Graded on a Curve:
Kool and the Gang,
Wild and Peaceful

Funky stuff—and even more funky stuff—that’s what Kool and the Gang have on offer on 1973’s party manifesto Wild and Peaceful. Just how funky is this LP? Well, my copy has its very own musk, and I had an enormously difficult time with this review because I just couldn’t stop toprocking long enough to write it. From the whistle that sounds at the beginning of opening track “Funky Stuff” you know things are going to get wild, and they do. They do.

I’m familiar with Kool and the Gang thanks to Top 40 radio, which played both “Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging” with wonderful regularity when I was but a young sprout. And how I loved them! A naysayer might interject that neither tune rises to the pure badassness of P-Funk, but said naysayer would be missing the point. Both of them were like nothing else on the radio at the time—their chanted vocals, fierce horn charts, rubbery grooves, and sheer funky strangeness (love roadie turned lead singer Don Boyce’s maniacal lip blubber on “Jungle Boogie”!) were sui generis, baby. They could almost have been novelty tunes, and perhaps in fact they were, but if so the novelty never wore off and never will.

Robert “Kool” Bell and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” was without a doubt the funkiest song to ever hit this adolescent honky cat’s ears; toss in some cool guitar scratch, a relentless groove, and some truly deranged vocals and what you have is a song for the ages. “Hollywood Swinging” is a subtler beast; in it’s unique way it presages Kool and the Gang’s subsequent shift towards disco, but it possesses a sophistication—so many layered voices and sounds, such a cool guitar, and check out those horns!—that most disco tunes lacked. As for “Funky Stuff” and “More Funky Stuff” they’re more primal and closer to the bone—this is the kind of music you’d want to hear in a sweaty club in the nasty part of town, high on gin and juice and the sheer joy of Saturday night. No real lyrics, per se, just lots of nonsense syllables and interjections. And lots of truly funky guitar by band co-founder Clay Smith, who on “More Funky Stuff” hangs on to the same notes for almost the first two minutes just because he feels like it, goddamn it.

“This Is You, This Is Me” takes a somewhat more linear approach to funk, but is no less effective in the end; it’s all propulsion, thanks to Bell’s bass (I believe it’s doing the bump) and the drums and percussion of “Funky” George Brown. And Ronald Bell’s blowing has to be heard to be believed. As for Smith, his guitar playing is positively revelatory. “Life is What You Make It” is a groovy wake-up call (To do what? To get out there and make the most of your life, brothers and sisters!) on which Smith goes chukka-chukka on your ass, makes cool scratching noises, vamps like a master, and in general knocks your socks off. The groove is simple, the beauty in the details on this one.

“Heaven At Once” features Kool and some Representative Young Person engaging in a rather corny Socratic dialogue on how to achieve heaven on earth over a slow but swinging R&B groove. But I for one rather like it, especially when Kool says, “Well you see/We are scientists of sound/We are mathematically putting it down.” Word! As for the title track, it’s more jazz than funk, and more peaceful than wild—a bit too pastoral for my tastes, in fact. But it has far more heart and soul than your usual jazz-fuzak swill, especially when Robert “Spike” Mickens, Dennis “Dee Tee” Thomas, and Ronald Bell take their turns on trumpet, flute, and saxophone, respectively. And Smith tosses in some very nice—if too polite, perhaps—jazz guitar to boot.

Kool and the Gang were definitely of the ghetto, and this white kid who did not know a solitary black soul—weren’t many of ‘em in my rural backwater on the Mason-Dixon line—will forever be grateful to Top 40 radio for bringing the ghetto to my house. “Jungle Boogie” twisted my young mind in a way that Jethro Tull’s “Bungle in the Jungle” never could; once I heard Don Boyce’s truly awe-inspiring vocals and those lockstep horns, things were never the same. As Sly Stone once said, the world’s a ghetto, and thanks in part to Kool Bell and Company, no matter where you go the funk is the funk is the funk, Amen Forever.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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