When I was young, I had this notion that life would turn out to be a party. However dissatisfying Midwestern suburban school life was, all I had to do was wait it out a little bit longer, grow a little older, find a more vibrant place to live, and then, at long last, the good times would roll.
My hopes had been raised by MTV. My childhood was the 80s, when MTV debuted and a song’s video concept became as important as its beats and lyrics. I liked music videos in general, but I had a favorite trope more than any other: the party video. This particular brand of video usually started out with the band or singer playing pied piper to some crowd and always ended up with the band and a motley gang of humanity, of ordinary and not-so-ordinary folks, dancing their way through a neighborhood or taking over an unsuspecting little house or secret nightclub or getting down together without judgment on a rooftop or in an alley. “This is what life should be,” I’d think, watching the videos for “All Night Long” by Lionel Richie and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper. My favorite, though, was “Party Train” by The Gap Band.
The Gap Band was a funk-flavored group fronted by the Wilson Brothers: Charlie, Ronnie, and Robert. They were based in Los Angeles but hailed from Tulsa, Oklahoma, which explains the cowboy boots and hats they often sported. Despite their western-style duds, their catalog includes everything from soulful ballads to club bangers. Their biggest hits were long-fuse bass-heavy disco burners like “You Dropped a Bomb on Me,” “Burn Rubber,” and “I Don’t Believe You Wanna Get Up and Dance” (also known as “Oops Upside Your Head”).
“Party Train” was released in 1983. Like The Gap Band’s other dance anthems, it’s pretty irresistible. It starts with a slow choo-choo sound effect that suddenly kicks away to the riff, before slowing down just long enough to get the main lyrics out of the way (all a variation of “Everybody, all aboard”), then speeding up again for three minutes of unstoppable grooving. The song is mainly an excuse for Charlie Wilson to show off his impeccable vocal improv skills and any takers on the dance floor to show off their moves.
In the 80s, music fans were as inclined to ask if you “saw” the latest song by an artist, rather than just “heard” it, such was MTV’s influence. “Party Train” is a song I came to know and love through its video, which delivered what the title promised. The Gap Band pull up at Venice Beach in California in a white convertible with a bunch of cheerleaders and start dancing down the street in their cowboy gear, taking over the whole beach as easily and quickly as a funky bassline takes over a body. A few kids are seen passing out a flyer, inviting literally everyone at the beach to the party. And it’s one of the most inclusive things you ever saw. There’s breakdancers and moonwalkers, Hare Krishnas, snake handlers, senior citizens, grade schoolers, twins, rollerskaters, Hindu festival goers, and a dancing cop. There’s also some annoying ogling of women in bikinis, but the video equalizes it with as many shots of muscle dudes flexing and posing, not to mention Charlie dancing in the surf in a speedo. The video ends with someone checking a box on a ballot, rejecting the usual categories of the Republican and Democratic parties for the “all aboard” Gap Party.
You have to imagine what it was like to be a kid at an overwhelmingly white school coming home on a gray Illinois winter’s day, turning on the TV, and seeing this…this colorful, diverse, irreverent display of people having fun on a sunny beach, dancing and doing their own thing. Who could resist The Gap Band’s mighty groove? Or the dream of a life and a world so fun and funky and free?
(Song recommendation by René Ostberg)