There wasn’t a lot to smile about from the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Between the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, it seemed each day brought a new level of despair to wade through, some new controversy that divided the United States along political and ideological lines. In turn, the pastel-colored love songs of the early ‘60s had given way to bleaker tracks about the war and social unrest. In 1971, R&B superstar Marvin Gaye released what might be the greatest album of all-time, What’s Going On, on which the singer pondered societal decay over the perfect mix of stampeding funk, emotive soul and majestic strings. It was the sound of a man dismayed by what the world had become. Sly Stone took a similar thematic approach, though his album was more inward-looking: On There’s a Riot Goin’ On, the funk musician sang of the haze that America had fallen into, using dark chords and electronic beats to impart Sly’s self-imposed isolation. His album was more about texture and mood; on the song “Time,” the music and vocal cadence led to the LP’s claustrophobic feel. Both Marvin and Sly were assessing humanity, surveying it with the utmost diligence and reporting what they saw.
Eugene McDaniels was the most radical of them all. His album, Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse, brimmed with searing real talk, told atop a superb blend of guitar-driven soul, folk, funk and rock. It was a lot, but it was supposed to be; McDaniels, a singer-songwriter who had been a jazz vocalist before turning his attention to Black Consciousness, wasn’t going to mince words. Shit was fucked up and he planned to awaken everyone. “We have killed the very earth beneath our feet,” he wrote on the album’s back cover. “Yet we still kill each other and speak of the future.”
McDaniels had also been frustrated with what he saw as the commodification of Black culture by the hippie movement, and the broader power structure that pillaged esoteric Black talent without proper credit. Moreover, he took issue with music critics who ignored the art until it was validated by white media. “I’ve heard so much about the great new rock musicians & how they compare with great innovators like Ornette Coleman, Tony Williams, Archie Shepp, Herbie Hancock, etc.,” he wrote in a 1968 entry repurposed as liner notes for this album’s reissue. “I know that when the white boys can play the truly contemporary music -they will! & then the new jazz will be the new discovery of, by & for white consumption.” He even dissed the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger on “Jagger the Dagger,” an album standout that later found new life in sampled form on rap group A Tribe Called Quest’s debut record. McDaniels was fed up with the status quo and wanted to shake the infrastructure.
And he did just that. From the cover art, which caught McDaniels mid-primal scream, to the protagonist’s dissection of colonization and collective apathy, there was much to unpack within the album’s lean 38-minute runtime. My ear always goes to “Freedom Death Dance,” a B-side ballad where McDaniels chides listeners for disregarding widespread challenges. He wants us to sit with them, not look away as if they’re not there. “Gather ‘round the riots,” he implores, “gather ‘round the murders.” The track is one long quotable that’s only heightened by the band’s surging arrangement:
Though McDaniels was talking about the obstacles discussed at the top of this article, it also applies to modern-day America. I can’t help but think about the pandemic and all the lives lost to Covid-19. In our rush to get back to normal, I consider those who didn’t make it. That’s not to disparage anyone for wanting to go to the movies or sit maskless in a cafe. I acknowledge that I got lucky. I flew back to Kenya, where I’d been living half the year as my wife was launching her business, a week before everything was shut down in the States. So I can only imagine what it must have been like in Brooklyn, to watch once-lively streets go silent and bustling storefronts fade to black. I’d likely want to forget that time, too. But I still contemplate the thousands who won’t even see this day, even as the crisis continues. Like McDaniels implied 50 years ago, we shouldn’t ignore the graves we dance upon.
The album concluded with “The Parasite (For Buffy),” a 10-minute epic where McDaniels sang of the mass murdering of Native Americans by white settlers. “They landed at Plymouth with a smile on the face,” he coos at the beginning. “They said, ‘We’re your brothers from a faraway place.’” From there, McDaniels tells the full story in exhausting detail, giving no grace to the colonizers. “In came the religions, the liquor, and the guns,” he continued, the music behind him growing more aggressive. “They claimed to be good guys/Yeah, but they acted like huns.” The song ends with a vigorous free jazz breakdown; McDaniels screams wildly as the composition spirals out of control. As the music fades, we hear spine-chilling yelps, frenetic bass and cascading drum cymbals.
Following the album’s release, then-Vice President Spiro Agnew reportedly called Atlantic Records to complain about the content, thus ending the LP’s promotion. Undeterred, McDaniels kept working with singer Roberta Flack, writing or co-writing a handful of songs on her 1975 album Feel Like Makin’ Love. Time has been kind to Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse. It’s now considered a holy grail record, coveted by the likes of De La Soul, Beastie Boys and Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, bandleader of rap group The Roots. Yet back then, McDaniels simply wanted to say something honest and forthright, no matter how the establishment felt. Where others were slightly nonthreatening, McDaniels forcefully grabbed your shoulders and shouted in your face. He didn’t sugarcoat the truth; we’re better for it.