Earth Wind and Fire : Jupiter
On November 21, 1977 Earth Wind and Fire released All 'n'All, the first album of theirs that I bought-by mistake thanks to the Columbia House Records and Tape club. I still consider it one of the best mistakes I made with Columbia House ( and a hell of a lot better than the Allman Brothers' Enlightened Rogues or Bad Company's Desolation Angels).
Even as a teenage novice music lover, I was taken by the complex, funky horns, the spaced out lyrics and the Brazilian music influences. It remains a favorite from 1977.
At their worst, Earth, Wind and Fire indulge in some of the most pretentious excesses in current black music. As on past Earth, Wind and Fire records, All 'n All is filled with leaded brotherhood platitudes, Star Trek sci-fi and stiffly poetic love songs. This sounds overwrought and depressing (and maybe it is). But there's a catch: I like the record, for like much current black music, All 'n All elicits a schizophrenic response. If the album represents some of the worst in black music, it also has more than its share of the best.
Earth, Wind and Fire's prime mover, Maurice White, is a former Chess Records session drummer, and his rhythmic sense is one of the group's redeeming features. The rhythm tracks on All 'n All are often enough to savage the most convoluted and awkward lyrics. "Serpentine Fire," a song about the spinal life-center philosophy of many Eastern religions, is a simple tango spiced by a subtle funk base and the incessant clanging of a cowbell. Other songs incorporate snatches of supple James Brown bass lines, delicate Latin beats and hard, insistent funk vamps.
White's production virtues don't end there, though. The lyrics of "Fantasy" ("Come to see, victory, in the land called fantasy") may be hard to swallow, but the music is as close to elegance as any funk song has come. Voices and a light touch of strings suddenly appear over a choppy, propulsive track, swell and swoop, only to disappear at the snap of a finger and pop up moments later for an exciting, powerful finale. White also utilizes an odd instrumental mix that gives equal emphasis to percussion (except the bass drum, which is usually played down), bass, rhythm guitars and stabbing, staccato horn bursts. The result is light but substantial, and it's become a model for many other bands.
But that warmth isn't always felt, and despite the musical gloss, much of Earth, Wind and Fire's escapism seems unintentionally obsessive and desperate. It's easy to be seduced by the artfulness and grace of Earth, Wind and Fire's music and accept it for its craftsmanship and listenability. On that level, the group is challenging and fun. It's also easy to by cynical about a line like, "Jupiter, come from the galaxy/I want to meet you, to make you free," which seems as potentially dishonest and escapist as shooting dope.
There's a strange contrast to be drawn between All 'n All and Sly Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On. Riot was druggy, down and honest. All 'n All is flashy, bright and fanciful. Sly saw what he didn't want to see. The Earth, Wind and Fire album is like looking at yourself in the mirror and finding that nothing is there. Maybe that's what makes All 'n All so compelling -- and scary.
Focusing soulful horns, high-tension harmonies, and rhythms and textures from many lands into a first side that cooks throughout. Only one element is lacking. Still, unsympathetic as I am to the lyrics about conquering the universe on wings of thought, they make me want to shake my fundament anyway.
Easily the most intense three minutes ever committed to tape by '70s hitmakers Earth Wind & Fire is "Sing a Song," the tightly wound but never fully erupting essay in funk lavishness that was a hit single from the band's 1975 album Gratitude. Next on the list might by "Reasons," the ballad showcase for the skyscraping falsetto of vocalist Philip Bailey from That's the Way of the World, which was also released in '75. In the time-compressed shorthand of pop, those are the must-have moments.
But they're not the whole story. At the time of these successes, the Memphis-based band, led by drummer, producer, and part-time mystic Maurice White, was attempting to move beyond singles. All 'n' All, which came out in 1977, was EWF's first and best attempt at developing a wholly satisfying album experience, a cycle in which every song mattered. The unifying thread was Brazilian rhythm. "We'd been hanging out for a month in Argentina and Brazil, especially "Rio," White recalled in the liner notes. "Man, we heard stuff that blew our minds, opened our heads up wide. I wanted some of it in our music." After studying the progressive funk of Banda Black Rio and the arty songs of Milton Nascimento, White and his core group wrote pieces that embraced undulating samba and chants heard at Carnival, and integrated elements of Brazilian rhythm into the EWF lockstep funk. The wordless focal "Runnin'" with is ba-bee-da-boo-whees, turned up on jazz radio, and several album tracks, including the jittery "Jupiter," were easily catchy enough to follow the high-gloss "Serpentine Fire" onto the radio.
White connected the tunes with a series of interludes built on the African thumb piano known as kalimba and street percussion; one, "Brazilian Rhyme," was based on a Nascimento song. Though brief, these pieces unified the album, and gave it a cosmopolitan sound that, like the music that inspired it, opened heads heads up wide.