The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Meco’s “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band”

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.

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Meco – “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band”

HIT #1: October 1, 1977

STAYED AT #1: 2 weeks

Star Wars season has never ended. The first Star Wars movie opened in May of 1977 on only 32 screens . Within six months, it had replaced Jaws as the highest-grossing film of all time. In the 42 years since then, there have been 10 Star Wars movies, with another on the way in a month and a half. All but two of them — 2002’s Attack Of The Clones and 2018’s Solo — were the box office champions of the years in which they came out. Disney paid $4 billion for Lucasfilm in 2012, and all that money was pretty much just for the rights to the Star Wars franchise. Disney recouped that money within six years.

Last week, Disney noisily launched its own streaming service Disney+, which seems poised to dominate the living rooms of any families with kids for the foreseeable future. One of the main Disney+ selling points is Star Wars — the whole franchise. The flagship Disney+ original series is The Mandalorian, a Western-pastiche serial set in the Star Wars world. (Two episodes in, it rules.) So 42 years after the release of this one ambitious mid-budget sci-fi flick, the largest entertainment company in the world has pretty much staked its future on our continuous interest in Star Wars. Thus far, that looks like a good bet.

Star Wars has stuck around in part because of the depth of its world-building. In that original film, writer/director George Lucas crammed the script with throwaway references to other planets, other adventures, and other military campaigns. In the decades that followed, many of those throwaway lines became entire movies. Lucas filled the screen with bugged-out rubber-faced aliens, many of whom got no lines. Their presence implies whole other lives lived, whole other worlds to be explored. The exploration of those worlds has proven to be a lucrative enterprise.

But there’s another reason for the endurance of Star Wars: That first movie was a genuine cultural phenomenon, a feat of grand-scale mythic Hollywood spectacle. Star Wars was sensational in every sense of the term. In its sweep and pageantry, it overwhelmed popular culture in the ’70s. George Lucas found a way to fuse ’60s mysticism with militarism, uniting a divided country around whiz-bang effects and proudly corny ray-gun romanticism. Star Wars, like Beatlemania 14 years earlier, became a sort of self-generating cultural monster. People got excited about Star Wars, and then they got excited about the fact that they were excited about Star Wars.

And that’s how you get a middle-aged session trombonist scoring a #1 hit by turning a film score into cheesy disco.

Domenico Monardo was an Italian kid from central Pennsylvania who’d learned trombone from his musician father. Monardo studied classical and jazz at Eastman School Of Music in Rochester, where he became friends and bandmates with Chuck Mangione and Ron Carter. (Mangione’s highest-charting single, “Feels So Good,” peaked at #4 in 1978. It’s a 5.) From there, Monardo went to West Point, where he played in the Cadet Band.

In the mid-’60s, Monardo moved to New York and found work as a session musician. Eventually, he started doing horn arrangements for things like Neil Diamond Coke jingles and Tommy James & The Shondells’ 1969 hit “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” (“Crystal Blue Persuasion” peaked at #2. It’s a 6.) In 1974, around the time disco first hit, Monardo and Tony Bongiovi formed a production company called the Disco Corporation Of America, helping to produce records like Gloria Gaynor’s hit 1974 cover of the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye.” (Gaynor’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)

The night that Star Wars first came out, the 39-year-old Monardo, a big sci-fi fan, visited the only New York theater that was showing it. His mind was blown. The next day, he went back and saw it another three times. Before Star Wars left theaters, Monardo saw it another seven times. Monardo loved John Williams’ score for the movie, and he started pitching record companies on the idea of a disco version of that score. Years later, Monardo told Yahoo! that his pitch was this: “I want to take that music and dance to it.”

The one label guy who listened was Neil Bogart, one of the great hucksters in music-business history. Bogart, then the head of Casablanca Records, had played a key role in popularizing bubblegum, Euro-disco, and KISS. It makes perfect sense, somehow, that he’d be the one to greenlight the fundamentally cheesy idea of the disco Star Wars theme. Someone, after all, was going to do that. Disco and Star Wars were the two rising cultural tides of 1977. Plenty of people were cashing in on both of them however they could. Bogart was the guy who managed to cash in on both of them together.

The Star Wars score hadn’t yet been published when Monardo hatched his plan, but Monardo called up the 20th Century Fox music publishing division and convinced a receptionist to send him the score. (He sent her a dozen roses as a thank-you.) When he had the score, Monardo, working under the name Meco, hired a 70-piece orchestra and got together with his “Never Can Say Goodbye” co-producers Tony Bongiovi and Harold Wheeler to put it together. Monardo played trumpet on the record himself, and the three producers labored over analog synths to get all the sound effects they wanted to include: Laser-gun pews, R2D2 beep-whirrs.

In the time that they were working on it, John Williams’ score blew up. The London Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Williams’ Star Wars main title theme came out as a single in July, and it peaked at #10 on the Hot 100. (It’s a 10.) At that point, Williams, only a few years older than Monardo, was already a veteran film composer. He’d scored his first movie (Daddy-O) in 1958, and he’d been nominated for his first Oscar (Valley Of The Dolls) in 1967. All through the ’70s, Williams had composed for blockbusters: Fiddler On The Roof, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno. And in 1975, Williams had written the iconically ominous music for Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, the biggest movie of all time before Star Wars. (Williams’ Jaws theme never charted, but it did feature heavily in Dickie Goodman’s incredibly strange, extremely legally actionable 1975 novelty hit “Mr. Jaws.” “Mr. Jaws” peaked at #4. I am genuinely flummoxed at how to rate it. It’s an 8 the first time you hear it, a 6 the second, and a 2 every time after that.)

George Lucas brought Williams in for Star Wars at Steven Spielberg’s recommendation. In scoring the film, Williams intentionally called back to the epics of previous decades. Here’s some weird trivia that probably means something: In the main Star Wars theme, Williams draws heavy inspiration from Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s theme for the 1942 drama Kings’ Row. Ronald Reagan was one of the stars of Kings’ Row; it was Reagan’s favorite dramatic role. Three years after the success of Star Wars, Reagan — coasting, at least in part, on the same post-’60s death-of-cynicism feeling that Star Wars represented — was elected President of the United States. At his inauguration, Reagan had an orchestra play that Kings’ Row theme. During during Reagan’s presidency, one of his key issues was an astronomically expensive satellite-based missile-defense system that the press nicknamed Star Wars.

Anyway. Back to Meco. Meco and his collaborators rushed their version of the Star Wars theme to market. They disco-ized much of Williams’ score into one massive 16-minute instrumental called “Star Wars,” and they released it on the album Star Wars And Other Galactic Funk in the fall of 1977. “Star Wars” took up all of the A-side, and a 13-minute instrumental that’s literally just called “Other Galactic Funk” made up the entire B-side.

Meco also put together a single edit, “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band,” which came out around the same time and which mashed the main title up with the catchy little tune that the bug-faced humanoid band plays in the famous Star Wars cantina scene. The cover art for both the single and the album — two astronauts doing the bump in a vaguely pornographic way — was Meco’s idea. The album sold a million copies — better than the actual Star Wars soundtrack. The single sold two million.

Meco’s “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” is an absolutely shameless piece of music, which is what’s both good and bad about it. It almost sounds like a joke: That famous fanfare wrapping itself around a thumping, obvious disco beat with fucking sound effects all over it. The head-blasting majesty of the original Williams theme disappears completely, replaced by a chintzy four-four boom. Midway through there’s a clumsy transition where Meco and his co-workers play that cantina-band theme like it’s big-band jazz while aliens squeak in alien languages. Then it’s back to the main theme, via dramatic guitar riff.

This is pure mercenary novelty silliness. It expresses nothing, and it aims for nothing grander than the “oh, I see what they did there” reaction. There is no reason for this piece of music to exist. And yet it’s hard to be mad at anything so baldly, unabashedly cynical. It’s not like Meco was trying to sell something profound. He was simply selling something. And it worked. Amazingly, Meco’s “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” was nominated for a Best Instrumental Recording Grammy, and it lost to Williams’ actual Star Wars theme. And while Meco never played live, someone did put together a “Meco” touring band, which featured none of the musicians who’d played on the records.

Meco kept trying to sell this one particular thing, and he kept competing in the marketplace with John Williams by turning John Williams’ music into cheap-sounding disco. Also in 1977, Meco also made it to #25 with “Theme From Close Encounters.” John Williams’ own version of his Close Encounters Of The Third Kind theme peaked at #13. Over the next few years, Meco released disco versions of a bunch of different film scores: The Wizard Of Oz, Superman: The Movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Black Hole, An American Werewolf In London, the TV miniseries Shogun. Meco kept on working that formula until he couldn’t anymore. He also played the trombone solo on Diana Ross’ 1979 single “I’m Coming Out.” (“I’m Coming Out” peaked at #5; it’s an 8.)

Meco stuck with Star Wars, releasing disco versions of the Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi scores. Eventually, Meco contacted George Lucas and arranged for the release of the officially licensed 1980 LP Christmas In The Stars: Star Wars Christmas Album. Lucas let Meco use actual Star Wars sound effects, and Anthony Daniels, the voice of C-3PO, sang on the album. Producer Tony Bongiovi’s teenage cousin John made his recorded debut on a song called “R2-D2, We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” John Bongiovi, later known as Jon Bon Jovi, will eventually appear in this column.

Meco never made it back into the top 10 after “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band,” though 1980’s “Empire Strikes Back (Medley)” climbed as high as #18. In the mid-’80s, he moved to Florida and became a commodities trader. He briefly considered a comeback in 1999 when The Phantom Menace came out, but he was crushed to learn that John Williams’ contract prevented his label from releasing other versions of his compositions without his permission. Meco did, however, self-release an album of original tracks called Star Wars Party in 2005. When Yahoo! interviewed Meco before the release of The Force Awakens in 2015, Meco said he wasn’t going to see new Star Wars movies in the theater anymore.

As for John Williams, he is 87 years old and still scoring films, including the forthcoming Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker and the as-yet-untitled Indiana Jones movie that’s set to come out in 2021. Williams has won five Oscars, including one for Star Wars, and he’s been nominated 51 times — more than anyone else in history other than Walt Disney. Unless you count this Meco thing, Williams has no #1 hits.

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: It’s tough coming up with a Bonus Beats for a song that is basically already a Bonus Beat of something else. But here’s Bill Murray singing his version of “Star Wars Theme” and really capturing the spirit of the thing in a classic 1978 Saturday Night Live lounge-singer bit: