All N All- Earth Wind & Fire (CBS1977)
UK Chart Position – 13
US Chart Position – 3
This, the 8th Studio album by the legendary soul group saw them at the peak of their creative powers. Here they adopted the mantle of Funk visionaries which they had been dabbling with for some time giving them an instant strong identity and set them, like George Clinton’s Parliament, apart from the other soul and funk groups . The look of the album, with its stunning cover spoke of Egyptian mysticism; stage costumes became robes; the instrumentation could explore Eastern, South American and African influences and the lyrics could embrace higher powers to the point of obscurity. This album showed the group off as a brand more than ever before and the record-buying public lapped it up. They got away with all this because a) it was 1977 and b) the music was stunningly good.
In the USA the huge commercial breakthrough came with 1975’s “That’s The Way Of The World” a number 1 album which spawned a number 1 single “Shining Star”. We, in the UK were much later in embracing this group. This was the first of their albums to crack the UK Top 40 (whereas in the US it was their 5th). Although I had been aware of some of their other singles, especially “Saturday Night” which had been their first UK Top 20 hit in 1977, this was their first album of theirs that I bought and it blew me away. For most of the rest of the 70’s and beyond it seemed to be on repeat play. Vocally and instrumentally it is superb and as a group vocal performance it must rate as one of the greatest ever. The uptempo songs speak of mystical things, which can be seen now as a little new-agey and trite (although their sound is outstanding) the ballads are love songs that have stood the test of time extremely well. This album also features what is probably my all time favourite single, my ultimate desert island disc (but more of that later).
One thing that needs to be remembered about EW&F is that despite the gloss and high production values they could also be amongst the very best funk groups and there are examples of this on “All N’All”. Repetitive chants, the steady groove, stabbing brass, growling vocals combine the sheen with an all out earthiness which was hard for others to emulate.
The Masters behind the EW&F sound was founding member and producer Maurice White who with his brother Verdine (from Chicago, Illinois) co-wrote most of the songs. The album starts off conceptually very deep with the lead single “Serpentine Fire” (US#13). This metaphor for creative energy is linked to a concept in yoga, relating to the shape of the spine. As Maurice himself said;
“Nobody knows what I’m talking about, but a lot of kids go out and look it up and it immediately expands their consciousness.”
This is a sharp, funky track with a myriad of brass. Lyrically, it’s a little convoluted;
“Oh as long as you’re near there is no fear of victory
But when I’m away influences stray my mind to disagree”
No, I’m not sure either, but in the US this was the biggest single off the album aided by its tight brass and excellent vocal harmonies.
We remain with the obscure with the cosmic “Jupiter” (UK#41) which perhaps needs to be put in context. Sci-Fi was big in the mid 70’s with “Star Wars” etc. Just the year before on his seminal “Songs In The Key Of Life” Stevie Wonder was extolling the virtues of living on Saturn and around the same time as this even the Carpenters were conversing with aliens. Earth Wind & Fire were here having their own “Close Encounter” with a celestial being . Jupiter has descended to earth:
“To my surprise there stood a man of age and mystery
His name was Jupiter and he came to visit me.”
The reason for this visit? To present a flower! Lyrically dubious, but it is a hot mix of scratchy brass and driving vocals which always makes it a joy to listen to.
The third slab of funk on the album is “Magic Mind” (UK#54) a good but unsensational track which feels more orthodox than the other uptempo tracks. There’s also a couple of interludes consisting of lovely harmonies, scatting vocals and unusual instruments although the “bub-a-bub-a-wees” of “Brazilian Rhyme” can bring back for UK listeners of a certain age memories of “Bill And Ben- The Flowerpot Men”! This track morphs into the frantic Latin instrumental “Runnin’” which hurtles along to an odd break-down at the end.
On the next album we would have the ballad which became one of their biggest hits but on “All N’All” the three slower tempo songs are all of very high quality. “Love’s Holiday” sees a sterling vocal performance from Maurice White. It is unashamedly romantic and imparts a warm glow. The album’s closer “Be Ever Wonderful” has a beautiful flute introduction and also features White’s fine tenor voice.
I cannot mention the two remaining tracks without highlighting something else which made Earth Wind and Fire stand out from the crowd – the voice of one Philip Bailey. This man could sing like an angel and he proves it on the superb “I’ll Write A Song For You”. This a tender love song with poetic lyrics which work so well;
“Sounds never dissipate, they only recreate
in another place.
There in your silent night
joy of a song’s delight
I write a song for you”
It is sensitive and beautifully performed and towards the end Bailey’s vocals soar into the stratosphere (keeping the outer space theme going) to illustrate a falsetto with great range, power and the capability of conveying many emotions. This is perhaps the finest falsetto in pop. (Russell Thompkins Jnr of The Stylistics had a beautifully warm falsetto but it tended to be more on a level). Bailey here pushes his to breaking point in the fade-out of this extraordinary track. Patti Labelle, another vocalist with the ability to soar up to the heavens covered this on her 2005 “Classic Moments” CD, but this is one occasion where the Diva is runner-up in the vocal stakes.
Under any normal circumstances this would be my favourite track on the album but I am saving the best until last here. “All N’All’s” second track “Fantasy” (UK#14, US#32). This is arguably my very favourite single of all time. Tempo-wise it is mid-way between the ballads and out and out funkers but has the merits of both. Lyrically, it encompasses the themes of the album without veering too far into obscurity and vocally it is just superb. From its opening notes it hits a punch and here the mysticism of the lyrics enhance so it feels as if you are listening to something fundamentally important, something which addresses the subconscious. Before I lapse into new agey-ness I need to say that this track for me is musical perfection and I don’t think a group has ever performed as tightly or as superbly as Earth Wind & Fire do in this 4 min 39 second track. I have never understood the moderate chart positions on both sides of the Atlantic and certainly never understood that a higher chart position (UK number 5) was attained by a cover version in 1990 by Italian house group Black Box.
Follow-up album “I Am” was also very strong, although the tracks felt a little safer. It was however a bigger commercial success, but from that point on things began to fall away for the group as subsequent albums lacked the magic of their best and sales began to slump. There were still some great singles to come, however. I never go very long without playing this CD and reliving this great group at their creative peak.
At time of writing this CD can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk used from £2.83. It can be downloaded for £5.99. American listeners can buy new from $5.99 and used from $3.00 and as a download for $9.99. In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify.