Sunday, March 15, 2015

Disco Delivery #66:
The Bob Crewe Generation - Street Talk (1976, Elektra)

"your ass is your ticket to paradise, you're gonna have to pay the price.."

The Bob Crewe Generation - Cherry Boy
The Bob Crewe Generation - Menage a Trois
The Bob Crewe Generation - Street Talk
The Bob Crewe Generation - Back Alley Boogie
The Bob Crewe Generation - Welcome To My Life
The Bob Crewe Generation - Free (Medley): I Am.../Free.../Keep On Walkin'
The Bob Crewe Generation - Ah Men!
The Bob Crewe Generation - Time For You And Me

B.C.G. - Street Talk (12" Unedited Main Theme) (1976, 20th Century)
B.C.G. - Street Talk (12" Var. II) (1976, 20th Century)
B.C.G. - Street Talk (12" Var. III) (1976, 20th Century)

A little known piece of homoerotic disco theatre, this album has long been a point of fascination to me and given the release of a double CD of Bob Crewe's Elektra recordings last week, I figure it was time to stop holding off from writing about it.. Despite being known for all those Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons hits written with Bob Gaudio ("Can't Take My Eyes Off You," the gay love song you never knew about, for one), Bob Crewe's disco period is perhaps one of the most interesting phases in his work. After a frustrating period as a staff writer and producer at Motown (where Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons also languished for some time), Crewe would end up tapping into disco quite early on, charting a small string of disco singles, like "Hollywood Hot" by the Eleventh Hour, a retooled disco version of "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," by Gerri Granger, one of Frankie Valli's comeback hits "Swearin' To God," "Get Dancin'" by Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes, easily one of the most flamboyant iterations of disco camp and perhaps biggest of all, "Lady Marmalade." Although made famous by Labelle under Allen Toussaint's production, the song was originally written and produced by Crewe and Kenny Nolan for their studio group The Eleventh Hour (and included on both Eleventh Hour albums). According to his official bio, having apparently helped start one of the early record pools - the LADP (Los Angeles Disco Pool), Bob Crewe's contributions in the earlier part of disco, from 1974-76, represent perhaps his last major period as an active, on-the-pulse record producer and songwriter.

Despite his portrayal in Jersey Boys (I had seen the film only recently), Crewe was by many accounts much more discreet about his sexuality while he was alive, only ever publically admitting to being bisexual, for one thing. Whether that was an honest statement of identity or a half-measured coming out dictated by the fashion or limitations of the times; it wasn't until Crewe passed away this past September at the age of 83, that I had ever seen him openly referred to in the press as a gay man. Perhaps an open secret for those in music industry circles at the time, one close listen to this album would likely dispel any remaining speculation.

Although this album was billed in a 1976 cover story in The Advocate as a "Try sexual disco-rock ballet," the lyrics in "Cherry Boy" - "your ass is your ticket to paradise," or "Ah Men!" - "we're all alike, ah men! ah, men! That's what I like, ah men!" - left much less room for ambiguity, especially when one considers that this was also the man behind the unabashedly camp, gay sensibility of Disco Tex and The Sex-O-Lettes just prior to this. Released under his Bob Crewe Generation banner, (which he had previously used behind the lounge classics "Music To Watch Girls By" and the Barbarella soundtrack), given the synergy between disco and the burgeoning gay scene, it was perhaps no surprise that disco would form the backdrop for this newly homoerotic, sexually charged side to his work.

"Street Talk" was originally released as a stand-alone 12" as part of his 20th Century Records deal, where it became another disco hit peaking at #8 on Billboard's disco action chart in early '76. Vince Aletti in one of his Record World columns made a point of singling it out as one of his favourites at the time, calling it "a lush but hard-punching instrumental that even at its longest is constantly involving." Upon signing to Elektra as an artist (on a tip from Jerry Wexler at Warner), "Street Talk" would eventually form the basis of this album, his first under his Elektra deal which he described to Billboard's 1976 Disco Forum as a concept album for what he hoped would be "a Broadway-bound disco-rock ballet."


The loose story was essentially centered around a basic Hollywood narrative - the innocent midwestern naif who arrives right off the bus from "Nowhere, Nebraska," with hopes and dreams of stardom, and the pitfalls and pleasures of Hollywood's seamy sexual underbelly that he has to navigate along the way.. Speaking to Donald von Wiedenman in The Advocate, he would flesh out the concept more fully:

"I call him Cherry Boy. The ballet - or rock opera, film, stage, musical, whatever - begins with Cherry Boy going into a disco. He is young, naive, never made it one way or the other. He's hot. He's street talk. Everyone notices him, wants him, desires him. Of course, he gets picked up, by a guy and a chick named Rod and Selma. Rod is for Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Selma is Selma Avenue in Hollywood. The music we hear is 'Menage a Trois.' A very sensual understatement, not sordid at all. These two people keep him.... The mood shifts with 'Back Alley Boogie,' a really funky sound... At the end of the piece we see Cherry Boy with a chick on his arm going into a disco and picking up another boy, the new street talk. It's a very circular piece. It's a microcosm of our own lives."

While the circular story Crewe talks about is evident; right from the outset, with the "Cherry Boy" being the album's sole object of desire, a listen and a look at the lyrics make it seem like the protagonist was ultimately more interested in one sex than the other.. In Side Two (where Crewe does much of the lead vocals) one can't help but read the familiar tropes of a coming out narrative, especially towards the final section of the album in the "Free" medley.. with lyrics like: "High time for celebratin', feelin' free.. Tell everyone it's been a long time coming....Thank God I am who I was born to be," which is followed by "Ah Men!" - "Ever since Adam, when little Eve had 'em. Good for the grabbin' - All Men. Love 'em all, the short and tall. Let's keep ballin' - All Men. That's what I like! That's what I like!" All of which comes to a conclusion with a love song, "Time For You and Me," led by Crewe singing solo in notably gender non-specific lyrics - "We walk in wonderland day by day - hand in hand. Lovingly.. Time for you and me." Draw your own conclusions..

Although the title track, "Street Talk" is the album's main attraction at just over 8 and a half minutes, its 'unedited' 12" version, released previously in early 1976 on 20th Century in a promo 12" sporting three versions (two shorter edits on side two curiously separated by a locked groove, likely to make it easy for DJs to mix out of one version, without the needle running into the next) is not that drastically different. The album and 'unedited' versions clock in at roughly the same time (despite the labelled duration of the on the 12" as 9.22), however the 'unedited' 12" mix packs much more punch than the LP version, with more of its percussive elements higher in the mix..

Aside from the title track, "Menage a Trois" was released as a single, with special disco mix (included as a bonus track on the Elektra Recordings double-CD). Although not an official single, the side two opener, "Back Alley Boogie," is easily one of the album's best tracks. Taking the raucous party atmosphere (a Crewe trademark) as previously heard on "Get Dancin' " and "Hollywood Hot," but rendered with a little more funk, focus and finesse (one may have mixers Tom Moulton and Tony Bongiovi to thank for that), it's one of the album's high points and could-have-been singles. While not officially released, according to Discogs there's an acetate of an extended/unedited version of the song still floating around out there..

If the concept itself wasn't enough, a look at the extensive list of credits reveals the ambition of this project. Entirely written by Crewe with either Trevor Veitch or Cindy Bullens; recorded in LA, New York and Philadelphia with around 63 musicians credited - 3 lead vocalists, including Crewe, himself and 1950's starlet Lu Ann Simms (on "Menage a Trois") and 19 backing vocalists, including big session names like Patti Austin, Gwen Guthrie and Philadelphia's Sweethearts of Sigma - along with Tom Moulton on board mixing (or, rather co-mixing, with either Jay Mark or Tony Bongiovi) much of the album. The back cover even features a front and centre quote of endorsement from A.J. Miller - then a leading L.A. Disco DJ.

Despite this, Bob Crewe's "trysexual rock ballet" never did come to fruition. Given that the album didn't end up doing too much and having come just before anyone was seriously marketing disco on film or stage, let alone one that also had gay and bisexual themes front and centre, it's perhaps not all that surprising. Following this album, Crewe would do a 180 from disco and release a solo record as a singer-songwriter entitled "Motivation" (1977, Elektra) (stream on Spotify), an R&B tinged album recorded under the auspieces of Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett in the storied Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. Regardless of how well this record did or didn't do at the time, "Street Talk" remains Bob Crewe's disco opus - a notable time capsule and personal statement from one of America's greatest pop songwriters.

vintage articles: 'the first step in getting ahead is getting started.' an interview with bob crewe. - by donald von wiedenman // the advocate - april 7, 1976 (tuesday march 17, 2015)
disco delivery mix #4: disco pride '14 - street talk (saturday june 28, 2014)

bob crewe - the complete elektra recordings (2 cd) (2015, second disc records/real gone music)
real gone music | | dusty groove

discogs: the bob crewe generation - street talk lp
discogs: b.c.g. - street talk 12"
discogs: the bob crewe generation - menage a trois 12"
discogs: the bob crewe generation - ah men!/back alley boogie 12" acetate
frontiers media: bob crewe, gay music legend, dead at 82 (by karen ocamb) (september 11, 2014)
the guardian - music: bob crewe obituary (by richard williams) (september 17, 2014)
new york times: bob crewe, songwriter for frankie valli and four seasons, dies at 83 (by william yardley) (september 12, 2014)
rolling stone: bob crewe, singer and four seasons songwriter, dead at 83 (by jason newman) (september 12, 2014)
windy city times: 'jersey boys' discuss fifth gay 'season,' aging in movies (by jerry nunn) (june 18, 2014)
wikipedia: bob crewe
bob crewe - official website



Anonymous said...

Uhm... obscure disco gems. They are always a turn on for me!
Thank you for that one.


Tommy said...

You're very welcome!

Unknown said...

Haven't been back to Disco Delivery in 5 years, glad to still your still here ... Great article, I've always wondered about the Bob Crew Generation

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