Artists United Against Apartheid- “The Struggle Continues”

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Miles Davis is a difficult man to like. He was parsimonious when it came to sharing credit on his compositions and abusive to his wives. Worse, he felt obliged to brag about it. But he was also a jazz genius, a would-be boxer with sickle-cell anemia and, late in his life, diabetes; a man who’d storm onstage for a concert against his doctor’s advice while he was fighting pneumonia.

That being said, civil rights did seem to be something he cared for. In 1985 South Africa was very much on Little Steven Van Zandt’s mind, particularly the resort Sun City, which was planted right in the middle of one of the desolate bantustans imposed on the native South Africans by white Afrikaners. Ronald Reagan’s policy as President was a thing called ‘constructive engagement’, a double-speak term that amounted to encouraging business investment in South Africa in the hope that this would change their racist policies.

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Little Steven had a different vision. Recall that this was a time in the 1980’s when large charitable events involving large collectives of pop artists had briefly become the norm. Farm Aid was just around the corner in the U.S., and continues to this day. Live Aid, “We Are the World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” had all brought awareness of the drought and starvation of Ethiopians. But the pop response to the Ethiopian crisis was largely apolitical; it didn’t address the conflicts that had brought this famine on the Ethiopian people.

The Sun City project was different. It had to be. If there was to be change, you had to address the root of the problem, which was the government-sanctioned program of Apartheid. Like all these projects Sun City did not lack for enthusiastic volunteers. And from the first day, producer Arthur Baker and Little Steven thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wild to get Miles Davis to play trumpet over this drum log”, on the demo record?

As it happened, Miles’ sound man had also been Little Steven’s sound man on one of his tours. the job of contacting Miles fell to Danny Schecter, a journalist who early on became involved with the project. Now honestly, Miles Davis was a hard man to get ahold of, but when Schecter made the call, the immediate response was, “When do you want me there?”

On the big day Miles laid down his part over two takes, which would soon form the bedrock of what would become the jazz session for the album. Towards the end of the first take, he did the kind of unexpected thing he was famous for. In a rasp barely above a whisper he muttered, “You can’t go in there, you’re the wrong color.”

This was not planned; it was all just improvisation on Miles’ part. Baker and the others thought at first he was talking about the cameraman who was there to film all the project’s sessions. They soon realized Miles was talking about South Africa, so baker said, “Keep those tapes rolling.”

At this point recording technology had advanced to the point where it wasn’t really necessary for every artist to perform their part in the studio all at the same time. It was possible to record all the different parts and mix them all together later into a coherent track. That’s how “The Struggle Continues” came together, and how through electronic means the Miles Davis Quintet was reunited.

Miles+Davis quintet 1966

Keyboardist Herbie Hancock had cut his teeth with Miles’ Quintet in the mid-60’s and had made quite a name for himself as the leader of his own group the Headhunters in 1973. More recently he’d experimented with dance and funk, most especially with his 1983 single “Rockit”. He would be the first artist to play behind Miles’ track, and he would blow everyone’s mind with the seven-minute solo he laid down.

One problem. Little Steven knew Hancock’s work was great, but it wasn’t going to work with Miles’ stuff. Luck was with them. In a few weeks Hancock would be performing at the Village Gate in New York with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams, the other members of Miles’ classic Quintet. The Sun City crew assembled at M & I Recording, where Williams had been recording his latest album, there to overdub their parts onto Miles’.

Keyboardist Richard Scher and Nigerian drummer Sonny Okusons had already contributed their parts. A friend of Little Steven had brought his three-year-old son to these sessions. As the musicians were leaving Steven asked, “Well, Sam, what do you think?”

“It needs some guitar,” Sam replied.

Out of the mouth of babes. The next day the great Stanley Jordan added his guitar.

Now on to the track itself. I’m not a jazz expert, I can only give you my best with my pallid ear, but here goes. A slow fade in on the horn brings you to those furious rolling drums. The trumpet sounds an urgent call to action. Two minutes in comes Herbie Hancock’s part, and he’s on fire. Underlying the entire track is a solid bass by Carter and then at four 1/2 minutes we hear Miles’ accusation: “You can’t go in there, you’re the wrong color.”

Sun City was released on December 7, 1985. I’d just like to note that Nelson Mandela was released from prison less than five years later on February 11, 1990. Apartheid died a well-deserved death by 1994. I’d like to think Little Steven and all the artist involved in Sun City did their part to make that happen.

 

“The scariest encounter of the Sun City project had to be Miles Davis,” recalled Steven Van Zandt. “I wrote the intro for him to play… He’s just not friendly. He makes Lou Reed look like a pussycat… He came in, sat down and I played him the ‘Silver and Gold’ tape. He’s sitting next to me, and he talks real low and slow, and right in my ear: ‘Hey man, do you want me to fucking play or what?’ So he does his take, and I asked him to redo it with the mute on. I went and reassembled his old quintetwith Herbie HancockRon Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums.”[2]

[wikipedia entry, Sun City]

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Let Me See Your I.D.–Artists United Against Apartheid, 1985

artists-united-against-apartheid-let-me-see-your-id-street-mix-1986It isn’t often that a rap song changes my perspective. I’m admittedly not a great fan of rap music; if I want to be yelled at, I have people I work with for that. On the other hand it does throw in some off-the-wall references to kung fu, literary figures and historical events we don’t want to think about.

In 1985 Little Steven Van Zandt drew together a unique collective of musicians from across the spectrum, for the purpose of protesting against the racist Apartheid regime in South Africa. The project Sun City drew its name from the glittering resort in the so-called ‘homeland’ of Bophuthatswana, which was meant to showcase the ‘greatness’ of white South Africa, and which had already attracted prominent pop artists to perform at their casino.

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Perhaps today it can be seen as an artifact of the late ’80’s; or, it may have a frightening relevance considering the exposure of the filthy underbelly of white supremacy here in our United States. What I referenced in the beginning of this piece was Sun City‘s rap track, “Let Me See Your I.D.”, meaning the passbooks all black South Africans over the age of 16 were required to carry on them at all times. If it was not produced on demand, black persons would be jailed and fined. As of 1985,13 million people had been jailed for pass law offenses.

It begins with a concept so obvious that it shouldn’t be so mind-blowing. Grandmaster Melle Mel chants, “Everybody uses black & white/ to draw the line between wrong & right/ but If you use your eyes you can really see”, that ‘white’ is really pink while skin that’s ‘black’ is really brown. Think about that; your skin is not white. Peach at best, maybe. And black, well, that covers a range of shades, none of them pure black.

Poet and novelist Gil Scott-Heron provides a running narration as subtle as the raps are not. “The word casualties comes up a lot…people are talking about isms…” But people are dying, he says, and there’s nothing casual about that. “Let Me See Your I.D.” showcases the talents of Grandmaster Melle Mel, Scorpio from Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Peter Wolf, Kurtis Blow, the Fat Boys, Gil Scott-Heron, Sonny Okosuns, The Malopoets form South Africa. Jimmy Cliff, Duke Bootee and more.

Sadly this track is unavailable for download and I could only find it online as a vinyl single. If you want to hear it today, ironically enough you’d have to find an unauthorized upload on YouTube and break the law.

sun city list  images s afr boycott

 

Rubber Soul as it should be

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I’ve just realized why Rubber Soul was never one of my favorite Beatles albums growing up. I had no way of knowing better of course; did any of us know in the fall of 1965? You see the problem was, we were getting the Americanized version.

A sign of a great work of art is its openness to more than one interpretation. In his blog Psychobabble, Mike Segretto gave the impression  that certain alterations were an improvement on the original British LP; that these substitutions were more in line with the folk-rock stylings of the majority of the set. On that count, I respectfully disagree. The rock numbers [“Drive My Car” & “Nowhere Man”] I feel balanced out the introspection of “Norwegian Wood” & “In My Life”. There is very little question that the British album was the better of the two versions.

Granted the classics were all in their proper places—“Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”, “Michelle”, “In My Life”, even “The Word”. The point is, I grew up listening to what was provided by Capitol Records. Capitol was the American distributor for EMI-Parlophone Records in the U.S. And they butchered Rubber Soul.

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The back cover of the UK release, at least the remastered CD from 2009 

rubber soul US Capitol back

Running order of the Capitol Records release

The first sin they committed was to strip four songs from the original LP, ie “Drive My Car”, “Nowhere Man”, “What Goes On” & “If I Needed Someone”. This was standard practice for Capitol: take a few songs off one Beatles album and collect as many as possible into a ‘new’ album. Something New [July 1964] may be the most egregious example of such mash-ups, and I’m saying this as someone who does in fact prefer some of the American LPs over their British counterparts.

Here’s what rubs me; two of those songs were among the strongest tracks the Fabs had done in this period; and they substituted two of the weaker tracks from the British Help! LP. If I may digress, Capitol got s lot of mileage out of that record. Over the following two  years they managed to spread those six Side-2 songs over three different albums. Most of us who grew up in the ‘60’s didn’t realize how badly we’d been gipped until the official British albums saw their first CD release in 1987. That was the year we in America finally received Rubber Soul in its full glory, as God [or the Fab Four anyway] intended.

The UK version opened with a strong lead-in, ‘Drive My Car”; the Capitol album had the temerity to replace that with the significantly weaker number, “I’ve Just Seen a Face”. Worst of all, “Nowhere Man” was also taken off the Capitol release. I never knew it was supposed to be on Rubber Soul until I listened to that damn CD for the first time. George Harrison had originally been allotted two numbers, “Think For Yourself” & “If I Needed Someone”. I don’t know why I’m so taken with the latter number; that riff just seemed to hook me. It’s mostly the guitar. These are both decent songs, but at a time when George was just beginning to flex his songwriting muscles, Capitol cut his contributions by half.

Adding insult to injury, the one song allotted to Ringo Starr, ‘What Goes On”, the first instance in which he actually received any songwriting credit, was swapped with “It’s Only Love’, a song even John Lennon said was abysmal. Which meant Ringo got NO vocal numbers at all on our side of the Atlantic. In fact, in 1965 Ringo would appear on two, count ‘em, two tracks for U.S. release. One was “Act Naturally”, the B-side of the “Yesterday” single. “Boys” [from The Early Beatles, March ‘65] was part & parcel of the re-re-release of the Beatles’ first Parlophone album Please Please Me–from 1963.

That leaves fully half of the album dominated by Lennon compositions—on either side of the Atlantic—“Norwegian Wood”, “Nowhere Man”, “The Word”, “What Goes On”, “Girl”, “In My Life” & “Run For Your Life”. John Lennon songs tended to dominate Beatles albums up to this point. Rubber Soul would actually be the last time this was the case until the White Album sessions three years later—honestly, mostly on account of John’s growing, admitted laziness.

The four tracks that were stripped from the Capitol album would eventually conglomerate in July 1966 on the Yesterday and Today set, along with the final two orphans from Help!, Side 2, plus three more recent cuts stolen from the upcoming Revolver. And that would be the last time such butchery would be committed against a Beatles long-play.

–“It’s Only Love” was mine. I always thought it was a lousy song. The lyrics were abysmal. I always hated that song.

-John Lennon to David Sheff, The Playboy Interviews with John Lennon & Yoko Ono, @ 1981 Playboy Press

https://psychobabble200.blogspot.com/2014/08/turn-left-at-greenland-part-8-rubber.html