Disco On the Death Star: The Eclectic Galaxy Of Vintage Star Wars Records

1977 was a landmark year in our world’s history, and to just give you a Whitman’s Sampler of our planetary events: Jimmy Carter was sworn in as President. Apple Computer was incorporated. EMI dropped the Sex Pistols, yet months later, they released their classic “Never Mind the Bollocks…”LP. In Los Angeles, future yacht rock stalwarts Toto formed. Fleetwood Mac released its Grammy conquering album “Rumours”. The Toronto Blue Jays and the Seattle Mariners played for the first time since their inception. The Clash’s debut was released in the UK. The Son Of Sam was captured. The cultural tidal wave of “Saturday Night Fever” was unleashed. Burt Reynolds made CB radios and Trans Ams stud symbols thanks to “Smokey and the Bandit”. Led Zeppelin played their final concert, while Elvis Presley, Marc Bolan, and Bing Crosby all took the Stairway To Heaven.  The Voyager 1 was launched. The Food Stamp Program was enacted. Lynyrd Skynyrd had their tragic plane crash. Atari released its VCS home system. And in the midst of it all, a film that was predicted to fail called “Star Wars” opened in theaters on May 25. To say that it was a pop culture juggernaut is just simple phrasing, and unless you’ve spent the last 40 plus years in a cryogenic freeze, you’re well aware of the marketing tsunami that followed. There were the toys, the housewares, the fast food tie-ins, the clothing, and most notably, there was the music.

The Ground Zero of Star Wars music.

The original soundtrack was a most impressive release in its own right. With its sweeping, memorable score and character themes composed and conducted by John Williams, the double album not only made classical music hip, it also put this genre on the Top 40 radio charts. (We would see this repeated years later with bluegrass, due to the box office success of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) Throughout 1977-1978, the “Star Wars” film music netted an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Original Score, a BAFTA Award for Best Film Music, and Grammy Awards for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media, Best Instrumental Composition, and Best Pop Instrumental Performance. It was rivaled only by “Close Encounters Of the Third Kind” when both films were tied for the Saturn Award for Best Music in 1977. By this time, however, record producers were already in their studios, salivating over the prospects of putting out Star Wars-themed and/or inspired records, hoping to reap Death Star-sized profits from a rabid fan base. Many were forgotten, yet others were hits, and some were woefully obscure…

“Star Wars” and disco was a marriage made in Heaven (or Hell, depending on your taste)

Meco Monardo was one of the record producers that was already engaging in said salivating. But unlike some that would come after him bucking the Star Wars cash cow, Meco had a genuine affection for the film and its score. Having already made a name for himself in the disco market with such hit singles as Gloria Gaynor’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” and Carl Douglas’ “Doctor’s Orders”, Meco had the clout to get a Star Wars-themed disco project in motion fairly easy, once the film proved to have staying power at the box office. Contacting Neil Bogart of Casablanca Records, a deal was struck, and the album was released on the fittingly titled Millennium Records, which was a subsidiary of Casablanca. With an album cover featuring retro-futurist artwork by illustrator Robert Rodriguez (who completed it in three days), the single “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” was released, and quickly it landed at the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in October 1977. The album “Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk” which featured a nearly 15-minute version of the single, stalled at No. 13 on the pop album charts, but fared better in the R & B market. Overall, Meco had great success and recognition with this project, and the music was even nominated for a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance in 1978 (in which he lost to John Williams, who won for his original score). Mr. Monardo would plunder the Star Wars phenomenon several more times in his career.

 

The Rebel Force Band could give Air Supply a run for their money.

With the proven popularity of Star Wars-themed pop music evident on the charts, it was inevitable that a gimmick group would put out a record with original songs about the characters and situations of the blockbuster space opera. The Rebel Force Band was such a musical collective (if that’s what you want to call it), and their album “Living In These Star Warz” is a cheesy slice of ’70s soft rock Hell (or Heaven, if you’re an aural masochist). Released on Bonwhit Records, this selection of songs sound like they were performed by the same studio session singers that churned out the bubblegum pop records of the Archies, the Sugar Bears, the Banana Splits, and others. Looking at the cover, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that you were going to hear some honest-to-goodness rock ‘n’ roll, complete with shredding guitar solos. Instead, you’re going to hear such “gems” as “Chewie the Rookie Wookie”, “Leia” (a power ballad!), “Don’t Fall In Love With An Android”, and others sung by a Bay City Rollers-style act (although “A Respirator For Darth Vader” is a funk highlight). Not much, or rather, nothing is known about this band(?), and needless to say, this slab of Velveeta-coated wax was the swan song of this phantom group.

 

So how many music lovers got the EMO mixed up with ELO?

Another curioso that appeared in record stores in 1977 was the simply titled “Music From Star Wars” album released by the Electric Moog Orchestra. On the Musicor label, it included the main title, “Princess Leia’s Theme”, “Imperial Attack”, “Ben’s Death and TIE Fighter Attack”, “Cantina Band”, and “The Throne Room and End Titles”. Also a mystery group, the EMO were basically a cover band that reinterpreted existing sci-fi themed classical music with Moog synthesizers. They would eventually release themed records based off “Close Encounters Of the Third Kind” and “Battlestar Galactica”.

 

“Dueling Pianos” would never have worked in “Deliverance”

Arthur Ferrante and Louis Teicher, better known as Ferrante & Teicher, were reputable pianists that were world famous in the easy listening scene. Musical prodigies, they had met while attending the Juilliard School of Music in 1930. In 1947, they launched a full-time concert career, and by 1952, they began their run of voluminous output, starting with “Mississippi Boogie/African Echoes” on Joe Davis Records. They achieved their greatest success with the singles “Theme From the Apartment”, “Theme From Exodus”, “Tonight”, and “Midnight Cowboy”. Oddly enough, their “star” themed album “Star Wars” wasn’t a hit, even with the inclusion of the “Main Title From Star Wars” and the “Theme From Star Trek”. This remains as simply a record for both Star Wars music collectors and Ferrante & Teicher completists.

 

If you find a used copy of this LP, chances are there’s still cocaine residue inside the cover.

You would be forgiven if you admitted that you had never heard of the Galactic Force Band. Possibly another faceless musical exercise, their hello/goodbye to the space disco genre was this rarity on Springboard Records titled “Spaced Out Disco” (gee, I wonder why?). Instead of the album being solely based on “Star Wars”, it tipped the scales by recording discofied versions of themes from “Star Trek” and “Close Encounters Of the Third Kind”. The wacky synths reminds me of the creepy music from “In Search Of…” and the music in general sounds like the score to a failed pilot of a ’70s TV show where all the money was blown on hair styling and cocaine.

 

While Grace Slick was in rehab battling alcoholism, her cohorts in Jefferson Starship were battling to stay relevant.

In 1978, George Lucas made the unprecedented move of handing over his Star Wars sandbox to a TV producer/director named Steve Binder, who had convinced Lucas that a holiday-themed special for television would be a hit. Since the sequel was well over a year and a half away, it made perfect sense to put new product out to tie the fans over. The ending result had the look and feel of a Sid & Marty Krofft series tied in with the Carol Burnett Show that has been discussion fodder for fanboys who probably celebrate the fictional “Life Day” at their local comic book shop. One (or the only, depending on your stance on the subject) highlight was the Ralph Bakshi-styled animation sequence that introduced the cult character Boba Fett (Lucas would later use the animators Nelvana Ltd. to produce his “Ewoks” and “Droids” Saturday morning TV series).

 


“Believe what you read. This really happened, Grace.”

This much maligned program also included several musical numbers including one with Bea “Maude” Arthur closing down her creature-filled bar with the “last call for alcohol” dirge “Goodnight, But Not Goodbye”; Diahann Caroll performed “This Minute Now” in a borderline soft core virtual reality segment for Chewbacca’s Dad, Itchy (or should we call him Icky?); and Carrie Fisher sang the ode to Wookies, “Happy Life Day”, which basically was the “Main Title of Star Wars Theme” with lyrics. But none of these compared to the Quaalude-soaked rock of “Light the Sky On Fire” by the Jefferson Starship. Decked out in pre-Tron stage regalia, Marty Balin belted out a tale about a mysterious space traveler that, according to the “pyramids and the legends” will return. Melding Erich Von Daniken’s “Chariots Of the Gods?” thought-provoking paperback with the Holy Bible, the prog-flirting tune throws in Egyptology and the Rapture in what was surely a composition that went way over the heads of younger (and probably older) viewers. Pre-dating the “Ancient Aliens” documentary series by a good 32 years, this single merely crawled to the No. 66 position on the Billboard Singles charts in 1978.

 

Kept on repeat at jazzercise classes all over the US.

With the box office success of the highly-anticipated “Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back”, it was a no-brainer that Meco would produce his own version of the classical score. Having already amassed a discography of albums based on “The Wizard Of Oz”, “Close Encounters Of the Third Kind”, and “Superman: The Movie”, as well as a non-film related release titled “Moondancer”, Meco was primed to repeat the success he gained from his “Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk” record. With disco dying out (mainly due to the oversaturation of product as well as its “Waterloo/Altamont” when Chicago rock ‘n’ roll DJ Steve Dahl held his “Disco Demolition Night” in Comiskey Park in 1979), it was decided that “Meco Plays Music From the Empire Strikes Back” would have more of a rock feel, but still be danceable. And in an odd circumstance, it was released as a 10″, which wasn’t very common in the world of 12″ extended versions. With Meco’s previous singles historically becoming lesser chart-bothering affairs, “The Empire Strikes Back (Medley)” only made it to No. 18 on the Billboard Hot 100.

 

Disco Muzak, anyone? Hello?

Stepping off the sidelines, Russian born composer, orchestrator, producer, engineer, multi-instrumentalist, sound designer, and all-around over achiever Boris Midney, obviously inspired by Meco Monardo, decided to take his prodigy-level talents into the Star Wars galaxy. With a jazz-heavy career beginning in the 1960s, Midney began making the American show biz circles when he began playing East Coast clubs, then eventually arranging big band scores for Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin. With the Force-pull of disco unavoidable, he began arranging and producing records, branding him a pioneer of the Euro-Disco scene. With the popular heights of “The Empire Strikes Back” in theaters (and Meco’s “Star Wars” chart-buster), Midney made his move and decided to take his version in a slightly different direction, delving into the sub-genre of “disco Muzak” that horribly lasted longer than it should have. The final product “Music From the Empire Strikes Back” was considered a full-length album, yet it only had four selections on its two sides: “Yoda’s Theme”, “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme)”, “Han Solo and the Princess (Love Theme)”, and “Star Wars (Main Theme)”. With lots of laser sound effects, and a smoother feel, this was, sadly, destined for the cut-out bins.

 

An underappreciated and overlooked masterpiece in the Ron Carter discography.

With all of this disco peskiness swirling around, no one had thought about creating a full-fledged Star Wars jazz album (that I’m aware of). Well, that was rectified when the immensely talented ex-Miles Davis Quintet member Ron Carter wanted to show how he rolled. The double/electric bassist, who had affiliations with Herbie Hancock, Chuck “Feels So Good” Mangione, and the Star Wars Disco Godfather himself, Meco Monardo, took it upon himself to create a serious record with respectable renditions of the more memorable thematic compositions of “The Empire Strikes Back”. “Empire Jazz”, released on the money-gobbling RSO label (home of the trendy soundtracks “Saturday Night Fever”, “Grease”, “Fame”,and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, as well as “The Empire Strikes Back”), remains a hot collectible with its gorgeous album cover artwork and its sublime musical arrangements.

 

Finally, a holiday record that could quickly run your freeloading houseguests out the door.

If there ever was a holiday that the Star Wars film franchise would benefit from (with the exception of Halloween) it would have to be Christmas. How many of us would sit for hours in a hypnotic stupor with a JCPenny or Sears Wishbook planted on our laps, while we daydreamed of playing with the new Star Wars toys we didn’t have yet? And what better to have playing on our Zenith turntables in the background? Why, “Christmas In the Stars”, of course, of course! Meco’s “third time’s (not) a charm” Star Wars-themed release was a rapid departure from his previous output. Instead of something to do “The Bump” to, this was a by gosh, by golly, true Christmas album with original songs that centered around a droid factory in the North Pole. George Lucas allowed the record to be produced as long as Meco kept his word that it wouldn’t be something that could end up on the turntables at Studio 54. Notable for Anthony Daniels reprising his role as C-3PO (relaying the meaning of Christmas to the listeners), the authentic beeps of R2-D2 and the “dialogue” of Chewbacca, this one was definitely for the kids. One of the cuts on the album, “What Can You Get A Wookie For Christmas (When He Already Owns A Comb)?”, was released as a single, and it reached the No. 69 position on the Billboard Hot 100. Its flip side is one of interesting (or not) trivia: “R2-D2, We Wish You A Merry Christmas” had the distinction of being the first ever recording of Jon Bon Jovi (who went by his birth name John Bongiovi at that time), who sang on lead vocals. Let that sink in a little (or on second thought, don’t). Jon’s cousin, Tony Bongiovi, was the co-producer of the album, and also ran the recording studio where the sessions took place (and Jon was the janitor). With the distinct cover artwork by famed Star Wars illustrator Ralph McQuarrie, this record, wonderfully cheesy as it is, was a highly sought-after collector’s item that eventually received a CD release in 1996.

 

A few short years later, Depeche Mode would release their parody “Black Celebration”.

Without having anything Star Wars-related in film or television to inspire him, Meco kept busy churning out instrumental pop versions of other movies, evident in the albums “Music From Star Trek and Music From the Black Hole”, “Impressions Of An American Werewolf In London”, and “Pop Goes the Movies”. He even dabbled, or rather, immersed himself in that awful early ’80s “Hooked On Classics” frenzy that K-Tel reaped millions from with his contribution, “Swingtime’s Greatest Hits”, in 1982. Surely, he breathed a sigh of relief when “Return Of the Jedi” was finally released, for this could be his ticket to regaining his salad days of before. But instead of concentrating all of his efforts on a completely Star Wars-centric recording, he decided to only put together three selections based off this film: “Ewok Celebration” with its infectious percussion, perfect for any breakdancing duel; “Lapti Nek”, a dance pop number that sounds like the Pointer Sisters singing in Jabbaspeak (aka “Huttese”); and “Themes From ‘Star Wars’” (self-explanatory). The rest of the track listing for “Ewok Celebration” includes “Nights Are Forever” (from “Twilight Zone: The Movie”), the theme from the “Simon & Simon” TV series, the “Love Theme” from “Superman III”, “Themes From ‘Wargames’”, and his version of “Maniac” from “Flashdance” which features a young Kenny G on sax. Interestingly enough (or not), Meco had produced the G-Man’s debut solo album the year before.

 

Although it wasn’t strictly a Star Wars-themed record, there’s no denying that “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Dare To Be Stupid” LP from 1985 is a must-have, if even just for “Yoda”, his parody/re-lyricized version of “Lola” (yes, the Kinks classic, if you didn’t know).

 

There have been countless scores of Star Wars-related and/or inspired recordings released the world over, and to try and list them all in one post would be a fool’s errand. One could even argue that a blog that was devoted to this subject matter would be needed (if such a need existed). From classical music to generic disco slop to jazz, Star Wars music continues to be released, rehashed, regurgitated, and repackaged. When the prequels were released, naturally more soundtracks were released with all new music, with “Weird Al” and even Meco contributing something relevant for the contemporary times. And with Disney releasing and planning more films set “a long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far away”, there will be even more original music for collectors to listen to while they’re reading the latest spin-off novel. Perhaps we’ll even see the Rebel Force Band come out of retirement…

Recommended reading:

“And Party Every Day: The Inside Story Of Casablanca Records” by Larry Harris with Curt Gooch and Jeff Suhs (Backbeat Books)

“A Brief Guide To Star Wars: The Unauthorized Inside Story” by Brian J. Robb (Running Press)

“Bubblegum Music Is the Naked Truth: The Dark History Of Prepubescent Pop, from the Banana Splits to Britney Spears” edited by Kim Cooper and David Smay (Feral House)

Recommended listening:

John Williams & the London Symphony Orchestra-“The Star Wars Trilogy: Original Soundtrack Anthology” (Arista Records)

“The Casablanca Records Story” (Mercury/Polygram Records)

“The Best Of Meco” (Polygram Records)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Joey Camp

Joey Camp is a former podcaster that’s worked with the GaragePunk Hideout and Real Punk Radio. He currently resides in Roanoke, VA, and you can follow him on Twitter @Joey Camp.

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