random friday, 1971 edition: war, “slippin’ into darkness”
Friday, March 26, 2010
The early seventies saw the rise of some terrific, paranoid music in soul, R&B, and funk. In 1971, Marvin Gaye hit the top of the charts, first with the single “What’s Going On" and then with the subsequent album of the same name, which included classics like “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” The Undisputed Truth had the only hit of their career with “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” which was the anthem of paranoid soul, at least until the O’Jays topped it the following year with “Back Stabbers.”
Meanwhile, Sly Stone was busy creating the greatest album of the paranoid period, There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Sly and the Family Stone were one of the upbeat heroes of the 60s, with their jubilant performances and crossover appeal. Their triumph at Woodstock sealed their reputation.
They released a single, “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” which was another piece of pop funk delight, until you started paying attention to the lyrics:
Lookin' at the devil
Grinnin' at his gun
Fingers start shakin'
I begin to run
Bullets start chasin'
I begin to stop
We begin to wrestle
I was on the top
Meanwhile, as Wikipedia tells us,
Sly Stone had become erratic and moody … he hired streetwise friends Hamp "Bubba" Banks and J.B. Brown as his personal managers, whom after which enlisted gangsters Edward "Eddie Chin" Elliott and Mafioso J.R. Valtrano as Sly's bodyguards. In addition, Stone assigned these individuals to handle his business dealings, to retrieve drugs, and to protect him from those he considered as enemies, some of whom were his own bandmates and staff.
The title to There’s a Riot Goin’ On was supposedly Stone’s semi-answer to Gaye’s question, what’s going on? That album concluded with a remake of “Thank You,” this time called “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa.” You wouldn’t recognize the song from the music … in place of pop funk delight, Stone turned to a druggy, slow drone funk that repeated for almost two minutes until the vocals finally began. And the lyrics made a lot more sense in this musical context … lookin’ at the devil, grinnin’ at his gun.
The explicit answer to Gaye’s question came in the title track, which closed Side One. It’s length is listed as 0:00 … the track is empty. There was no riot.
It’s in this context that War released “Slippin’ Into Darkness.”
War was a diverse group, both ethnically and musically (their best musician was arguably Lee Oskar, a Danish harp player … their best music was a kind of Latin funk). They made an interesting match with British blooze singer Eric Burdon, who had made his name with The Animals, had discovered psychedelic drugs, and become an eccentric singer with an odd relationship to the blues he clearly loved. With the Animals, Burdon was one of the best British blues singers, his “authenticity” never sounding fake. In his psychedelic phase, though, you never knew what to expect. The biggest hit by Eric Burdon and War was “Spill the Wine,” one of the most bizarre songs to ever hit the charts, full of Burdon’s psychedelic dream babblings, an inscrutable chorus, and War playing a lounge version of their Latin funk. Burdon and the band closed their relationship with the album The Black-Man’s Burdon, saved from its borderline creepiness by the playing of War, but featuring songs like “Beautiful New Born Child,” “Nuts, Seeds and Life,” “Pretty Colors,” and two versions of the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin.”
On their own, War released two albums in 1971 … the second, All Day Music, featured “Slippin’ Into Darkness.” The lyrics were closer to Sly Stone’s heady vagueness than to Marvin Gaye’s specifics, and definitely a big step away from the more obvious “Smiling Faces Sometimes.”
I was slippin’ into darkness
When I heard my mother say
You been slippin’ into darkness
Pretty soon you’re gonna pay
Any of the songs mentioned above (not counting those oddball Eric Burdon numbers) are like Proust’s madeleines in their ability to transport the listener back to the early 70s, when it seemed like every other song on the radio was a masterful R&B hit about America, told from people whose story hadn’t always been on the front page. There was Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack to Superfly … there was the resurgence of James Brown (he hadn’t really gone away), and the emergence of P-Funk. There was the loveliness of the soulful artists like Al Green and the Chi-Lites, Aretha Franklin’s Spirit in the Dark and Young, Gifted and Black … you thought it would never end.
It did end, of course. There was disco … this is not the usual disco sucks rant, the best disco was great and a lot of the rest was fun, but for the most part, the message was different than that espoused by Sly Stone on There’s a Riot Goin’ On. There was Smokey Robinson’s 1975 album, A Quiet Storm, which gave the name to a genre which would never inspire a riot (nonetheless, Smokey’s “Cruisin’” remains one of the most gorgeous tracks of all time).
The thing about the early 70s “paranoid soul” songs is that they still resonate, still make sense in 2010. You don’t listen to those songs solely for nostalgia’s sake … they won’t let you. There is nothing nostalgic about slipping into darkness.
This year's format for the Friday music thing seriously kicks it. Yet another excellent set of observations and connections.
More work, though.
Posted by: Steve | Sunday, March 28, 2010 at 06:44 AM
Thanks. More work, but more fun!
Posted by: Steven Rubio | Sunday, March 28, 2010 at 08:54 AM
You are so right when you say these songs still resonate. Some of the above are among my favorites for their sound more than anything. But these bands and their music also have heavy nostalgic meaning for me too. As early as I can remember, War (and Tierra and Malo and Santana) was the soundtrack of my "world." They and a few others were such a common sound in East LA in the seventies--it was the shit you heard just walking down to the corner. They remind me of the daytime, in parks or people's backyards, of adults getting drunk and of people hanging out in the sun. I also remember these songs as something of an opening act for nighttime music, when people were already drunk or looking to dance (or both). Then the old 50s and 60s soul or doo-wop would come on, or somebody would just start singing.
Posted by: Tomás | Monday, March 29, 2010 at 08:51 AM
I had a thought the other day ... same thought I've had many times, but for some reason it stuck with me this time ... what is it that makes some songs rise above nostalgia? Like you say, it's not that something like War doesn't "take you back," but some of those songs still mean something today other than just Back in the Day. Other songs, just as good, for some reason they take you back and that's the end of it. The song that prompted me this time was "That's Entertainment" by the Jam ... a fine song, nothing wrong with it all, but when I heard it, I was transported to 1980 and that's where I stayed.
Posted by: Steven Rubio | Monday, March 29, 2010 at 09:38 AM