Feminism, Walter Murphy and ‘A Fifth of Beethoven’

Roll Over Beethoven sang Chuck Berry back in 1956. Oh yes, Chuck was firm in his belief that had Beethoven still been around, it would have been time for him to roll over and dig those rhythm and blues. Strangely enough, only 20 years later, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony became the basis of a disco instrumental and this week it has formed a bit of an earworm.

Like many of us during this strange time of lockdown and post-lockdown easing, we’ve watched a fair amount of telly, and there is no shortage of great telly out there made both by traditional broadcasters and the newer streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. (I am however starting to notice that the BBC & ITV are running out of new product, and during prime time slots are having to repeat some of their most successful output. This in turn affects the amount advertisers are willing to pay for a slot, which will jeopardise the making of future programmes should the industry ever get started again. At this rate we’re going to be old and grey yet will still be watching Line of Duty, Death In Paradise, The Durrells and Downtown Abbey!)


But I digress. A historical drama I was keen to watch this week was Mrs America (now on the BBC iPlayer) which tells the story of the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, and the unexpected backlash led by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. Prominent feminists of the day, such as Betty Freidan and Gloria Steinem, are key characters, and I feel ashamed that I am only now learning of their contribution to a movement that has given me much of what I have always taken for granted. The opening theme for the show, which has caused the aforementioned earworm, is A Fifth of Beethoven by Walter Murphy. It fits the era and was chosen because it represented both sides of the story. Phyllis and her conservative friends listened to classical music, yet the free and easy disco version of Beethoven’s Fifth, better fitted the feminists.

A Fifth of Beethoven by Walter Murphy:

It of course sounded familiar when I watched the first episode of the show, and it didn’t take long for me to remember that it had appeared on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack album, and was the record playing when lead character Tony Manero enters the 2001: Odyssey disco in 1977 Brooklyn. He exudes the easy confidence that comes from being a big fish in a little pond, and that nightclub was his domain.

I have written about the film Saturday Night Fever often around here as it came out the year my best friend and I left school. We spent the summer frequenting the many converted function suites in our area, where local hoteliers had decided an investment in floors with flashing lights, glitter balls and a weekly DJ could increase takings no end. It was a memorable summer where we practiced our dance moves and had dalliances with the local Tony Maneros, but looking back I don’t think I appreciated that this carefree summer ahead of starting university, only happened because I came of age in 1978. Had I been born only 10 years earlier such opportunities would not have been a given at all, and our parents may well have steered us down a very different path towards work, then marriage and motherhood. As it turns out we’ve now kind of had to do both, simultaneously, so not sure who won in the end but it’s thankfully no longer a given that men have very little to do with childcare, cooking or housework, so…. , yeah us.

As for Walter Murphy, he was an orchestral leader who studied both classical and jazz music piano at the Manhattan School of Music. In college his interests included rock music that had been adapted from classical music, such as Joy by Apollo 100 and A Lover’s Concerto by The Toys. In 1976, whilst writing a disco song for a commercial, a producer suggested the idea of updating classical music, which nobody had done lately. He recorded a demo tape which included A Fifth of Beethoven and sent it various record labels in New York City. It was picked up and reached the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Chart in October 1976.


Another little snippet I discovered when doing some research for this post, was that in 2017, exactly 40 years on from the release date of the film that made it famous, the 2001: Odyssey was reimagined. By that time it was no longer a nightspot, but a Chinese restaurant, however a successful businessman invested the cash required to make it happen. The Trammps appeared and sang their hit Disco Inferno, and the actress who played Tony Manero’s love interest also turned up. There were plenty of men in polyester shirts & cream three-piece suits and ladies in those free flowing dresses that epitomised the era, as well as some of the original DJs. Must have been quite a night.

And here is something that really hit home with me this week. In listening to these disco hits of 1978 I’ve been transported back in time, reminiscing about that carefree summer after leaving school. Not so for our school-leavers of this year who have had no prom or end of term revelries and face uncertainly about their exam grades. The doors to the places where they all used to come together are still firmly closed, and as DD pointed out earlier in the week, “Its a rubbish year to be single”.

No lyrics this time as an instrumental, but as ever, if you want to leave a comment, I always reply.

Until next time….

Author: Alyson

Whenever I hear an old song on the radio, I am immediately transported back to those days. I know I'm not alone here and want to record those memories for myself and for the people in them. 57 years ago the song "Alfie" was written by my favourite songwriting team, Bacharach and David. The opening line to that song was, "What's it all about?" and I'm hoping by writing this blog, I might find the answer to that question.

8 thoughts on “Feminism, Walter Murphy and ‘A Fifth of Beethoven’”

  1. To get some entertainment, I’ve been watching a bunch of series on TV since March, more than I have in decades. Because of the pandemic, it seems inevitable though that there is going to be a major lack of new product for quite a while. I’ve been wondering what the traditional networks are going to broadcast in place of new series in the USA. We just finished watching Bodyguard, on Netflix. It was originally a BBC series, I think. .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi – Bodyguard was a massive success for the BBC and it won many awards. Made Richard Madden a much sought after actor. Funny how Keeley Hawes also often pops up in our most successful series. I would be embarrassed to admit how much we’ve watched since March but then again I’ve not been to the cinema, the theatre, out for dinner, on holiday……. and so on.

      Hope they are able to start making new programmes again soon but looking at Netflix etc we will probably never run out of something to watch, just not new episodes of our favourite shows. Very, very sorry for everyone in theatre, film and television who just can’t work just now. Also they are often freelance so not eligible for any govt help.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating piece on disco and feminism Alyson. I’m reminded that the cartoon Family Guy used “A Fifth of Beethoven” in one of their shows which showed Peter, Quagmire, Joe and Cleveland dancing to that tune in a roller disco.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for dropping by and hope you’re feeling a lot better. That’s a great clip. Not ever been to a roller disco myself and doubt if I’d have been any good anyway. They were all the rage for about 5 minutes, and I might be mistaken, but don’t think Aberdeen ever had one?


  3. Thank you for answering a question I couldn’t be bothered to google for myself. I loved Mrs America, and, like you, knew I recognised the theme from somewhere else.

    I liked how there were lots of shades of grey in that show. How the leaders on both sides appeared to regret becoming figureheads for what it cost them in their ordinary lives. And I was also quite shocked at how the biggest opponent the feminist movement appeared to face wasn’t from Evil Men (although I’m quite happy to see men presented that way: I remain resolutely ashamed of my own gender most of the time) but from other women.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep, that soundtrack came along at just the right time for me so will always remember everything on it.

      It’s a really excellent drama and I only have two episodes left to watch but have become quite invested in the characters. I’ve watched some footage of the real life Mrs Schlafley and my goodness, Cate Blanchett has done a terrific job playing her. Made from the same mould as Margaret Thatcher it seems and looks just like her too. The whole issue has many shades of grey, as has everything else in life, but still glad I grew up when I did although if I’d mentioned the word feminism to my mum or granny when I was young they wouldn’t have got it at all, as in our family the women always “wore the trousers” and ran the show so to speak. At the end of the day, whether male or female, we’re all just trying to do our best to get by, and if we can be kind to each other, and not put obstacles in each others way, all the better.


  4. I think I should be watching Mrs America – haven’t seen any of it so far but it sounds very good. Also did you see ‘Beauty Queens and Bedlam’, a BBC2 documentary that was on earlier this year? If not I recommend that too (just checked and still available on iPlayer). Really interesting and entertaining insights from both sides, brilliant archive footage and lovely interviews with the protestors, beauty queens and chaperones. I absolutely loved watching Miss Wor;d as a child, I suppose my innocent eyes just saw it as if it was a parade of pretty dolls in pretty clothes and I especially loved the flamboyant national costumes, it all seemed so exotic.
    And yes, we were so lucky to have our carefree days and we took our relative freedom so much for granted. My heart goes out to young folk right now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi – Yes it is very good and seems to appeal to both sexes despite the subject matter. I’d never heard of Phyllis Schlafley before but she really put a spanner in the works. I did see that doc on the Miss World contests of years gone by and am just old enough to remember the furore the year Bob Hope was presenting. Some of those women went on to great things it seems but back in the day, like you, I was just in awe of their very stylised national costumes and evening gowns. Looking back, the swimsuit parade and details of the girl’s measurements (?!) was just so wrong but the contest used to be one of the big tv events of the year.

      I do feel very sorry for young people at the moment – The last thing you want to do is stay in with your parents but anything else is pretty much against all the “rules” we now have to abide by (for good reason I know). DD is enjoying being able to go for walks with her friends and meet up in the back garden but it really isn’t the same as going to a festival, going to a big party, a concert or anything like that. Starting to get withdrawal symptoms myself to be honest so goodness knows how they feel.


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