We all know—or should know—that music can be a sublime expression of self, expressing ideas and emotions that the mere spoken or printed word can’t. But let’s not kid ourselves. Music can also be nothing more than a product: manufactured according to spec, and sold in bulk.
When my older brother and I were growing up in the late ’70s, two records we listened to over and over were The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour and John Williams’ Star Wars soundtrack. But I was young then—not even 10—and children have a natural taste for sugar, so whenever I heard something that sounded like the music I loved, only sweeter and emptier, I gobbled it up. While my brother put on our dad’s puffy headphones and cranked the last few notes of the Star Wars score as high as they could go, I was calling in to our local Top 40 station to request Meco’s disco version of the Star Wars theme. And in between spins of the real Beatles, I was enjoying Stars On 45’s danceable, chart-topping Beatles medley far more than I care to admit.
Critics sometimes point to teen idols like Justin Bieber as examples of the music industry at its most cynical, creating consumer goods derived more from craft than art. But pop music really doesn’t come much more formulaic than it did in the era when Meco ruled the airwaves, followed closely by the success of Stars On 45 and the Hooked On Classics series. All of these short-lived phenomena emerged from the disco era, and from the notion that any kind of music could become popular if it was set to an insistent beat. Simple math said that all any entrepreneurial producer had to do was to place a familiar melody over some synthesized rhythms and then sit back and count the money.
Domenico “Meco” Monardo had already been working as a session musician and record producer for over a decade when he saw Star Wars and was inspired by Williams’ score to concoct a pop version of the main theme. Meco had been involved with commercial jingles and big chart hits, and wasn’t looking to disco-fy Star Wars as any kind of “art of art’s sake” exercise. No, this was a purely commercial endeavor—same as it was when Dutch producer Jaap Eggermont employed some local Beatles sound-alikes to record snippets of the band’s hits, imitating a bootleg mash-up that was already popular in discos.
I didn’t know any of this when I first heard Meco and Stars On 45. As far as I knew, the disco Star Wars had been produced by 20th Century Fox, and the Stars On 45 single by The Beatles. (Though the inclusion of Shocking Blue’s “Venus” and The Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” in the latter baffled me even then.) I might’ve been unfazed because I listened to a lot of Top 40 in those days, and for as long as I can remember, the pop charts have been peppered with oddities. Sometimes rockabilly makes a brief comeback, or swing music; or sometimes some goofy new dance or jokey novelty song sweeps the nation for a few weeks. Even medleys have had multiple moments in the spotlight. A few years before Stars On 45, one of the hottest records in the country was “Mr. Jaws,” by Dickie Goodman, which combined a Jaws parody with snippets of popular songs, as a kind of call-and-response.
Because these songs and artists were so successful, and because the public quickly tired of them, used-record bins are cluttered with just these kinds of quickie cash-ins. In a fit of nostalgia—or perhaps just morbid curiosity—I recently bought copies of Stars On Long Play, Hooked On Classics 2: Can’t Stop The Classics, and Meco’s 1982 mega-medley Pop Goes The Movies, to see if the pre-teen me who liked this music was actually onto something.
The answer is an emphatic “no.” The pre-teen me was an idiot. I think I’m pretty broad-minded when it comes to music, and as I’ve gotten older and less concerned with liking the “right” bands, I’ve found value in just about every musical genre and era. But making it all the way through both sides of Pop Goes The Movies was a chore, thoroughly devoid of even guilty pleasure. Rarely has music been so joyless, so charmless—so calculating as to be robotic.
Which isn’t to say that listening to these albums was a complete waste of time. Side one of Stars On Long Play contains the 15-minute version of the Beatles medley that I remember so well from boyhood, with no “Venus” or “Sugar Sugar,” but with an intro, outro, and interlude that all explain the Stars On 45 “Hey, nostalgia is fun!” concept, to the tune of The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.” In between those segments, a group of session men play song snippets that range from an 11-second version of “Good Day Sunshine” to a 46-second “Day Tripper.” Frankly, it’s a strange selection of Beatles songs overall—not exclusively the band’s biggest hits, but also deeper cuts like “I’ll Be Back” and “It Won’t Be Long,” plus the George Harrison solo cut “My Sweet Lord”—and they’re arranged fairly haphazardly, with no chronological order or logical flow. Whatever people may think of other “Beatles experience” projects like Beatlemania, Cirque du Soleil’s Love, or Julie Taymor’s movie Across The Universe, at least they all attempt to put the band into some kind of cultural or aesthetic context. When I played Stars On 45 for my Beatles-loving 8-year-old daughter, she summed up the record well: “They’re just singing a bunch of different song titles. It’s crazy.”
The Hooked On Classics and Pop Goes The Movies albums are even worse, because while The Beatles at least meant most of their songs to be catchy, Meco and Hooked On Classics arranger Louis Clark (leading the Royal Philharmonic!) butchered film scores and symphonies by strip-mining them for their most memorable passages, then slapping an electronic drumbeat behind it. Listening to those records—and Stars On Long Play as well—is like watching one of those smug YouTube videos that tries to prove that all pop songs are the same by stringing a bunch of them together with the same tone and rhythm. It’s a sleight-of-hand trick: distract listeners with the beat, so that they miss the subtler gestures.
Yet while listening to these albums, I had to reckon with how a Stars On 45 mash-up differs from one of the seminal hip-hop tracks by turntable pioneer Steinski, who transformed music by using rock and R&B records as his instruments. I can only say that Steinski—like the best turntablists and collage-artists that followed in his footsteps—wasn’t looking to exploit these songs for their most salable elements, but was instead putting their fleeting pleasures in service of a more intense explosion of pop joy. Perhaps this is a case of a music-lover putting too much stock in intent, but when I listen to Steinski, I hear love, not the distracting clatter of jingling coins.
It’s also instructive to compare the Hooked On Classics albums to some of the other attempts in the ’70s to make classical music relevant for a younger generation: such as Emerson Lake & Palmer’s Modest Mussorgsky and Aaron Copland covers, and Eumir Deodato’s Latin-tinged versions of “Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun” and “Rhapsody In Blue.” In the same used-vinyl bins where I found Meco and the like, I scooped up Deodato’s Prelude and Deodato 2, two records that I’d enjoyed when they were reissued on CD a couple of years ago. I liked them even more when I listened to them after playing Hooked On Classics and Pop Goes The Movies, in part because both Deodato albums offer a mix of covers and originals, but mostly because the music on both really flows, displaying warmth and complexity. Deodato was working with top jazz producer Creed Taylor then, as well as accomplished musicians John Tropea, Hubert Laws, Ron Carter, and Stanley Clarke. His classical/jazz/rock/worldbeat fusions weren’t cynical attempts to trade off nostalgia; they were in the tradition of the hot jam session, built around a classic melody. Divorced from their times—and considered purely in terms of their surfaces—there may not seem to be much difference between Deodato’s funky “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and Meco’s boogie-fever Star Wars theme. But there are distinctions, and they’re vital ones.
As for the nostalgia-for-profit impulse represented by Stars On 45, I have to say that all things being equal, I’ll take Taco. A Dutchman, like Eggermont (albeit one born in Jakarta, Indonesia, and then nurtured as a musician in Germany), Taco Ockerse scored an international hit in 1982 with his synthesizer-heavy version of the Irving Berlin standard “Puttin’ On The Ritz.” Arriving roughly around the same time as Stars On 45, Hooked On Classics, The Stray Cats, and retro-pop LPs by Willie Nelson and Linda Ronstadt, Taco’s covers-filled album After Eight could have been read as part of a reactionary wave of popular music. But again, listening to the copy of After Eight I bought around the same time as those other albums, I didn’t hear anything that could be described as purely, pointlessly commercial.
Don’t get me wrong: After Eight is a terrible album. Taco and his team of producers and arrangers recorded thin-sounding electronic takes on such old-timey favorites as “Singin’ In The Rain,” “La Vie En Rose,” and “Cheek To Cheek,” mixed with corny originals that pay tribute to Rudolph Valentino and the glamour of golden-age Hollywood. But they’re not insincere takes. There’s something weirdly personal and quirky about them. “Puttin’ On The Ritz” may have become a hit because it married a song everybody knew to a sound that was then becoming popular, but the song does seem to express something that was nestled deep within its singer. Put it this way: It’d be hard to imagine anyone clamoring to see Meco in concert, but Taco had such a sense of style and presentation that I actually could hear people saying, “Let’s all go to a Taco show.”
Music falls across different continuums, one of which finds avant-garde abrasion on one end and bubblegum on the other. I personally don’t value either side of that spectrum over the other, but I do think intent matters, and I do think we can judge music based both on how much individual feeling lies within a song, and how effectively that feeling is put across. Sometimes it’s virtuosity or technical skill that delivers the message; and sometimes it’s raw, uncontrolled emotion. Sometimes the ideas within a song are primitive, and sometimes they’re complex. None of that, to me, matters as much as knowing that at some point in the process, a human being had something to say.