Tuesday, July 6, 2021

The Albums of 1971: Eugene McDaniels: Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse

Release Date: 1971

Produced by Joel Dorn

Track Listing: The Lord is Back; Jagger the Dagger; Lovin' Man; Headless Heroes; Susan Jane; Freedom Death Dance; Supermarket Blues; The Parasite (for Buffy)

Eugene McDaniels (1935-2011) was remembered as a "Sixties Soul Hitmaker" in many obituaries, but during the 1970s he recorded two influential albums that continue to resonate decades later, Outlaw (1970) and Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse (1971). 

McDaniels began his career a soul/pop recording artist in the early 1960s who recorded several chart topping singles including "A Hundred Pounds of Clay" and "Tower of Strength." He wrote the protest song "Compared to What" for Roberta Flack, the 1969 live version by Les McCain and Eddie Harris became famous. In 1970 McDaniels recorded Outlaw for Atlantic, the album skewered Nixon's America with soul infused songs embedded with a Dylanesque punch to the lyrics. Headless Heroes was recorded the following year took a more impressionistic approach to the cultural climate, supported by members of the jazz fusion band Weather Report.

The album opens with "The Lord is Back," blending rock with jazz with lyrics inspired by the Book of Revelation. "Jagger the Dagger" is moody and improvisational, telling of a figure being manipulated by evil forces within society. "Lovin' Man" follows a messianic figure who may conceal a sinister agenda. "Headless Heroes" examines the roots of hatred, suggesting nefarious forces at work (a companion song to Dylan's "Masters of War"). "Susan Jane" celebrates an independent woman with folkish style vocal. "Freedom Death Dance" offers a warning:

There's no amount of dancing we can do
That will ban the bomb
Feed the starving children
Bring justice and equality to you and me

A blend of jazz, pop, folk, and soul with a weighty message: flower power will not save the world.

The narrative of "Supermarket Blues" deals with a racial confrontation at a grocery store, viewed as satirical at the time, in 2021 such an occurrence is not beyond the imagination. The narrator is at the store to return some tainted items, the manager argues and things escalate. The police are called as white customers taunt the narrator with racial slurs. More violence ensues, the narrator wishes he stayed home and gotten high.

At nine minutes, the historically themed "The Parasite (for Buffy)" recalls English settlers landing in Massachusetts and encountering the indigenous population and deceiving them, spreading disease, and displacing the natives from their land and culture. The song was inspired by singer-songwriter Buffy St. Marie who was blacklisted by American radio during the 1970s. The sorrow of McDaniel's vocal builds to a crescendo, ending the record with a cascade of terrified screams. 

Headless Heroes drew the ire of the Nixon Administration. Vice President Spiro Agnew allegedly complained to Atlantic Records and demanded that the record be suppressed. By the 1980s, Headless Heroes was obscure, but returned to public consciousness when hip hop artists used samples from the album. Still potent, the record may be more relevant 50 years later. 

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