Sunday, February 21, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: Earth, Wind & Fire's That's the Way of the World (1975)

Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White died at the beginning of the month, adding his name to the list of influential artists -- David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Paul Kantner -- who have passed so far in this young year and who also dominated the radio in the important Hippies vs. Punks year of 1975.

Nineteen-seventy-five is important because it is the year that the present global neoliberal paradigm takes root and begins its rigorous extirpation of post-WWII social democracy. Most if not all important indices -- union density, inflation-adjusted hourly wages, workforce share in productivity gains -- mark the middle 1970s as the beginning of U.S. working-class decline. It is no coincidence that the mid-70s are the time that the Punks arrive on the scene to begin their extermination of what remains of the Hippies (think Patti Smith's Horses, released at the same time, the end of 1975, as Earth, Wind & Fire's live album, Gratitude).

In the latest issue of Jacobin there is an interview with UCLA historian Robert Brenner, "The Dynamics of Retreat," that adds some context to why it is that 1975 is such a critical year:
This surge of working-class resistance did slow the employers’ offensive and the revival of profitability. But the deep recession of 1974–75 brought a major reversal, specifically a major increase in unemployment that sapped worker energy and reduced combativeness. The way was thus opened to round after round of wage restraint and spending cuts that, sooner or later, received the backing of the official social-democratic and labor leaderships in every country. 
Did it all have to collapse? Was there a reformist path out of the contradictions that you’re talking about? Or can we say that, unless there had been some kind of anticapitalist break sometime in the 1970s, we were unlikely to prevent the situation we’re suffering through today?
I do think it’s clear today that, short of the overthrow of the capitalist order, there were powerful economic and political pressures that make it unsurprising that we’ve ended up where we are.
On the one hand, the economic responses of capital itself to its profitability problem have only made things worse. The reduced rate of return has decreased the incentives for capitalists to invest and employ. It has, at the same time, motivated capital and the state to cut back on the growth of compensation and social spending so as to jack up profits by reducing the cost of production. The outcome has been ever-slower growth in demand for investment goods, consumer goods, and state services, and this has put further downward pressures on the rate of return.
There it is. Hippies vs. Punks in a nutshell. In 1975 we needed the Hippies to be bold and power an anti-capitalist revolution. But the Hippies were far past the point of offering even the tiniest resistance; they were too busy wallowing in the corporate trough. In 1975 the Hippies cloaked their abject capitulation to the predatory capitalist order with appeals to mysticism, libertinism or esoteric Eastern religiosity. Enter the Punks. Hallelujah.

The big breakthrough #1 album for Maurice White and Earth, Wind & Fire is That's the Way of the World. Released at the end of winter in 1975, the album was also a soundtrack to a Sid Shore film of the same name, written by Robert Lipsyte and starring the great Harvey Keitel.

You couldn't go anywhere in a car with the radio on in 1975 without hearing "Shining Star" or "That's the Way of the World," the two big singles off the album. As a kid I liked both. As for Earth, Wind & Fire, the group struck me as magnificent black Hippies. The size of band was intimidating, as was Maurice White's incorporation of the exotic sounds of the Frankiphone, an electronically amplified kalimba (African thumb piano), backed up by a horn section, spiced with the immaculate R&B guitar of Al McKay. To a white Hippie kid 6th grader living in the Santa Cruz mountains, being driven by his parents with the car radio always on a half hour each way to and from town, Earth, Wind & Fire was a revolution unto itself.

Listening to That's the Way of the World all week -- and a truly stressful week it was -- I was surprised what a masterpiece the record is. Yes, there are the hit singles, which are flawless. But there is also an amazing -- no lie -- breadth of material. Songs like "All About Love," "Reasons" and "See the Light" showcase jazz fusion, disco, prog rock, Billy Paul Philly Soul and traditional African music. No better encapsulation of Hippie sensibility in the mid-70s can be found than Maurice White's rap about radiating the inner-beauty of the self in "All About Love":
Now, I want you to stop whatever you're doing.
You're doing. Just stop.
You know, they say there' s beauty
in the eyes which I say is not the fact.
'Cause you are as beautiful as your
thoughts, right on.

You know, for instance, we study all
kinds of sciences, astrology, mysticism,
religion, so forth you dig.
And like coming from hip place, all these things help
because they give you insight into  your inner self
Have mercy!

Now. there's an outer self we got to deal with
the one that likes to go to parties,
one that likes to dress up and be cool
and look pretty, all ego-trips and all this.

Hear you all, I'm trying to tell you,
you gotta love you. And learn all the beautiful things around you,
trees and birds. And if there ain't no beauty,
you got to make some beauty. Have mercy!
Listen to me, Yeah!
There it is in a nutshell once again. By the mid-70s Hippies -- both black and white -- had given up the hope of building a better world on top of the wreckage of the technocratic war machine in favor of accommodation fueled by a mass narcotic self-love.

Don't get me wrong. This is an incredibly fertile period for the Hippies, this dying time bardo state of the middle 1970s. Classic rock bursts forth, like Minerva from the brow of Zeus, during these few years as a powerful opiate which maintains a grip on the masses under Reagan, Thatcher, Bush, Clinton and Blair.

We'll wind down this contemplation of 1975 next week with a look at the classic rockers par excellence, The Eagles.

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