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Earth, Wind & Fire, ‘Magnetic’ – Bar by Bar

The era of Big Disco is over.

So, listeners; last time out we took a trip on the 3:37 pop train to Abba-ville, a journey that had an unscheduled but mercifully brief stop in mediocre town before passing over melancholy bridge to arrive at our destination. The song we looked at was “Story of a Heart” by Ver Steps, which despite being actually half decent is still probably only 20th on the all-time list of Steps’ best singles, as scientifically calculated by yours truly by adding up all the songs from Steps’ discography on Wikipedia that weren’t as good as “Story of a Heart” and deducting that from the total number of singles. Science, see?

As per the rules, the plan was to use a formula to guide my choice of song. Not to put a straitjacket on the choice, but certainly to slap its knuckles with a ruler and make it sit up straight. And as per the rules, the choice dictated to me was to select an artist beginning with E and a song title beginning with M (read here if you want to find out what I’m waffling on about).

I was so close to choosing En Vogue’s “My Lovin’”.

But in the end there’s nothing funny I can say. Partly because I can say nothing funny, I think the listeners have taken that as a given now, but mostly because “My Lovin’” is pretty much perfect. It’s a great song, sung by four talented women who sound so good that they make heavenly choirs sound like The Pogues after a long Christmas Eve session on the rock’n’roll mouthwash. The production is perfect and the video is pure sass. Plus, I know the song like the back of my iPad and I don’t have any new thoughts to think about it. So I bit my lip and made myself choose a song I had never heard before, because I thought it would be a good way to discover some new music.

And here it is.

Earth, Wind & Fire are, quite simply, pop royalty. They’ve sold over 90 million records, hoovered up six Grammys, four AMAs, five hall of fame entries and a RoSPA cycling proficiency badge, to say nothing of being sampled 677 times and covered 247 times according to the pleasingly obsessed music scientists at whosampled.com. When bees employ hyperbole, which is not often because bees are not naturally gregarious by nature even when talking amongst other bees, they have been known to refer to a particularly girthsome and fecund stamen as ‘Earth Wind & Fire’s knees’. Babies (human babies, not bee babies) are born knowing the lyrics to the choruses for “Boogie Wonderland”, “September”, and “Let’s Groove”, and wouldn’t Jung be pleased to know that he was right about the collective unconscious (even if he didn’t realise our memory as a species was used for storing cheesy disco lyrics. But he never went to Pop Tarts on a Monday night and then had to get up for a lecture at 9am).

On the other hand “Magnetic” I know fuck all about. 

Here’s the deal. I play the record and I write down what comes to mind as it unfolds, like the great MBMs and OBOs in the Guardian. This is how I choose to review music; because this is my blog, and not yours. Shall we?

00:00 Despite being born at a very early age the first music video I saw was Duran Duran’s “Arena: An Absurd Notion” and it’s very difficult to describe. Four pretty young boys plus Andy Taylor play a concert whilst an intergalactic criminal and inventor of a liquid energy superweapon attempts to destroy the band with dwarves on stilts and some uncompromisingly competitive roller skaters in lingerie. Or at least, that’s what I took away from “Arena” but I had hormones at the time. Anyway, the only tangential link between “Arena” and “Magnetic” is that they both contain scenes of pop stars “acting” and that’s how this video starts.

The video, which was released in 1983, is described as “neon-dystopia”. That’s shorthand for “in 1983 we thought the future would look just like 1983 but with more litter”. Eyeshadow by Joan Miró and rock’n’roll frightwigs are the order of the day, and that’s just the policemen.

I notice that, disturbingly, the video comes in at 3:45 and we all know my feelings about pop songs that are anything other than the Chinese Government-mandated 3:30 long. 

00:13 It’s 1983 and “Beat It” is still fresh in the memories of, well, everyone on the planet but most prominently in the memory of whoever wrote this.

*Checks Wikipedia*

Martin Page. Never heard of him but apparently he was on Southampton’s books as a kid and, Wikipedia says, “spent some of his time listening to music and learning how to play his main instrument”. Probably due to Madonna videos being on heavy rotation on MTV at the time. Did you know MTV used to play music videos? Wild. Wikipedia generously credits Page with writing EWF’s second greatest hits collection, which will presumably come as news to the band.

The point that I’m trundling towards at speeds resembling tectonic plate shift is that this is 1983, and dance music has to sound like rock music to get played in the US. The Era of Big Disco is Over. Now, every song has to have a tuneless solo on the cheapest kind of electric guitar played by an identikit Uncle Disgusting in pervtastic spandex.

Look, I’m not going to lie to you listeners, I’m in the middle of reading “I’m Not With The Band” by Sylvia Patterson, who was an editor at Smash Hits in the mid-80s (assuming any sort of supervisory role really existed there at that time (something I find quite unlikely)) and it’s possible that that publication and its highly specific lexicon is going to influence this review. 

00:18 Don’t know why this part especially, but this part especially reminds me of ‘Batman & Robin’ (dir. Joel Schumacher, 1997). And here we see further proof of Dirk Gently’s theory of the interconnectedness of all things:

Those four funky divas playing prostitutes in what looks like a school performance of “Blade Runner”? None other than En Vogue. The circle of life is complete.

00:20 More “Beat It” vibes as what looks like a middle age street gang with a wardrobe full of ASOS festival wear strides belligerently for reasons yet to be revealed through the litter- and fashion disaster-strewn streets of the near future.

00:25 Disaster prepping as outerwear. 

00:34 The vocals start.It’s a call and response pattern with lead Earther? Winder? Firer? Maurice White singing the baritone and (presumably) Phillip Bailey taking the falsetto response. I don’t know if this technically counts as antiphony, which is the practice of liturgical call and response chanting, if we’d just describe these as counterpoint vocals. A lot of soul and gospel music has its roots in the antiphon, so it’s entirely possible. There are points where the vocals overlap, but they’re still not strong enough to drown out that bloody guitar, which is not so much being ‘played’ as ‘tortured in contravention of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment’ which is a title so long and immemorable that there’s probably an unrealised Smiths b-side called exactly that.

A police vehicle enters the shot. It’s very similar to the armoured personnel carrier that will be featured in “Aliens” (dir. James Cameron, 1986). It’s not explicitly marked as the police but they’re trying to run over unarmed black people so I think we can take it as read.

00:43 Holy shit we’ve got to the first chorus. We’re only 43 seconds in and the first half an hour of the video was taken up with the “Beat It” low budget tribute. If I was paying for this rather than watching on YouTube with ad blockers on I’d feel dangerously short-changed.

00:46 If you couldn’t buy any cocaine in the 80s, well first you weren’t trying very hard, and second it’s because most of it was consumed during the design process of this video. The police are beating up – well they’re not protesting or doing anything wrong (except for the guitarist, still), so let’s just call them “not-police” – with glow sticks. Or possibly those dreadful solar powered garden lights on spikes from The Range. The police are beating up the not-police with Taiwanese garden tat.

00:55 That American TV staple, the headband on a dude so uncool it’s painful, makes its first appearance. He and Maurice exchange nods whilst looking meaningfully at a poster of what looks like someone fisting a mushroom. It has some Japanese letters and a shit sci-fi font which says “Magnetic” and is meaningful.

01:05 Ah. The rich white MAGA crowd are all in some club called Catacumbas to escape the pandemic of litter outside. These guys are, to quote the President of the Galaxy, so unhip it’s a wonder that their bums don’t drop off. The band are now inside, playing for the white folks. And for reasons unknown to the non-cocaine-snorting watchers of the video, some of the crowd seem to have brought a live snake to the nightclub.

I once got thrown out of a nightclub for not having my shirt tucked in. I don’t have an anecdote about taking a snake to a club and that’s the most pointless nightclub anecdote I have.

01:30 A Big Brother head on a screen talks about “the 2051 games” and I’m not sure what to do with that.

01:45 Ah! Now we learn more. We’ve just seen some chap have what looks suspiciously like random electrical components glued to a toilet plunger strapped to his arm whilst another hand pastes a banner saying “TONIGHT!” over the aforementioned “Magnetic” poster, because in 2051 they don’t have phones or smart glasses or personal computers embedded on a chip in their eyeball, they have paper and glue and the hope that someone will walk past the aforementioned combo and see it. Maybe “Magnetic” is some sort of Great American Disco Fight-Off.

01:51 In one sense I haven’t really understood what’s happening since 1987. In another, more strictly relevant to the present discourse sort of way, I have no idea what’s happening in this video. The glowstick police are keeping crowds back behind a hastily arranged boxing ring? made from road barriers and fluorescent lights. Is it an underground fight thing? The first rule of Fight Club is, we don’t do this much Charlie when we make pop videos.

02:01 The two fighters are joined in the ring by what look now like pinball pins. I’m permabaffled. They start fighting, throwing huge arcing haymakers that weren’t so much telegraphed as painted on the wall of Creswell Crags during the last Ice Age. The rich white folks are watching the fight from inside the club. I’m not sure I can get through the whole video without doing a line myself.

02:20 Meanwhile the band are still playing inside. I say “still”; it’s literally a runthrough of the same several seconds of club interior and band playing footage as at 01:05. Perhaps it’s a metaphor beyond my wit to comprehend.

Or the effects of the Columbian Marching Powder.

02:50 One of the fighters has run out of the fight and is now running through – well I can’t tell if it’s a derelict building or just what affordable housing looks like in 1983’s idea of 2051. At first I thought they’d run out of the fight, but then I realise the fighter in the skirt/shorts/skort is still being filmed, so maybe this chase is part of the fight? Like some sort of weird Iron Man triathlon?

02:57 Some feeble synchronised pointing.

03:20 One of the fighters is truly wailing on the other. But wait-

03:27 You know that bit in Gladiator where The Spaniard, the younger man in peak physical prowess, has wailed on the much older and slower fighter who has been specifically brought out of retirement to fight him because apparently that was fair in the Olden Days? We have the same scene here! The crowd give a wacky thumbs down, but instead of finishing him off, the pointlessly anonymous fighter still standing receives a knowing look from our Maurice and then pulls the other pointlessly anonymous fighter to his feet! Amazing. I have no idea what’s going off.

03:42 Maurice, standing in a deserted alleyway staring at literally nothing, literally fades out just as the song does.

Well listeners, I stand by what I said. EWF are one of the most successful and enduring bands in history and the creators of some of the finest pop music imaginable. 

This song however is not amongst that number.


Next up on Bar by Bar

“Earth, Wind & Fire” has 13 letters (I decided not count punctuation) and “Magnetic” has 8; so I’m looking for an artist beginning with M, and a song beginning with H.

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