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Wonderland Lost

Forty years ago, Earth, Wind & Fire’s final opus produced disco’s last great moment. A month later, the genre died in a Chicago baseball stadium. My dad was there for all of it.

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Sometime in September 1980, at a recording studio deep in North Hollywood, my father tried to play with Earth, Wind & Fire. Fifteen months removed from the release of what would be their last great album, I Am, Maurice White and Co. were putting the finishing touches on an ambitious two-disc follow-up, Faces. My father, then a session musician, had supplied orchestral arrangements to what would be Faces’ second track, the gooey and groovy “Turn It Into Something Good,” and, as my dad would tell me countless times throughout my childhood, the band graciously invited him to sit in on keys during the recording session. They did four or five takes and couldn’t lock in the groove. Finally, my dad told them they should do a run without him. The band promptly nailed it. “Nobody, nobody, was as locked in as those guys were,” my dad used to tell me, playing songs for me in his car from the group’s catalog. Giddy with excitement, he’d point out modulations and counter rhythms, horn arrangements and tempo changes, Philip Bailey’s vocal acrobatics and Verdine White’s bass lines. They’re some of my favorite memories, those car rides. When he used to tell me that story, he was never embarrassed of slowing down the session, or that the band figured it out only after he left. “It was something different,” my dad would say. “It was like magic.”

In late 1978, Maurice White wrote in his 2016 memoir, “Bruce Lundvall, President of CBS Records, told me that by every measure—record sales, Grammy and American Music awards, touring numbers and worldwide acceptance—we were the biggest band in the world. No one could touch us.”

Lundvall wasn’t exaggerating. The year before, All n’ All, the group’s eighth studio album in seven years, went triple platinum, and White wrote and produced the Emotions’ “Best of My Love,” which topped the Billboard charts and won a Grammy. In ’78, Earth, Wind & Fire released its first greatest hits album, which would eventually be certified five times platinum. It also featured an original song called “September.” Their tours, loaded with pyrotechnics and lasers, flashy custom-made couture outfits, magic performed by a young David Copperfield, and choreography by George Faison, were legendary, energetic, and always sold-out.

White was the band’s producer, stage director, co-lead singer, and overall mastermind; like most visionaries, he was by turns an all-knowing, all-loving guru and a principled, sometimes authoritarian dictator. After receiving what he says was a message from the Divine (“In [my] dreams I had a band of nine people, and we played the world,” he wrote), White founded the group in 1969. In White’s imagining, Earth, Wind & Fire was to be more than just a band. It would be a message, a vision, a vehicle for what was pure and good in mankind. “Creating a band that represented universal truths was primary, and the music was secondary. I wanted to uplift humanity,” White declared. The band’s joyous and vivid lyrics—deceptively layered, sometimes personal, other times philosophical—and cerebral album art stemmed from White’s utopian, humanist imaginings. While playing as a session drummer in Chicago, White read Malcolm X’s autobiography, and began questioning his religious foundation; he’d go on to be influenced by the work of the Lebanese writer and nationalist Kahlil Gibran, astrology, Eastern spirituality, Egyptian mythology, and Jethro Kloss’s Back to Eden, a foundational text on natural medicine and food. In the midst of the decadent ’70s, White and his fellow band members—including his brother Fred on drums and his half-brother Verdine on bass—abstained from drugs and looked after their bodies. They radiated positivity and purpose, self-knowledge and self-care. “My plan,” White wrote, “was to exemplify a new brand of black masculinity rooted not in a super-black power thing, but in dignity.”

After touring across the world for All n’ All, the guys went to the studio to begin work on what would be I Am, which was released 40 years ago on June 9, 1979—my dad’s 28th birthday. The album’s nine songs exemplify what White called his “spectrum music,” combining classical, soul, pop, blues, Dixieland, traditional African, and rock. It’s a near-perfect album—a master class in musicality, performance, and unflappable, unshakable groove. The five-song run that opens the album—“In the Stone,” “Can’t Let Go,” “After the Love Has Gone,” “Let Your Feelings Show,” and “Boogie Wonderland”—contains two top-10 singles and a dizzying, almost ostentatious display of musical genius. Before its release, White remembered, “both Prince and Quincy Jones told me it was our finest record.”

Yet Earth, Wind & Fire’s singular “spectrum music” was, by 1979, on the outs. It’s why I Am is so great—it was the last time the band could sound this much like themselves and still be relevant, and the last time any of their albums went double platinum or cracked the top three of the Billboard charts. Disco was dying, and even though White thoroughly rejected that label, the soulful black pop that dominated the ’70s was being pushed out by glam rock, synth pop, and New Wave; it was also the victim of a (mostly white) American backlash to (mostly queer and nonwhite) decadence and acceptance, a reaction that culminated in the violent destruction of disco records at an infamous Chicago White Sox game a month after I Am’s release.

“It was almost as if, in our success, we were getting away with something,” White wrote. After I Am, Earth, Wind & Fire would no longer be able to get away with it—a shifting cultural landscape, mounting internal tension, and, later, terminal illness would see to that. Things were changing, and the band knew it. So in an effort to stay put, I Am went for broke, functioning as a stubborn commitment to purpose and pulling out every trick in Earth, Wind & Fire’s book—all-star collaborators, outlandish arrangements, torch songs, ballads, and dance-floor fillers—to stave off change. They wouldn’t come close to reaching these heights again. But what’s left behind from the twilight of the band’s peak is an album that is, ironically, bigger than its time and more than the sum of its parts: It’s an album by some of the greatest musicians in America hoping that music will save them.

Redferns

The horns that begin “In the Stone,” I Am’s magisterial, thrilling opener, sound like they’re introducing a swan song; they’re dramatic and wistful and luxuriating, like the music that plays before Oscars are presented. But then the trumpets begin to crescendo and, like a gunshot, the horns hit—BLAM!—with a sharpness so precise it sounds machine-made. The doors are thrown open, and we’re ushered into a prototypical EW&F groove: roving Verdine bass, air-tight drums, twangy rhythm guitar, and heavy piano chords. Listening to the seamlessly interlocking components of an Earth, Wind & Fire song is like flipping over a watch, popping open the cover, and watching the gears turn: On its surface, it’s effortless and simple, but behind the gold-plated face is a seemingly improbable equation of background vocalists and French horns, kalimbas and timpanis, baritone saxophones and violas. “In the Stone” is a funk song through and through, but its lyrics might as well be the esoteric scripture of White’s personal religion. “Every man I meet is walking time / Free to wander past his conscious mind / Love will come and take you home / Love is written in the stone,” he sings. It’s a song about enduring love, but also about searching for knowledge within, about the “people of the world” asking “questions of their own.” In a way, the complexities of White’s musical arrangements would be underserved by simple musings; the lyrics had to convey the grandiosity of the music itself. If there’s a single song that exemplifies what my dad taught me to love about this band, it’s this one.

“In the Stone” was one of the first songs White wrote for I Am with his most important collaborator on the album, a brash and talented 29-year-old Canadian session musician named David Foster. Unlike All n’ All, which featured songwriting from several members of the band, I Am was predominantly penned by White and two outside sources: Foster, who ended up cowriting six of I Am’s tracks, and the songwriter Allee Willis (who also cowrote “September”). Foster, an EWF superfan, had a lot to prove, and things didn’t get better for him when, according to White’s memoir, he stepped into a horn session with all African American players and said, “All right, boys, let’s take it from the top.” As White tells it, “I saw the horn players scowl at him, and one cat pulled out a gun and just said, ‘Motherfucker.’” After instructing Foster to never use the word “boy” again, to Foster’s profound horror and embarrassment, White allowed him back in the studio. No more guns were drawn, to Foster’s relief. Despite the rift—and near violence—his involvement ultimately caused, Foster, who would go on to become one of the most successful songwriters and producers of the 20th century, helped define and streamline I Am’s eclectic sound through a deep musical bond with White. “There were no musical rules,” Philip Bailey, the band’s other lead vocalist, remembers in his own memoir. “It was as if the music was flowing through them and not from them.” With Foster’s support, each song on I Am contains two or three or even four distinct parts—tempos change unexpectedly, horns appear out of nowhere, keys shift to eyebrow-raising heights. Hearing these songs for the first time, it’s nearly impossible to predict what’s coming around the corner. You understand, listening to this album, what it means to feel truly captivated by music.

Foster’s greatest contribution to I Am, though, was a song that would change his career, and Earth, Wind & Fire’s, forever. “‘After the Love Has Gone’ was one of those once-in-a-lifetime songs,” Bailey wrote. “There was magic in the room when we first heard it.” A simmering, piano-heavy ballad that slowly builds to an emotional catharsis, the song is classic EW&F in its modulations, multipart structure, and brilliant horn arrangement (by the great Jerry Hey, responsible for some of Thriller’s horns), but pure pop in its melody and hook, which helped it hit no. 2 on Billboard. The song is lyrically direct (“Somethin’ happened along the way / Yesterday was all we had / Something happened along the way / What used to be happy is sad”) but incredibly difficult to master musically, requiring a multi-octave singing range that, theoretically, can’t be handled by one singer alone. Lucky for EW&F, though, White and Bailey together could cover pretty much anything.

Can’t Let Go,” I Am’s second song, skips the pomp of “In the Stone” and jumps straight into a punishing, four-on-the-floor groove; if you listen carefully to its snowball of musicality, you can hear the same funky string pulling that guitarist Al McKay used on “September.” “Let Your Feelings Show,” a feel-good, electrically charged masterpiece of funk written by the White-Foster-Willis trio, features plunging disco violins and Bailey’s instantly memorable “hey hey heyyyy” to kick off the song, while “Star” is a display for a blissed-out Bailey to sing about watching the cosmos across the sky. For much of I Am, White deploys Bailey’s gospel-trained falsetto like a pinch-hitter, unleashing it freely on swelling choruses, and then tackling the verses himself with his characteristic twang. Bailey and White never crowd each other or drown each other out; it’s a testament to White’s arrangements, but also to the natural contours of both singers’ voices.

If there’s one song you know from I Am, it’s “Boogie Wonderland.” 1979 was the last year disco—as a musical genre and a lifestyle—would dominate American culture. While much of the American backlash to disco was cultural (more on that later), White, Bailey, and the rest of the band also despised it on a musical level. “[Disco] killed itself by being so generic, uncreative, and overexposed,” White sniped in his memoir. “It also represented excess and bad clothing.” As a result, the band, which prized itself on its superior musicality, had serious misgivings about recording what they saw as a traditional disco track. EW&F was undeniably different, and, by many qualifiers, making more interesting music than mainstream disco; the band’s ability to pull from several competing genres, the players’ supernatural cohesion, and their commitment to musical innovation and ambition—not to mention White’s spiritual master plan—undeniably separated them from their peers. But while EW&F’s music was more complex than outright, Giorgio Moroder–descendant disco, a sizable portion of its catalog at that point was, and continued for a few years to be, influenced by disco’s defining qualities. It was nearly impossible to make pop music in the mid-to-late 1970s and not be making disco of some sort; disco and White’s “spectrum music” inherently shared ancestors and competed for similar listeners. “Boogie Wonderland,” then, whether or not White wanted to admit it, was a long time coming.

“If we were going to record a disco number, we would pull out all the stops and do it our way,” Bailey remembered, and that attitude ultimately got White, who had initially produced the song for another band, on board to record it for EW&F. With a foundation of classic disco markers—four-on-the-floor pulse, hi-hat on the upbeat, sentimental violins—White and Al McKay created an intricate supernova of an arrangement, with each stylistic punch serving as a rebuttal to disco music itself. The song’s disco core is compounded by competing, hyperspeed horn arrangements, pounding timpani drums, a harpsichord, dramatic strings, the clink of a triangle, bossa nova and samba rhythms, and three layers of vocals from White, Bailey, and the Emotions. I urge you to revisit it, even just the instrumental, which won the 1979 Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental Performance. (Ironically, but to White’s satisfaction, the song itself failed to win a Grammy.)

The lyrics, hidden by an infectious instrumental brimming with innovation, are a rejection of the hedonism and superficiality that disco had come to represent: “You say your prayers though you don’t care / You dance and shake the hurt,” White sings. The instrumental, with its exaggerated musicality, rebuts those shortcomings. Yet for all the implicit and explicit critique the song holds, “Wonderland” contains one of the purest expressions of musical ecstasy recorded during a decade founded on it. For the bridge, the band ditches the anger and injects pure goodness, switching keys and flooding the song with violins as the Emotions sing, “All the love in the world can’t be gone / All the need to be loved can’t be wrong,” effectively contradicting the previous verses. Philip Bailey’s falsetto begins to rise, swelling into a controlled howl both primal and tender. Suddenly, you’re thrown onto a packed dance floor, a disco ball shimmering above you, other people’s sweat sticking to your arms. The bridge of “Wonderland” creates a conversation within the song itself; by the end, you’re almost exhausted, even if you never stood up to dance. It’s magnificent, subversive, and eternal.

I Am went double platinum and got White nominated for Producer of the Year at the ’79 Grammys. Forty years later, it remains a pillar of American music, a tremendously influential touchstone of R&B’s potential—not just on a musical level, but on a conceptual one, too. It’s impossible to completely trace Earth, Wind & Fire’s impact on the music that came after it, but if there’s a single album of theirs that’s left its mark on subsequent generations—from Raphael Saadiq to Bruno Mars to Beyoncé—it’s this one. There is only one I Am: it’s a declaration, an affirmation, and an acknowledgment, of greatness, of worthiness, and of unity. “It was our biggest album ever,” White wrote. “It seemed like nothing could stop us.”

Until, of course, everything did.

Redferns

On July 12, 1979, just over a month after I Am’s release, 50,000 people—mostly straight white men, rallied by the Chicago radio personality Steve Dahl—descended on Comiskey Park in Chicago during a doubleheader between the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers to kill disco once and for all. In the midst of a losing season and struggling to attract fans, the White Sox paired up with Dahl for a promotion initially called “Teen Night”; Dahl, who despised disco, told his listeners to bring disco records to the stadium so he could blow them up. After Dahl made good on his promise—dressed in army fatigues and a helmet, he rigged a box of disco records in center field with explosives and detonated it, leaving a large hole in the outfield grass—fans flooded the field, and the second game was canceled.

Disco Demolition Night, as it later became known, was “the first and only event other than an act of God to cause the cancellation of a Major League Baseball Game,” according to Chicago radio broadcaster Dave Hoekstra, a contributing writer on Dahl’s Disco Demolition: The Night Disco Died. It was also an act of symbolic violence by disgruntled white men, perpetrated against a genre of music, and culture, based in and serving queer and nonwhite communities. When local radio station WDAI switched formats from rock to disco on Christmas Eve 1978, Dahl was fired. A foul-mouthed shock jock who abhorred disco to begin with, Dahl’s feelings only intensified after his firing. Later hired by the rival rock station WLUP, the Loop, he quickly made destroying disco his personal cause.

DDN wasn’t literally the end of disco—backlash, across all demographics, had been building toward the genre and its accompanying decadence and musical monotony for a few years. Following the success of Saturday Night Fever in 1977, though, rock music fans began speaking out against disco more forcefully. “No kid, just figuring out who he was and where he was going, would be prepared to have his assimilated rock ‘n’ roll identity stripped from him,” Dahl says in Disco Demolition. “This event was not racist, not anti-gay,” he adds. “That evening was a declaration of independence from the tyranny of sophistication.”

Lingering beneath Dahl’s defenses is a language of coded bigotry, the same language imbued in “Make America Great Again”: a protecting of “identity,” a reclaiming of (white, working class) “independence” from (elitist/othered) “sophistication.” Rolling Stone critic Dave Marsh, summing up 1979 for the magazine, saw right through Dahl’s rhetoric. “White males 18 to 34 are the most likely to see disco as the product of homosexuals, blacks, and Latins, and therefore they’re the most likely to respond to appeals to wipe out such threats to their security,” he wrote, more or less summing up Donald Trump’s entire campaign (replace “disco” with any of Trump’s cultural buzzwords). “It goes almost without saying,” Marsh added, “that such appeals are racist and sexist.”

Maurice White and the band, as their process recording “Boogie Wonderland” showed, hated disco, yet for different reasons than Dahl. “Disco music was trite to me, pedestrian and boring,” White said. “Our music was eclectic, not the boring, sterile, unimaginative monotone of disco.” He earnestly wanted to see disco gone, which, by 1980, would essentially be the case. What White didn’t anticipate was that Earth, Wind & Fire might be collateral damage along the way. Disco’s ghost continues to permeate pop music, but its corporal death in 1979 was swift and total. “Boogie Wonderland,” a pure disco song, was no. 6 on the Billboard single charts the week of Disco Demolition Night. It remained in that spot the next week, when Billboard’s other top five—including singles by Donna Summer and Chic—were also disco songs. Two months later, however, when “After the Love Has Gone” hit no. 2, not a single disco track remained in the top six. Earth, Wind & Fire might not have explicitly made disco music, and they might not have been at the center of Dahl and Co.’s hate. But everything they stood for—radical positivity and inclusiveness; black pride; adventurous musicality; marginalized community—seemed to be.

Things went down quickly for the band in the wake of I Am and Disco Demolition Night. Faces, EW&F’s two-disc follow-up released in 1980 that featured their collaboration with my father, struggled to produce a hit single and barely went gold. In a changing music landscape, CBS cut promo budgets, particularly for black dance acts, and White’s vanity label, ARC, was floundering. There were internal tensions, too: Al McKay left the band over mounting anger with White’s increasingly controlling leadership, while other members, led by Bailey, confronted White over discrepancies in pay. Michael Jackson and Prince emerged and quickly changed the landscape for black artists. MTV launched, and with it, the need for music videos; the fact the network ignored black artists for two years didn’t help. American musical taste was changing—country began to emerge—and EW&F couldn’t keep up. “EW&F was an archetypal band of the 1970s, and yet we didn’t understand the dynamics of the 1980s,” Bailey writes, offering an observation that, while vague, nonetheless cuts to the core of EW&F’s ideological isolation in a new decade of Ronald Reagan, the religious right, and neoliberalism. “The world wasn’t about peace, love, and positivism. The 1980s were about economics and music for cold hard cash.”

After several ill-advised singles, the band scored their last hit in 1981 with “Let’s Groove,” taken from the Faces follow-up Raise! But a year after “Billie Jean” desegregated MTV in 1983, White put the band on hiatus. Everyone went their separate ways before rejoining in 1987 for Touch the World, EW&F’s final gold-certified album. A few years after that, the band was slowly reconciling and turning toward what would be their final stage: touring internationally on the strength of their incredible catalog.

But then Maurice White’s hands started to shake. “I woke up one day in 1990, shaking. Just like that,” he remembered. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991, he was forced to stop touring with the group in ’95. He finally told the public one week before the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, but, as always, took a positive outlook, framing his decision to stop touring as an opportunity to work on his new label and build a studio. “[The National Parkinson’s Foundation is] working really hard,” he told Rolling Stone at the time. “I think they’ll have a cure within five years.”

Maurice White died 16 years later from Parkinson’s. His memoir was months away from being released. “We are immortal, and not to be afraid,” he wrote at its end. He was 74.

My dad has one more Earth, Wind & Fire memory, one he revealed to me only a few years ago. Weeks before Maurice revealed his diagnosis to the world, he was at a self-serve car wash in Van Nuys, California, when he spotted my dad. They hadn’t seen each other in years. “I saw him, and pretended I didn’t,” my dad told me. “I don’t know why. I wanted to seem more aloof, maybe. It’s just one of those things I will never understand.” Maurice came up to my dad and embraced him warmly. They caught up briefly. A month later, my dad learned Maurice was sick, and never called. “I feel bad about it still,” he said to me, exhaling. “Horrible. Truly horrible. I don’t know why I never called.” He paused. “The lesson is don’t ever, ever, hold back love.”

This past November, it was my dad who got sick, but with cancer. He told me not to worry; doctors had caught it early and were treating it right away. He underwent aggressive chemoradiation for the next three months, but urged me to stay in New York—I wouldn’t want to see him in this state, he told me, and he assured me he was fine. I believed him, and because of work, and life, I never took the trip back home to California to visit him. Instead, I spent those months walking around New York, listening to the music he played on and raised me on—Chaka Khan, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and, more than anything, Earth, Wind & Fire. It was sometime this past January, traveling back to Brooklyn on a weeknight, pushing away my guilt for not visiting my sick dad, that I found “In the Stone” again and, subsequently, I Am. I was instantly transported back to car rides to school and around L.A., my dad testing me to see whether I could count in a 6/8 time signature or predict an unexpected key change. Listening to I Am, thinking of my dad fighting to stay strong, I was able to feel him right next to me, nodding along. I couldn’t be there for him, but this was almost as good.

After reorienting myself with I Am, I did some internet digging and rediscovered “Turn It Into Something Good,” the Faces album cut my dad did arrangements on, and famously failed to play on, back in 1980. It’s a fantastic song, truly—White, in his memoir, called it “one of the finest songs in the EW&F songbook.” It’s funky and unpredictable and intricate and crisp. But it was the lyrics, listening during my dad’s sickness, written before White’s own sickness, that got me through. They’re not overly optimistic, or esoteric, or idealistic, or metaphoric. Instead, somewhat uncharacteristically, they’re a simple and stark acknowledgment of life’s difficulties, and a call to get out of a rut, no matter how deep. “Turn it into something good, remember, you can choose, not to lose, find your groove and be a winner,” the chorus goes. My dad, as far as we know, is cancer free for now—the resilience and positivity he displayed through the hardest moments of his treatment, the ways he turned it into something good, would’ve made White incredibly proud.

I Am, pressurized and packed like a diamond, sparkles because the effort that was put into it feels, well, effortless. Life itself—full of chemotherapy and burning boxes of disco records, trembling hands and horn players with guns—is effortful. But beneath that effort and struggle, White needed to show us, is a current of something eternal and fearless, something unrestricted by notions of time or health or self, something impossible to articulate: the commonality of universal being, expressed through music. “Wake up, take a step ahead / Wake up to the rising sun / Wake up life has just begun to shine,” Bailey implores at the end of “Turn It Into Something Good.” Even in the darkest of night, your version of the sun is only a few hours away.

Jackson Howard is an assistant editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. His writing has appeared in Pitchfork, them., The Fader, W., and elsewhere.

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