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Kool & the Gang: The Force

Reviewed by Ismo Tenkanen

Rating: 7/ 10

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UK BBR reissue CD, 2013
The original release on US De-Lite, 1977
1) A Place in Space
2) Slick Superchick
3) Just Be True
4) The Force
5) Mighty Mighty High
6) Oasis
7) Life's a Song
8) Free

Bonus tracks on the UK BBR reissue:
9) Slick Superchick (Single Version)
10) A Place in Space (Single Version)
11) Mighty Mighty High (12" Disco Version)

I'm just compiling Kool & the Gang discography, and I've been puzzled to note how little interest Americans have had in reissuing the group's albums on CD format. Again, the Euoropean labels like Vinyl-Masterpiece and BBR have done the job to make the legendary funk & disco group's 1976-1982 albums available on CD.

Funk fans (like myself) always considered Kool & the Gang's most succesful period in the early 1980s something as watered-down disco version of real funk, but certainly everyone respected their early and mid-70s efforts like Funky Stuff, Jungle Boogie, Summer Madness and Open Sesame. The fact is that not many - including yours truly - had ever heard of these 1976-1978 albums by the group, and then suddenly in 1979-1980 Kool & the Gang was selling gold and platinum with international disco hits like Ladies Night, Too Hot and Celebration. But anyone who has ever seen the group performed live has witnessed that the group can still boogie and play real funk and jazz, not only their international disco pop hits!

So what happened between mid-70s heavy, jazz-inclined funk and the late 70s/early 80s disco period of the group? Did they simply switch their style overnight? No they didn't - actually they gradually went from their old Funky Stuff style to the slick disco-funk of Ladies Night - and their 1976-1978 albums easily show how they transformed their sound, album by album.

BBR label in UK has released seven Kool & the Gang albums - all their albums from 1976 to 1982, and it's really interesting to hear their transformation from heavy funk to pop-disco format. And to be honest, Kool & the Gang was not the only black group that did the same change in their style during this period: Kool & the Gang has watched the success of groups like Earth, Wind & Fire, Commodores etc. and wanted to gain similar crossover success in international pop & disco market, and the group knew what they needed to do to win crossover audience. Or at least their producer Eumir Deodato (who started producing the group in 1979) knew!

In my book, the 1976 album Open Sesame was an excellent funk album, and although the title track was included in the Saturday Night Fever movie soundtrack, it was far cry from the group's later disco sound! Actually Open Sesame is one of the group's most legendary, jazz-oriented funk jams with long jazz solos etc. - and certainly it would have emptied - and not filled- dance floors all around European discos!

This, 1977 album The Force was the next in line, and one could already hear the disco orientation here, and Earth, Wind & Fire influences (especially on the more mellow tracks) - but the album is still much closer to their old Jungle Boogie sound than their Ladies Night disco-funk sound. And as such, I'm certainly not amazed reading the buyer feedback on Amazon etc. where fans of the group's pop-disco hits find these funkier sounds disappointing! Surely these disappoint - if you prefer the group's pop hits like Joanna and Cherish!

Maybe the most surprising track on offer is Life's a Song, as it is so clearly a carbon copy of the Earth Wind & Fire smash Shining Star - and the international success of EW&F was surely something Robert "Kool" Bell, his brother Ronald Bell and the other fellows in Kool & the Gang wanted to follow. And like Earth, Wind & Fire, Kool & the Gang gradually started to create more disco flavoured tracks, instead of slow funk tunes like Life's a Song.

The album opens with a very traditional early 70s style funk track A Place in the Space, on which only the space-style keyboard solos make it different from their earlier heavy funk hits. The following track Slick Superchick was the most obvious dance floor oriented funk tune, and not surprisingly, De-Lite picked it as a single release, and it scored at # 19 hit on the Billboard soul charts. Still, Slick Superchick is much closer to Ohio Players/Commodores-type 70s funk than the slicker disco-pop sounds Eumir Deodato produced for the groups two years later. There is also one important change the group had to do to switch their earlier black audience to a more international disco audience: they needed to find a soft-voiced lead singer to sing easy-on-the-ear pop melodies! In 1977, the group's vocalising was simple funk vocalising in the same manner as Ohio Players, Cameo etc. - and in 1979 Eumir Deodato introduced the honey-voiced James J.T. Taylor as the group's new lead singer...

I regard this album recommendable to Kool & the Gang's funk fans, as there's still much of the old, jazz-inclined soloing and Jungle Boogie attitude, and actually very little pop-disco orientation. The more mellow cuts like Just Be True and Oasis are influeced by Earth Wind & Fire's soul/funk sound, and certainly nothing wrong with that, too. Mighty Mighty High is not the same track as the Earth, Wind & Fire track Mighty Mighty (1974) - but there is actually one verse that simply repeats the chorus melody of Mighty Mighty! The title track is one of the strongest here, being mainly an instrumental with lots of jazzy soloing over the funky rhythm. Well worth hearing!

Ismo Tenkanen

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