Earth, Wind & Fire
US release date: 10 April 2001
US release date: 10 April 2001
by Simon Warner
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As the Sixties turned into the Seventies and the volume of the bass pulse rose in soul, the horn stabs got harder in R&B and a new brand of black music emerged. Credited originally to James Brown and a rhythm dubbed “the One”, funk signalled the demise of the pop romances of Motown and the gutsy ballads of Stax. Funk carried a political capital and a cultural cool: as the smoke clouds of Watts cleared, as the killer of Martin Luther King was incarcerated, black singers and musicians assumed the role of social leaders, expressing the frustrations of the urban margins through sounds that made fewer concessions to white audiences.
It wasn’t only the Godfather of Soul who saw the insistent backbeat of funk as a means to engage directly with black audiences in Memphis or Atlanta, Los Angeles or New York City; Sly Stone, before his burn out, also utilised the attack of the style to herald a new era of self-confidence, maturity, and resistance in the ghetto. The painstaking negotiations of the Civil Rights movement had delivered a false dawn; it was time to stand up. Funk’s passions offered a potent soundtrack for the stand.
Funk came in different shades; the tough funk of Brown and the JBs, the space funk of Clinton and his extraordinary family of players, and a smoother hybrid of funk which managed to retain much of the edge, much of the elan, of the original format, but proved to be a mainstream commercial proposition, too. The finest practitioners of that smooth style were Earth, Wind & Fire, and their chart record in the mid to late 1970s confirmed their crossover credentials.
That said, it was inevitably the hit singles in the US, “Shining Star” and “Sing a Song, and in the UK, “Fantasy” and “September”, that constructed the band’s public perception. They appeared, in timeless fashion, to adopt the inflections and nuances of a black genre and smooth them down, polish them up, for a much wider listenership. And perhaps that is just what they did do. But singles never tell the whole tale, and these two re-releases, re-mastered and restored, remind us that as an album act, the group displayed an impressive eclecticism, respecting a sizeable range of black traditions. In addition, Open Our Eyes and Spirit feature a sequence of bonus tracks never heard on the original vinyl long players.
Open Our Eyes was the band’s 1974 effort which drew a significant response from the critics and the customers. “Mighty Mighty”, the opener, is an excellent example of the slick funk E,W&F would perfect. An infectious rhythm track built on a chunky guitar line, riddled with snaking, Sly-like horn refrains, and edged with the multiple vocal harmonies, became their trademark. The next tune, the softer, reflective shades of “Devotion”, represents a line of spiritual evangelism that would also prosper, and draw on a rich range of influences such as Christian and African mysticism and particularly the symbolism of Egyptology.
“Drum Song” is a fragile percussion piece which evokes images of the tropical forest, while “Tee Nine Chee Bit” features the kind of street conversation and psychedelic guitar voicings that would have not been out of place on a Parliament gathering. “Spasmodic Movements” is a short sax instrumental that the sweeter end of the jazz community would have welcomed aboard — mellow yet far from MOR. Of the new songs, “Ain’t No Harm to Moan” is as raw a contemporary slave anthem as you’re likely to find.
Two years later, Spirit had moved the process up several notches, and its ear-catching repertoire would earn the band their first platinum album. Its high spots are many — “Getaway”, “On Your Face”, the epic, “Burnin’ Bush” — even if its bonus tracks are somewhat disappointing. They’re two unremarkable re-mixes and little else aside. The record would confirm E,W&F as a world talent, yet its shiny production and its impeccable vocal layering lacks the surprises that Open Our Eyes provides.
At the centre of this phenomenon was the Memphis-born Maurice White, a drummer who’d built an outstanding resumé even before he formed the band that would fulfil his large-scale musical vision in grand style. (That resume includes working with Etta James, Fontella Bass, and Ramsey Lewis.)
In 1985, E,W&F’s mastermind took time out to produce his only solo album to date. The eponymously titled collection transfers to CD for the first time here and it is something of a lost treasure. It shares much of the muscular bravado that had by then propelled the group to global fame, yet it must be remembered that it was the unexpected failure of 1983’s album “Electric Universe” which led to an extended sabbatical for the band and allowed White the space and time to shape a recording on his own.
The result is certainly a superior affair, with the grandstand curtain-raiser “Switch on Your Radio” worthy of the band at their best. “Believe in Magic” and “Invitation” duplicate the energy, and even a ballad like “I Need You” has enough lush hooks to suggest the song’s digital reincarnation could easily prompt a revival — and no doubt a chart-topper — in the Backstreet Boys mould, as the boy bands rush to plunder the back catalogue on both sides of the Atlantic.
On Maurice White, the only track that has been rushing to the change mechanism is the singer’s take on Ben E.King’s “Stand by Me”, probably soul’s most over-recorded and most over-rated standard. This is a rare lapse of taste on an album that otherwise distils the fervent energy of his group but offers an appealing showcase for White’s confident vocal manner. Self-produced, this re-issue is a worthy arrival in the CD racks.