Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Tower of Power -- "Only So Much Oil In The Ground" (1974)

In the early 70's, Warner Brothers/Reprise Records had a counterculture-spiked advertising/promotional campaign that they ran in magazines like National Lampoon and Rolling Stone promoting their lively roster of artists including from Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Wildman Fisher (!!), Norman Greenbaum, The Grateful Dead, Bonnie Raitt and Tower of Power. Featuring Robert Crumb-inspired art, they offered a free promotional record to sample their artists. It's hard to forget that promotion, as it appeared regularly and was given out at record stores.

Then sometime in 1974, still in high school, I read a rave review of the new Tower of Power album, Urban Renewal, singling out "Only So Much Oil In The Ground" as perceptive, topical, and... uh, funky. Then everybody started talking about that song. Maybe I heard it once on the radio, I don't exactly remember -- Tower of Power was never embraced by radio, for some reason.

But this was the heyday of record album buying, where I absorbed rock critics in newspapers and magazines, and if they thought this was outstanding, I was going to spend my $5 or $6 a buy the record. And that album cover was not exactly a big fish hook to reel'em in, a demolished building is not a pretty sight.

The first thing that hit me when I put the album on was everything. That bulldozer horn section knocks you over from the very opening of "Only So Much Oil" and really doesn't stop. Horns, drums, bass, organ -- all cooking at the same time. Unlike, say, a typical pop record which actually builds, layering on more instruments and licks, these guys operated on full steam for nearly every song.

Why wasn't the band on the cover? You could see them on the back cover in a tightly cropped photo -- this ensemble was nearly all white boys playing in your face soul and funk. Only keyboardist Chester Thompson and singer Lenny Williams were black. This was the same year the Average White Band broke through with a similar concept on "Pick Up The Pieces" (and they were not on their album covers either), so you'd think TOP would get their radio play with less obstacles by this time. Nope, and this was two years before Wild Cherry would just make fun of the whole thing with the classic "Play That Funky Music (white boy)."

Ironically, with a topical leadoff single and a staggeringly timely cover, the rest of Urban Renewal was not going to be the next socially-conscious What's Going On. Heavily influenced by James Brown's horn jams (except with twice as many brass players!), TOP swooped and cut like daredevils through funky numbers, all musicians at the top of their game, much like Frank Zappa always had the cream of the crop. This was the Oakland, California sound, patented in their previous album, Back To Oakland.

Everything was complex... but it totally cooked. There were swooning ballads ("Willing To Learn," "It Can Never Be The Same," "I Won't Leave Unless You Want Me To") and always the dizzying 6-minute instrumental jam (in this case, "Walking Up Hip Street"). Taking from the Motown tradition, they wrote lyrics based on old sayings, slogans, warnings, double entendres and metaphors -- "It's not the crime/It's if you get caught!" "Maybe it'll rub off!" "(To Say The Least) You're The Most."

To record a large group like this requires quite an engineering job and even on vinyl during those days, you couldn't help but be impressed by how these records sounded. Full of life, everything clear and crackling, giving the speakers the full workout.

The members of Tower of Power were always worshiped like musical gods, now in their 40th year. Co-founders Emilio Castillo, bassist Rocco Prestia and the professorial looking Stephen "Doc" Kupka always get the familiar screams and yells. David Garibaldi is known as one of the best funk and soul drummers anywhere (and I own his drum sample/loop disc "Tower of Funk"). Former saxophonist Lenny Pickett would do the wildest things on record and stage with that instrument, stoking the crowds into loud screams, shouts and whistles, and he would eventually leave to be in Saturday Night Live's house band. Trumpeter Greg Adams spent 25 years arranging the magical material until he left to release solo albums (and I own his loop/samples DVD, "Greg Adams Big Band Brass" -- check out the cool music on his web site).

The band has been through more lead singers than Spinal Tap has with drummers. Old school TOP fans still think Lenny Williams was the best of the long line, some of whom sounded eerily like the man himself.

I've seen them live half a dozen times and if you think they're a party on record, then you haven't seen nothing yet. A TOP concert is a bring down the house experience, with more people playing "air horns" and "air drums" than any other act I can think of.

I do have to give a tip of the hat to my friend down the hall at SUNY at Buffalo during freshman year, Doug Alpern, for coming armed to school with more TOP albums and opening the whole scene to me.

So here they are, live from the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2006, is Tower of Power knocking everybody out with "Only So Much Oil In The Ground," which still seems to be a timely message today.

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