Brent Johnson’s Lost Songs: ‘The Show Must Go On’ by Leo Sayer

brent johnson digs up another lost treasure, this week from Leo Sayer …

Long before Lady Gaga, it was obvious that visual flair can make music more captivating. Would Elvis Presley have been as cool if he didn’t shake his hips? Would David Bowie have been as dazzling if he didn’t dress as Ziggy Stardust? Would Duran Duran have seemed as sleek if we never saw them singing on a yacht?

Still, I never thought I’d be captivated by a clip of Leo Sayer.

For those of you under 50, Leo Sayer was a British-born, frizzy-haired singer of the disco era. He had a dexterous voice — but a rather inoffensive demeanor. In America, he was best known for a pair of schmaltzy, middle-of-the-road No. 1 hits: ‘You Make Me Feel Like Dancing’ and ‘When I Need You.’

But my parents recently saw another ’70s hitmaker, Three Dog Night, in concert. And as my father reeled off their setlist the next day, he reminded me: One of their best songs, the circus-like 1974 Top 5 hit ‘The Show Must Go On,’ was written by Leo Sayer.

Being the curious fellow that I am, I ventured to YouTube to hear his original version.

Wow.

There he was, dressed as a pierrot clown, in full makeup, moping about like a character in a Smokey Robinson song.

Apparently, Sayer started his career on a more experimental note. Like many musicians in the glam-obsessed U.K. of the early 1970s, he embraced the theatrical side of rock. He scored a string of British hits with rich material — and even wrote most of the underrated songs on Roger Daltrey’s first solo album. It wasn’t until Sayer de-fanged his music that he scored big in the U.S.

Even without the clown costume, Sayer’s version of ‘The Show Must Go On’ is wonderful. Anchored by a banjo and Sayer’s dramatically gruff vocals, it isn’t as campy as Three Dog’s rendition. Instead, it’s full of pathos and self-deprecation. It sounds like the soundtrack to the circus after the crowd has gone home.