Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night by Anthony Haden-Guest


The Last Party (ARe / AMZ / BN / KOBO / ITUNESwas originally published in 1997. By coincidence, it came out around the same time filming of 54 with Michael Myers began, but one did not beget the other. I read the book when it first came out, and eighteen years later I'm transferring entries on my hand-written book log to Goodreads. Now, the log had four stars on this entry, but after some digging I found what I had written on Amazon all those years ago:

I admit it was the subject matter that prompted me to pick up this book, but I was disappointed. If anything, The Last Party is a much better chronicle of 54's history than that Michael Myers film, but it is essentially a slow-moving story.

That doesn't sound like a four-star review I'd write, so when I see Party has been re-released this year and slightly updated, I figure why not re-familiarize myself with the story and see if my opinion has changed. Journalist Haden-Guest (half-brother of Spinal Tap's Christopher) may be better known in some circles as a frequent guest, and while The Last Party chronicles the "Nightworld" as a whole - its early chapters a brief guide to popular discos of the time - it's clear in the 70s there was only place to party.

Party, though, isn't exclusive to Studio 54. Studio is perhaps the best known of the New York clubs that thrived in the brief disco era, but Haden-Guest touches on a myriad of imitators and (often unsuccessful) competitors. Party reads like a hybrid of micro-history and memoir, as Haden-Guest injects his personal experience in numerous vignettes within the book. It's a muddled story that plows through Studio 54, which enjoyed a life akin to a shooting star - an incredibly bright flame out and gradual fizzle into darkness. As you read a book like this, you might expect gossip to turn your hair white. You get snatches (heh) of it, but overall the book is a roll call of club promoters, developers, and people who are more New York/nightlife famous than world famous. There's a lot to muddle through and if you stick with Party you may ask yourself how a book about a place once considered the most exciting on the planet comes off so dull.

Yes, the slow-moving assessment remains. The book isn't much of a party for me, but you're into peeling back glitter for the seamy underbelly of nightlife you'll get more tales of creative accounting than blind item coke snorting here.

Rating: C-

Kat Lively writes and reads, but doesn't snort.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

You Should Be Dancing: My Life with the Bee Gees by Dennis Bryon

My husband met two or three of the Gibb brothers once at a party. This would have been around the mid to late 1980s - he was a personal trainer with some rather well-off clients, one of whom was the wife of the heir to a specific brand name product. Long story short, her hubby was indisposed and she needed an escort to this party at the Gibbs' Miami home. I have no further details beyond "they seemed like nice guys," so don't ask if people were doing blow on glass-topped coffee tables before Crockett and Tubbs kicked down the front doors.

Anyway, I'd had this one Bee Gees biography on my radar for a while, but after seeing a number of negative reviews, including one detailing a mile-long list of factual errors, I mentally shelved it. Dennis Bryon's You Should Be Dancing: My Life With the Bee Gees (AMZ / BN / KOBO / OMNILIT / ITUNES) came up for review and caught my eye. I hadn't seen the group's 1979 Spirits Having Flown show, but my husband (14 at the time) had, and still points to it as one of the best live shows he's ever seen. Bryon toured as drummer then, and his book provides detailed insider information when the Bee Gees peaked in sales and popularity. When I think of the Bee Gees, I tend to focus on the songwriting and vocal harmonies. A non-musician fan like me might forget that for five years they were supported by a solid band on stage and in the studio, so a book like this helps me appreciate the people who contribute to great music.

Before the Gibbs, Bryon grew up in Wales and dreamed of a life which didn't chain him to work as an electrician. After taking up the drums, he enjoyed success with the Amen Corner, a Wales-based rock/blues group better known in their native country. They rode high for about three years, then poof. Done. Bryon doesn't dwell much on the band's demise, hinting perhaps at a restlessness among some musicians and a desire to try new things. The band's split leaves him scraping for any work in the music industry, and he comes close to taking a tour manager position before a former bandmate steers him toward the Gibbs.

The heart of Dancing, of course, chronicles his tenure in the Bee Gees' band with Alan Kendall and Blue Weaver, arguably at the pinnacle of their career. Bryon's memory appears photographic at some points - there are passages where he describes the layout of a studio right down to the screws in the door hinges. He's kind to all the Gibbs and extended family, assigning personalities we probably would have guessed for each: Barry the devoted family man, Robin the quiet one, Maurice the joker. Every occurrence in this five-year period happens in Bryon's recall as though everybody involved wrote and rewrote music history with the greatest of ease. Of course, it's not entirely untrue given the success of Saturday Night Fever in this time.

Post-Bee Gees anecdotes are equally interesting, particularly his work with the doomed younger brother Andy. The aforementioned Bee Gees biography weathered criticism over a perceived vitriolic portrayal of Andy, but I found Bryon's memory sympathetic without being sugar-coated. Had Andy survived his addictions, who's to say Bryon's drumming career wouldn't have lasted several more years. (If you're tooling around Youtube tonight, Bryon appeared in the Andy Gibb episode of Gimme a Break! There's low-quality video here, he's at 1:02; then again here at 3:26 where he delivers a line.)

Overall, Bryon's narrative throughout Dancing comes off so positive, when you read about his unceremonious firing (via a phone call from a non-Gibb - a rather cowardly act), he doesn't seem angry enough. When you read about a guy going from six-figure advances for an album to zip you'd expect some anger to singe your fingers as you turn pages. You get the impression Bryon, though frank about money and marriage troubles later in life, takes a zen approach to things. He could hug Barry after putting time between the wounds, but while Bryon ends his story touching on the whereabouts of a few close friends there's no mention at all of the deaths of Maurice and Robin.

Another question lingering in the air: does Bryon feel his dismissal from the band affected the Bee Gees' popularity? General opinion points to the demise of disco, dragging the Gibbs into the pit with all the discarded mirrorballs, but it's important to note they continued to write several hit songs in the 80s...for other people. We can also look at numbers. Prior to Bryon joining the band with Alan Kendall, the Bee Gees released 11 eleven albums, only four of which charted in the US Top 20. Their next effort, Mr. Natural, barely cracked the Billboard Top 200, but here's the rundown with the Bryon/Kendall/Weaver combo (stats via Wikipedia):
  • Main Course: Gold (US); Platinum 2x (CAN)
  • Children of the World: Platinum (US & CAN)
  • Here at Last: Bee Gees Live: Gold (US, CAN, UK)
  • Saturday Night Fever: Platinum 15x (US); Diamond (CAN) - Number One in at least 9 countries
  • Spirits Having Flown: Platinum (US & UK); Platinum 4x (CAN) - Number One in at least 7 countries
Aside from the Staying Alive soundtrack and a greatest hits package, the Bee Gees haven't had a Top 10 album in the US since the dismissal of the Bryon/Kendall/Weaver grouping. Maybe changing the band played a role in sales, maybe not. The music made during this five-year span stands up well, and has a great beat.

An ARC was provided by the publisher for review.

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively writes, and reads.