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Diana Ross – No One Gets the Prize

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Disco. Completely amazing, obviously, and in the mid to late 70s it took over the planet, emerging from its roots in black, gay and latino culture to become arguably the most influential musical movement ever. Its story is far too long to tell here, but I tend to think of disco as a big old Black Hole, sucking in anyone who had an eye on chart success with its powerful gravitational pull until it eventually, inevitably, collapsed in on itself. Many people who should have known better  – the Rolling Stones, Kiss, the Beach Boys, even dear old Ethel Merman – hurled themselves into the darkness on the assumption that they’d rocket their way to renewed relevance on the back of a four-on-the-floor beat.

Of course it didn’t quite work out like that for the bandwagoneers, because with disco you really had to know what you were doing, and those that did were able to incorporate it into their own particular sound – notably Abba on Voulez-Vous and the Bee Gees, circa Saturday Night Fever – without losing their identity completely. They, along with disco’s undisputed queen, Donna Summer, were able to survive the cataclysm that kicked off with a few bad-tempered rock DJs and ended with Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in Chicago – although for the brothers Gibb it was a close run thing. Others – Chic in particular – weren’t so fortunate, and chart careers were ended almost overnight. Some (Nile Rodgers in particular) realised the jig was up and moved into production for others, repurposing elements of disco as dance music.

Someone else who emerged from the other side of this Black Hole was Diana Ross, who in May of 1979 – right at the tail end of the era – released The Boss, a more or less full-on disco assault perhaps intended to dislodge Donna Summer from her throne. It’s a little surprising that it took her this long, as she’d already made the perfect disco record in 1976 in the form of Love Hangover. Maybe, having already weathered quite a few career storms, she was wise enough to foresee the future – but given that she hadn’t graced the Billboard top 20 since then, the decision to embrace the predominant musical genre of the day was a bit of a no-brainer.

The Boss turned out to be a masterpiece – written and produced by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, these two Motown legends had a perfect understanding of what disco needed to be – danceable, yes, but also emotional, aspirational, beautiful and above all sincere. All the album’s leading lady had to do was sell it, and she really, really did. With a lot of Diana Ross records I get the impression of a woman kind of floating above proceedings without really getting involved, sort of like Maggie Smith in Clash of the Titans. But here she was very much in the thick of things, sweating along with the rest of us – and it is a joyous thing to behold.

The album’s title track was the obvious first single, and it returned Diana to Billboard‘s top twenty, and sneaked to no.40 in the UK – had it been released even a year earlier I suspect it would have gone a lot higher. But by the time No One Gets the Prize was released as the follow-up, disco was entering its death-throes and it failed to chart on the Hot 100. Britain, a little bit behind in the disco backlash, sent it to no.59. If you ask me, this is one of the greatest chart injustices of all time.

I was first introduced to No One Gets the Prize in a dodgy Glasgow bedsit on January 1st 1994 and it somehow transformed a dank, airless room littered with piles of discarded clothes and overflowing ashtrays into the best place in the world. The ultimate “the boy is mine” record (sorry Brandy and Monica), literally every ingredient is perfect: from the Love Hangover-y, almost unbearably tense build-up (composed of rippling strings and a Greek chorus vocal chant of the song’s title) that leads in to the main event – a glorious melee of horns, percussion, more exquisite strings, slippy guitar bits and occasional plucks of a harp, all topped by a vocally unleashed Diana, grandstanding brilliantly like she’s in the fight of her life. By the time the breakdown arrives with Diana growling “back off”, it’s tempting to run for it – girl means business.

I may well be wrong, but I have a sneaking suspicion that The Boss was ready for quite a while before it was released – stylistically I find it just a little out of place, a tad too plush for its actual place in disco’s timeline. And indeed by the time it was in the shops Diana was back in the studio, this time with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic. The resulting album, Diana, emerged in May of 1980 in a post-disco landscape and demonstrates just how savvy Miss Ross was – without her producers knowing, she and engineer Russ Terrana set to remixing and even re-recording elements of the whole project to remove the perceived taint of disco. Astonishingly, it worked – and while Rodgers and Edwards objected loudly, it became her biggest hit in years and her second masterpiece in a row.

She isn’t called The Boss for nothing.

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Entered chart: 06/10/1979

Chart peak: 59

Weeks on chart: 3

Who could sing this today and have a hit?  Based entirely on her performance on Rumour Has It, I’m plumping for Adele.

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