After a week of a really nasty, funky smell lingering throughout the house, I finally found the source of it. The plug from our standalone freezer cube came loose from the wall, and it might have been that way for well over a week.
So last night, I removed the rotten meat and fish from the now-warm freezer, nearly vomiting every time I had to plunge my gloved hand into the bloody puddle of defrost water and freezer bag leakage. Even after such precautions and a scalding shower with much soap post-removal, I can still smell the noxious funk on me a little.
Speaking of funk…
At one time in the long career of Kool and the Gang, they were a formidable funk unit, grinding up hot tracks like “Hollywood Swinging” and “Jungle Boogie.” I dare say they could go toe-to-toe with Ohio Players and put up a strong challenge to the era’s kings of the form, Parliament/Funkadelic.
But the late 1970s was a hard time. Funk was set to make a comeback in 1979 with the debut of Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” but dance-able music had gradually inched away from Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Sound of Philadelphia soul and moved over to the cocaine-dusted discotheques. Some of funk’s sturdiest practitioners already made the leap, and who could argue it?
Well, some could. 1979 was arguably the last year for a very long time where disco was welcomed. The “Disco Sucks” contingent was already forming, and change was on the horizon.
Let’s look at the timeline. “Jungle Boogie” hit the scene in 1973, with “Hollywood Swinging” coming up one year later. There were several singles released between then and 1979, which proved to be a defining year for the band. They released the not-too-shabby “Ladies Night” which certainly seemed to indicate they were paying attention to what Chic was doing in New York. They also released the softer, more A.M. radio-friendly “Too Hot.” It was anyone’s guess which way they would go.
One year later, the band would see “Celebration” become not only a huge hit, but something of an albatross around their necks. It became the de facto “party” signifying song, and would be shoved down peoples’ throats by un-creative marketing departments for forty years (and counting). Listening back, if there is a sin inherent to “Celebration,” it was not in its construction. Sure, it is far from that sleazy, nasty, rotten-meat stank of prime funk, shined up like a mirror ball and all, but you can tell the band had put their heart and soul into the tune. They could not have known it would be staring them in the face forever afterward.
(I’m sure the revenue coming off the song over the decades helps ease the pain.)
1981 gave a glimmer that the band was looking back to their roots with the friendly-but-funky “Get Down On It,” but all of that was washed away in ’83 with massive mellowness of another big hit, “Joanna.” This was a definitive moment, and not at all as nebulous as 1979 where they could have gone either way, following the lead of either “Ladies Night” or “Too Hot.” I guess you could say they made the right choice as 1984’s “Fresh” and 1985’s “Cherish” assured the world would never be far away from Kool and the Gang’s back catalog.
I have a lingering animus toward “Cherish.” Given all that Kool and the Gang could do, and all that Kool and the Gang actually did, why did they think they needed to do DeBarge? Platinum status may have proven me wrong, but the same band in the early 1970s would have laughed their way through something so limp and lifeless as this…at least, in my mind that is the case.
There would be more singles, more remixes of hits, more “Celebration,” but “Cherish” sits there as the group’s last, truly significant hit.
Now that we’re caught up, we’ll head back to forty years ago this week, containing November 27, as “Ladies Night” is in the #17 spot and creeping up the charts. A look at what was sitting in the Top Ten is a clear sign of how culturally fragmented things were. Disco wasn’t fully gone yet. Donna Summer showed up twice with “Dim All The Lights” at #4 and again at #1 with her duet with Barbra Streisand, “No More Tears (Enough is Enough).” Another funky band was riding high with an equally dour adult contemporary (AC) ballad (Commodores with “Still” at #3) and another disco phenom, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, turned things way down with the bathetic “Please Don’t Go” at #6. Stevie Wonder, somewhat removed from his classic period now, rode #8 with “Send One Your Love.”
Rock was equally strange. Eagles’ transformation from country rock to album-oriented rock was in mid-gestation with the honky-tonkin’ “Heartache Tonight” at #5. The weirdly experimental “Tusk” from Fleetwood Mac – marching band and all – weighed in at #9, and the future beckoned at #10 with the new wave one-hit-wonder “Pop Muzik” from M.
There are two songs left unaccounted for. Kenny Rogers was now in full-on AC mode with the room temperature bowl of oatmeal that was “You Decorated My Life.” At #2, Styx dropped the power (?) ballad “Babe,” a song that would take them to the top of the charts, but would also dog them for the rest of their career with the misrepresentation of them being a soft rock band.
(Side note: According to Styx’s then-lead Dennis DeYoung, the song was written as a birthday present for his wife and was never intended for the band. Fate intervened, drums, guitar, and bass were overdubbed onto his voice and electric piano, and so it goes.)
Now, why did I spend four paragraphs describing the Top Ten that Kool and the Gang’s “Ladies Night” was not near breaking into yet? I posit that the writing was on the wall for the band and they were going to have to go soft or go home. You had five stalwarts – Styx, Commodores, K.C., Kenny Rogers, and Stevie Wonder – all pulling back. Here in the United States, we had high oil prices, the hostages in Iran, a nation that lost confidence in its president, Jimmy Carter, and a general sense that no one was in the mood to party.
(Yes, the irony is that Kool and the Gang would have their biggest all-time hit later on with a song that is strictly about having a party, but go with me on this.)
With the clarity of hindsight, the American audience seemed to be in a stupor. The high was wearing off for the Studio 54 set. Punk came and went as a cultural force, at least for a little while. Punk’s descendants in the new wave movement were waiting in the wings with weird sunglasses, weirder hair, and synthesizers. One could argue that even if Kool and the Gang had decided to stick with their funkier edge, the demeanor of the nation would have forced them back into the Smooth Lane or off the road entirely.