I don't know when the disco era officially began. I don't know when it officially ended. But I know I was able to ignore disco throughout its dark reign, remembering only vaguely the Bee Gees, Donna Summer, Studio 54 and gold chains. I just didn't give a damn.
Disco was not so much the soundtrack as the wallpaper of my adolescence, when I was far more interested in Lord of the Rings and Marvel Comics than the Basement, the Orange all-ages disco venue of the day. All these years later, I've yet to see Saturday Night Fever in its entirety, thank you very much.
What, then, explains my attraction to Jungle Boogie, the disco tribute band that plays every Tuesday at the Back Alley Bar and Grill in downtown Fullerton? They play all the hits, wear big afros and platform shoes, and have the moves and shtick down.
But there's something more about this ensemble—and not just the fact that they're talented musicians who can pull off everything from Gloria Gaynor to KC & the Sunshine Band. Nor is it irony; this isn't irony. Though these are four white guys who look as if they walked through the set of Welcome Back, Kotter, raided Elton John's closet and decided to play butt-shaking disco music, they're committed deeply to something shallow.
That's what keeps this whiter-shade-of-pale boy coming back to the Back Alley every Tuesday—something simpler and more difficult to capture on any stage, any time: commitment. The four members of Jungle Boogie are totally and utterly absorbed in their craft. They know the songs. They look the part. But more than this, they embody the disco attitude, which, by any measure, is beyond reproach: it's all right to have a good time.
That's not an easy thing for musicians, actors, poets or playwrights—guilty as charged—to allow themselves.
"If someone would have told me 10 years ago that I'd be doing this, I'd have said they were high," said lead singer Jerry March, who formed the band in 1998. "No one in this band had any premonition they'd wind up doing disco. This is a total departure for me. I was brought up on rock music. I just felt like doing something totally out of left field. And it's taken off."
March, who lives in Redondo Beach, was never a big disco fan. He's grown accustomed to negative reactions when he tells people he fronts a disco tribute band. "Everyone laughs when you first mention it, and I always get people saying, 'I hate disco; I'd never go to a disco show.' But it's disco with a rock feel. And it's by far the tightest band I've ever been in. We're all excellent musicians, and the music is slick, and the show is tight."
The lineup changes occasionally around a core of four musicians: March; guitarist Romeo Brune, who lives in the San Fernando Valley; drummer Frank Reina, who lives in Cerritos; and bassist Curt Radnacher of Huntington Beach. Each brings significant credentials, from touring with national acts such as Three Dog Night to recording with Scott Weiland as well as fronting their own bands.
"I would prefer to be doing my own music in any regard, even if I were dressed up in a clown suit," said March, whose preferred milieu is alternative rock. "But if I had a day job, I'd have no time to work on my own songs and shop my stuff around. There's no time for creativity when you're working eight to 10 hours a day. The success of this band has really helped me focus on my own music."
But how does he reconcile the battle between doing his own thing and singing "Shake Your Booty" night after night? Basically, as long as he's entertaining and playing music, he thinks arrogant musicians and other critics can blow it out their asses.
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"I hear people all the time saying they don't want to lower themselves by doing cover songs," March said. "But if you get hired to support a nationally touring act, you're playing somebody else's music. . . . I come from a very strong performing background, and I've always thought the show comes first. Entertaining is the main aspect. If you're a musician you play music. That's your craft. There are way too many musicians writing songs in their basements."
And how long does March think he'll be dressing like a grown-up Horshak on a disco bender and singing "Inside Out" and "Play That Funky Music, White Boy"?
"I'm going to do it until I get my own record deal or until people stop having fun watching us," he said. "That why I laugh at these musicians who say we're lowering ourselves by doing this. How can you lower yourself by having fun?"
Jungle Boogie performs at the Back Alley Bar and Grill, 116 1⁄2 W. Wilshire, Fullerton, (714) 526-3032. Every Tues., 9 p.m. No cover.