Sunday, January 12, 2014

Funky Lip Synching At The Disco

The term ‘one hit wonder’ has been part of the popular music vernacular for many a year.  Loosely speaking it can be defined as a music artist who has had only one hit song in the music charts.  In absolute terms, a one hit wonder is an artist that quite literally only ever has one song that charts, anywhere, at any time, troubling chart statisticians only once.

Then there are those artists who may only chart once in a particular country, but may have charted multiple times in another.  This typically occurs where an artist has just one charting song in a major market, say the U.S., but in their home country, say Australia, they’ve scored multiple chart hits.

But the term is often applied incorrectly and unfairly.  Sometimes an artist can be labelled a one hit wonder, yet will have charted  a second or even third time with songs that never advance beyond the lower reaches of the charts, but chart they do and therefore, as far as this author is concerned, shouldn’t be categorised as one hit wonders.  This post examines one such ‘mislabelled’ artist in more detail.

The art of lip synching has been around for as long as popular music artists have been making video clips, or performing on television or films.  Of course lip synching has also strayed into some performers ‘live’ concerts, but we shan’t concern ourselves with them.  By definition, lip synching involves a singer moving

their mouths in synch with a backing tape, so as to appear to actually be singing.  Some artists are better at it than others.  In 1979/80, a disco styled studio group burst on to the scene under the clever moniker of  Lipps Inc.  The following paragraphs shall reveal all.

At age 15, Minneapolis born Steven Greenberg was content to let out his teenage angst as a rock drummer with local garage bands.  Within five years, the bespectacled son of a storage magnate, had spent some of the family fortune on kitting out that garage with all manner of musical instruments and recording equipment, and had set about teaching himself to write, record and produce his own album.  Greenberg took his first album to shop around for a deal in L.A., but realised he needed a bit more maturity on his side to cut a workable deal.

Over the ensuing eight years, Greenberg resisted pressure to join the family business, instead remaining focussed on attaining his dream to have a hit record.  He honed his music skills across a range of instruments from guitar, bass, synthesizer, and keyboards, whilst playing live as one half of a popular vocal duo, Atlas and Greenberg - he was the ‘Greenberg’ half.  When the disco ball exploded on to the popular music scene during the mid 70s, Greenberg used some green backs to set up a mobile disco, and production company.  Both had flopped within a year.

By 1979, with disco seemingly still bullet proof, Greenberg made the decision to pursue a hit record once more.  He wrote, produced, and played all but bass on a track called ‘Rock It’, and pressed 500 copies with a view to flooding the local market.  Thanks in large to relentless self promotion, ‘Rock It’ found a local audience in Minneapolis, and topped the chart run by local radio station KFMX.

Encouraged with his success, Greenberg set his sights on a bigger market, but he needed an ingredient he was unable to provide himself, a female vocalist, so he went in search of one during the summer of ‘79.  He

didn’t have to cast the vocal net very far before discovering a 24 year old police department secretary by the name of Cynthia Johnson.  Johnson was already singing with local outfit Flyt-Time on the weekends, but this seemed like an interesting opportunity to get some studio experience and try something new.  Greenberg soon arranged for Johnson to record a demo at his home studio, and was impressed with the results.  He had found his female lead vocalist.

During her formative years Cynthia Johnson had sung in church choirs, and learned the saxophone from an early age.  Though her mother didn’t approve of the choice of musical instrument, Cynthia practiced diligently in private and her saxophone skills contributed to her winning the Miss Black Minnesota U.S.A. in 1976.

With a demo recorded, and Cynthia Johnson in tow, Greenberg returned to the West Coast to shop around for a record deal.  After a plethora of rejections, Greenberg finally sparked some interest from Bruce Bird at Casablanca Records.  After an impromptu airing of some demo tracks impressed Casablanca staff, Greenberg and Johnson were signed up to a deal under the clever moniker of Lipps Inc.

By the fall of ‘79, the debut album from Lipps Inc. hit record stores, initially to little interest from record buyers.  But one of the tracks stood out from the rest, and started to get some airplay across the States.  It was a funk-edged dance number featuring the instrumental talents of Greenberg, and the scorching vocals of Cynthia Johnson (not certain if that‘s her playing the saxophone on the track).  Written by Greenberg,
‘Funkytown’ had been inspired by the young man’s desire to move away from his sleepy Minneapolis existence and bath in the bright lights of the mythical ‘Funkytown’.

Though ‘Rock It’ had been released as the album’s first single, it was ‘Funkytown’ that broke through and launched Lipps Inc. into the disco/funk stratosphere.  My own impressions of ‘Funkytown’ are that it isn’t the archetypal disco track, mainly due to the quirky percussion lines and engaging synth riffs.  Regardless of where the song sat stylistically, it managed to catch one of the last scheduled rides on the disco train, before the genre was derailed.

‘Funkytown’ crept surreptitiously into the lower reaches of the U.S. Hot 100 (#89) in March of 1980.  Within two months it was a staple on dance floors nationwide, and had landed atop the U.S. singles chart, replacing Blondie’s ‘Call Me’ in the process.  At the same time, ‘Funkytown’ was surging up both the British charts (UK#2) and later here in Australia, where it spent 2 weeks atop the charts in August of 1980.  The lights were bright on the streets of ‘Funkytown’, but after four weeks at the pinnacle of the U.S. charts, somebody forgot to pay the power bill, and ‘Funkytown’ was pushed aside by Paul McCartney’s ‘Coming Up’.

By mid to late 1980, the disco façade had all but crumbled in the wake of a ‘new wave’ of music crashing upon popular music’s shores.  ‘Funkytown’ had made it to the airwaves in the nick of time, and with enough

funk cred permeating the track, fared better than a lot of disco releases in 1980.  Lipps Inc. would indeed have been accurately remembered as a ‘one hit wonder’, had it not been for the re-release of Greenberg’s early demo.  This time ‘Rock It’ was released under the Lipps Inc. banner but only managed 7 weeks inside the Hot 100, peaking at #64 during its trip.  Following their remarkable, albeit brief, sojourn into the glamour and glitz of pop music’s big time, both Steven Greenberg and Cynthia Johnson were content to resume their Minneapolis lives having lived the dream they set out to experience.

But though Lipps Inc. time on the music scene was relatively brief, the song ‘Funkytown’ has proven a remarkably enduring tune.  Since ‘disco’ came back into vogue from a retro viewpoint, ‘Funkytown’ has resumed its place as a staple on dance floors across the world.  In 1986/7 the song was covered by Australian pop-rock quartet Pseudo Echo (see previous posts), with the title amended to ‘Funky Town’ and a stylistic makeover to a more pop-rock design.  The Pseudo Echo version (OZ#1/US#6/UK#8) didn’t quite manage the chart success of the original, but it came mighty close.  Regardless, the song’s resurgence would have generated some sizeable royalty cheques.

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