In the past three years, while the New York disco scene has become a launching pad for R&B singles, the city's gaydeco boîtes such as Reno Sweeney, the Continental Baths, Trude Heller's, Brothers and Sisters, etc., have spawned such album acts as Bette Midler, Melissa Manchester, Ellen Greene and Manhattan Transfer. Both phenomena are indicative of N.Y.'s melting-pot pop culture in time of depression, a culture that's disintegrated to a point where anything goes, so long as it's new, outrageous and non serious, so long as the beat goes on. But no matter how one views them, the tacky-swank watering holes of "the boîte circuit" at least fill the function of showcasing every breed of nonrock performer and serve as training grounds for cult figures to test ideas and gain audience experience.
Until recently, the only performers from the boîte circuit to launch successful recording careers have been women, with Midler the prime, legendary example. Now Peter Allen, whose jumping-off place was Reno Sweeney, the crown jewel of the boîte circuit, and Barry Manilow, who began as Midler's accompanist at the Continental Baths and became her producer, are out to prove that men can do it too. If they make it big, there should be a deluge of successors and pretenders. Waiting in the wings are such acts as Gotham (a choreographed three-man Andrews Sisters who sing old Martha & the Vandellas) and John C. Attle (who does vintage Neil Sedaka).
A native Australian who was once married to Liza Minnelli, Peter Allen already has to his credit two interesting, obscure records on Metromedia. Manilow debuted last year on Bell with an album whose promise was outweighed by its pretentiousness, the nadir being a transcription from Chopin called "Could It Be Magic." Though both artists accompany themselves on piano and both employ the materials of camp culture in performance, they use them in ways that are vastly different and for different ends. Onstage, Allen acts the role of ravaged satyr. Looking like Timothy Leary playing Joel Grey in Cabaret, Allen delivers a polished if sinister show, whose air of jaded licentiousness fascinates as it menaces. Such an aura can scarcely be captured on a record, though producer Joel Dorn has done his damndest, interjecting bizarre instrumentation and subtle sound effects. Manilow, on the other hand, attempts to transcend cultism and succeeds to the degree that he can elicit bravos for energetically delivered schlock. There's no denying that Barry Manilow II, which he coproduced with Ron Dante, is a slick commercial album. A light crooner in the style of Jack Jones, John Davidson and a host of others, Manilow's most effective vocal ploy is a crack in the voice at moments of dramatic climax. It works best in two big ballads, "Early Morning Strangers" (coauthored with Hal David) and the hit single "Mandy" (written by Scott English and Richard Kerr). Both are enjoyable once one accepts their stagey self-pity. Manilow defers to camp only in his version of "Avenue C," an old Count Basie instrumental written by trumpeter Buck Clayton and set to lyrics by Jon Hendricks. While the track, which contains no fewer than 32 vocal overdubs, is a tour-de-force of production, I find its nostalgia so contrived as to be utterly devoid of joy and spontaneity. Manilow's more ambitious songwriting efforts (e.g., "The Two of Us" and "Sandra," which portray martial boredom in cliched terms) sound insincere, both in their lyrics and their insipid interpretations.
Peter Allen, though a much less technically accomplished singer, affects a wry style, whose insinuatingly curt phrasing matches his autobiographical material. Even songs he hasn't had a part in writing he makes his own. Foremost among these is the old nightclub chestnut, "Just a Gigolo," which Allen adopts as a theme, twisting a potential tearjerker into a blase assertion of nihilism. Allen and Jeff Barry's "I Honestly Love You," which Olivia Newton-John turned into number-one creamed corn, he redeems through understatement. In "Just Ask Me I've Been There," reprised from an earlier album, Allen plays his favorite role, that of worldly sage: "There's a lot of fun in reaping all the seeds you sow/Just ask me I've been there/I've been through it all."* The title song, coauthored with Allen's sometime collaborator, Carole Bayer Sager, rejoices in having spent more than a decade in full-scale dissipation, describing the experience as a dance called "The Continental American." The album's nastiest, most brilliant song, "Pretty Pretty" limns the fate of a narcissistic ribbon clerk who lives only for weekend sex and has a suicidal streak. It's written in such a manner as to suggest that the "girl" of the lyric is really a man.
*© 1974, Music of the Times Publishing Corp. (Valando Music Division).
By continuously jabbing his audience with sexual ambiguity and leering disguise, Allen evokes the chilling nonchalance that has indeed come to characterize the sexual lifestyle of many young, "hip" New Yorkers. If he wished, Peter Allen could probably become the Randy Newman of decadence, though most likely he wouldn't care for the role, since it would be too "serious." Paradoxically, it is just this lack of seriousness that I find most disturbing in Allen's work, which accurately reflects the pathological desiccation of spirit that passes for "chic" in New York. (RS 178)
(Posted: Jan 16, 1975)
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