Eugene McDaniels

The trouble with all too many reissues is overfamiliarity: Record-company execs often launch already popular titles onto the market years or decades after their debut in the hopes that people who already own them will be persuaded by the inclusion of alternate tracks, a new mix or remastering to buy the damned things again. Far more interesting, then, are recordings that failed to reach a sizable audience the first time around but garnered enough recognition among cultists and aficionados of the underground to earn them a second chance.

Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse is a sterling example of the latter -- a source of samples by the likes of the Beastie Boys and Organized Konfusion that stands proudly on its own. Guitarist Eugene McDaniels was known in the '60s as a jazz musician and songwriter; his best-known compositions are "Compared to What," which was popularized by Les McCann, who performed with him back in the day, and "Feel Like Making Love," a sultry smash for Roberta Flack. But fans of McCann and Flack who think they can guess what Heroes sounds like based on McDaniels's association with their faves are in for a shock. Originally released in 1971, the album sports some jazz elements, but they're juxtaposed with funk, soul, poetry and protest whose sizzle hasn't been squelched by the passing decades. The newly penned liner notes suggest that after the platter began turning up in stores, then-vice president Spiro Agnew phoned Atlantic Records and asked, "What the hell is going on over there?" -- an apocryphal tale in all likelihood, but one that makes a certain amount of sense given the incendiary nature of McDaniels's words. Consider "Freedom Death Dance," in which he questions the effectiveness of hippie-style demonstrations with declarations such as "There's no amount of dancing you can do/That will ban the bomb" and "Gather 'round the murders and be free."

A few songs here are comparatively apolitical -- most notably, the sensual, folk-like "Susan Jane" ("Never made the social grade/She enjoys getting laid/Barefoot in the muddy road"). But the tracks that slice deepest are those suffused with equal parts anger and paranoia, like the system-bashing "Headless Heroes" ("Niggas and crackers/Both racial pawns in the master game") and "Supermarket Blues," in which a simple trip to the food store deteriorates into chaos simply because McDaniels has the nerve to go Shopping While Black. Subtle they're not, and some of their subject matter has dated, though their passion most certainly hasn't. So discover Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse again, for the first time.


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