Tag Archives: System Of Survival

Funky Revelations Of 1987: ‘Touch The World’ by Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire had slowly declined in commercial success during the early 80’s. But even then? They still had enough momentum from their still recent classic run of the late 70’s to sustain them creatively and with the public. Still, the pressures of losing members due to creative differences, plus the effects of the post disco freeze out, was beginning to take it’s tole on a band who’d always been able to adapt to musical changes at every point.

In 1987 the bands core Maurice and Verdine White, Phillip Bailey, Ralph Johnson and Andrew Woolfolk were convinced by Columbia to reunite. They added guitarists Sheldon Reynolds, fresh from The Commodores and Dick Smith along with drummer Sonny Avery and a brand new horn section called the Earth Wind & Fire horns. The result is probably the first major comeback album experienced in my personal memory.

“System Of Survival” begins the album with with a very fast paced horn packed call and response type modern dance/funk jam dealing with the disintegrating effects of Reagan era trickle down economics. “Evil Roy” is an even harder edged,somewhat slower tempo’d groove with a strong bass/guitar interaction illustrating the slice of life tale of a drug pusher.

“Thinking Of You” is a kalimba-led melodic pop-jazzy jam with some creamy vocal exchanges from Maurice and Phillip.”You And I”,”Every Now And Then” and “Here Today And Gone Tomorrow” are all mid-tempo,melodic funk ballads that function as an update of the Charles Stepney era EWF school of balladry. “New Horizons” references samples of songs like “Shinning Star”,”That’s The Way Of The World”,”Reasons”,Serpentine Fire” and “Magnetic” before going into a fast paced,digitized synthesizer jazz-fusion led by an Andrew Woolfolk sax solo.

“Money Tight” is a stomping,electrified hard funk number dealing with the matter of unemployment. The title song is a shuffling mid tempo gospel number-featuring White,Bailey and Reynolds vocally illustrating how individual people’s lives of turmoil effect others. “Victim Of The Modern Heart” has a powerfully jazzy melodic exchange and another show stopping vocal from Bailey.

This album is one of those that I had the privilege to experience the moment it came out. It was an enormous family event when the cassette tape was bought into the this. “System Of Survival” and “Evil Roy” were showing up on the FM dial on car rides around the town while my father gave me the chance to tune into the music videos to these songs via Friday Night Videos. It was a proud experience for me, a young man growing up in semi rural Northeast Maine in the mid/late 1980’s, to hear music that not only had a strong social consciousness but offered hope for a better future.

It’s proud to know that this album might’ve been a successful entry point to EWF for people of the late Gen X age group living in areas that may not have had access to see them in a concert setting,and where funky music wasn’t as emphasized in the culture. Overall,a very successful entry for EWF into being able to fully integrate electronics into what amounts to a total revisit to their classic sound and musical spirit.

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Anatomy of THE Groove 12/19/2014 Andre’s Pick: “System Of Survival” by Earth Wind & Fire

Following the creatively messy and less than successful late 1983 album Electric Universe, Earth Wind & Fire split up. After a few years of solo releases from Phillip Bailey and Maurice White,the pair reunited with Verdine and Andrew Woolfolk of the original Columbia lineup. To succeed supplicant guitarist Roland Bautista,they band were joined by Sheldon Reynolds-who has already succeeded another famous funk guitarist in The Commodores’ Thomas McClary after 1983-incidentally the same year EWF split up in the first place. During the late 1980’s Cameo,Con Funk Shun,The Bar Kays and Ghe Commodores were all paring down to smaller,more synthesizer focused lineups.

Since electronics were to some degree blamed for the musical reasons that may have broken up the band? It was interesting that EWF took a similar path to many of their funk contemporaries by paring down to a smaller lineup. Especially since the band had been most known for it’s distinct horn section. At the same time? This comeback probably clicked on a very important point at just the right time and when the band were in a good position to do so. This came fully in the form of the 1987 album Touch The World. And a lead off hit single from the album that represented something of a game changer not merely for EWF but one that had been progressing over the last year or so in funky dance music in general.

The song begins with the sound of a radio dial being switched around as a voice continually repeats “the biggest unanswered question is where is the money”. After several news snippets the song goes into Ronald Reagan saying “I’m not going to tell lies to the American people. I’ll leave that to others”-with that last line repeated two additional times before a vocoderized voice is heard saying “system of survival” before a chiming synth and a very fast dance rhythm and bass synth come into the song. Throughout the song? The bluesy main chorus goes into a call and response lead vocal between Maurice White and a rather digitally processed  bass voice-followed by a counter refrain from Bailey’s renowned falsetto.

During the bridge of the song there is a re-visitation of the voice speaking “the biggest unanswered question is where is the money”. This time the voice goes onto say “the president has yet to address the issue of money”.  After this the synth bass line leads back into a passionate lead of call and response “yeah yeah’s” from Maurice and Phillip before going into a spirited melodic improvisation of the basic song itself. The song leads out with Maurice again having a musical call and response with the horn section saying “ah,lets work” as the horns continually respond very much in classic James Brown funk fashion for the rest of the song. On the last horn break a low voice again repeats the songs title before it fades fully into a amplified,processed electronic line.

Considering the emergence of socially conscious hip-hop from KRS-1 and Public Enemy in 1986 and 1987? It seemed more than appropriate that the classic funk acts that had so influenced those people would have their own commentary on the situation-stated lyrically and musically from their perspective. Musically speaking this song features the same sort of JB style vocal/horn interaction that EWF had championed during their late 70’s heyday. At the same time,it featured the quick dance tempo that was very inherent to the new jack swing style that was about to become the mainstream funk based black dance sound for the next half decade or so. Still,the rhythm itself is again out of the classic funk school from which EWF came.

Conceptually this song has a rather similar approach to where the conscious funk based hip-hoppers were going. Rather than using samples,they used found radio news sounds to very clearly illustrate than President Reagan’s economic policies on urban America in particular. It doesn’t come from the point of view of the younger people who were facing this situation more directly. It was coming from people who had come directly out of the hopeful futurism of civil rights and black power. People who,in early middle age were beginning to see what they’d worked hard for beginning to crumble before their eyes. The usually hopeful Maurice White even sings at one point “I’m looking for somebody new to lead the revolution”. Even after such a near cynical reaction,White comes right back with his homegrown optimism with “so I dance,it’s my system of survival”. Just as with many American’s under Reaganomics? EWF were re-emerging with new membership,and still going strong doing their own dance of life!

 

 

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