Great value is placed on explicitly political art. In an ideal world, political art would open people’s minds and make them think about things in different ways. (Though it’s important to remember that political art isn’t necessarily better than apolitical art—it can also be shallow, ill-conceived, and ineffectual.) But of course, the world is far from ideal; an ideal world would not need political art to do its dirty work. In the real world, life is unfair. And a singer like Charlie Whitehead can make a political album of soul and funk that slips through the cracks until Alive Naturalsound reissues it more than 40 years later.
Jerry Williams a.k.a. Swamp Dogg met Charlie Whitehead while producing Whitehead’s first recording session for Dynamo Records in the late 1960s. When Dynamo dropped Whitehead soon after, Swamp took him over to the label that was putting out his albums, Canyon Records. Working together, they put out Raw Spitt in 1970; Williams has eight writing credits here, so it could be marketed as a Whitehead & Williams album, or maybe “the latest release from Swamp Head”.
On solo albums, Swamp didn’t shy away from songs about the ills of society, but after 1970’s Total Destruction to Your Mind, he focused more on the struggles of couples in Rat On! and Gag a Maggot. When writing for Raw Spitt (around the same time as Total Destruction), Swamp still felt like he had to communicate some of the troubling things about society. And Whitehead was down to stir things up over Swamp’s bouncing, shaking, horn-heavy templates.
Whitehead has a strong voice, but it’s a little more conventional than Swamp’s, which either makes these songs accessible to a larger crowd—politics rarely reward weird—or means he doesn’t stand out, depending on how you look at it. Whiteheads’ main focus: racial injustice. In “Who Do They Think They Are”, Whitehead asks, “Who do they think they are / Who are they to put me in a ghetto?” Maybe he answers himself on “Call Me N****r” when he warns, “I don’t care / What you say / But when I’m making progress just don’t stand in my way.” “The Freedom Under Certain Konditions Marching Band” pretty much says it all in the title.
Sometimes Swamp Head takes a more ironic approach. “Sweet Bird of Success” includes the lines, “Don’t try to be a mister good guy / Cause good guys are considered fools / Cheat steal and connive / Are written in the book of rules / Do somebody a good turn / Step on a dream today”, both amusing and sobering. And everyone’s to blame in “excuses”, where “excuses make the world go round” and managed to win “ten million votes last year,” making it a highly successful third-party candidate.
Whitehead isn’t a one-trick pony—he can do the love-gone-bad songs, too. “Between the Lines” works one of the album’s strongest, tooting grooves, and an appealing call and response: “One, does she get bored from the things that used to excite her?” “Two, when you kiss her does she act like you’re trying bite her?” If so, bad news awaits. Whitehead sounds especially passionate here, which makes sense. If you don’t try to read between history’s lines, you might never come across this album.
// Notes from the Road
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