Songs with an impact

Channel 8's Impact series is a hoot if for nothing more than the chance to look back at the way we were.

bee gees (photo credit: Associated Press)
bee gees
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Somewhere in a closet, hidden beneath bell-bottom trousers and other Seventies-era clothes we'd like to forget, lies a blue ascot we thought was the coolest thing ever. Indeed, that ascot is mute testimony to the impact music had on us back then. A similar one around the neck of some British or US pop star probably seen on The Ed Sullivan Show or Hullabaloo told us we just had to buy one to be cool enough for our school, although it later gave way to flannel shirts and at least one attempt at long hair (I occasionally reflect that getting a haircut takes less and less time these days). Yes, going back in time is bittersweet, but Channel 8's Impact series (Friday, 3:10 p.m. and other times throughout the week) featuring looks at pop songs that changed society is a hoot if for nothing more than the chance to look back at the way we were. The series focuses on the changes engendered in musical tastes, dance styles and social graces by certain unforgettable songs, from the Beatles' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," through Aretha Franklin's "Respect," to the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" - the episode of the Canadian series we caught recently. Along the way, viewers are treated to inside information about the songs and the groups being profiled. So yes, people did dress funny back in the Seventies, when a British group called the Bee Gees happened to get approached by a movie producer making a film about a young Bensonhurst kid trying to strut his stuff on the dance floor. But as Robin Gibb, one of the Bee Gees, explains in the program, the song was more about surviving in New York City in the Seventies, and was played again around the time of the first anniversary of the 9/11 attack. Sociologists, rock historians and fellow performers hold court in the program, which sometimes gets a tad cheesy, with its yellow 45s clip [Archeological Note: 45s were small vinyl discs with a one-inch hole that spun at 45 rpm but could be played on a 33 rpm player (33 rpm disks, known as "albums," were much bigger and had much smaller holes) with the help of a clip that fit into the middle of each one. They were played on a record player - a device that used a needle and the intonation of a few verses from the Kabbala] as its tag symbol. Nonetheless, there's some great fun here, especially hearing how the marriage of song and movie came about "completely by accident," according to Gibb. Turns out the Bee Gees were in France recording songs for a new album when the call came looking for movie music. The song, originally called "Saturday Night, Saturday Night" and written several years earlier, managed to be available when, as one observer put it, "the right music, right song, right artist and the right movie all came together at the right time." The first to hear it: some cows grazing outside the studio. The result was the disco craze which, as outlined in the documentary, fed on both European - where places for people to get together and dance had been called discos for years - and black roots. "Suddenly, every club on the block was playing disco," observes another expert, while disco queen Gloria Gaynor notes that "the Caucasian race began to dance more like the Black race did... because of that song." The show I saw featured scenes of Studio 54, the club made famous for its scandals and the list of celebs dying to get in, one of whom was (gulp) a young Michael Jackson. And the impact of Travolta's famous white suit on fashion was incredible. As Gaynor recalls, men started dressing like peacocks. "They started to strut nearly as much as we did," she says with a laugh. But as taste went out the window and disco hedonism took over, there was a backlash, according to one commentator, which some say fueled the election of Ronald Reagan. Indeed, one of the most entertaining bits in the program was footage of Blow Up Disco Demolition Night at Chicago's Comiskey Park, where fans were each told to bring a disco record to be destroyed in a huge blast detonated by a Vietnam war vet. "I think I may still have some shrapnel in my leg," DJ Steve Dahl says of the event he organized in July 1969, when he led the crowd in a chant of "Disco Sucks!" While we may have bought some of the clothes, at least one thing stopped us from becoming the babe magnet Travolta was: we never really learned to dance. Put on "Stayin' Alive" now, and we're likely to be the ones desperately faking some kind of funky dance step or hiding behind the punch bowl. Still, this series is a blast from the past that anyone who follows pop music will enjoy, offering historical, sociological and musical insights. We can only hope that somewhere, a family of seagulls living in a landfill in some section of New York City has put that ascot to good use just stayin' alive.