There’s No Place Like America Today (Curtom Records) 1975
Think things are bad now? America was going through them changes in 1975. On January 1 of that year, four of Nixon’s top men were convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury for their involvement in the Watergate scandal. In September, President Ford was nearly assassinated twice. A heavy recession had taken hold. And unemployment reached nearly nine percent.
Lucky for us, Curtis Mayfield was there to turn it all into music. From the deep clavinet riffs of “Billy Jack” to the hopeful horn lines of “Love to the People,” 1975’s There’s No Place Like America Today is the restless, searching sound of a country coming undone—but refusing to give up. Slow and pensive, the funk of America is miles away from the exuberant sounds of Curtis or Super Fly. No one was serious, and it made Mayfield furious.
And you could feel it in the album art. Illustrated by Peter Palombi, America’s cover features a dapper-looking White man behind the wheel of a car filled with pretty women. Juxtaposed is an all-Black breadline. It’s a fitting accompaniment to the music on America, especially the anthemic Curtis original “Hard Times,” not to be confused with David “Fathead” Newman’s trademark track of the same name.
Famously recorded by Baby Huey in 1970—and by Gene Chandler as “In My Body’s House” before that—Curtis finally tackled this one himself in ’75. Dark and foreboding, and marked by mournful wah-wah guitar and Quinton Joseph’s stellar, just-the-facts drumming, “Hard Times” finds Curtis confronting the reality of Black-on-Black crime: “From my body house, I see, like me, another / Familiar face of creed and race, a brother / But to my surprise, I found another man corrupt / Although he be my brother, he wants to hold me up.”
But the real sparks fly on the aforementioned “Billy Jack,” a companion piece to the far-more-visible “Freddie’s Dead.” To begin, keyboardist Rich Tufo spells out a chilly bass line in three-note fragments. Henry Gibson’s congas and a chunky rhythm guitar part emerge from the ether. Thirty seconds in, we hear a snare crack, and a quiet, menacing groove has arrived. Like Freddie, Billy is a tragic character, dead before the song’s begun. But Curtis lacks the sympathy he felt in 1972. “It’s a wonder he lived this long,” sings Curtis.
Thirty-five years after the release of America, the unemployment rate in the U.S. is at a whopping 9.7 percent, and we’re once again in the throes of a punishing recession. I guess there’s no place like America any day. And I guess we still need this music to pull us through.
Responses from Facebook
Leave a Response