In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Sometime in 1974, Harry Wayne Casey and Richard Finch had a crazy idea. They’d noticed that songs were suddenly blowing up in clubs. In discos, DJs were discovering joyous, fast-paced, semi-obscure R&B jams, and they were playing those songs often enough that the songs crossed over and became real hits. But what would happen if someone made a song for the clubs? Casey and Finch lived outside Miami, and they regularly snuck into local clubs, taking note of the sounds that packed floors there. And then they made those sounds themselves.
Casey and Finch packed a bunch of those sounds into “Rock Your Baby,” a song that they wrote and produced for George McCrae. “Rock Your Baby” was a huge hit and a sign of the times. It probably wasn’t the first disco #1; I’d argue that the distinction goes to Eddie Kendricks “Keep On Truckin’.” But “Rock Your Baby” probably was the first intentional disco #1 — the first huge crossover hit made with dance clubs specifically in mind.
By the time they wrote “Rock Your Baby,” Casey and Finch, who were working as studio musicians and warehouse employees at Florida’s TK Records, had already formed the local institution KC & The Sunshine Band, and they’d released a few singles. (Casey was KC.) “Rock Your Baby” would’ve probably been a KC & The Sunshine Band song, but Casey couldn’t hit the high notes, so they gave it to McCrae instead. (McCrae was literally the first person who walked into the studio who could hit those notes.) It wouldn’t be too long before Casey and Finch hit #1 on their own.
A year after “Rock Your Baby,” their Sunshine Band scored the first in a truly impressive string of #1 singles. They spent the second half of the ’70s as the only consistent hitmakers who could really compete with fellow Miami-based disco monsters the Bee Gees. And with “Get Down Tonight,” their first big hit, they let the world know exactly what their formula would be.
In a lot of ways, “Get Down Tonight” is a brutally simple song. The ecstatic chorus — “Do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight” — is also the song’s entire message. Casey is talking to a girl at a club inviting her to “do all the things that we like to do.” But there aren’t that many things that he likes to do. He wants to dance. He wants to fuck. And he wants to get down, which presumably encompasses both dancing and fucking. That’s it. He really pounds the point home, too. If I’m counting it up right, Casey repeats the phase “get down” no less than 48 times in the three minutes of the single version. He really wants you to get down tonight.
So Casey and Finch weren’t exactly eloquent, insightful lyricists. But they made that into an asset. KC & The Sunshine Band knew that they were making party music. And they knew that disco depended on grooves just as much as it depended on hooks. When the Sunshine Band first formed, they originally called it KC & The Sunshine Junkanoo band, and they used musicians from the local Miami junkanoo scene. Junkanoo is a Bahamian street-parade music, loud and boisterous and built to cut straight through the air and incite instant partying. The Sunshine Band had stabilized into a regular lineup by the time they recorded “Get Down Tonight,” but they kept that raucous energy. “Get Down Tonight” would’ve worked just great as a parade song. It probably has worked just great as a parade song, thousands of times.
Casey and Finch understood the value of repetition, of hammering a hook into an audience’s head again and again. That’s something that pop music has always done, but disco weaponized it. DJs used multiple turntables to stretch out and extend songs, making them longer so that people on the dancefloor would have more time to lose their minds. “Get Down Tonight” is a short song, but it shoots straight for endorphin release. It barely wastes any time on verses before getting to that explosive chorus, and then it hits that chorus again and again. The drum-stomp is relentless. The horns stab away exuberantly. The James Brown-style chicken-scratch guitar never, ever stops. It’s brash and unashamed hammerhead music, crude and giddy and overwhelming.
But there’s also plenty of studio trickery at work on “Get Down Tonight.” Casey and Finch were tinkerers. On “Rock Your Baby,” they’d made fine use of an early, primitive drum machine — the exact same drum machine, it happened, that Timmy Thomas had used on his brain-altering 1973 hit “Why Can’t We Live Together.” (Thomas had left the machine behind at the TK studio, and Casey and Finch had taken to playing around with it. Also: “Why Can’t We Live Together” peaked at #3, and it’s a 9.) For “Get Down Tonight,” Casey and Finch achieved that frantic, high-pitched pinging sound by recording a bluesy guitar solo and speeding it up to double-time. It sounds truly weird, and it must’ve been hell to try to recreate live.
If you’re not in the mood for “Get Down Tonight,” it’s the kind of song that can drive you into a rabid, frothing rage. Plenty of people probably thought the merciless cheer and the endless driving beat were oppressive, that the simplicity was gallingly stupid. Maybe those people were right. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t really matter, either, that Casey’s pinched howl seems like a doofy and wan imitation of Ohio Players frontman Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner. What matters is that the big, dumb, repeated hook works. It bulldozes its way into your brain and stays there, insisting that you get down tonight whether you want to or not. “Get Down Tonight” is just a fucking tank of a song. You can’t resist it. And why would you want to?
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Berlin indie duo Stereo Total’s deadpan but exhilarating 1995 cover of “Get Down Tonight”: