22 March 2017, No. 245, The Walter Murphy Band, ‘A Fifth of Beethoven’

For as much as I complain about disco tunes being ruined by too many strings, the inclusion of The Walter Murphy Band’s “A Fifth of Beethoven” in the list may seem odd. But it’s Beethoven with big drums, and I find little to complain about here. I also have nothing but good things to say about Mr. Murphy, who appears again later on this list and whose name I’m always happy to see in the credits of Family Guy, for which series he does the music. Anytime Family Guy sends up something from the 1970s, Murphy is back in his wheelhouse and the music is even better than usual. In fact, “A Fifth of Beethoven” itself is used in a roller boogie scene in one episode, a direct nod to Murphy’s disco past.

“A Fifth of Beethoven” achieved hit status when it was included on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. In every way it’s also more successful than another classically derived inclusion therefrom: David Shire’s take on Mussorgsky, “Night on Disco Mountain,” is too fast for its mood and tries to be far too big—like, epic, bro—both of which traits are hallmarks of the disco demise basically guaranteed by the appropriative popularity of Saturday Night Fever. Even the synths in the Shire tune are lame. Pity.

For the most part the instruments in “A Fifth of Beethoven” are doing what’s expected: The strings are playing Symphony No. 5, albeit a weird arrangement that’s locked to a click track and wanders away from Beethoven in the middle. The guitar, keys, and drums are playing a pretty standard funk groove, and the horns stab here and there and join the strings later. Nothing shocking. In the first section the bass doesn’t get to establish a groove, instead following the strings a little more closely until the strings reduce the Symphony No. 5 components down to just buh-buh-buh-bum as a vamp and then, as I said, wander off to play some non-canonical licks. All that happens around the 1:00 mark, and it’s where the bass finds a funkier pattern to fall into, and then maintains the groove for another 45 seconds or so until the bridge.

The only thing left to say is that I wish the organ solo were a synth solo. It might not fit the feel of the song as well as the organ does, but a synth is what I want to hear. Maybe by the time the LP A Fifth of Beethoven came out in 1976, Wendy Carlos’s 1968 Switched-On Bach LP and her Beethoven-laden work on A Clockwork Orange were considered played out or too campy for Murphy to revisit similar turf. At any rate, “A Fifth of Beethoven” is my favorite disco piece adapted from classical music. Buh-buh-buh-bum!