Graded on a Curve: Eugene McDaniels, Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse

Eugene McDaniels had a long and multifaceted career, but if he sticks in the memory of most folks, it’s due to his pop-R&B hits from the early 1960s as Gene McDaniels (including “One Hundred Pounds of Clay” and “Tower of Strength”), plus the pair of wilder, funkier, protest-themed cult albums he cut for Atlantic in ’70-’71 under his full given name, of which Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse is the second and strongest, and also the angriest. As the source of numerous hip-hop samples in the ’90s (including a couple bona fide classics), that LP belongs in any ’70s soul collection, though only 1,750 people will land a copy of Real Gone’s edition, out July 9, assuming nobody goes gauche and buys themselves two.

In addition to his own recordings, Eugene McDaniels wrote songs made famous by others, most notably “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” a hit for Roberta Flack, and “Compared to What,” a soul jazz smash for Les McCann and Eddie Harris (as a single and on the classic Swiss Movement live LP); the latter song was also waxed by numerous others including Flack as the first single from her ’69 debut First Take.

McDaniels left the USA for Scandinavia in ’68 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It’s a decision that often sits as a dividing line in synopses of his career, for when he returned to the States and recommenced recording in the early ’70s, going by Eugene and adopting the alternate moniker “The Left Rev McD.,” the contrast couldn’t have been much sharper.

But complicating matters a bit is that “Compared to What,” with its lyrics critical of the war in Vietnam, was copyrighted in 1966 (appearing in a studio version on McCann’s Plays the Hits that year), and it’s also worth noting, particularly because hardly anybody else mentions it in summaries of his career, that McDaniels sang on and co-wrote much of the too often slept on ’69 LP Now!, by the outstanding jazz vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson.

Now! is far from a straight-ahead jazz album. Instead, its aptly assessed as an excursion into post-Coltrane realms (courtesy of saxophonist Harold Land and pianist Kenny Barron) with infusions of psychedelia (specifically Wally Richardson’s fuzzed-out guitar) and choral singing (a la Andrew Hill’s Lift Every Voice from the same year) and with McDaniels’ lead vocals extending from the jazz tradition, not at all unusual as he began his career at the microphone in a group led by McCann.

Without knowledge that “Compared to What” was written while LBJ was POTUS, and minus time spent soaking up the socially-conscious themes of Now! (most deeply expressed by the Land composition “Black Heroes” with its lovely refrain of “freedom now” by McDaniels), the impression given by the cover of Outlaw, McDaniels’ first LP for Atlantic, its photo of the artist with his then wife Ramona wearing ammo belts across her chest and another woman holding a machine gun, could possibly be that of a radical chic masquerade (or a sincere overcorrection relating to McDaniel’s mainstream early work).

But that’s not the reality that lingers half a century later. The decidedly rock-angled and indeed roots-inclined Outlaw has a lot going for it, and we’ll engage with a few of its qualities in relation to Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse, along with reflecting on the storied fallout that resulted from the perspectives McDaniels articulated during this period. If distinct, the Atlantic LPs are unified thematically and musically.

McDaniels’ opens Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse with “The Lord Is Back,” which might seem by its title to be a move toward spiritual positivity. However, with the lyric “The Lord is mad, his disposition’s mean, he’s traveling the road to mass destruction,” it’s clear that the vision is of fire and brimstone with reference to the Book of Revelation. And it’s impossible to shake how the vocal repetition of the song’s title at the conclusion celebrates the heavy shit that is forecasted to hit the fan.

But before that, drummer Alphonse Mouzon, yes, he of the inaugural lineup of Weather Report, which debuted this same year, lays down a tight beat of unstoppable funkiness, its momentum spiked with some tough rock guitar by Richie Resnikoff and flourishes of electric piano from Harry Whitaker. The band is completed by bassists Gary King (electric) and fellow Weather Reporter Miroslav Vitouš (acoustic) and backing vocalist Carla Cargill.

The presence of Mouzon and Vitouš might lead one to assume that McDaniels was moving into jazz territory, but not really. Their contribution is more indicative of instrumental depth, a palpable grooving in the pocket, that made Headless so desirable to crate-diggers, this circumstance solidified by the opening of “Jagger the Dagger,” a sustained motif that will be instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the debut record by A Tribe Called Quest.

Intensifying this connection is how “Jagger the Dagger” exists as a sorta proto-diss track on the subject of The Rolling Stones’ frontman, though the specifics of McDaniels’ derision are a little vague. There are hints of disdain for Jagger as a cultural appropriator, but more so as a bringer of bad vibes, doing a “devil dance” (as the title weapon might be a reference to Altamont).

That Outlaw’s opening title track sounds so much like the Stones of this era as to be considered a possible parody deepens the overall scenario. So does the line “Jagger merging the sexes now,” which insinuates intolerance on the part of McDaniels that’s troublesome, though it just might be a reference to the Donald Cammell/ Nicolas Roeg film Performance, which starred Jagger and was fresh in theaters at the time.

Anyway, at this late date, I’m more interested in how the backing vocals in “Jagger the Dagger” are more reminiscent of the Swingle Singers burrowing into the folds of Burt Bacharach’s brain than they are of the Ikettes or the Raelettes. I can dig it. I also dig how “Lovin’ Man” is suitably funky while giving McDaniels room to stretch out vocally, and how it further underscores his deftness with pop song structure (along with a seeming distaste for the self-serving nature of overzealous positivity).

“Headless Heroes” does get a little jazzy, but it’s largely so in McDaniels’ comportment as vocalist, which highlights his sophisto past in appealing juxtaposition with the band’s robustness of execution (Ill Communication fans will definitely appreciate this one). This contrast gets extended and then darkened considerably on side two’s “Freedom Death Dance,” with its instrumental callback to “Jagger the Dagger,” as the mood of social pessimism becomes entrenched.

“Supermarket Blues” continues this bleak survey on the flip as Headless culminates with the nearly ten-minute “The Parasite (For Buffy),” an excoriation of white settlers and the US Government’s treatment of Native Americans that’s dedicated to indigenous (and effectively blacklisted) Canadian-American folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie. The song concludes with a totally appropriate free jazz freak-out.

The Bob Dylan-esque nature of side two’s opener “Susan Jane” might seem like an outlier, and it kinda is, but not so much for folks who’ve heard the folky side of Outlaw. And it’s worth noting in conclusion that the story of Vice Presidential fuckface Spiro Agnew insisting to Atlantic that they bury Headless, often thought of as an embellished tale if not an outright fabrication, gets much easier to believe after soaking up Outlaw’s scathing (and righteous) rebuke to Nixon and his supporters, “Silent Majority.”

Outlaw is definitely worth the time, but Real Gone has already reissued that one, and it’s currently sold out. To borrow Bobby Hutcherson’s album title, Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse is now, and in multiple ways. And as mentioned up top, its availability is limited, so those interested shouldn’t procrastinate. But please, curb any creeping capitalist cravings and limit your purchase to one.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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