The Pop Life. By John Rockwell

It might seem odd to combine reviews of the latest records by Earth, Wind and Fire, The O’Jays and ABBA. The first two groups are leading black acts. The third is an almost defiantly white, Swedish quartet that proffers the flossiest pop imaginable.

But it is that very discrepancy that is fascinating. The two kinds of music - in all the differences between Earth, Wind and Fire and The O’Jays – are about as unrelated as one can conceive. Which in turns sets one to thinking about one of the basic themes in American and Western European popular music – the gulfs and the linkages between black and white music and audiences.

First, let’s describe the three records, Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Spirit” seems one of the best black records around, although like everything else it is currently being eclipsed by Stevie Wonder’s “Songs In The Key Of Life.”

What is most interesting about Maurice White and his musicians – who will be at Madison Square Garden next Friday for a sell-out concert – is their refusal to be locked into any stylistic format. Mr White’s record will be labeled “disco” in some quarters, and indeed parts of it would not sound out of place in a disco. But, generally, Earth, Wind and Fire is closer to jazz, or to jazz-rock, than to the thumping formulas of disco. And yet the group isn’t afraid to slip in a ballad, either.

The O’Jays, by contrast, have found a formula – courtesy of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff in Philadelphia – and have stuck with it. That formula consists of a jumping rhythm track, over which they dub their vocals, according to stringent constraints imposed by Mr Gamble and Mr Huff. The result is livelier and more accessible than Earth, Wind and Fire, at least on a first hearing. But it is much more a transient pop record than “Spirit.”

ABBA is represented by a “Greatest Hits” records. Except for “Waterloo” few of these songs were hits in this country, so this is really a best-of record of largely unfamiliar material.

It is a most appealing disk, although one suspects that few Earth, Wind and Fire or O’Jays fans will be able to tolerate it at all. ABBA is the ultimate upbeat white pop group. Its songs are full of clever middle-of-the-road arrangements, with piccolos, snare drums and bouncy strings. The vocals recall Mamas and Papas harmonizing, and the overall effect is like a bright bauble of plastic, shiny and cheerfully unsubstantial. But the tunes are undeniably infectious.

What does all this mean for the relationship of white and black? Well, first we have to start with the notion that most Western popular music of the last three decades (or the last eight decades, maybe) is based, directly or indirectly, on black music. The holdouts to this trend, logically enough, have been those countries without significant black minorities. Countries like Italy, Sweden and France have viable traditions, enshrined (embalmed?) in the Eurovision Song Contest, of a popular music based on indigenous folk cultures. Even when ABBA sings all its songs in English, the firm basis of its musical style is a much popsified electric folk music.

In the late 1960s, there were hopeful signs that black and white music and audiences were coming together in a fruitful way. There were artists – Jimi Hendrix, above all – who appealed to both audiences, and much of the very best rock was based on black music in a way that honored the debts without being enslaved by them.

But in the 1970s there has been a backlash against integration on all fronts, including music. Artists like Earth, Wind and Fire play largely to black audiences in huge stadium concerts, in which whites can actually feel unsafe. The O’Jays have enjoyed a somewhat greater “crossover” success by trying to emulate white middle-of-the-road supper-club and suburban-arts-center conventions. But they, too, by and large, make black music for a black audience.

ABBA, on the other hand, is white music for white folks. Naturally there must be occasional black people who buy ABBA records; generalizations based on racial demarcations can be dangerous. But the total absence of any indebtedness in ABBA’s music to the black-derived musical traditions that underlie rock is particularly striking. So is the failure not only of ABBA-type pop but of traditional rock in general to keep abreast of the developments in 1970s black music represented by Earth, Wind and Fire.

What all this suggests is that we are slipping back into a country of enclaves, cut off from one another in our life styles, our neighborhoods and our music. There are exceptions, certainly, Mr Wonder above all. But while much is made of the power of electronic communication to smooth out differences in our society, for phonograph records it looks as if separate musical cultures can sustain themselves quite nicely indeed. Transcribed for ABBA World

The New York Times · Friday, 22 October 1976 (Page C19)

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