Pop: God is in the Details

The Independent's guide to pop's fiddly bits
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The Independent Culture

Native New Yorker (1977)

FOREVER DOOMED to be filed away as music for dancing rather than listening, while continuing to resurface each year on yet another dodgy disco compilation, this hardy perennial from the Seventies sounds rather too familiar every time you hear it on the radio. But if you can stop your feet tapping in time to the beat long enough to let the actual song and its grandiose production commune with the brain as well as the body, it soon becomes apparent that "Native New Yorker' is a masterpiece of its kind: a piece of pop candy or flyaway disco fluff that somehow rises above its humble station to reach out for greatness. Shamelessly plundering a whole ragbag of musical styles, it may even be disco's first brush with post-modernism.

Following the overweening style of Phil Spector, the song crams far more musical material than is strictly necessary into its 3mins and 29secs. The structure is ridiculously complicated, with more hooks than a fishing- tackle shop, and the orchestration so over-manned that if disco ever had a kitchen sink, you can rest assured that "Native New Yorker" employs it somewhere. Most strikingly, it's a supremely crafted record, the texture buffed to a high sheen through layer upon layer of detail until the surface fairly shimmers with highlights.

Although released by the vocal group , who had a few other hits such as "Going Back To My Roots" and "Use It Up, Wear It Out", one feels that the real credit must go to the producers, Sandy Linzer and Charlie Calello, and the songwriters, Linzer and Randell.

Opening with a six-second saxophone intro that sounds like a schmaltzy parody of some hackneyed Broadway melody (an intra-textual clue waiting to be unpicked by the song's lyrics), there then follows a trick orchestral effect of circling synths and quivering strings that itself parodies the soundtrack-cue for a dissolve in a Hollywood movie. Daringly withheld until now (and 12 seconds is a long time to kick your heels on a dance floor), the song proper begins, with a reassuringly generic disco-shuffle beat (derived from Van McCoy's "The Hustle") ushering in the lead female vocal. The propulsion of the wonderfully fat and funky bass-guitar line gives the tune the legs it needs to function as a dance track, and lest we're distracted by the unusually thoughtful lyrics and rococo orchestral textures, a thick rhythm-guitar figure (the Average White Band out of James Brown), beefs up the start of the second verse, together with a Stevie Wonder-style clavinet keyboard.

The lyrics of the song are witty enough to do justice to the context of the Broadway tunes they slyly refer to. Rare for dance music, they even bear quoting: "And love, love is just a passing word/it's the thought you had in a taxi cab/That got left on the kerb/When he dropped you off at East 83rd." It's not a million miles away from the world of John Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer (a novel before it became a vocal group), and although it's really a melancholy tale of an ingenue's growing disenchantment with the city, the listener somehow conspires not to hear the irony. Like every other song with New York in its title, "Native New Yorker" has come to be regarded as an uncritical tribute to the pleasures of the Big Apple.

Although nothing in "Native New Yorker" is greater than the sum of its parts, the instrumental bridge deserves special praise. It's a complex, double-tier, construction with a high-octane alto-sax solo that extends very daringly into a salsa-style multiple horn stab, complete with rippling Latin piano. After that, the producers don't even bother with a proper ending - the song just fades to black.

Despite doubts over what 's precise input to their greatest moment actually was, the group are still with us. You can find out what relationship they bear to the originals, and how they handle that tricky bridge, in a "Seventies Party Night" at the Ross-on-Wye Festival next Wednesday.

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