Eugene McDaniels: Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse (1971)


Executive branch pimpslap.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: 1971. Post-hippie America was fracturing under the twin weights of the Vietnam Conflict and the harsh social policies of the soon-to-be-impeached President Richard Nixon. Gene McDaniels was a moderately successful smoothed-out R&B singer-songwriter whose growing political awareness had started to blossom on his 1970 album Outlaw. Reclaiming his given name of Eugene McDaniels he set his angry, humanitarian ideals to music and recorded the groovalistic Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse.

Stirring up a Molotov cocktail of blues, rock and free jazz Heroes set the sonic and lyrical blueprint for conscious rap decades before it existed. The luscious gravy-thick groove of “Jagger The Dagger” was wholly sampled by A Tribe Called Quest at the beginning of their first album, and mirrors Tribe’s approach to positivity and questioning of the music industry.

Armed with a musical posse of Roberta Flack’s sidemen, including both acoustic and electric bassists, McDaniels tunes snap like dry twigs in a bonfire. Their prickly grooves are a match for his cactus-sharp insights. The slow genocide of the American Indians in “The Parasite” is smoothly supported by a blanket of downtempo melody that slowly devolves into a smallpox of chaos.

McDaniels looks for answers to painfully clear social inequities. “What is the connection between racism and mob violence” he asks in his only-funny-in-retrospect “Supermarket Blues”, where his attempt to return a can of peas results in a personal beatdown. “How much ass will Jesus kick when he returns” is the subject of the rockin’ “The Lord is Back”. His razor-sharp voice evokes preacher-like rage when he sings of impending divine payback:

The Lord is mad
His disposition’s mean
He’s traveling the road to mass destruction
Poor hearts be glad
Y’know your troubles have been seen
He promised he’d make power reductions
Revelations tells us the time is near
(Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)
Better pay attention to the warning voice you hear.
(Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)

There was a payback all right, but not what McDaniels expected.

THE FALLOUT: It’s hard to conceive of it now, in a post-hip-hop universe, but in 1971 there were no angry, government-criticizing Black artists on a major label. In fact, Heroes enraged sitting Vice-President Spiro Agnew so much that he personally called up Atlantic Records and demanded to know why they had released such a disturbing and seditious record. From that point on Atlantic stopped all promotion and the album died. Although Heroes lived a secondary life in hip-hop, baked into songs by The Beastie Boys, Organized Konfusion and Pete Rock, McDaniels didn’t release another record under his own name for thirty-three years,

Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

Muzzled by the powers that be, yet sampled by a future generation, the social rage of Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse is eerily current and prophetic.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Just in time for Yom Kippur, the music of Ugandan Jews.

Defunkt: Thermonuclear Sweat (1982)


Skyscrapers of groove.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: The downtown scene of New York City circa 1980 was the nexus of punk, jazz and dance music yet few artists attempted to compile all three styles into one mega-style, citing reasons such as “technically impossible” and “virtually unlistenable”. Enter trombonist Joseph Bowie, who developed the Voltron-like powers to merge these genres into one sound with his group Defunkt, who released their debut album the same year. A hit with musicians and a miss with everybody else they returned in 1982 with a tighter yet schizoid follow-up, the pummeling Thermonuclear Sweat.

Named after a song from their first album Thermonuclear Sweat stacks fast and furious funk grooves on top of one another – horns colliding with guitars crushed by percussion – until every sonic cavity is bursting with sound, and then Joseph Bowie sings on top of that. If the orchestral funk of Earth Wind & Fire walks with military precision Defunkt moves like a prison break: quick and focused but chaotic and angry.

“Avoid the Funk” ignores its own advice, slapping horns upside their heads with mercilessly heavy low end. Ever the versatile band they can stampede “Ooh Baby” into a headlong fury of melting guitar harshness, courtesy of a pre-Living Colour Vernon Reid, yet also float into the straight jazz (kinda) of “Big Bird (Au Private)”.

Bowie sings like a football coach yelling plays, which makes the revealing “I Tried to Live Alone” much more engagingly paranoid, and their revved-up fluttery cover of the O’Jays “For the Love Of Money” increasingly desperate.

THE FALLOUT: Not only did Thermonuclear Sweat not gain Defunkt a larger audience but it divided their fans over the inclusion of more traditional jazz elements. Defunkt soon left their label.

Thermonuclear Sweat is available from Amazon, and you can sample tracks here:

There once was a band from New York City who combined serrated punk guitars with high-speed polyrhythmic funk beats and made a breakthrough dance record in the early ’80s. That album was Talking Heads’ Remain In Light. Defunkt, ironically still together after 25 years, has yet to receive their due for pioneering the same sound years before.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Eugene McDaniels reaches the apocalypse.

Res: How I Do (2002)


Like peanut butter for chocolate.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: Gnarls Barkley’s success in America gives me hope that one can be an eccentric African-American yet still receive radio play and big album sales like eccentric White rock acts. At least if you’re male. Female Black rock acts with hit singles are rarer finds, like low-carb donuts and Democratic Supreme Court nominees. Newcomer Res (rhymes with peace) threw her ring into the modern rock hat with her debut album, 2002’s haunted How I Do.

Res’ eccentric voice exists out of time; she syncopates to the beat like modern R&B singers but her calm, harmonious tones harken back to 1930s jazz, with the intensity of new wave.

Her music is equally free of boundaries, easily shifting from the gentle hip-hop blues of “I’ve Known the Garden” to the porch banjo pluck of “Tsunami”, which sets up the hidden alt-rock scuzz of “Say It Again”. Unexpected elements peep through like The Cure sample in “Let Love” and the phone-number-as-melody of “The Hustler”.

Res the lyricist is wary of fools, liars and the psychically blind. In the icy march of “They Say Vision” she volunteers to step into The Matrix to avoid these people (I wanna try that pill that people take/Make you believe all the things that people say), although she bluntly calls out a rising star as a massive fake in “Golden Boys”:

But then there’re girls like me who sit appauled by what we’ve seen
We know the truth about you
Now you’re the prince of all the magazines
That is a dangerous thing

But would they love you if they knew all the things that we know
Those Golden Boys
All a fraud don’t believe their show
Would they love you if they knew all the things that we know

Golden Boy life ain’t a video

Unlike many albums on this site, How I Do was blessed with decent promotion from a major label, so what happened?

THE FALLOUT: The single “They Say Vision” scraped into the Top 40 but radio never really embraced Res, and How I Do stiffed as a result. Res is releasing her second album at the end of 2006 but she is current touring as a backup singer for, ironically, Gnarls Barkley.

How I Do is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

The list of Black female singers heard on alternative rock radio is mighty short. Sade, Dionne Farris, Tracy Chapman, Joan Armatrading, 4 Non-Blondes – none of which are on current playlists. Res’ How I Do is a valiant effort to demolish many, many artistic walls and create a new genre from the rubble, an effort that radio would have you think does not exist.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: More stuff you haven’t heard that’ll knock yer socks off. If you are, in fact, wearing socks. Oh, and memo to Ryan: I am working on a Uppity Music T-shirt. Does anybody else think that’s a cool idea? Let me know. Gracias.