Pete Townshend is best known as the lead guitarist of The Who-one of the most long lived 60’s rock bands next to The Rolling Stones. Townshend is often regarded for his onstage theatrics. He is also a talented multi instrumentalist. And an early proponent of synthesizers in early 70’s rock. The best example of this is the bands 1971 hit “Baba O’Reiley”,which was built around a European classic style melody played on the ARP 2600 synthesizer. After a very successful 60’s and 70’s, Townshend and the bands lead singer Roger Daltrey began to pursue solo careers at the start of the 1980’s.
Still The Who weren’t over quite yet. This came to my knowledge with a question I never got answered until learning about it online a few years back. From the mid 90’s onward,I’d often hear this song with an intro that had a terrific groove to it. Sounded like a prog/fusion style song,but it was during an era when classic rock radio didn’t often announce the names of artists for those not in the know. It wasn’t until hearing the song in a TV commercial that I was able to research it online through that stated what the song was. It was a song from The Who’s 1982 album Its Hard entitled “Eminence Front”.
A percussive drum box opens the song as a solo sound. The main groove of the song gradually builds in during the into. First it brings in a highly digitized,arpeggiated synthesizer. This is followed by a lower synth riff, as well as a jazzy Fender Rhodes solo floating over the higher notes. The main groove of the song adds a slow crawling drum groove,Townshend’s bluesy guitar. The chorus of the song brings John Entwistle’s thumping,fuzz toned bass in-along with a guitar build up on the outro of it. The Rhodes drives everything in the groove until the song finally fades itself out.
“Eminence Front”,written and sung by Townshend, deals lyrically deals with how the drug end of the rock ‘n roll lifestyle holds back creativity. And I can respect that alternate side of the coin. What really gets me is everything from the instrumentation to the vocal choruses of this song have a special musical interconnection. The song has the theatrical melodies of progressive rock opera (which The Who helped pioneer),but also a thick groove and harmony vocals of hardcore funk. It brings to mind the way the Stones embraced funk in their rock music: based on funk and soul’s current incarnations.
Out of the many bands to come of the UK post punk/new wave era,Level 42 were probably the most significant on a purely musical level. American funk,R&B and disco-dance music were an important element of early 80’s new wave in Europe. But Level 42,led by electric bassist/one time drummer Mark King and keyboardist Mike Lindup,came straight of a strong jazz-funk/fusion underground that was still thriving in Europe during the late 1970’s and early 80’s. Their style celebrated strong musicianship over the flamboyant rock ‘n roll authenticity of the UK punk scene-full of raw,angry emotion. Still this devotion to musical eloquence had it’s shortcomings for Level 42.
While the band were critically acclaimed on their first few albums from 1981 and 1982? Their label Polydor,interestingly enough the same label James Brown had been on during his funk heyday in the early 70’s, were looking at Level 42 as consistent hit makers. And having met them while on tour,the band developed a strong musical report with Earth Wind & Fire’s bassist Verdine White and the bands keyboardist Larry Dunn. Both of them were very able at creating funk music that was melodic and commercially popular. And it was agreed they would produce Level 42’s fourth album in 1983. That album was called Standing In The Light. And it was likely best personified musically by it’s title song.
Starting off with a light breeze of drum cymbal-seemingly carrying a wind of bassy synth orchestration on it,the song quickly emerges with an economical slow funk beat accompanied by an equally economical,minor chord electric bass line from King. After a jazzy guitar solo takes over Lindup’s,or possibly unofficial fifth member Wally Badarou’s ethereal synthesizer harmonies King’s lead vocals kick on. On the chorus,the instrumentation suddenly enters into a sunnier end of the minor chord with Lindup’s falsetto vocals. There’s a bridge in the middle of the song where the keyboard plays a progressive jazz fusion styled ascending two-chord solo which includes a jazz oriented vocal refrain from King and Lindup’s vocal harmonies. After this the song goes through one more chorus of the same one with which it started.
Musically influenced to a great degree by the electronic oriented pop/funk hybrids emerging from Compass Point around this time,this song is musically representative of the type of stripped down funk that emerged from the post funk environment. Yet also comes from a reverence for the modal style of fusion pioneer Miles Davis-whom Mike Lindup musically admired and who had a huge influence on his compositional style.It’s the nature of the music and lyrical mixture on this song that speaks most to me on the other hand. This song tells the story of a young man whose approach to music comes from imagination and creativity,and many around him want to subsidize that with their own personal tastes,needs and requirements.
As the chorus grows happier,this inner creativity becomes an inner light he’s standing in as he asks for people not to “shadow the genius”. It’s a poetic,intelligent yet plain spoken statement for creative autonomy and freedom of expression-coming from a decade where supposedly such ideas were totally limited. And to me,it’s one of the most significant rallying cries to creative musicians from this point onward. Considering that two key members of Earth Wind & Fire produced this album,it’s not surprising that Level 42 felt a bit freer to write music with a message as their sound became more outreaching to the public. And if I could personally thank all parties for their participation in this song and it’s message personally? I’d be more than honored.
George Duke was one of those musical figures that I personally found creatively inspirational. In his lifetime,he was able to fulfill his artistic promise of being able to be a siphon of the musical spirit that lay behind Duke Ellington,P-Funk,Frank Zappa,Earth Wind & Fire and Milton Nachimento-all coming from the source of one musical mind. When he passed away,all too soon,last year? It seemed inevitable that a tribute would come from someone,someday.
And in only a years time for his birthday? Creative collaborator and friend Al Jarreau got some of Duke’s musical compatriots-both vocalists and instrumentalists for the special tribute album My Old Friend. One of the songs presented was an unheard number written collaboratively by Duke and Jarreau called “Churchyheart (Backyard Ritual)”-featuring one of my favorite living bassists in the jazz-funk vein in Mr. Marcus Miller.
Marcus,who plays most of the instruments on this song opens with a cinematic synthesizer orchestration before Jarreau chimes in with a very Afrocentric vocalese chant-after which Marcus’s slap bass comes in with Mike Cottone’s muted,”cool jazz” styled trumped solo-the tone of which Jarreau replicates with his soft,slow vocalizing. On the refrains,Jarreau delivers a deep descending vocal. On the bridge,a beautiful melange of sax,trumpet and electric piano segues out of the song with the same mixture of cinematic orchestration with Jarreau’s chants that began the song.
This is one of those songs that…really quite brilliantly fuses vocal jazz improvisation with a funk rhythmic approach. With its use of blue notes and Marcus’s own knack for expression the late George Duke’s love of instrumental texturization? The imaginative, somewhat mysical orientation of the music goes ideally with the somewhat faintly performed and even obsure lyrical content. From what I can gather of it,this is a song about the complex interpersonal relationship black Americans have with spirituality. And with a song with song a deeply propulsive funk groove and jazz harmonics? It makes that point beautifully.