The smoking volcano and the disco queen

The smoking volcano and the disco queen

Nearly eight years ago, an item in this column concluded: "If the Taal volcano does ever erupt again, I'll put on my Donna Summer album for old times' sake." An explanation of this curious combination of a songstress and a volcano is required.

At the time, I had written a tribute to Summer who sadly just passed away in May 2012 at the age of 63. Strange though it may seem, I had always associated the singer with the Taal volcano.

On a visit to the Philippines back in 1977, I was on a bus heading for Taal, about 80km south of Manila. Like most buses in the Philippines in those days, it had a sound system providing a constant stream of pop music. It was the height of disco and as we rounded the bend to be greeted by the spectacular vista of Lake Taal and the volcano, the speakers exploded with Summer's big hit, "Love to Love You Baby". It was all a bit surreal, especially when the singer launched into those groans of passion in the middle of the song. Fortunately the music failed to stir any similar eruptions from the volcano.

But this week the Taal has been putting on bit of a show again and, keeping my vow, this is being written with Summer warbling away in the background. I haven't played the CD for ages and I must say am quite enjoying it. Respected composer Quincy Jones called Summer "the soundtrack and heartbeat of a decade", which is hard to dispute. She was also a fine lady. My thanks to the Taal for reminding me of the disco queen, but let's hope the volcano behaves itself.

Buri Ram-style

For the curious, there are no active volcanoes in Thailand, but there is a smattering of the extinct variety. The most well-known is in Buri Ram where Phanom Rung Historical Park is the site of beautiful ancient Khmer temples built on the rim of a volcano. In recent years they've even celebrated a Volcano Festival, in which visitors will be pleased to know that the biggest bangs are provided by fireworks rather than volcanic rumblings.

Quack quack

As I seem to have exhausted my pitiful knowledge of volcanology, it's perhaps better to return to those disco days. Although I wasn't a massive fan of the genre, the music was of a feel-good nature and certainly great for dancing. A few of the braver Thai women even adopted the distinctive Donna Summer-style hairdos, ranging from wild afros to long curly locks.

One problem with disco music is that it can become a bit repetitive, in a thump, thump, thump sort of way. A friend who was a deejay in a Bangkok disco at that time admitted that the constant pounding of the music and flashing lights eventually drove him nuts. Adding to his distress were "special requests" for "Disco Duck", a dreadful song which included a noise which sounded like someone strangling Donald Duck. It will probably come as no surprise that it was a big hit in Thailand.

Someone else who was not a great disco fan was US author Hunter S Thompson, who said, "I feel the same way about disco as I do about herpes."

Blame it on the boogie

To experience a country really absorbed by disco, the Philippines was the place. Summer's music was huge in a nation where just about everyone can sing or play the guitar, and if you can't dance you could become a social misfit. I remember trying to pay the bill at a Manila restaurant, but could not find any staff. After a while I ventured out the back and found all the waitresses in the kitchen practising their dance steps to the newly released "Saturday Night Fever".

In the Philippines, you simply could not escape music. Department stores resembled giant discos with salesgirls hopping away to the strains of "Hot Stuff", "Le Freak" and "Boogie Oogie Oogie". I recall sitting on a quiet beach in Tacloban when the thumping sounds of disco became increasingly louder. It was hard to place its source until I spotted a passing coastguard vessel just offshore, with the crew leaping around to the strains of "Stayin' Alive".

Happy feet

It was during the disco era that I attended a Christmas party in Bangkok organised by the Philippines embassy in their grounds on Sukhumvit Road. It was great fun, especially seeing my old Filipino colleague Louis Morales in his sweltering Santa outfit giving away presents.

As the afternoon wore on it inevitably became a dance party. It was in the days when people formed circles and clapped as they took turns in dancing in the middle. I was thoroughly enjoying proceedings, until it dawned on me that it would soon be my turn to be the "solo act". Although I'm happy to bop up and down when no one's looking, doing it in front of a crowd of natural dancers was a different matter altogether and I was not exactly John Travolta. I must have resembled a discombobulated buffalo stomping around, but everyone clapped, most likely out of sympathy.

Later one lady came up with an encouraging "you did okay", but then spoilt it by adding "have you ever danced before?"

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Roger Crutchley

Bangkok Post columnist

A long time popular Bangkok Post columnist. In 1994 he won the Ayumongkol Literary Award. For many years he was Sports Editor at the Bangkok Post.

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