If You Don’t Know Me By Now: The Best of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes (1995)
Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes were already a veteran soul unit, albeit one still searching for success when they signed with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International label in 1972. Success there was immediate and lasted through 1976 at which point the group signed with ABC records, left behind their incendiary lead singer Teddy Pendergrass, and, despite occasional action in the mid-reaches of the R&B chart, soon faded back into the woodwork.
This comp from the mid-nineties covers their essential work for Philly International, distills the best work of their four fine albums there, and is an essential part of any conversation about 70’s soul or the socio-political confluence I’ve dubbed The Rising.
Pendergrass stayed with Gamble and Huff and went on to a substantial solo career. Had he and Melvin not fallen out, it’s likely the group would be accorded its rightful place as a peer of the O’Jays and the Spinners. But, brief as it was, their stay with Gamble and Huff was both a cornerstone and peak of the last age when Rock and Roll America was still in the ascendancy. Coincidentally or not, their last stand marked the road to ours. This is an exemplary comp, programmed for maximum sonic, musical and social impact, chronology be damned.
“Cabaret” – Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Deep soul group goes Show Biz. Just to prove they can? Or to be ready in case Vegas calls? Maybe just to prove they’ve forgotten nothing.
“The Love I Lost” – Redolent of the paradox confronting Black America coming out of the Civil Rights movement, faced with the possibility that only the laws had changed and that whether or not the rules would change might or might not be up to them–and that this moment was the last time anyone would have a chance to make it come good. Other than that, it’s just a song about lost love.
“If You Don’t Know Me By Now” – The record that introduced Teddy Pendergrass to the American pop charts in 1973. Except for Ronnie Van Zant, he would be the last great blues singer to find a place there. Ronnie could go deep but he preferred watching from a distance, living on the sly. Teddy didn’t have any “sly” in him. He was a pleader, a beggar, a demander. It might have been histrionic, except the quality of his pleading was too pure, his timbre too rough, and the stakes, as he surely understood them, too high. Other than that, it’s just a song about the fragility of the social contract called marriage.
“Don’t Leave Me This Way” – Somehow, Philly International failed to release this as a single in the U.S. With the possible exception of the O’Jays’ “Ship Ahoy,” a ten-minute curse on the slave trade that was hardly radio fodder, it’s probably the greatest record the label recorded that wasn’t a hit. A few years later, Thelma Houston did a version on Motown that was both a monster hit and an answer record. Choosing between the two versions is a fool’s game. If they can be rated, it’s by this difference: in Houston’s version, her life is at stake. In the Blue Notes’ version, featuring Pendergrass’s greatest vocal until the far reaches of the vamp at the end of “Wake Up Everybody,” everything is at stake. Meaning us.
“I’m Weak For You” – Their features one of the soft soul/hard soul/Greek chorus tradeoff vocals (Pendergrass always took the hard soul part and the concluding improv vamp) that became the group’s signature arrangement style. You might argue it goes on too long, but I bet the black women who heard it being sung to them would argue it didn’t go long enough.
“Everybody’s Talkin'” – Fred Neil’s standard (a big hit for Nillson in 1969) starts wearing a new face when it’s sung by a multiplicity of black voices (yes, it’s soft soul/hard soul/Greek chorus again) blending into one man with his shoulders hunched against a gray, wind-blown sky that might be hanging over a ghetto, a newly minted black suburban neighborhood or a country road in the Deep South where the car in the distance might be a ride home or a Klan patrol.
“Hope That We Can Be Together Soon” – A lovely soul ballad, a duet between Melvin and guest vocalist Sharon Paige, that offers the hope of peace without quite making it a promise, even when–or especially wnen?–Pendergrass steps in at the end. In the mid-seventies, who could do more than hope?
“Bad Luck” – Just in case anyone was getting too comfortable there for a minute. Teddy preaches some at the end…getting ready for the climb.
“Where Are All My Friends” – A sequel to the O’Jay’s “Backstabbers.” Teddy doesn’t wait this time. He starts preaching right out of the box, stalkinng from one end of the tent-revival stage to the other, the pulpit unable to contain him. Climbing…climbing…seeking?
“Wake Up Everybody” – And then, carried by his label’s greatest arrangement, he arrives at the mountaintop. And just keeps reaching…and preaching. Until, standing on the mountaintop, with his shiny, sweat-stained preacher’s suit in shreds at his feet, he falls to his knees and sings “Oh it don’t matter….what race….creed or color. Everybody….we need each other.” If we didn’t listen then, brother, we never will.
“Yesterday I Had the Blues” – Then the slow descend, back to reality. The acceptance that life’s victories will be more pedestrian than dreams. And hard-won. And perhaps, just perhaps, worth it for all that.
“I Miss You” – It’s only the last few years that I could listen to this more than every few years. Possibly the most poignant record the Rising produced. And, for once, Pendergrass, giving one of his greatest performances, isn’t the center of the show, stepping out of the spotlight halfway through and taking a back seat to Melvin’s spoken-word monologue, softly rapped out over Teddy’s agonized blues shouting (the combination capping one of Thom Bell’s greatest arrangements). Again, white critics complained about the length when what they really meant was the shattering intimacy. Again, I doubt that black women either complained or failed to understand what it was worth to be missed.
“Keep On Lovin’ You” – Relatively slight though it is, this closes an epic set on the right note. It would have been nice if the battle really had been won and we could get back to love songs. There’s just enough desperation, even in Teddy’s seduction voice, to make you want to start over again….not just the album but the battle. Who knows? Maybe we’ll make it come right this time.
Harold Melvin 57 (1940-1997) Lawrence Brown 63 (1945-2008) Teddy Pendergrass 59 (1950-2010) Bernard Wilson 64 (1946-2010)
“All Day Music” 1971 Artist: War Writers: Jerry Goldstein, War
“Hey, this is the War symbol…Three fingers and a smile. War!”
(Last words heard on War’s breakout album All Day Music, which closes on an early, raw, live version of “Me and Baby Brother”)
Claiming the Space…
Bourgeois dreams were coming to fruition in Black America in the early 70s. The cold-blooded economic planning that would keep the ghetto the ghetto wherever it was found (mostly in black-demo big cities, the dual-demo rural south, white demo Appalachia and the about-to-be Rust Belt) was already clicking into place, but there were still cracks in the new facade where the light could be glimpsed shining through from the Promised Land.
War, the greatest American band of the decade (and, with the original Byrds, and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens, the most Cosmic of the American Century–“greatest” is another argument), lived and breathed in those cracks…and stomped all over that facade.
Their ability to stomp has, not surprisingly in a Narrative defined almost entirely by college-bound white boys who can’t dance, overshadowed their gift for living and breathing, of which “All Day Music” was the first, foundational, example.
It was their first crossover hit (if you don’t count their Burn-Down-the-Cornfield backing of Eric Burdon on “Spill the Wine”). It wasn’t huge, but it made Top 40, and kicked off a string of harder-edged singles that were, perhaps paradoxically, much bigger. “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” “The World is a Ghetto,” “Cisco Kid,” “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” “Me and Baby Brother,” “Low Rider” Really, the titles are all you need.
Contrasted to all that–and I think the contrast wasn’t just deliberate, but a setup–“All Day Music” represents what sounds at first like a comforting, almost bucolic vision, albeit with a hint of carrying on a tradition of Black America finding peace in unlikely places that made it a natural sequel to the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk.”
But where “Under the Boardwalk” (recorded under extraordinary circumstances when lead singer Rudy Lewis was killed in a car accident the day before the planned session and Johnny Moore had to step into his place to provide that durable R&B group/brand with its last Top Ten pop hit), was written as a white fantasy for a black group to sing, “All Day Music” was written by black men to sing for themselves.
Great as “Under the Boardwalk” is–I wouldn’t argue if you said it was a greater record than “All Day Music”–that’s not a distinction without a difference.
Neither was the space War intended to claim: Not a temporary space under the boardwalk at Coney Island, as accessible to Black America as any other integrated space, but the broad scope of urban and suburban life in early 70s’ Los Angeles.
Down at the beach, or a party in town meant something different in L.A., with its long and notorious history of virulent racist policing–a theme War would return to over and again–than it did back east (where racist policing was hardly unknown), or even in the Deep South (where, except for a few spots in Florida, beaches tend to be either resort spots or hideaways, not part of the everyday social fabric that comes with the term Southern California).
And once you know that, Making love or just riding around or Let’s have a picnic, go to the park/Rolling in the grass til long after dark, take on a whole new dimension–a dimension Black America had never really felt free to grant itself before and can hardly take for granted even now.
Taken that way–as career starter, tone setter, vision definer–“All Day Music” may have been even bolder than War’s more obviously bold records, which were only the boldest of their era.
Strange, then, that “All Day Music” and “Summer” (from 1976), the records which bracketed the band’s hit-making run on the Pop Charts, its true bond with White America–a run that cemented their now-forgotten status as the band who were both asking the questions that needed answering and providing a glimpse of what lay on the other side of implementing the human-size solutions which then seemed so near to hand–defined the promise of the coming day that seemed so far away in “Slippin’ Into Darkness” or “The World is a Ghetto” or “Me and Baby Brother.”
That the day never quite came, that progress stalled and then, as progress will, splintered, deepens the melancholy tone these records–and, as a career starter, a statement of purpose, “All Day Music” in particular–only hinted at when they were on the radio.
The peace “All Day Music” meant to promote without taking anything for granted, shattered in the crack-filled, CIA-run, eighties that War had promised lay on the other side of failing to reach an understanding, and which, almost inevitably, produced first NWA, then Ice Cube, then Ice Cube’s natural sequel to “All Day Music”…
…by which time, the dream of permanence War had been close enough to reach out and touch had been reduced to Thinkin’ will I live another twenty-four and Today I didn’t even have to use my AK, bleeding in and out of an air of paranoia that couldn’t be escaped for even a moment. Running in fear all day, and being thankful the worst fear hadn’t been realized for a whole day, had replaced listening to music all day.
And replaces it still.
Better then. Better even with all hell breaking loose…
As defined by that cover at the right (from Time Life’s invaluable Ultimate Seventies series and a rare failure from their usually inspired graphics department), 1975 was every crap-u-lous thing the punks said it was. It makes me want to take the shop-worn Survived-The-Seventies secret decoder badge out of my wallet and slip it into a wood stove with pine knots blazing.
Then again, there’s the music.
The mid-seventies were a troublesome time, a time when we had to either deal with the sixties or head down the path that brought us to this cozy little paradise we now enjoy. By 1975, what I’ve taken to calling The Rising–the attempt rock and rollers of various hues made to sustain the revolution that had begun in the fifties and perhaps even broaden it into a world where we would never be forced to admit we aren’t going to get along because we really don’t like each other very much–was cresting into what turned out to be its last wave. Within a year or two (or five), punk/alternative and rap/hip-hop would arrive full force, and, with some help from an intelligentsia programmed to believe its own self-contempt was the New Covenant, carry us back to our various tribes.
What a happy journey that’s been!
I mean, forty years later, radio is such an awesome void nobody even pretends to fathom it. The only thing blanker, less alive, is journalism.
Or maybe politics.
I wonder: Was 1975 so bad it really had to be this way?
I mean, forget politics. Culture dies (or simply withers away) first. The rest is detritus.
I wonder, was 1975 alive, or–as some would have it–dead?
Hmmmmm….How best to ponder?
I know. Let’s think of it as a concept.
And let’s think of Time Life’s edition of Ultimate Seventies: 1975 as a concept album.
The 1975 journey begins. In 1963 actually. White boy (Clint Ballard, Jr.) writes song with who knows who in mind. White producers (Leiber and Stoller) cut it on a black woman (Dee Dee Warwick, Dionne’s sister). It goes nowhere. Black producer (Calvin Carter), picks it up with an idea of cutting it on a black man (Dee “Raindrops” Clark), then decides the lyrical message will be too harsh coming from a guy, so he gives it to another black woman (Betty Everett) who gets a top five R&B hit out of it, with modest pop crossover. Six months later, the Swinging Blue Jeans take their cover to #3 in England.
All very typical.
Everett’s record had just enough cachet to make it into some of the standard live sets of the decade hence, including, circa the early seventies, Linda Ronstadt’s. Ronstadt, still chasing the real thing after a decade of not-quite-stardom, gave her first major performance of the song on a December, 1973 episode of The Midnight Special...where she was introduced as the country singer she still considered herself to be.
All still pretty typical.
Months later, after a tortuous process of layered guitars, studio tinkering and bitching about tempos amongst Ronstadt, her new producer, Peter Asher (a Brit keen on the Swinging Blue Jeans’ version), and the crack band she had assembled after granting the Eagles permission to strike out on their own, the song was recorded with a pop sheen that only enhanced what she had done on The Midnight Special, which was make the song’s deep mix of dread and liberation seem inherent and blow every previous version to smithereens.
It was released November, 1974 and reached #1 in Billboard, February, 1975.
Southern funk band goes full-blown “Disco,” forever blurring the distinction and making the newer concept a bigger deal than it had been previously. After them, it was inevitable somebody would make up stories about disco. And just as inevitable that the fakers would split the cut.
[Of note: KC was the first white lead vocalist to officially top Billboard‘s R&B chart since, weirdly, Jimmy Gilmer’s “Sugar Shack” in 1963. (Also of Note: Along with a handful of record by black artists, Joel Whitburn lists the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” as an R&B #1 in 1964, when Billboard had temporarily suspended its R&B chart. The British Invasion of that year, perhaps helped by other things, soon necessitated the restoration of the pre-rock-n-roll order, which disco was threatening by 1975, thus requiring us to be “saved” yet again by our betters. First time around, we got Beatlemania. This time around, we settled for the Sex Pistols. To which I’ll only add that, between Herbert Wayne Casey and John Lydon, I know who the visionary radical was. Listen again.)]
From Wikipedia: “The title, if correct English had been used, would be “Must Have Gotten Lost”. When a contraction is used, “Must Have” becomes “Must’ve”, which sounds like “Must of”, which is not correct English and makes no sense.”
And I was just going to complain that they don’t make blue-eyed-soul-garage-rock records like this anymore. Silly me, forever underestimating the present’s ability to stick a pencil in my eye.
Talk about a leg up to ’75. “I hear you’re workin’ for the C-I-A/They wouldn’t have you in the Maf-i-a.” That’s everything rap ever wanted to be in a couplet and that’s not even getting into how they could sing and play.
Wait, the song about Philadelphia Freedom was sung by the bald, bi, English dude who could cut in on Soul Train? And programmed right after the song (cut with George Martin no less) by America, the band that so cheekily named itself after the country the bald guy was celebrating….assuming he wasn’t really putting all that pop genius into just giving a shout out to Billie Jean King’s World Team Tennis team?
Of course it was.
But not to worry. That was “America” then. Nothing like that would happen now. Not even close.
A bit of life stirs. Not my favorite Skynyrd, actually, but it’s the real life Huck Finn singing about the real life road so it always pulls me in in the long run. And that’s even before the guitars start playing…and playing…and burning.
Okay, now I feel a little like Rip Van Winkle. I’ve slept a bit and I’m up and ready to engage the past, the present, the future. And god knows I’ve got time, listening to Joe, who always could make two minutes sound like ten.
Or maybe a funk masterwork by a bunch of Scotsmen?
The more I think about it, the more I’m aware that there was no way this sort of thing was going to be allowed to stand. All that peace, harmony and funk breaking out everywhere? The Overlords must have really been asleep at the switch. No wonder they hit back with such a vengeance.
A natural answer record to “Lady Marmalade,” in which the chump goes home, falls for a Jamaican hooker being pimped by “the racket boss” and, given a chance to tell his side of the tale, turns out to be even more of a chump than the lady thought….because nobody (the girl, the chump, the “black boy” in her island world) can save her and he’s the one who can’t stop asking himself why.
Just in case that’s not enough confusion, the Jamaican girl’s background ghost-voice was provided by Kiki Dee.
A straight rip and scary in its efficiency. White boys who helped define corn-fed midwestern stadium rock take on the Soul Brothers Six and their straight-from-the-soul-shadows mind-bender and do it note-for-note, lick-for-lick. And get an earned hit. That’s not the way it was supposed to happen. Ever. Not even in ’75.
Which brings us all the way around to the song that was sitting at #1 when the year ended.
By 1975, one of the mixed blessings of the decade’s first half–the blaxploitation flick–had started to come a box-office cropper, and so the curtain was about to be drawn on one of the period’s unmixed blessings, the blaxploitation soundtrack.
Even the best of those movies never lived up to the best of their music, and, though I’ve never seen the Sidney Poitier/Bill Cosby vehicle that provided the excuse for the Staples’ to formally close down the southern soul era (and Stax records), I have no reason to suspect it was among the best of anything.
Even if it was great, though, I’ll feel safe betting it wasn’t this great, because, whatever else it was, it wasn’t a reach for the heavens, let alone a reach which was about to have its fingers stomped by Brits in boots, pretending to preach freedom.
Speak to me ’75!
And, if you’re gonna go down, go down swingin’. Hey, If sitting through “Jackie Blue” and “Dance With Me” is the price of the ticket, I’ll pay it every time.
Before he decided to become a full-time minster in the summer of 1974, my father was a paint contractor. Around 1972, give or take a year, he was hired to paint the interior of one of the Florida Space Coast-area branch offices of a prominent bank that operated within a stone’s throw of the Kennedy Space Center. When it came time to paint the top floor, which was taken up by the bank president’s office, it was decided that the president’s daily business was too important to be interrupted so my dad would just have to paint around him as he worked.
I’m not sure how all the logistics were managed, but the upshot was that, for a week or so, in the early seventies, my dad found himself in daily conversation with a guy whose brother was a mucky-muck at the Atlanta branch of the Federal Reserve.
Dad had the gift of gab in excelsis and it pretty much always elicited one of two responses in strangers: Either they got out of earshot as quickly as possible or they opened up and told him all the secrets they’d been careful to keep from their own mothers.
Maybe because he didn’t really have a choice, once he decided to stay at his desk, the bank president turned out to be the latter.
By the time my dad finished painting the guy’s office they were on sufficiently intimate terms for the gentleman to offer some very timely, in-the-know advice.
First: Build a bomb shelter in the back yard.
Second: In addition to plenty of canned food and ammo, be sure to stock up on the following three items:
Cigarettes. Bonded whiskey. Gold bullion.
In the coming when-not-if age of Economic Chaos, which would surely be upon us before the decade was out, those would be the only three items that had any real value as barter.
Normally, I doubt even my dad, who wasn’t immune to apocalyptic thinking, would have given it much thought. But, before my mother sounded the final voice of reason, he ended up kicking it around for a week or two. At least the bomb-shelter part.
I’m not sure I could blame him.
It’s one thing to have the guy ranting about End Times on the street corner hand you a pamphlet written in invisible ink. It’s another thing altogether to get the inside dope from a guy who’s chewing the fat with his brother at the Fed every day while you’re dipping a roller in the Antique White.
I relate this little story because, unless you were there, the early seventies can seem very long ago and very far away. And, even if you were there, especially if you were as young as I was, they’re really not much closer
The air is like that. It changes. And once it does, you can recall concrete events, hazy conspiracy talk and the smell of paint thinner a lot more readily than the atmosphere in which such memories were formed.
About the only way a story like the one about my dad and the ban president seems anything other than quaint now, when the end (bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!) really is near, is to listen to bands like War and Steely Dan.
Once upon a time, in the age of the Rising, they had the air in common.
* * * *
They had a lot in common besides that.
They rose to prominence in the same place (Los Angeles) at roughly the same time (early to mid-seventies), practiced definitive variants of a rather fluid concept bandied about as “jazz rock” in those days, and, despite neither band being long on marketing, as opposed to musical, personality, each enjoyed remarkably high and similar levels of commercial success:
War: 8 gold or platinum LPs between 1970–79; 12 Top 40 singles, 6 Top 10 singles.
Steely Dan: 8 gold or platinum LPs between 1972–1980; 10 Top 40 singles, 3 Top 10 singles (with two more reaching #11)
That’s a lot of common ground. Especially considering they weren’t really soul mates.
I’ll lay into that in a bit.
But first, I’ll note one really big difference, which is how the usual suspects in the smart set generally felt about them:
Rolling Stone, listing the 500 greatest albums of all time, named three Steely Dan albums, at #145 (Aja), #240 (Can’t Buy a Thrill) and #336 (Pretzel Logic), to one War album, at #444 (The World is a Ghetto).
Robert Christgau gave four of Steely Dan’s studio albums contemporary grades of A- or better. He gave no grades of A- or better to any of War’s studio albums (he did give an A- to their 1976 best of).
Greil Marcus, in his invaluable “Treasure Island” list at the end of Stranded, included three Steely Dan albums. War was represented by one single (“Slippin’ Into Darkness”).
Dave Marsh, in The Rolling Stone Record Guide, was less enthusiastic about Steely Dan, giving three of their first six studio LPs a rating of 4 stars (on a 5 star system). But, though he called them “perhaps the most underrated black band of the Seventies,” he only gave two of War’s first seven studio LPs a grade of 4 stars (none higher), thus, oddly enough, helping insure that they would continue to be what he was purportedly lamenting.
Later, in The Heart of Rock ‘N’ Soul, a personal list of “the greatest 1,001 singles,” Marsh included three singles by each band. To be fair, War’s averaged out considerably higher in his rankings, but, basically, he called it a near-draw in an area where War was demonstrably stronger.
Once you get past these particular iconic writers/institutions, the crit-balance tips even more in Steely Dan’s favor, because few, if any, of the other white boys who have always dominated the basic narrative ever wrote about War at all, while many paid some kind of obeisance to Steely Dan (including their own chapter, by Ken Tucker, in Rolling Stone’s Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, a book in which War is mentioned exactly once–as Eric Burdon’s backup band on “Spill the Wine.”).
And, of course, circles of self-reinforcing logic being made to be unbroken, Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, in their fourth year of eligibility. War, eligible since 1996 and nominated three times, has yet to be voted in.
So it goes.
None of this has much to do with how great (or not) either band was/is. I’m not really big on the whole This-Versus-That dynamic. Sure it’s fun to play (Stax or Motown? Beatles or Stones? Prince or Michael? Tweedle-Dee or Tweedle-Dum?) but, really, I never thought those kind of choices said much about anybody, though the desire to make such choices might, and the desire to impose those choices on others definitely does.
So this isn’t a “War or Steely Dan?” argument.
It’s more like a thought experiment on why the critical assessment between two such evenly matched bands has so consistently favored one over the other.
Well, here’s a thought for the experiment.
How about, one group is Black and the other one is White?
Obvious though it is, it could still have consequences. So let’s let it dangle for a bit.
* * * *
Despite their similarities, as the covers of their respective breakthrough albums rather eloquently suggest, these bands were on rather different journeys:
I mean, you wouldn’t need the names on those covers to guess who was street and who was collegiate.
Which doesn’t mean they didn’t like each other personally or, as folks used to say, “dig” each other musically.
I have no idea if the respective members even knew each other and, while I can guess that they heard each other’s records (pretty hard not to), I have only a vague notion of how much, if any, impression those records made one upon the other.
Were they pushing each other, back there in that shared time and space? Inspiring each other? Making sure they at least kept an ear out for what the other was up to?
All of the above?
None of the above?
Hard to tell, beyond hints and allegations (which I’ll also get to in a bit).
A certain part of the truth is accessible, though.
In spirit and fact, War’s music rose from the neighborhoods Steely Dan, in spirit if not fact, cruised after dark in search of whatever might lend an edge to a pretty jaded existence: cool drugs, hot hookers, Jazz Heroes….inspiration. Black America’s traditional relationship to White America in other words.
This might have been no big deal. We are what we are. Nobody can blame the Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen for going to college. But this distinction happened to represent one of the gulfs White America and Black America needed to bridge if we were going to have any sort of future as anything other than the cobbled together, quasi-functional, political-economy-with-borders which was already dancing in the dreams of our conspiracy-of-intent overlords. Something was going to come out of the rubble of the late sixties. Whether it would be a step up or a step back was being fought out on the airwaves as much as anywhere else.
The gap would be bridged or the bridge would be destroyed. Mountains were bound to fall.
Whether they would fall on us was still a question, though, and just because we now know the answer, and know the mountain was made out of manure, doesn’t mean the why of it isn’t still worth exploring.
Unless, of course, we just want to give up.
* * * *
And the first factor in “bridging the gap”–in not giving up–would be what?
Maybe recognition of something elemental?
Like maybe a black band from the actual ghetto could offer a vision as stimulating and challenging as a couple of white guys (Steely Dan was basically Fagen, whose idea of “street” was the classically bohemian one of detesting his parents for moving to the suburbs, Becker, and whoever they felt like hiring at a given moment) who went to college (and, some might argue) never really left, even if Becker did drop out and Fagen, protesting a bust, did refuse to attend graduation?
That’s actually been a hard line to cross with even the most enlightened of the crit-illuminati. I’m not down with Wynton Marsalis much, but he was right to bristle at white critics who called Louis Armstrong (that is, even Louis Armstrong) an “instinctive” genius.
What did that mean? Marsalis wondered. That he didn’t know what he was doing?
Well, yeah. That’s exactly what it meant.
Some of this attitude has hung over the discussion of nearly every black musical genius–or great band–from the dawn of the popular-music-criticism-verging-on-intellectualism that jazz itself finally forced into existence in the twenties and thirties, to the last time I looked at my watch.
Yes, an Armstrong or an Ellington or a Miles Davis eventually gets the last level of respect, even if it’s bound to retain a slightly patronizing air which is frequently reduced to over praising. And, yes, a James Brown or a Jimi Hendrix gets it, too, though it’s usually couched as some form of Resistance-to-the-Man, which, sotto voce, is accepted as being as compulsory (for black people) and as much a product of the subconscious, as, well, instinct.
That is, a band like War could only write/sing/play with such conviction about the world they knew–a world writerly sorts were free to ignore or acknowledge as they saw fit–because it was the world they knew. They were geniuses of observation.
Well, maybe not geniuses, but, you know, really funky and kinda smart about stuff.
The way black people just naturally are.
On the other hand, a band like Steely Dan–i.e., a couple of cool cats like Becker and Fagen who, admittedly could not have been cool in any context except that of the Rock and Roll America they were determined to mock–could imagine things.
They were thinkers by God!
And that narrative became all but officially signed, sealed and delivered, no matter how often Becker and Fagen’s lyrics were clearly rooted in personal experience…
Or how often War’s lyrics were clearly flights of imagination…
And that was before any discussion of the music behind the lyrics, which, in Steely Dan’s case, tended to make the critics who took them to heart from the moment they showed up in the early seventies wax lyrical and, in War’s case, tended to make them wax either not at all or along the lines of Christgau’s jeering “blackstrap-rock.”
Ha, ha, ha.
That’s one side.
And, on the other side, you get, for instance, Tucker in his History of Rock and Roll piece:
“Becker and Fagen had already evolved a procedure that guaranteed a certain amount of tension and surprise, and at its best generated a flow of little pop epiphanies: genre riffs are set off by contrapuntal rhythms…then these clever contrasts are polished and hammered down by rock-intense playing.”
Okay, maybe Lonnie Jordan and Bebe Dickerson and the rest of the men of War were lucky, being spared that sort of praise. But note the active verbs: evolved, generated, polished, hammered down.
So far as I’ve been able to tell, War has never been discussed in similar terms and, even if it happened, it’s unlikely they’d find themselves credited with a phrase like “evolved a procedure.”
That’s reserved for the college kids…by other college kids.
* * * *
Now, none of this would matter if Steely Dan had, at some point, really been a better band. We should all know the dangers of quota-based tokenism by now. But Steely Dan at high tide wasn’t greater than War at high tide.
Simple evidence there…They weren’t greater because nobody was.
Sure, some bands sustained greatness longer. But when War was locked in–roughly from 1971’s All Day Music through the 1976 single, “Summer,” which turned out to be their last big hit, they were a cosmic American band on a level with Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens or the original Byrds.
They just couldn’t get the white boy press to hear it that way.
Absent a “personality” White America’s newly self-appointed intelligentsia could latch onto–a Sly Stone or George Clinton who could serve as an identifiable “Wow man! He’s so-o-o-o great!!” cool kid, whether they liked it or not–they were simply never going to get the level of respect that a similarly anonymous (and, yes, similarly great) white band like Steely Dan could take as a matter of course.
It wasn’t the public, by the way, who failed to “get” it. Along with everything else, War easily crossed race and class barriers on the radio that Steely Dan never got within shouting distance of. (You can go here and scroll down to the War entry for a sense of just how far they reached.)
And they did not do so “instinctively.”
They did not do so by dint of failing to pass the great test of Art. They did not fail to imagine music that made the world larger instead of smaller.
Quite the opposite.
* * * *
Which brings us to the real divide. And the real cost.
Great bands. Same time and place. Some overlap to be sure.
Steely Dan’s famous first single, for instance, sure sounded like somebody in their camp was deeply into the mix of specifically L.A.-style garage funk which War, working their way up from the streets so many out-of-towners wanted to own, already embodied.
And, even if the white boy brigade had trouble hearing it, War’s occasionally mordant wit certainly wasn’t without a tinge of the irony Steely Dan specialized in.
So, in addition to all the stuff I mentioned at the top, they had enough else in common that it’s not too hard to imagine them covering each other’s songs.
Because, all their very real differences aside, sharing a time and space mattered, too, and more because of the time than the space.
In that time–and every space–the spirit of good old rock and roll, lingering in the aftermath of ’68, the year it probably wasn’t yet quite so evident we could never walk away from in the way we had managed to walk away from 1812, 1861, 1929, 1941 was still potent. Which meant that, for as long as Rock and Roll America lasted, Black America and White America were bound to keep invading each other’s space, looking for a way forward.
In that all-important respect, Steely Dan were no pikers.
But War went further.
Steely Dan was finally minimalist, introverted, elliptical. It was hard to imagine them ever being so corny as to name their albums after hit singles.
There’s a fine line, though, between cutting to the heart of the matter and cutting the heart out of the matter. On the first two cuts of their first album–“Do it Again,” and “Dirty Work”–this sounds very much like a line Steely Dan could have walked. Even the rest of the first album’s tendency towards obscurantism-for-its-own-sake didn’t entirely negate the possibility.
By the end of that first LP, though, they weren’t so much walking the wire as clinging to it from below, with one hand slipping.
They more or less held on for the next three albums, more than enough to make them justifiably rich, famous and celebrated. And holding on was an achievement, plenty enough to keep the music alive through the increasingly woozy lite-jazz descendency of their late period and, for the attentive, all the years since.
But one is justified in asking: Where’d the vision go?
Nowhere, really, because, after those first two luminous cuts, it never quite developed into a vision.
Visions, it turned out, were corny, too. Just like naming your albums after hit singles.
So, eventually, the cool kids who had spent their lives cutting themselves off from anything that could be misinterpreted as a little too heart-on-the-sleeve, ended up being the mushiest thing on the radio in a time (the late 70s) when the radio was turning to mush.
To be fair, War faded as well.
Embracing a vision costs, too. Just like avoiding one.
Instead of turning to mush, they simply lost their edge. The sharp blade became a dull blade. Better than late Steely Dan, but hardly what they had been…or what Steely Dan had been.
It’s certainly possible to argue that Steely Dan had it right. If the mountains were going to fall anyway, why not make sure the mountains fell on somebody else? Why not remain on the ridge, in safety? “If you live in this world you’re seeing the change of the guard” for sure. But this ain’t Fort Apache. It’s not as though honor were at stake. I mean, what’s cornier than that? Especially if, by remaining in safety, you might even get yourself proclaimed a visionary.
Plenty have weighed in on the value of Steely Dan’s vision. Ken Tucker’s take is standard, even exemplary, in that respect. And the “vision” is not illegitimate.
But War, greater or lesser by more objective standards, went further in this respect.
Their vision–long unacknowledged by critics who think what really matters is voting reliably Democratic and retweeting #BlackLivesMatter (or whatever hipster movement, prepared to make no difference either, takes its place next summer) to all their friends–was bracketed by their first and last important singles:
Pure L.A from beginning to end….and contextually shocking.
The surfers had sent out a vision of L.A. and it was shooting the curl at Malibu.
The folk rockers had sent out a vision from Laurel Canyon and it was peace, love and long hair, plus harmonies, guitars and groupies.
The Doors had sent out a vision from the Whisky and it was “Father I want to kill you, Mother I want to….a-a-a-a-a-a-g-g-g-g-g-h-h-h-h-h-h!”
War checked in a generation before the rappers and said, quietly and then not so quietly: Hey, it’s our town, too.
And what they really meant, a message that resonated from Compton to Cape Town, from Mexico City to Montgomery, was it’s our world, too...And if you want to do something about it you could start by giving us a little basic respect.
In that sense “down at the beach or a party in town, making love or just riding around,” the most intense action juxtaposed with the most laid back, an insistence that Los Angeles and the world belonged to black people from Compton as much as beach boys (or Beach Boys) from Hawthorne, was at least as revolutionary as “the world is a ghetto,” and also sent the message that revolutionary and “incendiary” were not the same thing.
They didn’t share Steely Dan’s underlying, deeply cynical assumption, one that moved much of SD’s audience even if they never quite bought it themselves: If the world can’t be saved, it’s really a bummer, but let’s all be thankful it can at least it can be endured, one joint at a time
* * * *
War had a white harmonica player but they otherwise consisted of American-born black men who recognized Rock and Roll America’s fundamental challenge: If we’re ever going to get anywhere, Black America and White America are going to have to challenge each other’s space and learn to get along.
Steely Dan, despite their jazz element, were white men committed to protecting the space off to the side which elite White America has always very carefully preserved for itself, a space that has always been most ably defended by folks who are the longest way possible from being “racist.”
The Dan weren’t for invading anybody’s space.
And one could say that their once false assumptions have become the norm. They’ve certainly become the collegiate norm, which is one reason the overlords are pushing “college” on everybody (bilking suckers being the other). Whether they’ve also become true is a question for the future, a future I suspect is looming nearer than we think as we become less and less capable of producing art that can either wound or heal, let alone do both at once.
Whatever future is coming, someone will be left to look back and judge us like all the other fallen empires who, funnily enough, we really had very little in common with.
It will be for them to study the moment when the balance was being tipped and decide who gave a nudge in the direction of the Void and who shouted a warning.
Chances are, if you took the easy way out, greatness won’t really absolve you then.
And if there is no judgment?
Well, there will sure be a lot of Steely Dan fans.
And War, still shouting in the wilderness, won’t make any sense at all.
One nice thing about career-spanning comps is you can often hear history developing in front of your ears.
Maybe not just musical history.
One nice thing about CDs is they allow the journey to be a lot longer and deeper.
I’ve been listening to the Staples forever, but, until recently, I was limited to this…
from vinyl days, and, wonderful as it is, I was pretty sure there was a lot more where that came from. So lately, lacking the moolah to spring for the new limited edition box set produced by the mighty Joe McEwen, I’ve been listening to this…
…a two-CD set that goes much deeper without suggesting the catalog is anywhere near exhausted.
I doubt the new 4-disc box set, however great, will suggest any such thing either.
One thing that happens on The Ultimate Staple Singers: A Family Affair, however, which will never be defined more clearly, is the crystallization of the moment the Staples separated themselves from the pack.
The first part of the first disc covers their transition from a fine, but fairly typical, black gospel family singing group to a socially conscious folk-gospel blend of same–roughly the distance from “Swing Low” to “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall.” They move along in graceful fashion through the first fourteen cuts (more than my old vinyl LP held altogether) with little suggestion that they will ever be better than good.
Then something happens. And on this set, at least, it happens very suddenly.
Somebody–Pops, Stax, the ghosts of ’68 (haunting us still), anybody at marketing who had noted the sudden stunning success of Aretha Franklin–realizes it will be a good idea to put Mavis out front a little more often.
And, once that happens, they arrive all at once. You hear the Staples not as they have been–a tad earnest to tell the truth–but as they would be ever-after, announcing themselves with a one-two punch:
Two things are remarkable from this distance.
First, they leave nothing behind from an already adventurous career.
Second, they sing as though the Civil Rights movement has not already peaked. As though the future is still beckoning amidst the riots and assassinations and wars and rumors of wars.
One other thing was less remarkable in the moment.
Nobody noticed. It would be three long years before “Heavy Makes You Happy” finally broke them on the soul charts, nearly another year before “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There” took the same vision to the top of the pop charts.
It was hardly a straight line, but they must have known what they had. Because, from “The Ghetto” on, the essential part of the formula was clear to all concerned.
Make Art first.
Commerce will eventually follow.
In other words, start wherever you want, just make sure Mavis gets up front somewhere along the way.
The Temptations were one of those miracles only Berry Gordy could have wrought. At least three guys who were good enough to be stars in their own right ended up in the same vocal group with a couple of sterling backup singers (including a world class bass-man) and the cream of the Motown machine devoted to their success. Nothing quite like it ever happened before or has certainly ever happened since. Naturally it had to end some time and likely well before its time.
David Ruffin started the unraveling when he insisted on going solo in 1969 (evidently after Gordy, supported by the other Tempts, refused to give him the name billing Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson were by then enjoying with the Supremes and the Miracles.
It might have been a ploy for solo-dom on Ruffin’s part anyway, but in any case he got it (to be replaced by Dennis Edwards) and over the next few years, Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams followed suit. Some years later, Edwards gave it a try as well.
There were varying degrees of success with Kendricks enjoying the most, Ruffin a distant second and the others having little luck at all.
Back in 1996, Gordy’s ongoing Corporation put together a double CD comp of the four singers’ solo work which by all rights should be about as inspired as that cover up there.
But time does change some things.
Four decades on from when most of this music was recorded, and two decades on from the comp being released, the shadow of what each man did inside the Temptations, mighty though it remains. doesn’t fall quite so heavy. It has become possible, almost imperative, for their solo efforts to be heard as what they are–further attempts by these superstars of Black America (whose names aren’t nearly so well known in White America, especially to later generations) to build some kind of bridge between their own ambitions and what the world was going through.
Heard in that context, these aren’t just honorable records, they’re illuminating. Especially since, as I may have mentioned before on here, we haven’t learned much in those interceding decades.
I always knew The Rising ran deep and the cost of ignoring it was and is steep.
Put simply, these men should have been much bigger stars. They should have achieved the kind of stardom worthy of men who were good enough to step out in front of the Temptations. There are a hundred reasons why they didn’t, not all of them avoidable. But we’re all the poorer for it just the same and while I mostly lament what used to get on the radio and no longer does, it’s also worth remembering what used to not get on the radio because one of those hundred reasons I mentioned is that the competition was incredibly fierce…Still:
And, oh yeah, all of it–the pleading, the preaching and the ignoring–was implied in the beginning, in David Ruffin’s first and biggest hit, which might as well have been sung to the audience he was about to be cut off from (sadly enough, by Berry Gordy himself, if nobody else stepped up to the plate…proving once again that no one is without sin):
This year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballot was released recently. I’ll have a post on all the nominees and who I voted for in the fan ballots later. First I wanted to concentrate on the acts that are the year’s two most deserving by a wide margin (not that either is being treated that way in either the press or the fan polls–wrong color), who also played a big role in the category I recently started here.
I don’t know if War was the greatest American band of the seventies–I’d call it a close run between them and Lynyrd Skynyrd–and, depending on how one defines “the Seventies” (do Creedence or Sly and the Family Stone belong?) or “American” (does Fleetwood Mac belong?), there are other contenders. But they were certainly the most Cosmic–the same way the Byrds were the most Cosmic band of the Sixties.
Cosmic as in “boundless” or “limitless.”
Or just far-reaching.
Put another way, they were the perfect band for Cosmic times. Especially Cosmic times that were beginning to close down and leave us with the set of boundaries and limits within which we now live.
They’re just buzzwords now. A big, mixed up stew of psychic jolts barely detectable from each other.
Vietnam. Watergate. Woodstock. Altamont. Manson Family. Summer of Love. Love Generation. Weatherman. SDS. Kent State. Days of Rage.
Assassination. Riot. War (the socio-political concept, not the military one that involves the truly bloody and costly task of taking and holding ground and certainly not the Cosmic band).
It’s all in the past now. Part of the times.
Except “the times” still have a hand around our throat. Our ignoring it hasn’t made it go away–just led us here, to the place of lost opportunity.
The Rising was meant to warn us, to keep us off the wrong track.
War was The Rising’s strongest voice.
For a half-decade plus–from backing Eric Burdon on 1970’s “Spill the Wine” (a far more subversive record than just about anybody has ever cared to admit–probably because it arrived at the only moment when a white man fantasizing about an orgy in the Hall of the Mountain Kings while the African Kings [albeit with a Danish harmonica player] of L.A.’s Chicano East Side laid down the funk and Miss Puerto Rico whispered sweet nothings in his ear, going #3 Billboard, seemed not all that far-fetched) on through “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” and “The World is a Ghetto” and “Cisco Kid” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends.”
Along the way, they had the best-selling album of 1973–a phenomenon (now mostly forgotten, along with the rest of The Rising) I wrote about here, plus a string of Go-rilla-sized radio hits that crossed every conceivable barrier (which I wrote about here).
So why aren’t War in the Hall already?
Well, I can only speculate–few voters or nominating committee members ever explain themselves, which is their right. But, if I had to guess, I’d say the obvious reason is the lack of a convenient hook: no charismatic leader like Sly Stone or George Clinton to attract the attention of the Radical Chic combo (black revolutionaries, white luminaries) that tends to excite intellectual discourse; no easily defined style (I read the phrase “Latin funk” a lot…er…okay); a complete misunderstanding of rock and roll history that allows those sitting in judgment to think War was “just another funk band,” ignoring how their unique style was forged from L.A. doo-wop and garage bands, late-sixties neo-soul and West Coast jazz, with respect for, but relatively little deference to, James Brown or Sly Stone (a process of assimilation which is best defined on Rhino’s great, little noted, three-volume collection Brown Eyed Soul which I can’t recommend too highly).
The greatest sin of all then.
No easy answers.
Or, to use a throwback cliche–prophets are often without honor in their own land.
More precisely and emphatically than anyone working in the seventies–in rock and roll or elsewhere–War were the prophets of the backlash present.
Hello “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” and “The World Is a Ghetto,” and “I hear you’re working for the C.I.A/They wouldn’t have you in the Maf-i-a.” Hey White America…you didn’t listen then, how’s it feel to join us, here at the precipice of the long fall defined by the new buzzwords? Decline. Collapse. Credit Default. Drone Warfare. Air Strikes. Government Shutdown. Or, the best description of the American prison system–even better than the New Jim Crow–Gulag?
Should have listened I guess.
Probably still should….
War were West Coast–East L.A. and universal. Old Testament prophets informed by a wary version of New Testament grace.
Spinners were East Coast, Philly by way of Detroit (a long apprenticeship at Motown that ended when their great, Stevie Wonder-produced breakout hit “It’s A Shame” was followed by an even greater Stevie Wonder-produced wonder called “We’ll Have it Made” which failed to cement their success).
They weren’t prophets themselves, but they served one. His name was Thom Bell and, as arranger, producer and (most often with his great partner, Linda Creed) songwriter, he operated under the guise of a Romantic Poet.
Though he had hits with a lot of artists, Bell had three principal vehicles during The Rising. Spinners (there was properly no “the” in their prime period), were the pinnacle of a crescendo that rose from the Del-fonics (very fine) and the Stylistics (truly great, but, due to their reliance on Russell Thompkin’s Jr., ultimately held within limits which Spinners, with three great leads and the kind of harmonies that come only from years of finishing each others breaths, easily transcended).
Bell had a vision that seemed apolitical. It seemed that way even on something as direct as “Ghetto Child.” It seemed that way then, and, if you don’t pay the extra-close attention which those glorious arrangements and heart-stopping vocals can so easily deflect, it might seem that way now.
Don’t be fooled. Spinners were the greatest vocal group of the last decade where that distinction meant anything. They were also the vehicle where Bell (with and without Creed) invested the best of himself.
What we want Bell and Spinners essentially said, over and over, is to belong.
If War were already counting the loss (even as they hoped for the best), Bell’s Spinners were exploring a promise that would never quite be kept…on the assumption that, even if it wasn’t, it would be worth articulating.
One of the other acts on this year’s ballot is N.W.A., the gangsta rap pioneers who eventually sprang from the Compton streets War long before warned were slipping away. I didn’t vote for N.W.A. this time around (though I think they are worthy and will get in at some point).
Put simply, the rejection of the visions War and Spinners offered during The Rising–our inability to hear and heed the warning they sometimes implied and sometimes stated openly–made N. W.A. inevitable, necessary, cathartic and nowhere near effective.
The legal barriers once confronted by the Civil Rights movement are down. They were down in 1970, when War and Spinners had their first big Pop hits.
The walls that divide the “modern” acts on this year’s ballot (indie acts like Green Day and Nine Inch Nails along with N.W.A.–page still white, ink still black, still no gettin’ together) from each other are still standing.
Higher than ever.
Really, really should have listened….Really, really still should.
This is the second new category in a week (you know me…once I get started…).
I’ll keep the explanation simple.
“The Rising” is my own catch-all name for the age-of-protest culture (especially music) that exploded in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 and burned through roughly the following decade.
I’m using that name because I can’t think of a better one.
I’m going to start focusing on that music a little more often because I don’t think it gets talked about enough…and because, several decades after the punks and rappers put themselves forward as its natural replacement, it has never stopped being relevant or–as either prophecy or music–come close to being matched.
I’ll probably have more explanations to offer as I go along (I’ve learned not to promise anything), but the immediate impetus is to try and make at least a sliver of sense of the bad news that washes in day after day. To offer a reminder that these things didn’t become depressingly familiar just yesterday. General upshot, as usual, is simple: The prophets warned. We did not listen.
So now….there’s some “trigger happy policing”:
and then….”God knows where we’re heading” having been answered–decades after the man Marvin Gaye dedicates this song to shot him dead–as the same old place:
…This ain’t living…But be sure to check back tomorrow. I’ll doubtless be in a better mood then!