Doobie Brothers, ‘What A Fool Believes’ (‘R&R’ magazine, January 19, 1979). Click to enlarge.
The Doobie Brothers’ single, “What a Fool Believes” originally appeared on the Minute by Minute L.P. of December 1978. The song (co-written by Kenny Loggins) smoked it’s way up the charts to #1 in the US and #31 in the UK.
Disco Lab #31 (Halloween Edition): Witch Queen – ‘Witch Queen’ (1979)
With Oktoberfest out of the way, come down to the Lab and see what’s on the slab for Halloween! We’ll look at spooky extended ’70s dance records for the next four Saturdays.
In pop music, there’s a phenomenon I call the “trifecta.” It’s when an artist, song, and album all have the same name (eg, “Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath on the album Black Sabbath). Though you’d think this exhibits a lack of imagination, in some cases the artists have gone on to greater fame and bigger hits: Bad Company, Talk Talk, and yes, Black Sabbath. But other bands didn’t get far past this: Living In A Box, New Kids on the Block, Deep Forest. Sadly this week’s disco group, Witch Queen, falls into the latter category.
Witch Queen is a studio project of Gino Soccio, a Canadian/Italian artist who had some minor hits on the US charts. As musicians for the album, Soccio chose the famed Southern studio ensemble Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Apparently the concept was to create dance versions of US/UK hard rock hits; the group actually charted here with covers of T. Rex’s “Bang A Gong” and Free’s “All Right Now,” both included on Witch Queen’s self-titled album.
Soccio’s choice of the band’s signature anthem is a bona fide Halloween classic. Redbone’s “The Witch Queen of New Orleans” is the tale of a real-life Crescent City witchcraft practitioner, Marie Laveau (“Marie Marie La Voodoo Veau”), recently portrayed on TV’s American Horror Story by actress Angela Bassett. The lyrics describe Marie as a provider of powerful potions and spells, summarizing her deathless fate thusly: “Early one mornin’ into mucky swamp dew, vanished Marie with hate in her eyes / Though she’ll never return, all the Cajuns knew, a Witch Queen never dies.”
Apart from this and their bigger hit, “Come And Get Your Love,” Redbone are noted for being, as Wikipedia describes them, “the first Native American rock/Cajun group to have a No. 1 single in the United States and internationally.” Founding brothers Patrick and Lolly Vegas have another (dubious?) Halloween distinction: they recorded a live album at the horror-themed Hollywood nightclub The Haunted House, which features a monster-mouth, steam-snorting bandshell! (Article continues after song…)
Witch Queen – ‘Witch Queen’ (1979)
Though the disco version of “Witch Queen” adds the expected strings, female backing vocals, and hi-hat, it doesn’t stray too far from Redbone’s blueprint. It skillfully extends the brief saga of “La Voodoo Veau” with repeated choruses, instrumental breaks, scary keening strings, and spooky vocal interjections (“straaaange!”; “witch queen, witch queen”). No word on whether the wardrobe-challenged, stove-sitting goth-punker on the LP cover is supposed to be Laveau; I’m thinking no…
Elvis, ‘Way Down’ (‘Cashbox’ magazine, July 02, 1977). Click to enlarge.
Elvis Presley’s “Way Down” was The King’s current single at the time of his death. The song (written by Layng Martine, Jr.) originally appeared on the Moody Blue L.P. of July 1977 and made it to #18 on the Billboard US Hot 100.