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Nov 07

GEORGE McCRAE – “Rock Your Baby”

FT + Popular69 comments • 6,655 views

#353, 27th July 1974

Oh George!The high tide of glam goes out and soul music fills the gap, but soul is changing. Disco is heavenly music – it rests on a belief in the eternal (the groove), and decrees that such an eternity must be filled with sweetness… and if you weren’t a believer, its rewards might well have seemed like life-sapping monotony, the false paradise of a sinister cult.

Personally I say – heathens begone! I love disco and I love what disco wrought – “Rock Your Baby”, while plainly and deeply of its time, also sounds like the most modern thing I’ve covered so far. It’s still more sex music than dance music, more bedroom than club – the perfect union of music, place, dancing (and drugs) that links disco to now isn’t quite manifest here. But it’s still disco, and I still love it.

Mine isn’t an unusual love, mind you – even Mojo now runs features on Chic, and all but a handful of recidivist crits give disco at least grudging due. (The picture among fans is probably quite different, though I’m guessing that disco compilations comfortably outsell 70s rock ones). So I will do my best not to be defensive any more, and to assume nothing: after all it’s only the perversity of this project that makes “Rock Your Baby” feel like a break-point.

There had been big hits built on groove before, of course, but the rock groove feels so much more insistent, nagging and scratching away at a point. On “Rock Your Baby” the groove is yielding, its endless cycles there for you to relax into, and when you do you notice the little embellishments, flourishes and details so much more – McCrae’s voice included. He gives a lovely performance, tender and bliss-struck, but it’s also one happy to surrender to the rhythm and the mix: especially after the great beasts of glam, McCrae is wonderfully ego-free, dissolved in joy.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    Tom on 7 Nov 2007 #

    Apologies for the recent absence of entries, by the way – for those who don’t know, I had a health scare and spent a few days in hospital: everything fine now though!

  2. 2
    Marcello Carlin on 7 Nov 2007 #

    Blimey Tom, you didn’t say anything about that on Saturday (or was this after Club P?). Glad that all is well though.

    Now to “Rock Your Baby” – which incidentally is the second consecutive number one to owe little or nothing to the support of Radio 1 – well, it’s the beginning of time, isn’t it? The start of what we commonly know as disco, the use of the drum machine as a seducer (whereas on Sly’s “Family Affair” it ticks away like a time bomb), George’s near-androgynous vocal, and the immaculate yet human way in which Howie Casey makes the 1974 technology shuffle and swing in ways perhaps no longer possible. Inescapable on import in every worthwhile club for 3-4 months before President Records (home of the Equals and Dorothy Squires inter alia) secured UK release rights and put it out on their Jayboy subsidiary; an immediate hit on commercial radio, whereas Radio 1 only played it when they had to.

    Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together?” – #12 here in ’73, at least ten places too low – acted as a sort of John the Baptist for what was to come, so it’s fitting that the extra splash of heaven blessed to “Rock Your Baby” is the twin keyboard interplay between Timmy’s swirling Fender Rhodes and KC’s almost hymnal, stately organ which reminds me, in both nature and delivery, of what Zawinul, Hancock and Corea did on Miles’ In A Silent Way. It’s a sensual hymn (“come on…” McCrae’s voice trails off into the instrumental break as though nothing further needs to be said) and still sounds impossibly noble. As persuasively modern in its day as “Cumberland Gap” and “Telstar” were in theirs. A 10.

  3. 3
    Tom on 7 Nov 2007 #

    It happened after Club P Marcello!

    Great write-up as always.

  4. 4
    Billy Smart on 7 Nov 2007 #

    One of my very favourites – I can remember watching some silly Channel 4 Best 100 Number Ones Countdown a few years ago with my friend Harry and as there were only two left him asking “Well, what are the best two going to be, then?” and my replying “Well, if it was me deciding it would be ‘Rock Your Baby’ and ‘Tiger Feet'”, but sadly that wasn’t to be.

    Marcello has written acutely about how this works musically and rhythmically in several places, but all I can add to that is that the effect is to create a truly holy and sanctified sounding music. Rarely have I heard a more convincing evocation of the bliss and joy of love, and don’t know of any other song as likely to leave me feeling swoony when I listen to it. 10.

  5. 5
    Billy Smart on 7 Nov 2007 #

    A warning to anybody who first experiences ‘Rock Your Baby’ through seeing George McCrae’s Top Of the Pops appearance. This was one of those performances by an overseas artist where – because of regulations about Musicians’ Union membership – the backing track was re-recorded by the BBC Orchestra at short notice. It sounds a lot better than that on the real record, believe me!

    McCrae went on to have a further 6 hits in the UK over the next couple of years. Which are the good ones?

  6. 6
    Marcello Carlin on 7 Nov 2007 #

    They do tend to be much of a muchness but they’re all good ‘uns; “It’s Been So Long” is superb but my favourite is “You Can Have It All” as subsequently (and beautifully) covered by Yo La Tengo.

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    jeff w on 7 Nov 2007 #

    As persuasively modern in its day as “Cumberland Gap” and “Telstar” were in theirs

    This certainly chimes with my experience. “Rock Your Baby” sounded nothing like anything I’d heard before at the time. (Bear in mind that things that topped the charts were more likely to get a hyperactive nine year old’s attention than songs that missed the Top 10. When you also factor in that, Chuck Berry aside, this was the first UK number 1 by a black artist for something like three years you can probably more easily understand my ‘what the hell…?’ reaction.) It was those ecstatic, wordless top notes that clinched the deal though.

  8. 8
    Erithian on 7 Nov 2007 #

    The Story of Pop (of which Marcello still no doubt has every issue complete with binder) once remarked that, as a seismograph of pop, the charts may not be sensitive to every slight tremor but they never miss a worldwide explosion. It was talking in the context of the 1963 charts reflecting the Beat Boom, but the 1974 charts are a case in point as well. By July ’74, the only black face at number one in the UK singles chart for nearly three years had been Chuck Berry, and that with a song that was hardly a standout example of a black music genre. Just one black performer in a sequence of 48 number ones since the Tams had displaced Diana Ross back in 1971 (there may have been one lurking in the Simon Park Orchestra or the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards but I doubt it). Beginning with George McCrae, six of the next nine number ones were by black artists, and they were to have a fair share of the rest of the decade.

    However, here’s where I diverge greatly from the consensus of many of the contributors on this site. As you might already have guessed, I despised disco – I found much of it a repetitive, tacky, mindless, soulless mash, and hated its marketing, its World Disco Dancing Championships, its Saturday Night Fever hype, its monotonous exhortations to dance, etc etc. As ever, there were honourable exceptions and there are disco records I remember fondly, including two of the biggest summer hits of the next three years – but generally I find it to be almost the antithesis of soul. Yes, in answer to the charge of rockism, there were no doubt skilled musicians involved, but such a degree of cynical addiction to the beat as well. As for George McCrae, sorry but it never did anything for me then and doesn’t now.

    Glad you’re on the mend Tom, that’s what kids do to you…

  9. 9
    intothefireuk on 7 Nov 2007 #

    Well of course no one knew that it was eventually going to be tagged disco. At the time it just felt like a sublime soul groove with McRae’s gorgeous lead vocal soaring over the top of it. There were other tracks of a similar nature around, namely ‘rock the boat’ (a no.1 in the US) but this had more elements that we would later associate with disco although it still retains a huge element of soul thanks to George. Disco would eventually become used & abused by the great unwashed but for now & for the next few years it was a new & insistant urge to dance.

    George wasn’t the original intended artist to cover KC’s tune, it was, rumour has it, supposed to be for his then wife Gwen McRae who was unable to make the session.

  10. 10
    Marcello Carlin on 7 Nov 2007 #

    As Erithian has now unmasked himself as HATING FUN he is duly sentenced to three years of having to listen to a loop of “Dance With Me,” the 1980 single by Reginald Bosanquet.

  11. 11
    Steve on 7 Nov 2007 #

    Terrific song, intriguingly gentle. An exciting moment for reasons people give.

    A BBC documentary I annoyingly can’t remember the name of (it can’t have been the one about the history of the pop song, probably not Dancing In The Streets either, maybe one about Soul music inc. Disco) featured an amusing anecdote in which the person they’re talking to describes how McCrae was being denied any royalties from this song’s success by his label. He angrily confronted the label boss who placated him by offering him a fancy new car that he’d just bought. McCrae accepted but the car wasn’t insured and he subsequently pranged it.

    This song would, many years later, be a second hit for an act whose debut single (also a cover) reached #1. There is another cover of it I quite enjoy but once again my memory fails absymally. Carry on.

  12. 12
    Erithian on 7 Nov 2007 #

    I did once accidentally tape that Reginald Bosanquet song off the radio! Might even still have it somewhere. All together now, “Dance, doo-wop, doo-wop, oh wee…”

  13. 13
    Marcello Carlin on 7 Nov 2007 #

    In view of the recent controversy over whether Robyn was singing lead on the new Britney album, I have to say that Reggie sounds suspiciously like his great personal friend the late Rt Hon Alan Clark MP on this boss waxing…

  14. 14
    Erithian on 7 Nov 2007 #

    Someone should do a mash-up with “Oh Bosanquet” by Not the Nine O’Clock News.

  15. 15
    henry s on 7 Nov 2007 #

    I saw House Of Love cover this one live, back in “the day”…that was weird!

  16. 16
    Marcello Carlin on 7 Nov 2007 #

    !!!!

  17. 17
    Billy Smart on 7 Nov 2007 #

    God, I had completely forgotten about The House of Love’s interpretation, as featured on the 1992 NME charity covers album ‘Ruby Trax'(an album of great interest to all regular Popular contributors, come to think of it). I’ve just heard it again for what may be the first time in 15 years – Guy Chadwick treats it in the same vocal style as ‘The Beatles & the Stones’ while the band impersonate Curve behind him.

  18. 18
    Lena on 7 Nov 2007 #

    And Curve cover “I Feel Love” (I’ve never heard it, but I imagine they sound like themselves).

  19. 19
    admin on 7 Nov 2007 #

    RULE OF THREE

    this is only the third time that Ruby Trax has come up in Popular comments. (it is mentioned more on FT in general tho, obv)

  20. 20
    rosie on 7 Nov 2007 #

    Didn’t the writer of Oh. Bosanquet die recently?

    I saw Reggie Bosanquet once, propping up the bar of the Sun in Splendour in Portobello Road, back in the days when the Sun was a really good pub (Britannia tables, banquettes covered with scuffed and slashed red vinyl, hand-pulled draught Bass of exceedingly high quality) and before its transformation, firstly into a Victorian tart’s boudoir and then into a Firkin-clone. ITN were on strike, and this being Notting Hill, if you saw somebody who looked like somebody famous, it invariable was somebody famous. He looked bored and tired, and I didn’t feel the slightest inclination to emulate Anna Ford.

    Anyway, while I don’t remember this being number one, I do remember it very vividly from a visit to a sweaty club in the Manchester cellars the following autumn, and I felt very heady. I was impressed. Then I forgot all about it until I tracked it down for this project, and I was immediately impressed again.

    I was talking about Soul earlier today. Soul never went away, for me, but of course this is quite a way from Wilson Pickett. It’s Soul with its collar buttoned down and its shoes buffed up and ready to ride in something low-slung and Italian with the roof open to the wind. Something old and something new, all rolled into one. For me, it’s a point when the singles charts start being interesting again.

    It is undoubtedly sexy. But then both I and this record belong to an age when dancing was the vertical expression of a horizontal desire, something I’ll have more to say about anon.

    Eight feels about right.

  21. 21
    Brian on 7 Nov 2007 #

    When I was 20 and at University I hung out alot at a friends place and we listened to alot of music. I remember hearing this in his little room and thinkinig it was a really good R & B / SOUL record .

    While I was away guiding a trip I remember being in a nightclub – I don’t even know if we called them disco’s at that point – in Vancouver. This came on – people flooded to the floor and I remember thinking – this dance thing is really going take off – and , in my mind disco was born.

    I guess I just had to get out of that little room and into the wider world to see that popular culture was about to change again . ” Rock Your Baby” will always be the harbinger of those changes….

  22. 22
    wwolfe on 7 Nov 2007 #

    Full disclosure: I was the typical American Midwest smalltown white guy in my reaction to disco when it was new. Meaning I invested great passion in a quasi-religious insistence that it was not only bad, but somehow blasphemous. I remember with particular embarrassment a closing night cast party for a college play where I was deeply distressed when “Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy” was taken off the turntable and replaced by the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack.

    Now I listen to a lot of the disco hits and wonder, “What the heck was I thinking?” Leaving aside for a moment the fact that many of those hits are very fun and enjoyable – it shouldn’t have taken me so long to figure that out, but I guess better late than never – even looking at it from my 15-year-old rock and soul purist’s vantage, a lot of disco (especially early disco) sounds like light soul. Why didn’t I hear that at the time?

    The three exceptions to my cloth-eared response to disco were Donna Summers’ “I Feel Love,” Vicki Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around,” and George McRae’s “Rock Your Baby.” I always loved those three singles – Donna’s because it was so strange in a wondrous way, and Vicki Sue’s and George’s because they were so exuberant. I wish I’d been as open-minded about the rest of disco – some of it did indeed suck, just like every other genre of music, but lots of it could have made my daily radio-listening much more enjoyable, if I’d let it.

    I owe a debt of thanks to my older sister for opening my mind a little. Sometime in the mid-1970s, when I found her listening to a disco song, I of course made a point of saying how stupid I thought it was. She replied, in so many words, that in a world as tough as this one, any music that made people feel like dancing was doing something important. That made me reconsider for the first time. (Many years later, when it finally dawned on me that Tommy James meant more to me than Robbie Robertson – that, in other words, Pop was infinitely greater than post-“Sgt. Pepper”/Dylan ponderously self-important Rock – I could finally hear what had always been right in there in the grooves of the good disco records.)

    Thanks to Marcello for the info about Timmy Thomas playing on “Rock Your Baby.” I *loved* “Why Can’t We Live Together,” so I’m happy to know Timmy played on this record, too. (Did he remain in the Sunshine Band?)

    I wish George McRae had been the permanent vocalist for KC & the Sunshine Band. Howie casey’s vocals have an Everyman charm, but I really like George McRae’s light, floating tenor.

    My only regret about this single is that it inspired John Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” – a record that sounded like a hippo trying to dance – bad, in a word – even in 1974, at the height of my Beatle worship.

    I’d be OK with this as a 10, for a combination of artistic and historic reasons, as described by everone before me.

  23. 23
    Brian on 7 Nov 2007 #

    Rosie # 20 : “collar buttoned down and its shoes buffed up and ready to ride in something low-slung and Italian with the roof open to the wind”

    As groovy as this sounds, I think that the reality was – arghhh ! – leisure suits !

  24. 24
    mike on 7 Nov 2007 #

    Well, there’s not much more that I can add to the splendid observations above. This felt like a sea-change – even TOTP changed its format while Rock Your Baby was at #1, just to underline the final break from glam – and indeed it was a sea-change. Didn’t mean much to me at the time (although I lapped up “Rock The Boat”), as I spent the Summer of 1974 discovering prog. Sadly, and give or take the odd noble exception, I swallowed that “mindless brainwash music for the masses” line for far too long, from prog into punk. That’s sexual repression for you!

  25. 25
    Marcello Carlin on 8 Nov 2007 #

    I seem to remember at the time there was a bit of a chicken/egg controversy regarding “Rock Your Baby” and “Rock The Boat” and who came up with the idea first. I recall Ray Fox-Cumming and his comedy parrot saying something about it in Disc and Music Echo, at any rate.*

    *now those were the days, kids; singles columns written by parrots!

  26. 26
    Erithian on 8 Nov 2007 #

    I should perhaps state here, in response to wwolfe, that “I Feel Love” was very much one of the records for which I made an exception to my anti-disco stance. Much more on that in a few years’ time. I was partial to the Timmy Thomas record too.

    Time perhaps to deploy my claim to fame, which is a mite less cool than Billy’s having sat next to KT Tunstall in Contemporary Feminist Playwrights. While I was staying loyal to Sweet and Slade, the ginger lad in the year above me at school was no doubt getting into the new sounds coming along. And given the sound of my singing voice, it was probably better for music lovers everywhere that Mick Hucknall was the one who took it to the next stage.

  27. 27
    Mark G on 8 Nov 2007 #

    or was it?

  28. 28
    Marcello Carlin on 8 Nov 2007 #

    Mick Out Of Simply Red’s true spiritual forefather hasn’t come up yet on Popular but he will do after having been kept at number two on three separate occasions!

  29. 29
    Lena on 8 Nov 2007 #

    Not Rod Stewart no…umm…er…not Paul Anka…umm…

  30. 30
    Marcello Carlin on 8 Nov 2007 #

    Although it should be recorded that Paul Anka unexpectedly returned to our top ten later in 1974 with the heartrending “You’re Having My Baby.”

    “THE KID GETS SHIRTS! DON’T MAKE A FUCKIN’ MANIAC OUT OF ME!”
    “I’m the only important one in this cot.”

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