Never Can Say Goodbye
I first heard Gloria Gaynor's "Never Can Say Goodbye" when it came out, in 1974. I was eleven years old, and despite having listened to pop music--on the radio and on 45s--for only a few months, I already knew that music transported me to another universe.
The image that a lot of people have of disco music really began, at least to the public consciousness, in this song. The insistent, fast, swooshy backbeat; that sometimes harshly-voiced, sometimes flowing string arrangement. The female chorus, the speed-freak bongo playing, the slightly phased guitar playing a reggae backbeat, and trumpets filched either from Motown, the "This Is Tom Jones" show band, or Richard Wagner.
But all these parts work together so well that even if these musical statments are overdrawn, and now cliched, objectively, they're FANTASTIC. There's a reason "Never Can Say Goodbye" was such a big hit: it was thrilling, it excited the hell out of people. This was not music played on your local lite-rock radio station that the receptionist had on as white noise at the office. This was exciting music that people danced to, something that felt like nothing they'd heard.
A few records in 1974 really helped create a public context for disco: "Never Can Say Goodbye," the amazing "Rock the Boat," George McCrae's "Rock Your Baby," and a few others just as important. And almost without exception, they're fantastic records, blending various rock, show tune, and even classical sensibilities with danceable, soul-influenced backgrounds.
And "Never Can Say Goodbye" was also just a great song, initially recorded (in 1971) by a loveable and vulnerable Michael Jackson, then later on by the Communards, who recast the song (and, by the very nature of publicly gay men singing it, recontextualizing it--and justifiably, I say, since without gay men disco would hardly exist) as a sort of gay anthem. And then there's Gloria Gaynor's performance: big, brassy, tough but sensitive, and even artful in spots, yet frantic and panicked about the emotional torment still to come. And still making one great sexy noise against a groovy, and the word fits, musical background.
(Now at least if you don't love this record, I hope you have gained at least some understanding of why someone might. Some of it, I'm pretty sure, has to do with one's attitude toward dancing.)
Goofily, one of the record's producers was Meco, who years later would record a ri-disco-lus cantina-band-playing-Astaire-and-Rogers-music-on-DMT version of the theme music from "Star Wars." I don't really hold that against him.
This record reached #9 on the Billboard charts in December, 1974 and, like so many other great songs, has helped open me to the world in ways I never thought possible.