Eugene McDaniels – Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse (1971)

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“No amount of dancin’
Is going to make us free.”

The Left Reverend Eugene McDaniels

    Recorded at Regent Sound Studios and Atlantic Studios, New York City
1971 Atlantic SD 8281 (Original release)
This reissue 200_ by Scorpio/Rhino records

Acoustic Bass – Miroslav Vitous
Drums – Alphonse Mouzon
Electric Bass – Gary King
Featuring – Welfare City Choir
Guitar – Richie Resnikoff
Piano, Music Director – Harry Whitaker
Vocals – Eugene McDaniels, Carla Cargill

Producer – Joel Dorn
Recording and remix engineer – Lewis Hahn

Vinyl; Pro-Ject RM-5SE with Audio Tecnica AT440-MLa cartridge; Speedbox power supply; Creek Audio OBH-15; M-Audio Audiophile 192 Soundcard ; Adobe Audition at 32-bit float 96khz; clicks and pops removed with Click Repair, manually auditioned, and individually with Adobe Audition 3.0; resampled using iZotope RX 2 Advanced SRC and dithered with MBIT+ for 16-bit. Converted to FLAC in either Trader’s Little Helper or dBPoweramp.  Tags done with Foobar 2000 and Tag and Rename.


Inauguration day special, y’all.

Dim the lights for this one.

I’ve heard different rumors about Eugene McDaniels and the Nixon administration – that the FBI was tapping his phone, that Spiro Agnew himself called Atlantic Records to complain about this album, which would seem to indicate that the reactionaries were much hipper to popular culture than I personally give them credit for.  But it’s not too far fetched – his most famous song, Compared To What?, which became a huge hit for Les McCann & Eddie Harris and then again for Roberta Flack – may be the boldest, most biting sociopolitical critique to ever top a record chart, and has apparently been covered by 270 different artists by today’s count.  So I can believe that, for the forces of Empire, Eugene McDaniels was a man who had to be stopped.  Atlantic Records dropped him after Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse.  The record is a profound and mercurial work of art that is revolutionary, less in some kind of militant way than in its general refusal to fit into any preconceived framework.  Instead, it carves out its own space and leaves the listener transformed and looking at the world differently than before they put it on.  This album, and Eugene himself, were their own gestalt.

I’m still thinking that, someday, I will file a Freedom of Information Act on Eugene McDaniels to see what, if anything, the Deep State was thinking about him.  This is what how I imagine a summary of his file might read:

  “McDaniels, Eugene Booker.  Born February 2, 1935 in Kansas City.  Black communist singer with known jazz associates.  Calls himself a Reverend, may be planning to form a religious cult or commune – field reports are inconclusive.  Believes rock singer Mick Jagger to be the Antichrist.”

I have been wanting to post about this album at various moments throughout the last couple of years.  It’s become a relevant soundtrack again and a source of solace for me.  The enigmatic  McDaniels is truly one of the great unsung songwriters of the twentieth century, because I think he wanted it that way.   This record gets name-checked a lot because it’s been sampled by prominent artists. The grooves are undoubtedly deep, and the musicians first rate – in fact the notes to the 2005 reissue of this on Water Records, with the limited space they have, talk more about arranger and keyboardist Harry Whitaker than they do Eugene.  Granted, Whitaker is the special secret sauce that makes this album stand out from its 1970 predecessor “Outlaw.”  That album is also really great, but this one is explosive and astounding,  unquestionably a masterpiece.  It was made with almost no budget, with Whitaker doing the arrangements, and with minimal overdubs (mostly just vocals, except for the first track which has a second guitar and some percussion added).   H.W. deserves tons of credit for the sound and cohesiveness of the final product, but for me it is McDaniels’ voice, lyrics, melodies and above all his completely unique vision that make this an album about which I can say “There’s really nothing else quite like it.”   It was a boundary-defying fusion of funk, jazz, rock, and soul; a record that is utterly psychedelic without a single wah peddle or production gimmick, hell there isn’t even a solo anywhere here in spite of the fact that every one of the musicians were utter virtuosos.  Apparently Whitaker wanted to bring horns in on the record but they had no money for it.  I’m so glad they didn’t, because its sound of lean restraint became an essential characteristic of its sound.  It’s intense, but also relaxed.

When I say he is enigmatic I guess I just mean enigmatic to me, because he left a big musical footprint with an incredible career arc, but chose to spend most of his life rather quietly away from the spotlight.   We’ll have a look at his YouTube channel that he started sometime around 2010 in a minute, but first let’s recap the basic facts first. McDaniels was a huge cross-over hit-maker in the early 60’s with “100 Pounds of Clay,” a song so popular that my parents remember it from their high school days, and “Tower of Strength,” both when he went by Gene rather than Eugene.  In the middle of the decade he wrote the song that would end up being recorded innumerable times, Compared To What?, the royalties from which presumably left him set for life.  At the end of the decade, McDaniels features prominently on one of my favorite Bobby Hutcherson albums, the adventurous and politically-charged Now!   He never lost the pop instincts he honed early in his career, but chose to make uncompromising, uncommercial music.  Like one of the only other people I would put in his category, Andy Bey, he also had a classic jazz singers voice (check out Freedom Death Dance…), and a four octave range, and he apparently preserved both up to the very end, in spite of  – or is it because of? – disengaging from the crazy world of the music industry.  The guy was too deep for the machine to process, and he didn’t need the money, so he went and lived his life privately, and took very good care of himself.  Listen to this man speak for a few minutes about Compared To What.  He looks so great here, with no indication that he would pass away within the year

 

Now is the place where normally I might indulge in a track by track breakdown of this record.  I could do that, and maybe someday I will, but it should really be heard first, and I bet some of you haven’t played it yet.  So let’s all listen to it and meet back here in a month to discuss it?  Really, it does speak for itself, and has to be absorbed with all of its quirks.  It should be left to the listener to follow his labyrinthine thread that ties together end-times religious imagery; invective against war and calls for justice that are clever, funky, and tuneful; a story of how everyday life as a black man going about everyday capitalist acts (trying to exchange an item at a grocery store) can lead to a near race riot; and a narrative of the colonial “settling” of the United States, decrying the indignities visited on First Nations peoples.   This last track is the climactic closer to the album, The Parasite (For Buffy), which in spite of just having guitar-bass-drums and vocals, comes off almost orchestral in its sweep (which is definitely a testament to Whitaker, who I imagine standing in front conducting them all with a baton).  It’s a breathtaking unity of words, music, execution.  McDaniels vocal control here is worth a study of its own: the verses have a sweetness that becomes a snarl in schizophrenic increments, with the anger slowly being peeled back in single accents and intonations, replaced again by sweetness almost like he is trying to hold back the demon.  Until, by the end, his voice becomes a raw exposed nerve, with the final minute collapsing into literal screaming and the group attacking their instruments in a free-form festival of noise, an avant-garde blast, like the sound of the universe diving into its own navel.

You have to hear it to believe it.


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5 Comments

  1. thanks flabbergasted

  2. Love the new site, Flabbergast. Finally catching up on the podcasts and enjoying them thoroughly. Happened to be listening to this very album when the post showed up on my twitter timeline. It seemed to me to be exactly appropriate for inauguration day, and it seems I wasn’t alone in thinking it so. Zeitgeist-y! Yours truly, etc.

  3. Thank you Flabbergast!

  4. Thank you very much!

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