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Celebrating Shannon’s Let The Music Play

In the liner notes to Madonna’s inaugural hits comp The Immaculate Collection released November 1990, writer Gene Sculatti singles out two tracks as the foundations of dance-pop, both of them released in 1983 but peaking in 1984: Holiday (quelle surprise, given the source) and Let The Music Play. We could quibble about the omission of I Feel Love or Rapture but foundational the Shannon single certainly was; an enduring hit which more or less invented the Latin-derived, still-venue-packing freestyle scene, and a record that‘s not only celebrating 40 years of being a thing, but one considered a landmark in the development of both dance pop and the more specific sub-genre, that thing they called Hi-NRG. Let The Music Play? Not ‘arf.

It almost didn‘t happen. After the thinly veiled racism and homophobia of the Disco Sucks explosion, much of dance music was driven underground. And if they’d had their way it would be unceremoniously buried never to return. 

Alas, with its bubbling, ingenious rhythm track and groundbreaking technical achievement, the debut single from Shannon Greene, was a surprising but hugely deserved massive crossover hit as 1983 turned into 1984, which would usher in a new golden age for dance-pop and club music, before disco’s revenge came roaring back as House later in the decade.

Much writing about freestyle makes a lot of the fact that the vocalists tended to be ordinary, often untrained women—perhaps college students and ultimately cast them as ciphers. But this Washington DC-born lady happened to be an opera-trained vocalist who‘d fronted a jazz combo in the seventies, and thus, carries the emotional core of the record pretty effortlessly. Over a melody that winds its way down into mental anguish (much like, in a nice coincidence, Bananarama’s Cruel Summer, which peaked around the same time), Shannon plays the everywoman caught in one of the condensed romances that play out on the dance floor, the sort someone like Lady Gaga would inhabit today. 

Together with co-producer Mark Liggett, the song’s co-writer Chris Barbosa, a key figure in the development of freestyle dance music, is given primary credit for the track’s unique state-of-the-art grooves, which hangs off rim-shot percussion and propulsive kick-drum/snare-drum interaction via Roland’s TR-808 drum machine and the TB-303 bass synthesizer (minus the “acid” filtering). New York producer legend Arthur Baker was listening intently:

“They used gated reverb on the kick and the snare throughout the record. Of course, when I heard Let The Music Play, I went ‘God, I want drums like that!,’ when they had, basically, taken the idea from one of my records (Africa Bambaataa’s Looking For The Perfect Beat). We were all listening to each other.”

Critic and journalist Peter Shapiro memorably described the song as a “cross between Gary Numan and Tito Puente.” Indeed, producer DJ Armand van Helden cited Let The Music Play as “a very powerful record. The first strong vocals over electro music. The first big hit that I can remember that struck me and paved the way for freestyle. Back then it was hip hop but not considered rap.”

It worked a treat, and what became tagged as “The Shannon Sound” returned dance music to the pop mainstream, hitting No. 8 on the American Billboard Hot 100 on 25 February 1984, its sixteenth week on chart, and becoming the first of four chart-topping dance hits by the singer.

In an almost identical chart trajectory, it went to No. 14 in the UK the same week (unlucky for some, Madonna’s Holiday was at 13), where a newly emerging pop duo calling themselves Pet Shop Boys were enraptured by the song’s Italo-disco groove. In 1992, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe would produce a cover version of Let The Music Play for the soundtrack of the Brit movie The Crying Game, with vocals deftly supplied by lovers rock Floy Joy, Carroll Thompson.

By then disco was most certainly no longer a dirty word.

Allons-y!

Steve Pafford

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