Moanin' and Groanin'
Why was mid 1970s music so orgasmic?
by George Light
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life
- Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress"
It began in the late 1960's as everything does (or so one Baby Boomer version of history goes). But it's full and "deathly" flowering didn't occur until the middle four years of the 1970's (1973-6). Marvin Gaye kicked it off, or more properly, a bit of an audio recording of Fred and Madeline Ross did.
In 1979's Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island edited by Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh represented the Caveman first generation of phallocentric rock critics with his regressive essay "Onan's Greatest Hits," which seems not to understand that women pleasure themselves too--sure, he's got a girl group but they're singing about a guy getting himself off and he focuses on the front woman's vocal power (code for masculinity) and then he further proclaims, "I wish I could say that ‘Party Lights' represents the female perspective on masturbation, but my understanding of women sexually stops far short of that" (225)--and gleefully participates in all the usual moves of what McRobbie and Frith labeled "cock rock" (374-6) way back in 1978: "a great deal of my favorite rock is about wanking" (220). This first generation Detroit-based rock critic, Creem stalwart, and Lester Bangs mentor always had his eyes set higher, so while it might be Jon Landau who first saw "the future of Rock and Roll "and thanks to good buddy Jerry Wexler had already had a go with producing both the MC5 and The J. Geils Band, it was Mr. Marsh who truly monetized "The Boss."TM
This article involves a more poptimist-ic, inclusive version of music, gender, and sexuality as opposed to Marsh's narcissistic self-satisfied discharge. We can consider the music I will discuss a specific subgenre of the category "Quiet Storm" so titled by Smoked Robinson's 1975 title track and popularized by DJs like Washington, DC's Melvin Lindsey. Let's call it The Big "O;" or, ballin' music (apologies to Mr. Robinson). This music has two key features: 1) lyrics explicitly about sexual encounters and 2) actual or simulated sounds of intercourse interpolated into the song.
Lest I be accused of re-producing what Foucalt's calls "The Repressive Hypothesis," note that I agree with him that in between the 17th and 20th centuries there was a "veritable discursive explosion" in the discussion of sex, albeit using an "authorized vocabulary" codifying what one could say and how, when, where, and to whom one could speak it. So why did this particular musical trend appear when it did?
The sexual revolution supposedly emerged in the late 1960's, but it was primarily a youthful revolution involving free love and bra burning; however, from it arose a more culture-wide shift. Characterizing this emerging ethos would be films like Paul Mazursky's Bob, Carol, Ted, & Alice (1969). Its full hegemonic effects weren't felt until almost half a decade later, when mainstream culture had absorbed this normative shift.
First came the intervening educational effort with two primary texts. The introduction of such self-help books as Alex Comfort's The Joy of Sex (1971) and The Boston Women's Health Book Collective's Our Bodies, Ourselves (1972) capitalized on the late '60's loosening of moral and sexual standards to bring a new more scientific and insightful awareness about sexuality. Then came its deployment in the culture: think key parties and films like Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango In Paris (1972) and the triumvirate of Melvin Van Peeble's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), Gordon Park's Shaft (1971), and Gordon Parks, Jr.'s Super Fly (1972).
Marvin Gaye's liner notes to Let's Get It On (1973) explicitly make larger claims for this most sensual of records:I can't see anything wrong with sex between consenting anybodies. I think we make far too much of it. After all, one's genitals are just one important part of the magnificent human body ... I contend that SEX IS SEX and LOVE IS LOVE. When combined, they work well together, if two people are of about the same mind. But they are really two discrete needs and should be treated as such…. I don't believe in overly moralistic philosophies. Have your sex, it can be exciting, if you're lucky. I hope the music that I present here makes you lucky.The key album track for our consideration is "You Sure Love to Ball" presented in the video below.
That's Fred and Madeline Ross as featured "vocalists."
A year later LaBelle answered with "Lady Marmalade," which became a hit well into 1975.
Originally written by Bob Crewe and Kenny Nolan for The Eleventh Hour in 1974, this tune became a hit a year later for LaBelle. Robert Christgau calls it "great synthetic French-quarter raunch." It's somewhat of an outlier here because it does not explicitly include the sounds of intercourse; however, the propulsive beat is suggestive as is the interpolated French phrase ("Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir") and nonsense phrases like "Itchi Gitchi Ya Ya Da Da" and the repeated refrain "more more more."
The same year Donna Summer struck Eurodisco gold with "Love to Love Ya Baby." Nelson George notes that Eurodisco as "music with a metronomelike beat--perfect for folks with no sense of rhythm--almost inflectionless vocals, and metallic sexuality" (154) was focused originally in München and then spread out to Italy and France. It was while modeling in Bavaria that Donna Summer hooked up with Giorgio Moroder to produce her first solo records on Oasis in 1974. Seeking an American label a year later, Moroder sent the originally shorter studio version of a track then called "Love to Love You" to Casablanca Records President Neil Bogart. Bogart requested a much longer version for play in discothèques. He also changed the title to "Love to Love You Baby."
Donna Summer, "Love to Love Me Baby" (Original Disco Extended Version)
This seemingly endless song --the original disco extended version runs 17:03--mimics tantric sex in its staying and delaying power though it fall short of the seven hour mark, or so Gordon Sumner claims. In Biblical terms: O Death, where is thy Sting? (1 Corinthians 15:55, King James Version ammended).
Major Harris formerly the lead singer for the Philly sound vocal group The Delfonics had his biggest solo hit with "Love Won't Let Me Wait."
From the first time we hear the anonymous woman echo Harris' "Yes" we have interpolated moans throughout the song, and eventually the woman achieves climax as the record does at about the 4:16 mark and again at 4:37, 5:00, and finally once more as the record fades out at 5:25. The song is basically an aural reproduction of human sexual response wave form graphs for the multi-orgasmic woman as displayed in Human Biology classes at universities and colleges throughout America.
From University of Akron course, Family in Lifespan Perspective
Then again, perhaps Meg Ryan-like, she's really adept at faking "it"!
We close our musical tour of this trend of incorporating sexual noises with Diana Ross' "Love Hangover" (Extended Disco Version)
By the time we reach Miss Ross' tune, 10 minutes have been shaved off Summer's original disco epic, so our extended disco version runs 7:59. Ross, like Summer herself, mimics the oohs and aahs of passion as opposed to the men who simply use vocal samples.
In a different but related context, this song figures prominently in the beginning of Moby's recent memoir Porcelain:Then I heard something new "Love Hangover" by Diana Ross. I knew disco music, although didn't think of it as being particularly different from the other types of music played on AM radio. But "Love Hangover" was different. The opening was languid–otherwordly and seductive–and it scared me. . . . .And now our tale of musical and sexual satisfaction is completed.
But "Love Hangover" was different. First of all. it was on the radio, so it had to be good. Second of all, it sounded futuristic... 1999, and had decided I loved all things futuristic. The future was was clean and interesting, and didn't involve sad parents' smoking Winstons in Laundromats. So even though I knew it was about sex, I listened to "Love Hangover" all the way through. It was a futuristic song on the radio, and neither the radio nor the future had ever betrayed me (4–5).
Importantly, I'm claiming neither originality nor "firstness" for this group of songs. All you have to do is know the first stanza of Lucille Bogan's 1935 dirty blues classic, "Shave ‘Em Dry," to understand the absurdity of such a claim:I got nipples on my titties Big as the end of my thumb I got somethin between my legs That'll make a dead-man come.See also such compilation series as Copulatin' Blues and Those Dirty Blues. Similarly, Jazz (or originally "Jass" in Stoyrville sporting clubs) finds its roots in jasm (gism or semen) and the sex act as early as 1912 on the West Coast ( see J.E. Lighter). In two of its foundational genres, African-American popular music has always already been sexually explicit. Rather what I am claiming is a zeitgeist moment where things changed and where explicit lyrics gave way to even more explicit "vocal expressions" for lack of a more precise term, at least in American popular music (as always in matters of love and sex, the French were there first... half a decade earlier).
This piece's title uses the anodyne phrase "mid 1970s music" rather than urban music, or R&B, soul, funk, and disco for a very specific reason. I‘m a late Baby Boomer, white, basically suburbanite, who lived in Tallahassee. Florida during this period. So I can't speak 1) to the urban nature of this music directly nor 2) to why this stuff happened in African-American popular music but much less (at this time at least) in white pop and rock. Furthermore, I can testify that (with the exception of Major Harris and even his tune hit #5 on the Billboard Hot 100), there was total radio market penetration of these songs on all formats and across different carrier wave forms (AM: WTAL 1450 and WANM 1070; FM: Gulf 104) at the time. So while Black Americans surely experienced them in different and more complex ways than the rest of our population. Everyone heard and grooved to them.
This musical outpouring didn't end there of course. It continued and repeated itself variously as slavish re-production (Donna Summer's follow up "I Feel Love" another over-15 minute disco epic), a punk "parody" in the same calendar year (Richard Hell & The Voidoids, "Love Comes in Spurts"), a later New Wave re-working (The Cars, "Tonight She Comes") a Top 40 feminist riposte to Marsh's Onanism (Divnyl's "I Touch Myself"), and even the musings of a not-so-coy indie mistress (Liz Phair, "Flower").
As I compose this, I read that scientists believe they can now explain the evolutionary reason for female sexual response, which seems a more than fitting climax for this la petite mort of an essay.
Boston Women's Health Book Collective. Our Bodies, Ourselves (New England Free Press, 1971).
Christgau, Robert. Consumer Record Guide. http://www.robertchristgau.com/get_artist.php?name=Labelle.
Comfort, M.D., Alex. The Joy of Sex (Crown, 1972).
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Volume 1 (Viking , 1978).
Frith, Simon and Angela McRobbie, "Rock and Sexuality." On Record: Rock, Pop and the Written Word. Eds. Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin (NY: Pantheon, 1990) pp. 371-89. As reprinted from Screen Education 29 (1978).
George, Nelson. The Death of Rhythm & Blues. (NY: E.P. Dutton, 1988).
Landau, Jon "Growing Young With Rock and Roll," The Real Paper. May 22, 1974.
Lighter, J.E., ed., Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Vol. 2, H–O (New York: Random House, 1997).
Marsh, Dave. "Onan's Greatest Hits." Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island. 2nd edition. Ed Greil Marcus. (Da Capo, 2006) pp. 219–27.
Moby. Porcelain: A Memoir (NY: Penguin, 2016).
Press, Joy and Simon Reynolds. The Sex Revolts: gender, Rebellion and Rock'N'Roll (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995).
When Harry Met Sally. Dir. Rob Reiner Perf. Meg Ryan, Billy Crystal, and Carrie Fisher. Columbia Pictures, 1989
Serge Gainsbourg + Jane Birkin "Je t'aime... moi non plus" (Fontana, 1969)
Marvin Gaye, Let's Get it On, especially "You Sure Love to Ball" (Tamla Motown, 1973)
LaBelle "Lady Marmalade" (Epic, 1974)
Barry White, "Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe" (Philips, 1974)
Donna Summer, "Love To Love You Baby (Oasis, 1975)
Major Harris, "Love Won't Let Me Wait" (Atlantic, 1975)
Smokey Robinson "A Quiet Storm" (Tamla Motown, 1975)
Earth, Wind, and Fire "That's The Way of the World" (Columbia, 1975)
Diana Ross, "Love Hangover" (Extended Disco Version) (Motown, 1976)
Thanks to Ernest Hooper for reminding me of Major Harris.
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