Friday, March 29, 2024

The Rascals - Freedom Suite (1968 us, marvelous psych soul jazz vibes)

1968 was not a good year for peace and liberty. The Tet Offensive was a major setback for the forces fighting to keep South Vietnam out of the clutches of Communist tyranny; that same Communist tyranny imposed a ruthless clampdown on the Prague Spring; student radicals sparked a general strike that shut down the economy of France; Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated; race riots raged throughout America’s cities; and George Wallace got 10 million votes for president (13% of the total) on a blatant segregationist platform. In the middle of all that, the Rascals put out a single that topped the charts for five weeks in the summer – not only for its musical virtues, which include a powerful, pushing beat, an exquisite horn line that whips the bridge into a frenzy, an organ line that appears at exactly the right time to complement the melody, and another great combination of Felix’s passionate lead and the Brigatis’ soulful backing vocals – but also because it distilled all the commotion into one simple phrase: ‘People Got to Be Free.’ As a statement of human dignity, it’s hard to top ‘It’s a natural situation for a man to be free,’ and the energy of this song, particularly Felix’s vocal (dig ‘we got to solve it individually, uh huh!’), shows that the enduring struggle for civil rights can move the spirit as much as good lovin’. I admit it: ‘People Got to Be Free’ is my all-time favorite song, so you’re not going to get an objective review from this website. The fierce joy embodied in this song – inspired by an abstract principle that actually makes lives better – moves me to tears sometimes, and never fails to give me goose bumps.

At the end of that tumultuous year, the Rascals put together an album to complement their hit single, and it follows through on the themes of the hit. With the true spirit of inclusiveness, they never point fingers or name names – in fact, they rarely even call out a problem without simultaneously calling out its solution. And because the group was working at the peak of their musical powers, it’s all gloriously uplifting.

The brilliant opener melds an orchestra playing the traditional melody of ‘America the Beautiful’ with overdriven organ and some spiffy martial drumming from Dino as Felix wails about the dichotomy between America’s ideals and the life some live: ‘People crying in the land of the free.’ But in typical Rascals fashion, he points out the positive alternatives: ‘A holy man once told me that you reap exactly what you sow / So I think I’ll plant some love and peace and wait for it to grow.’ What’s especially clever is the way the song plays off some of the catchphrases of the time, both conservative and liberal: ‘It don’t take law and order to make me understand / If the minds of men refuse to see our equality / Then it takes some demonstratin’ and a lot of faith in Thee’ and ‘We all don’t want a revolution / But to make all mankind see / There’s a better way of being here in peace and harmony’. Call me a hopeless romantic, but none of this seems dated at all – the whole world is obviously still working out how to live together, and sticking to the principles of America’s founding documents seems like a good way to reach that point. (OK, the part where they sing ‘If we lose the war on poverty’ is a little dated, but in a good way, because we won the war on poverty. If you don’t believe me, compare malnutrition and infant mortality rates from 1968 to today.)

Other tracks take on similar ideas: ‘Look Around’ has a wonderfully slinky beat and falsetto harmonies, but the lyrics are more topical: they address the 1968 election (‘Bigotry hate and fear / Got ten million votes this year’) and growing concerns about violence and social anomie (‘Violence on the TV screen / Guns and ammo magazine ‘ Hello’s a word for telephones / Bigger locks and smaller homes’). Nonetheless, the song still rings true because a lot of those concerns are still with us, and the Rascals’ solutions still seems sensible: ‘Love’s not a dirty word / That’s just the way it’s heard.’ ‘A Ray of Hope’ is an Impressions tribute, down to Felix’s high singing and the minimalist guitar licks, but especially in its declaration that ‘Most people got soul / If they wanna try’ and ‘I can’t imagine any greater need / Than to treat each other like we’d like to be’. When things get roiled up with some furious tom fills and Felix expostulating ‘Gotta get together, one by one’ it’s a gospel explosion of hope and joy and frustration all together, and it’s a beautiful moment.

Gene contributes ‘Me and My Friends’ with a pounding piano line and frenzied latin percussion, and while the lyric is a bit hippy-dippy in its only-the-young-know-the-truth attitude, its focus on togetherness (‘The time has come to take a stand for unity’) lends it a redeeming charm. There’s a long guitar/organ jam at the end that intriguingly doesn’t feature any lead playing, just warm overdriven feedback, not screechy but intense. It shows Felix as a keyboard innovator. ‘Heaven’ closes the album with a traditional soul-ballad 12/8 feel, but the melody and piano licks incorporate a country feel.  After all the tumult addressed in the previous songs, it’s a gentle ending with a refreshing climactic image: ‘Just open up the windows that are in your heart / And let the light shine, and your life will start.’

Naturally, the group sprinkles in some non-political songs, but they’re all grounded in the belief that respect and tolerance (and a little bit of love) are what we really need. ‘Of Course’ is built on a sinister electric piano lick (like ‘What’d I Say’ crossed with ‘I’m a King Bee’) and a heartbroken lyric. The tinkling celeste break is unfortunate, but the sax solo returns the song to its essence. Gene reprises his earlier ‘No Love to Give’ with ‘Love Was So Easy to Give’, but this time around both the lyrics and melody are improved, with a gentle waltz tune accompanied by a Little Italy accordion and a gently arcing tune and a wistful look at growing up. The chilling orchestration (right out of Bookends) is a fitting touch.

 Eddie only gets two vocals, but they’re both delightful. ‘Any Dance’ll Do’ grooves hard and lays out the Rascals philosophy as it applies to the dance floor: ‘You dance how you wanna, you fell what you wanna, you’re free as you wanna be!’ A thrilling trumpet line (check out the double-tonguing up the scale in the fade) is just one of the highlights of ‘Island of Love’ which also has Eddie’s silky delivery of some faintly ridiculous lyrics (‘you’re a touched-off rocket set to leave the ground’) and a fabulous performance from Dino, slightly swinging, then exploding all over the chorus.

The Rascals propounding a musical philosophy that love can change the world seems a little preposterous on the surface. But listening to these songs moves me to a better place, where the troubles of our day seem to melt into the beat. And maybe that’s the point – commiting yourself to love won’t change other people, but it will change you. This music makes me happy, and if it makes you happy too, then there’s two more people on the right side of the bed. Freedom Suite didn’t really change any minds (Richard Nixon was re-elected in a landslide a few years later) but it’s enough that this glorious music combined with a soaring, positively-oriented worldview, can still thrill the listener, moving both feet and heart. God Bless the Rascals!
by Steven Knowlton
1. America The Beautiful (Katherine Lee Bates, Samuel A. Ward) - 2:52
2. Me, My Friends (Gene Cornish) - 2:44
3. Any Dance'll Do (Felix Cavaliere, Eddie Brigati) - 2:22
4. Look Around (Felix Cavaliere, Eddie Brigati) - 3:04
5. A Ray Of Hope (Felix Cavaliere, Eddie Brigati) - 3:46
6. Island Of Love (Felix Cavaliere, Eddie Brigati) - 2:24
7. Of Course (Felix Cavaliere, Eddie Brigati) - 2.43
8. Love Was So Easy To Give (Gene Cornish) - 2:45
9. People Got To Be Free (Felix Cavaliere, Eddie Brigati) - 3:01
10.Bai'm Blue (Felix Cavaliere) - 2:50
11.Heaven (Felix Cavaliere) - 3:26
12.Adrian's Birthday (Felix Cavaliere, Gene Cornish, Dino Danelli) - 4:50
13.Boom (Dino Danelli) - 13:49
14.Cute (Felix Cavaliere, Eddie Brigati, Gene Cornish, Dino Danelli) - 15:17

The Rascals
*Felix Cavaliere - Organ, Piano, Lead Vocals, Backing Vocals
*Eddie Brigati - Percussion, Lead Vocals, Backing Vocals
*Gene Cornish - Guitar, Lead Vocals, Backing Vocals
*Dino Danelli - Drums
*Chuck Rainey - Bass
*Gerald Jemmott - Bass 
*King Curtis - Saxophone
*David Newman - Tenor Saxophone
*Richard Davis - Bass
*Charles Morrow - Horn Arrangements

1969  The Rascals - See (Japan remaster)
1971  The Rascals - Peaceful World (Japan remaster)
1972  The Rascals - Island Of Real (Sundazed issue)
1965-72  The Rascals - Anthology (double disc)
1967  The Young Rascals - Groovin'  (2007 remastered and expanded)