An argument can be made that no genre in the history of popular music has
been more unfairly maligned than disco. In Chicago, it even set off a riot,
during the infamous "Disco Demolition Night" at Comiskey Park in July 1979.
Cultural critics are still debating whether that event was a bonehead
publicity stunt gone wrong or an eruption of homophobia and racism prompted
by a sound that was largely crafted by gay and African-American artists.
It's a question that hasn't escaped singer and songwriter Jake Shears, the
leader of New York's Scissor Sisters.
"Disco means so much more than just music," Shears says. "The word is
kind of equated in Europe with fun and dancing, and all of the night spots
are called discotheques. To me, a discotheque is a place where you can go
and be free to do what you want. But it's really a broad word -- a loaded
word. I think writers use code words, like 'disco' and 'flamboyance,' and
there are a lot of code words that are used instead of 'gay.' I don't want
to say there are labels slapped onto us, but sometimes I think our music can
be dismissed because of all these words."
Shears has a point, and when I mention it's amusing that the Scissor
Sisters are described as "revivalists" or "performance artists" more often
than they're called "musicians," he laughs. "You're right, and talk about
To be sure, the group, which takes its name from a slang phrase for a
lesbian sex act, incorporates elements of burlesque in its theatrical live
shows. But focusing on that at the expense of the music does the band an
Driven by an absurd but undeniable disco version of "Comfortably Numb,"
the group's 2004 debut was the best-selling album in the U.K. that year, and
it won a devoted cult following in the U.S. And Shears says it all happened
"I sing all the time, and I just happened to be singing that Pink Floyd
song one day when we were just learning how to record in
[keyboardist/bassist] Babydaddy's apartment. We didn't even know if we could
write songs at that point, so we were just using this tune as an experiment
to test the equipment -- it was us trying to figure out how to plug a
keyboard in, and I think you can hear that: It's really a horribly produced
Plenty of fans would disagree, but there's no denying the group's second
album, "Ta-Dah," represents a leap forward as a smart, inventive, sly and
very groovy effort that is as likely to evoke the benighted heroes of disco
(Chic, the Bee Gees, ABBA) as a slew of unexpected '70s hitmakers
(Supertramp, Leo Sayer, Paul Williams).
"The goal was that we had to make a great pop album to follow the debut,"
Shears says. "It was as simple as that. It was almost like this record was a
kidney stone or something -- something we had to pass. It was a really
difficult record to make because sometimes, that was not the record we
wanted to make. But we had set this goal of making a great pop record, and
we stuck to it."
What is Shears' definition of a great pop song? "Something that's very
accessible and can appeal to people on multiple levels -- it's broad enough
for anyone to pick up and find something enjoyable in it. That to me is pop
At the same time, the Scissor Sisters aren't averse to having a message:
"I Don't Feel Like Dancin'," Shears' hit collaboration with fan Elton John,
and "Kiss You Off," which features vocals by bandmate Ana Matronic, are both
anthems of self-empowerment with the subtext of seizing the moment and
finding joy in life even when things are difficult -- just like the best
disco songs in the '70s.
"There are always going to be stories in the music, because the songs
have to come from somewhere," Shears says. "That's why it took us a year to
write this album: We were waiting around for songs to happen. They have to
come from the right place, and if they don't come from the right place, it's
probably not a good song.
"We feel like we did what we set out to do with this album, and we
succeeded in most places. You know, people said some of the same things
about David Bowie for years -- that he was a novelty act -- and 30 years
later, we look back and we know better. I don't know if Scissor Sisters will
be around for 30 years -- I'll always being doing something creative, but I
don't want to be 60 and still doing Scissor Sisters! But I do want the group
to have a really strong body of work, and I hope that there are going to be
five, six, seven or eight great Scissor Sisters records."
Reasons for living
Since the advent of YouTube, rare is the day someone doesn't send me a
link to some cool music video: "Hey, have you seen this footage of the
Feelies at C.B.G.B.?" Or, "Dude, check out this clip of John Bonham!" I
generally don't pass them along, but this one is too good to miss.
Created by New Yorkers Bob Castrone and Brian Levin, the Post Show
is an online sketch comedy troupe -- think "Saturday Night Live" without a
budget or TV cameras -- and it's the force behind the short film "No
Direction, Period," an hysterical spoof of Martin Scorsese's overly reverent
2005 documentary, "No Direction Home." The premise: Bob Dylan is such a
genius, he not only created his own incredible catalog, he wrote every song
that's been a hit in the last 40 years.
With Castrone doing an amazing job channeling the legendary musician, and
the team mimicking all those classic Dylan-on-film scenarios, we hear Mr.
Zimmerman croon that he ain't lookin' for no golddigger and that he did it
all for the nookie, as well as explaining the genesis of the Black Eyed
Peas' biggest hit: "A lot of people don't know this, but Joan [Baez] had a
little hump below her shoulders, a little hunchback. She was self-conscious
about it, but I thought it was lovely -- a lovely lady lump."
"No Direction, Period" can be streamed online for free via the comedy Web
SCISSOR SISTERS; SMALL SINS
• 7 tonight
• Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine