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Snapsongs: “Manhattan Skyline” by David Shire

Thursday 22 August 2013 - Filed under Snapsongs

I was most definitely too young to embrace disco in the way it was intended. Although I did wear polyester at times, it was more often in the form of blue-and-red striped ZOOM shirts than pleated flares, and my mother didn’t let any soft drinks in the house, so I rarely got any Coke. But there was no way to be completely oblivious to the phenomenon if you were alive and conscious in the late 70s. When “Saturday Night Fever” blew up in 1977, it took everything with it. I remember having debates in third grade over whether disco sucked or not, even though none of us was entirely certain what disco was, except John Travolta and the Bee Gees were involved. When my Dad took me to see “Star Wars”, a seminal moment in every young man’s life, the things I remember from the movie theatre lobby were the glossy brown tiles on the walls, the blinking clear glass bulbs on the marquee behind the ticket counter, the smell of popcorn in the air-conditioned air, and the sound of “Stayin’ Alive” on the PA system. I was even given a copy of “Sesame Street Fever” for Christmas, for Chrissake. Disco was everywhere.

My folks owned a copy of the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack, which meant that I did, too. The rough mono needle on my Fisher-Price record player ruined the grooves of more classic vinyl than one would care to believe, and that album was no exception. Of course, some people might say that perhaps nothing of value was lost. To be sure, it wasn’t a seminal, important artistic work of its time, but it had its moments. Yvonne Elliman’s version of “If I Can’t Have You” is pretty much a classic. And where else are you going to get tracks like “A Fifth of Beethoven”, “Calypso Breakdown” and “Night on Disco Mountain”? Nowhere else, that’s where.

But the track I wore to transparency was the instrumental “Manhattan Skyline” by David Shire. I suppose Mr. Shire went on to some sort of musical career, but I don’t think he ever again impinged on my consciousness in any way. But what a way he did! It was dynamite for my young brain. Listening to it now, I’m not sure exactly what the intent was, but it definitely is interesting. It’s like a bunch of disco dudes put acid in the cans of Miller High Life served to the Lawrence Welk Big Band Orchestra one night and everyone started jamming. The Vegas-worthy opening bars gets you moving! You’ve got bouncing, bubbling brass and suspiciously sighing strings behind a jazzy guitar melody and upfront four-on-the-floor disco beat. There’s a slow buildup in the volume and sound, some bass and funky guitar starts popping up in the background, everyone gets more excited, an analog synth takes over the melody, the brass gets more encompassing, and then BAM — three step musical takedown, repeated at half-time for good measure, resolving all the harmonic tension of before with the catharsis of ginormous string power chords. It’s not terribly innovative or even difficult to compose, but it’s like sonic macaroni and cheese — warm, gooey, simple, satisfying. And then you have French horns repeating the former jazzy guitar! More synths! More horns! Organ! Main theme resolution again! And again! And again to fadeout! Oh my God I feel like I’ve flown over Manhattan in a Pan Am 747 on New Year’s Eve!

I loved the song to death. I hope my parents did, too, because at that point in my life my ears were usually blocked with fluid buildup (I had to have tubes inserted five times). I remember sitting rapt in my room, window open to a lovely spring day, the volume knob on my record player cranked to eleven. It didn’t help that one of the TV channels in Toledo had a Sunday Afternoon Movie programming block that used this song as its intro music bed, coupled with a perspective title crawl that had more than a vague resemblance to the prologue of “Star Wars”. Sometimes I watched the movies (I remember “Geronimo” being quite excellent) but I always watched the intro. It. Was. My Favorite. Song.

Perhaps it’s bombastic, overblown, melodramatic and even somewhat silly today, but there were lessons to be learned there, and I can’t fault the song or the composer for bringing such joy into my young life. It was impeccably scored, the repetition and resolution of the themes were competently done, and, most importantly, I learned what you can do with a stable of sounds at your disposal. Why repeat the melody in guitar, synth and French horns in succession? Why not? If you’ve got the ability, use all textures and colors in your canvas to create something interesting. And small pieces, bits of sonic gingerbread, can reward the attentive listener. One of the reasons I had to crank the volume is so I could catch every little nuance, deaf as I was. There were all sorts of little things going on in the corners. It made me look for those nuances in other songs, and appreciate the thought processes that went behind including them.

So, here’s to you, David Shire. It might have been a tossed-off work for hire, it might have been your Magnum Opus, it might have been just another paycheck. Whatever the case, it worked for the seminal disco movie of the ages, and it worked for my seven-year-old self. And for that, it’s awesome.

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2013-08-22  »  Edward Semblance