Friday, August 28, 2009

Take A Deep Breath And Scream Aaaaaaaah!

During 1975, the first ‘dance-beat’ tremors began to be felt of the soon to arrive ‘disco tsunami’ that would wash over world pop charts throughout the second half of the decade. By its nature as a primarily studio-based style of music, some of the key players in the emergence of disco were music producers. Whilst the U.S. offered up a good share of these (Van McCoy, Jacque Morali, Desmond Child, Gamble & Huff, Bernard Edwards & Nile Rodgers), many were European based producers, who struck upon a winning formula of infectious melodies and danceable beats - they just needed decent singers to front each studio-based vehicle, or ‘group’. The likes of Frank Farina (Boney M, Eruption), Daniel Vangarde (Gibson Brothers, Santa Esmerelda), Alec R. Costandinos (Love & Kisses & Cerrone), and Giorgio Moroder (Donna Summer, Three Degrees) were key players in the emergence of the ‘Eurodisco’ movement.

Among the leading artists of the ‘Eurodisco’ explosion of the mid 70s, was the Munich based act Silver Convention. The project was the brainchild of producer Michael Kunze and writer/arranger Silvester Levay, who joined forces with session musicians to record the track ‘Save Me’ during 1974. ‘Save Me’ was originally released to the credit of Silver Bird, but after becoming a bit of surprise hit on the continent, the artist’s moniker was tweaked ever so slightly to become Silver Convention (Silvester Levay’s nickname was apparently ‘Silver’ - gold would soon become more appropriate). ‘Save Me’ was released in Britain in early ‘75 and achieved a respectable #30 mid year (OZ#83). It was all well and good to score a one off hit under an anonymous pseudonym, but if they were going to follow up with further single and album releases, Kunze and Levay needed to find identities to become the ‘face’ of Silver Convention - after all it was popular music convention to do so. The ‘face’ of Silver Convention took the form of three female session vocalists, Linda Thompson, Penny McLean, and Ramona Wulf. The trio’s first official release under the Silver Convention banner was the minor hit single ‘There Is Always Another Girl’.

Kunze and Levay then gathered together some studio musicians (which included future ‘Flashdance’ producer Keith Forsey on drums) and their three new vocalists to record an album proper for the Jupiter Records label. The resultant set was titled ‘Save Me’ (OZ#18/US#10), or ‘Silver Convention’ in some markets, and for some reason sported a pair of silver handcuffs on the front cover - perhaps in honour of Silver Convention’s arrestingly engaging music. The next single lifted from the ‘Save Me’ album would launch Silver Convention into the pop music stratosphere. The lavishly produced ‘Fly, Robin, Fly’ took off on the U.S. charts in October of ‘75, and by late November had flown to #1, where it held altitude for three weeks (UK#28/OZ#11). ‘Fly, Robin, Fly’ wasn’t the first disco-dance styled track to hit the top of the U.S. Hot 100, having replaced KC & The Sunshine Band’s disco-anthem ‘That’s The Way (I Like It)’, with the likes of the Bee Gees’ ‘Jive Talkin’, and Van McCoy’s ‘The Hustle’ having already signalled the disco behemoth’s intentions for world domination. Interestingly, co-writer Silvester Levay was originally going to call the song ‘Run, Rabbit, Run’, but just a half hour before recording began he revealed to producer Michael Kunze that he’d just heard another song called ‘Run Rabbit’ - and so it was that ‘Fly, Robin, Fly’ hopped, or rather fluttered, into being (considering the song’s lyrics comprised just six words in total, it was a pretty significant change). The runaway success of ‘Fly, Robin, Fly’ pushed the Silver Convention brand to the very vanguard of the disco movement, alongside the likes of Disco Tex, Gloria Gaynor, Bee Gees, KC & The Sunshine Band, and B.T. Express.

When Penny McLean (born Gertrude Wirschinger) got the call to hook up with the Silver Convention project, she was already in the midst of recording her own solo album, titled ‘Lady Bump’. The Austrian born McLean burst into the Australian charts during February of ‘76 with the title track single. Let there be no doubt, this lady could sing. ‘Lady Bump’ was a catchy enough disco-pop song, but what set it apart from the competition was McLean’s vocal performance. I was only seven years old when the song was released, but commercial radio was a regular companion at home and in the car, and ‘Lady Bump’ is one of those song’s that still rings loudest in the earliest foundations of my pop music memory. More specifically, McLean’s prolonged ‘Aaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh!’ during the chorus - as memorable as it was, I’m sure the single should have carried a warning about not playing it too loud around valuable glassware. ‘Lady Bump’ peaked at #9 in Australia during a mammoth 35 weeks on the charts (US#48), and McLean’s album also sold in solid gold numbers (OZ#12/US#59).

Silver Convention managed to build on the momentum of ‘Fly, Robin, Fly’, with the follow up single ‘Get Up And Boogie’, which of course was a bluegrass song - no sorry, I can’t make that sound convincing - take two - which was of course more of the same slickly produced, string-laden disco fare. ‘Get Up And Boogie’ did just that and hustled its way to #2 on the U.S. charts, and also notched up Silver Convention’s only British top ten hit (#7/OZ#19). It featured as the title track on the trio’s next album (OZ#15/US#13), released as ‘Silver Convention’ in the U.S. When you’re on a winning formula why change it, so the album boasted more of the same glossy Euro-disco mix, with a few playful splashes of funk and reggae thrown in for good measure. But the album yielded just one more minor hit in ‘No, No, Joe’ (US#60/UK#41), and was also the swansong album (can you have a swansong album?) for Linda Thompson. Thompson had also recently recorded her own solo album, as Linda G. Thompson, and scored a moderate hit with ‘Ooh What A Night’ (OZ#23).

Silver Convention didn’t miss a beat, and replaced Thompson with Rhonda Heath for their next album ‘Madhouse’ (OZ#61/US#65). The Hunze/Levay team was still firmly at the helm, and steered Silver Convention into more overtly funk-edged territory on several of the tracks, whilst on the UK#25 single ‘Everybody’s Talking ‘Bout Love’, the sound touches on facets of northern soul (which no doubt contributed to it finding an audience in Britain). Just as a point of interest, the song writing credits for Silver Convention were attributed to Silvester Levay (who wrote the music) and one Stephan Prager (lyrics). Prager was a pseudonym for producer Michael Kunze - and considering most of Silver Convention’s songs featured a scant volume of lyrics, Kunze really wasn’t adding that much more to his production duties. The group popped up in 1977 as the German entry for the Eurovision Song Contest, but only managed eighth placing with the track ‘Telegram’.

A revised trio, now featuring Suzie McClosky in place of Penny McLean, had one last tilt at the charts in 1978, with an album and associated single titled ‘Love In A Sleeper’ (OZ#90 - released as ‘Golden Girls’ in the U.S. - #71). ‘Love In A Sleeper’ proved popular in dance clubs (no surprise there) but it appeared that Silver Convention’s popularity among record buyers had accrued a degree of tarnish. Given that disco had reached its peak in 1978, it’s surprising that the project didn’t sustain some chart momentum, but there was such a deluge of disco-dance acts around that it’s possible that Silver Convention just got lost in the rush. Whatever the case, Silver Convention’s golden era was over. Penny McLean returned to the group in 1979 to record the single ‘Rollermania’, but the group pretty much disappeared from the scene soon after, and its remaining members once more assumed obscurity in terms of a public profile. Silvester Levay later set up base in the U.S. and experienced a degree of success there as a writer/arranger with prolific producer Giorgio Moroder, whilst Levay also worked with Moroder and Jim Steinman. The three primary members of Silver Convention, Ramona Wulf, Linda G. Thompson, and Penny McLean, have reunited on a handful of occasions for European television appearances, but by and large have withdrawn from the music biz (with the exception of the occasional live performance).

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