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August 24th, 2013 - Riffs and Licks

This ain't no disco? Oh really? That Talking Heads lyric was always misquoted (as David Byrne complains in his new book) but from the look of the charts, this is, indeed, a disco. The two biggest hits of the summer (certainly my two favorites) are straight-up, unashamed, and wonderful disco songs.

Daft Punk already has my vote for album of the year. I've enjoyed their other work, but Random Access Memories is absolutely brilliant. Recorded straight to tape with an all-star cast of live musicians, it combines their electronica work with their love for old R&B and disco, and features the playing of some of the greatest musicians of that era, like Giorgio Moroder and Nile Rodgers.

And for you those of you still trapped in the segregated 1970s: While we were all chanting "Disco Sucks!" we were also, without realizing it, listening to and enjoying the work of both of those musicians, and many other "disco" artists besides. And our "rock" heroes worshiped them.

Moroder became famous in creating Eurodisco with Donna Summer hits like "I Feel Love," but he went on to produce brilliant work for "rock" musicians like David Bowie, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Adam Ant, Blondie and Freddie Mercury.

Nile Rodgers, meanwhile, was the founder of Chic and the writer of songs that wedding DJs use to this day to fill a dance floor. He was the driving force behind Bowie's Let's Dance, and produced records for Southside Johnny, Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck, Peter Gabriel, and so on.

In any case, Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" is driven by Rodgers' killer guitar. Daft Punk recorded a demo, featuring Weather Report drummer Omar Hakim and bassist Nathan East, who's played with everyone from Eric Clapton to Stevie Wonder. Rodgers stripped it down to the drum part, and worked out one of his signature guitar parts. Then East rerecorded his bass part to match Rodgers' playing, Pharrell Williams sang the vocal, and a monster single was born. No drum machines or samplers, a minimal number of tracks: Disco the way it was recorded 35 years ago.

And then there's Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," which was the result of a deliberate attempt to recreate Marvin Gaye's 1977 disco smash, "Got To Give It Up (Part I)." (The attempt may have been a little too successful, as it turns out; Thicke is facing lawsuits from Gaye and from George Clinton, whose "Sexy Ways" bears more than a passing resemblance to "Blurred Lines.")

I'm not sure "Blurred Lines" qualifies as plagiarism; the similarities are obvious, but more in groove and style than in specific lyrics or hooks. (Although the bass line is pretty damn close.) If it's plagiarism, so is a good chuck of Prince's early work. You also have to wonder why George Clinton didn't sue Marvin Gaye, considering that "Got To Give It Up" came out three years after Funakdelic released "Sexy Ways." But then maybe Gaye might have had an issue with the Funkadelic record, whose title (Standing On the Verge Of Getting It On) clearly referenced Gaye's own "Let's Get It On."

But I am sure that "Blurred Lines" is a killer single. And that Pharrell Williams is having a very good summer.

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