THE PICTURE is justly famous; although, like many pictures which resonate with their time, the true circumstances of its origin differ somewhat from the projected message. The camera never lies, but it equivocates.
A line of figures queues across the frame on the big city sidewalk, all of them overcoated and be-hatted, many carrying baskets, buckets or bags, every one of them black. One or two eye the camera, maybe with curiosity, but with no friendliness or approval. Others look shiftily away from it or pointedly, resentfully ignore it. Yet others are simply unaware of the spying lens. They look ahead or nowhere in particular, faces unreadably glum - except for one man who seems to smile at a private thought. Each has the air of someone forced to endure what should be a personal moment in public, reacting with shame or anger, defiance or resignation.
The picture must date from the Thirties, evoking as it does the Great Depression. Obviously, these people are awaiting a handout. Equally obviously, this is the last resort for them. They look like solid folk, driven by circumstance, by the failings of a callous and careless economic system, into the door of a soup kitchen.
In fact, history never being so helpfully pat, they are victims of the weather, lining up for flood relief. The picture could just as easily date from the boom-time Twenties for all it has to do with the Depression - were it not for the punchline, the compelling irony that drew the lens and made the image a classic. Behind and above the line of unwilling supplicants, dwarfing them and devouring the centre of the photograph, stands an enormous billboard. A smart little car, hugely magnified, charges out of from the hoarding straight towards the queue. Inside it, a smart little white family, wholesome - loathsomely so, to today's eye - grotesquely clean and happy, smile in wonder and delight at the bleak vista below (all bar the mother, who wears an expression of smug arrogance worthy of any Third Reich fraulein.) Across the poster, in exuberant, climbing letters, runs the slogan: “There's No Place Like America Today”.
Recreated, in tinted form, from Margaret Bourke-White's 1937 monochrome original, and with the original advertising slogan adapted from “There's No way Like The American Way”, this is the cover of Curtis Mayfield's album of the same name. He couldn't have picked a more apt one; the record evokes its own time and place as surely as the picture represents chasm between American dreams and street-level reality. 1975 was, for many in the cities of the USA, a particularly wretched time, one which even now carries the aura of winter, of hangover, of chills and meanness and struggle.
America's mid-seventies are best remembered for their political events. The Nixon administration had packed up its tent to the accompaniment of national derision and delusion. The music and art, the journalism, films and novels of the moment reflect shock and disenchantment and outright paranoia - this last being one of Richard Nixon's own particular contributions - following revelations that the government of the USA had acted in ways that would have given the Cosa Nostra, if not sleepless nights, then at least a few handy pointers.
But to many people, that didn't matter a damn. They had never expected anything better from the government anyway. What Nixon and his goons were up to was of far less import than the recession into which America had slumped. And those who felt it first and hardest were America's urban blacks, in towns such as Detroit, where the car industry was concussed by huge oil price rises. The message of Mayfield's album cover was clear. 40 years, and what's changed? Civil rights marches, changes in legislation, voting rights, LBJ's efforts to revive FDR's Great Society, and what's changed? The fierce separatist hatreds that fire much of today's rap echo the malaise of 20 years ago. The sneering, amoral, black-on-black violence of Gangsta, too, shuffles out of the dark. And it's all here on this LP.
Mayfield is best known as a master of fluid funk; as the creator of every funk-lover's favourite song ever, Movin' On Up, and thus as a positive and inspirational force; as a Blaxploitation soundtrack genius and consequently a seriously hip figure in the pantheon of Seventies music regenerated as style; and as a strong influence during the early, pimpmobile days of Gangsta (Ice T freely acknowledges that he's up to his armpits in hock to Mayfield.)
Mayfield is also, sadly, known for his ill-fortune in having his career ended by a falling stagelight, which paralysed him from the neck down. Nobody remembers him as a chronicler of austere times. Subtle and seraphic lovejuice maestro Marvin Gaye takes due credit for his ravishing and less sophisticated political opus, What's Goin' On; but There's No Place Like America Today seems to be missing from the canon. While it's certainly fashionable to cite Mayfield, nobody makes mention of this particular record. A shame, because it's a masterwork.
Funk audiences today take a functional attitude; it has to be good time music, for partying, dancing or f***ing. I certainly wouldn't recommend attempting any of the above activities to No Place Like America, especially the last. You may not want to be instructed to “Talk about Jesus” at crucial moments, even if you already calling upon him like one possessed.
No Place Like America is a record of its time, which has its own fascination; but it's also an album of timeless intrigue. The world it portrays is very cold indeed, and the comfort it offers is as sparse as the measured, melancholy funk. But it's comfort nonetheless, something buried so deep in the music that maybe those of us
whose bones have never ached, day in, day out, on hard city streets - and good for us, I say - can't really get to grips with it. I'm happy with that; it's an album I'd much rather enjoy from choice than need.
Mayfield's music is as restrained and insinuating on No Place Like America as it would ever be. His fluting falsetto, rather than being carried on the tide (as it was on Move On Up et al), draws the instruments behind it. There are no breaks, no crescendos. The album never loses its mood of gentle insistence. It may be most sombre funk record ever made, which doesn't sound like much of a commendation; but it isn't sombre in the manner of, say, the grey-coated, white cerebro-funkers of the early Eighties. It's not heavy, dour or miserable; it's light on its feet, delicate, but no less serious for that. It sounds like an honest response to the mood of its times - Mayfield may have felt that he could hardly sound the call to party when so many of his audience were finding it difficult enough to get though the week.
THE opening moment of No Place Like America sees a convict, on the day of his release, finding out about the shooting of an old friend, the Billy Jack of the song title. The track, far from resembling a dirge, takes the form of tremulous piece of butterfly funk, as if Billy Jack's death were too predictable an event to be truly mourned: “Too bad about him - too sad about him/Don't get me wrong - the man is gone/But it's a wonder he lived this long.” In almost miraculously concise fashion, Mayfield tells you everything you need to know about Billy Jack: “Up in the city they called him Boss Jack/But down home he was an alley cat/Ah! didn't care nothin' bout bein' black.” And now he's dead, plugged in some petty criminal exchange. The whole history of the man is contained within; you could take that cameo and write a life from it. But first you'd have to tear your attention away from the song itself, which is as tight and irresistible as any of Mayfield's more upbeat work. As well as being as musical titan on the basis of his songwriting and record-making, Mayfield was an astonishing guitarist, with a style so cunning and fluent that the many, many attempts to copy it usually go clumsily awry. No names mentioned, except for Paul Weller, at whom one should never miss the opportunity to aim a kick in passing.
When Seasons Change could be the keynote address of 1975; so much so that temptation is to simply reprint the entire lyric and leave it at that. Certainly, it's the thematic cornerstone of the record. The onset of winter, the struggle to survive, the cold landscape, riddled with predators. “A lot of scars - the kind that scare you to remember/Scuffin' times - in seeing people trying to put you down/For goodness sakes/People trying to take what you know that you've found.” But, as throughout No Place Like America, Mayfield shows no interest in attributing blame for the harsh situations he describes. If there is a message at the heart of the LP, it's “Look to yourself.” Even in Jesus, he points to Christ, not as the traditional source of divine love in adversity - the pie-in-the sky religiosity despised by black militants - but simply as a human role model: “He never had a hustlin' mind/Doin' crime - wastin' time.”
Blue Monday People and Love To The People follow the same idea, of seeking strength and warmth in the hearts of yourself and others. For a political album - and No Place Like America is political, if unspecific - this is a genuinely radical idea, less immediately gratifying but ultimately more subversive than Public Enemy surrounding their first LP with a cordon of accusation: “The Government's Responsible. . . The Government's Responsible. . . The Government's Responsible. . .” No, claims Mayfield, your circumstances may be the fault of others, but nobody other than you is going to dig you out.
Maybe this makes No Place Like America sound as if it's a preaching kind of album. That's not the case (it's much less so than What's Goin' On, for instance.) There's nothing didactic in the tone of the record. That never was Mayfield's style. Hard Times is nothing more than what it appears to be; a lament for the collapse of decency, and the downward spiral of black-on-black violence. Although it's never openly stated, No Place Like America portrays the comedown from the Sixties. For affluent white kids, that decade may have meant peace and love (ie plenty of drugs and unlimited opportunities for boys to sleep with girls too frightened of appearing repressed to complain about bad sex), and the chance to play at being revolutionaries. For blacks, it meant political and social gains on a previously unimaginable scale; gains that by 1975 seemed to be reversed, in practice, at every turn. The germs of current bitterness may well lie in the unfulfilled promises of the Sixties. Of course, some of the promises were fulfilled; America has developed a vast black middle class, a process which was well under away by the mid-Seventies. But it was those left behind who were the subject of Mayfield's album - the Seventies equivalents of the hard-worn folk on the cover.
From beginning to end, No Place Like America trickles like cold quicksilver. It feels deft and spare, which is curious, as it's not a minimal album; arranger Rick Tufo was lavish with the strings and horns. There is no drama about it, no wailing or wringing of hands. It is deeply funky in away that is rarely recognised today, when funk is required either to slam or (in trendier circles) to noodle on for hours in soporific displays of technique. As on all of Mayfield's records, nothing is wasted. No surplus flesh. That it should be so low-key, so understated, that it should deal unflinchingly with such a desolate time and still be such an affecting source of pleasure is a tribute to Mayfield's genius. He's had plenty of those, of course, but the best are the ones he created himself.