Silver Supporting Member
Cindy Lauper is great!I've had the chance to meet some of my jazz/rock heroes, and I always tried to ask a polite version of this question – how did fusion go from the most creative electric music in the world to Please Hold, Your Call Is Being Directed? – and you know what they all said, every one of them?
Head Hunters. That damn Herbie Hancock album Head Hunters.
Now, they're all quick to add, it's NOT that Head Hunters itself is bad. It's actually better than you might remember. "Chameleon" and "Watermelon Man" get all the airplay, but "Sly" and especially "Vein Melter" are some hip s**t. Killer band, too. And, of course, lots of real funk is brilliant stuff, from its early geniuses (late Hendrix, early Funkadelic, James Brown, Sly, Shuggie Otis) to more straightahead danceable stuff like late-’70s Parliament and Earth Wind & Fire. The problem was, as ever, the money. Head Hunters went to #13 on the Billboard album chart (not the jazz chart, the overall album chart), spent 47 weeks in the top 100, and quite quickly sold a million copies, which no jazz record had ever done in 1974.
So, suddenly, jazz-rock fusion, this hyper-ambitious music which labels were largely content to produce on the cheap and still make a tidy profit on (the musicians were so incredibly good that you could book them a week in any decent studio, and you'd get an album), was besieged with cokehead A&R men asking everybody, "Why can't you make Head Hunters? You need to make a groovy, relaxing album like Head Hunters. Nobody wants this sophisticated ****. They want mellow, funky vibes. Give us that, we'll triple your advance."
And you can hear it, even among the best of the best: there's suddenly a curious, odd-time version of funk on Mahavishnu Orchestra's mark II albums, the ones with Narada Michael Walden, Jean-Luc Ponty, et al. Stanley Clarke makes School Days. Ponty himself tries to get funky, with often-disastrous results. Perhaps my favorite example is Return to Forever, because Chick was a hero and didn't take s**t: you can hear some funk creeping into Where Have I Known You Before? and No Mystery, the early Di Meola albums, but they're not RTF's best, so Chick clearly said "to hell with this" and made Romantic Warrior, perhaps the most complex, multi-layered, compositionally-intense, and conspicuously un-mellow album in all of first-wave fusion.
Weather Report was kind of the outlier here, because they were way into contemporary black pop already, and this was right around the time they introduced the world to Jaco Pastorius, who had very deep funk and R&B roots already. They could keep doing what they did, keep evolving naturally, and still stumble into a massive hit like "Birdland" every so often. But for almost everybody else, the record label push to get groovy and make some damn money was devastating ... and then, of course, as audiences aged and the ’80s came around, the labels didn't even want "jazz-funk" or "funk fusion" anymore, they wanted that accursed pseudo-genre, smooth jazz. What a grim, grim decade for the legends of fusion. Either they spun off into completely different directions, like McLaughlin with his Indian and acoustic stuff, or they ended up making hot-tub ballads for Skinemax softcore. God, it hurts to watch a true genius like George Duke singing "Sweet Baby" to a crowd of horny 65-year-old receptionists, but that was how you kept a record deal in 1984. They even had Miles Davis covering Cyndi Lauper. If that's not demonic, I don't know what is.
But, thank god, the original fusion masterpieces kept reappearing among younger generations, and guys like Shawn Lane, Jonas Hellborg, Scott Henderson, Allan Holdsworth himself (though always an outlier, of course), Victor Wooten, David Fiuczynski, Guthrie Govan, et al, started making their own fusion-inspired music. (You ever heard Michael Shrieve's double album Two Doors, where the first disc, "Deep Umbra," is a trio with him, Lane, and Hellborg? Oh my GOD.) That, in turn, led to a fusion revival among the people who'd invented it, and we got some great later-career work from its pioneers, especially Chick Corea once the Elektric Band broke out of the Smoothness Dungeon. I personally think his 2000s fusion trilogy of To the Stars, The Ultimate Adventure, and The Vigil stands right up there with RtF, and the Corea/McLaughlin Five Peace Band, while perhaps not the utter masterpiece it could've been, is still well worth your time.