If you are looking to have one studio album by Earth Wind & Fire in your collection that should be All N All (reviewed here recently). However, to really have an Essential CD collection that would need to be complemented with a Best Of compilation otherwise you would be missing out on superb examples of 70’s Soul and Disco Funk.
The CD I have selected is a 17 tracker released in 1996. There are, however, a couple of serious omissions on this so you may wish to consider the 2014 20 track release “The Ultimate Collection” but as this is the one readily on my shelf and still sells well (Amazon have it currently ranked at 1,811 and in the Top 20 Best Selling CDs in three of their charts, Funk, Disco and Classic R&B) this is the one that is up for review. It didn’t reach the album charts when first released but to see it is still performing well nineteen years later shows how highly this group’s back catalogue is regarded.
In the UK, Earth Wind & Fire scored ten Top 40 hits between 1977-83 and nine of these are featured here (1980’s “Let Me Talk#29 hit being absent). This is obviously a CD geared to the British market. In the USA they notched up 16 Top 40 hits between 1974-1983, five of them are missing here including the fairly essential “Getaway” (US#12 in 1976) and their first three hits, including, bizarrely their only US number 1 single “Shining Star” from 1975. These earlier tracks are ignored for a couple of tracks which seem somewhat random. There is a two track overlap between this and “All N All”, but as one of those is my all-time favourite “Fantasy” you won’t find me complaining.
The album kicks off with the title track which was very much a last hurrah for the band. Released towards the end of 1981 “Let’s Groove” livened up many an end of year party as it still does today. It eschews all the spirituality that was increasingly creeping into the music and just encourages us to get down and groove. It gave the group their final Top 3 hit on both sides of the Atlantic and matched their highest ever UK single chart placing. It’s a great track but lacks the out and out magic of what comes next. For me 1979’s “Boogie Wonderland” is a song which has aged so well. At the time it seemed a little surprising that Earth Wind and Fire would make an out and out disco song but this is sheer excitement from the very first note of the introduction (which itself has been recycled into at least one big dance hit tune since). Everyone sings for their life and to bring in girl group The Emotions was a stroke of genius. Maurice White had transformed their career in 1977 by co- producing their US chart-topping “Best Of My Love” and this collaboration felt appropriate and their vocal contribution took this track up to another level. There is genuine raw excitement throughout which makes this a Disco Classic “Boogie Wonderland” has become the most fondly remembered and will probably account for a lot of the CD’s sales. It felt like a number 1 single at the time but made #4 in the UK and #6 in the US. This song is unusual as Maurice White was not involved in the song-writing of it. Having just finished Grace Jones’ autobiography (reviewed here) I was fascinated that Grace claims she was first offered the song to sing but that she rejected it as by 1979 she was ready to move on from her Disco offerings, but what a shame there’s not a demo of it lurking around somewhere. That is a version I would very much like to hear.
“Boogie Wonderland” came from the 1979 “I Am” album which was the follow-up to the essential “All N All” and was their commercial peak in the UK (Album Charts #5- US#3), so perhaps it is not surprise that five of the eight tracks feature on this CD. “In The Stone” keeps the excitement levels up. We’re back with the mysticism with an excellently structured song with the first class harmonies and punchy brass we expect from the group. “Can’t Let Go” rattles along at a fair lick and features more vocal gymnastics from Philip Bailey, another first class track. “Star” (UK#16)features a lovely introduction and we’re back with the outer-space theme the band loves. This CD closes with their big ballad “After The Love Has Gone”, (US#2,UK#4) which oozes quality, even if that type of ballad now sounds a little cheesy.
Elswhere on the CD we have their first UK hit from 1977 the slick disco-funk of “Saturday Nite” (UK#17,US#21) which combines nursery rhyme characters with the obscure;
“We emphasise to make it clear
Our Stumbling nations atmosphere
While looking through the looking glass
Our vision show, a stormy past
When you gonna wake and see the sun
Stop wasting time and having fun”
The whole thing (lyrics aside) is embued with a playfulness which was often evident in commercial funk in the mid 70’s. There’s also “September”, another of their biggest hits (US#8 and the first of their two UK Top 3 hits). This was much loved enough to re-chart in a remixed version in 1999 (UK#25) .The original version was recorded as a new track on their first “Best Of “ compilation and their version of the Lennon/McCartney “Got To Get You Into My Life” (US#9,UK#33) also appears on that album, having first appeared as part of the soundtrack on the misjudged Robert Stigwood produced “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” film, of which, EWF were one of the few participants to emerge with reputations intact. That leaves the pretty if slightly histrionic “Reasons” , the cool Skip Scarborough penned “Can’t Hide Love” (US#39) and the complex but lovely “That’s The Way Of The World” (US#12). The three tracks I would have put on the substitution list are their last UK and US hits – I’ve Had Enough(UK#29) and “Fall In Love With Me” (US#17)and the Latin styled track “Evil” which comes from their 1973 album “Head To The Sky” although maybe of some interest to see how the group blossomed is no substitute for “Getaway”, “Shining Star” or “Serpentine Fire”.
If you’re having a party you need Earth Wind & Fire (any doubts that they are not the ultimate party group should be dispelled if you watch the video below), for a little spiritual uplift with a disco-funk slant choose Earth Wind and Fire, to experience some of the best lead vocals, superb harmonies and funky 70’s brass this band should also be at the top of your list.
Forty one years after their first US Top 30 hit Earth Wind and Fire are still going strong (there was a gap when they disbanded between 1983-7). They are in continual demand as a live act. Maurice White no longer tours but is still central to the group’s existence as songwriter and producer. For me the albums after 1979’s “I Am” never had the same magic (although 1997’s “In The Name Of Love” is very likable) but if you want to experience this group at this peak this CD (or one of the other Greatest Hits CD’s available) is an Essential choice.
At time of writing this CD can be purchased new from Amazon.co.uk used for £5.25 and used from £1.03. American listeners can buy new from $12.45 and used from $2.18. In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify