MUSIC, AS ANY OTHER ART, is awash in borrowed ideas, stolen techniques and oblique references (not to mention blatant sampling). The art form is full of envious hero worship and flush with unknown musicians humbly playing other fellow artists’ work. Folk, jazz and classical musicians are respected for using others’ art as a vehicle for their own artistic interpretation. The modern pop cover band, on the other hand, is seen almost as a lowly art forger who uses popular music to receive, for a moment, the adoration usually reserved for “real” pop stars.
VO5, a Madison disco big band, has been receiving fans’ adoration for 10 years at numerous live venues and festivals. A decade ago, composer Andrew Rohn had the idea of forming a cover band focused on disco hits from the 70s. Andrew and his wife and fellow playwright Catherine Capellaro cobbled a group of mostly theater–related friends involved with a local cabaret act, Cherry Pop Burlesque, and the musical Walmartopia to form what many would think of as either impossible or completely unnecessary— a disco cover band.
From the start, it was clear that disco music—which most people have never heard performed onstage and is often dismissed as overproduced— really could be exciting in a live venue. The energy and theatrics of a large band enhance the danceability of this already highly danceable music. Even disco haters find it hard to resist a disco song performed onstage. DANCE ORIGINALITY ON SPOTIFY
With a little effort, the band filled up its schedule and learned over 100 songs, including half a dozen originals that it would sprinkle in with the guaranteed dance numbers. It is clear that the dance music of the 70s is the main influence in this album. But a surprising number of elements come together in this quirky collection of original songs.
The first song, “Dance Originality,” (VIDEO) begins with a suggestive call to action “on the dance floor” before diving into musical theft, or postmodern parody, whichever you prefer. It mimics the intro from a song in the best–selling salsa album of the 70s, Siembra, by Ruben Blades and Willie Colon. The first song in that the album, “Plastico”, is a critique of shallow materialism and consumerism and it also uses a disco parody to introduce the song. One feels the “disco sucks” sentiment already rising in the 1978 salsa hit along with the call for less “plastic” living.
The composer of “Dance Originality,” John Feith, born in Puerto Rico, already had developed in his pre–teen years a love for both salsa and disco— two of the greatest American art forms to rise out of the 70s (assuming Latin America is part of the Americas, a fact often forgotten by North Americans).
After two musical intros, the shifty song transitions into a smooth disco feel, kickstarts into a funky bridge, and switches to a Puerto Rican plena–style horn and percussion breakdown (which begs for a Soul Train/bomba dance–off) before returning to its strings–heavy disco roots and its simple suggestion to get creative dancing — or maybe a call to freak dance the dirty reggaeton— with a wink or a twist. The blending of musical motifs, including the patriotic “La Bandera Puertorriqueña” and Chic’s “Freak Out” along with an unusual chorus chord shift push the song from plagiarism and parody to a unique, idiosyncratic genre of dance music. (DANCE LESSON VIDEO) (REMIX)
The second song of the album, “In Your Dancing Dreams” (LISTEN) is also a mashup of styles. This time, one hears bits of “Hawaii Five–O,” “Stayin’ Alive” and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” set to the chords of Quincy Jones’ “There’s a Train Leaving” (with a bonus reference to the theme from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”). The song, written by Kelly Maxwell and John Feith, is an ode to a fan who after working all week dresses up to go dancing at a VO5 show. Maxwell was thinking of a particular friend (in this case walking to the Madison’s neighborly Crystal Corner Bar) who often dances alone in an ecstatic, spaced–out state yet is always among friends. Halfway through, the song shifts into a straight disco ditty with a melody first heard in the intro horn overture. It then becomes a celebratory instrumental in the style of Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover” with a finish that includes an ode to guitarist John McLaughlin’s tone playing the intro to J. Geils Band “Centerfold,” and ending with a dreamy harp and a fancy Ebmaj7#11 chord.
The third song in the album, “I Can Feel It,” (VIDEO) by Andrew Rohn has a more driven rock/gospel feel with a taste of the Cheryl Lynn’s piano–heavy disco hit “Got To Be Real” infused throughout. Drummer Gail Campbell keeps the drive going, and the rhythm section, which had been playing the song live for three years before recording it, fills the bluesy melody with ecstatic danceability.
“Soul Shiny Day” (LISTEN) continues the shift away from disco and into older R&B pop and gospel. This song opens with a riff from Miles Davis’ Bitches’ Brew and takes obvious cues from Jackson Five’s “ABC” and “I Want You Back,” modernized with Chicago–style chords and horns and sung in a flowing jam–band style by its writer, Jim Yockey. Like the first two songs, this song is about joy in movement (this time, a bike ride in a Madison neighborhood) and religious–like ecstasy. Yockey, VO5’s percussionist, studied religious themes in world music as a PhD student at Berkeley. One word in the song “Chabas” (“chabas jumping in the puddle”) is mysterious, referring perhaps to children from a Paul Chabas oil painting or a type of amphibian.
Drew Szabo, bassist, and the writer of “Baku” (LISTEN) has a Hungarian heritage and a love for storytelling in songs. This song takes the “I Will Survive” theme to a comedic, vengeful end. Sung by music theater veteran Marcy Weiland, the song tells the story of a woman seeking revenge on an ex–lover. VO5 somehow turns this Middle–Eastern influenced song into a danceable discoish tune with a Kurt Weill cabaret feel. It is certainly the only song to ever use the phrases “erotic activity” and “champagne and smoked trout” along with the phrase “marred by Stalinization.”
“The Disco Haiku” (VIDEO) (REVIEW) by John Feith starts with a water drop, the sound of a frog from Basho’s famous haiku. Starting with the first five notes from the Bee Gees’ “Too Much Heaven,” the trumpet intro (performed by Steve Tyska, the band’s resident physician) then turns to a seven–note phrase then back to five. Five–seven–five “musical haiku” note sequences fill the song, including the main melody and verses.
Other traditional haiku techniques such as zooming into small details are used, for example, in the line “polyester suit no tie/sweat begins to flow.” With a smile, the chorus parodies disco’s excessive wish to please and be remembered in a similar way that the song “Dance Originality” makes light of the ever–escalating sexualization of pop American music and dance.
This ode to both haiku poetry and disco includes musical phrases from the “Love Boat” and “I Only Have Eyes for You” in its chorus and a touch of the Police’s “Synchronicity 1” in its verses. The instrumental middle–section adds a bit from the American–made Chinese cliché musical phrase (popularized by “Kung Fu Fighting,” “China Girl” and “Turning Japanese”) while keeping the 5–7–5 prop. The song does not take itself too seriously and, like a haiku, wastes no time, ending at the three-minute mark.
“I Love The Sun” (LISTEN) is a song by Andrew Rohn that VO5 has been performing for 10 years without recording. It is reminiscent of Carlos Jobim’s “Brazil” in its chromatic samba style. Its first-verse lyric “each day that you shine, love so divine, whole as in one” again sets a religious/ecstatic/Buddhist tone present in many of the songs in the album. Yet the song keeps it light—evoking “Oh, Calcutta” by The Dave Pell Singer’s (of “Mah-na Mah-na” fame) and would fit right in The Sound Gallery, a catchy compilation of 70s mood music. It’s a sun salutation that ends with the sound of either burning–hot frying oil or an icy–cold rainfall.
The solar theme continues with the album’s atmospheric ballad, “Aurora.” (LISTEN) Written by Drew Szabo and sung by Catherine Capellaro, it sustains the worldly trend of the album, this time taking the listener to “northern Labrador.” A phrase from Debussy’s “Arabesque,” which was used in Jack Horkheimer’s astronomy show (that version played by Japanese composer Tomita in 1976) sets the spacey mood, with a feel similar to The Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love” and the Flaming Lips’ “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell.” Lush harmonies, moogy synths and a French horn solo keep the listener slow dancing to the wistful song about ionized solar winds and past lovers.
Many of the songs in this album pay tribute to Madison and its joys, and “We’re Getting Older,”(VIDEO) by John Feith, is no different. Although it ends in frantic disco (“Look around this crazy town. Doesn’t it just make you smile?”), it has a decidedly bluesy–jazz intro. Like Disco Haiku, the song plays with quickly shifting a key from major to minor. This time, the inspiration is Inara George’s “Fool’s Work,” which it directly quotes for three measures. The Beach Boys’ “Fun, Fun, Fun” and even Charlie Brown’s “Chrismas Time Is Here” are also quoted. Like others in Dance Originality, the song has a Latinesque middle section, which again encourages letting go of inhibitions as a way to stay young or receive religion.
It is unusual for a band to stay together for 10 years, and this album shows the musical lessons learned from performing 70s covers at hundreds of shows. It is rare to see somebody not dancing at a VO5 show, and this set of songs, both dance–friendly and enjoyable to listen to sitting in a car, are unique enough to warrant a careful listen (get a room, make love to these songs!). It is a pleasure to find musical references, conscious or unconscious, amid disco clichés and very original sections. The overall feel of the album is that of musical joy and respect for past artists and musical traditions.
— TP for the Rolling Disco Balls magazine