An Ode to Power

I found myself in the car a lot this past weekend, so I had the opportunity to play some of my music, and play it good and loud. (Those readers with teenaged kids of their own may understand how rare this kind of opportunity is.) And one of the bands that got heavy play on my program was a very old favorite, Oakland’s own, Tower of Power.

[Quick note here: I became a die-hard Tower of Power fan when, in 1972, they played in my high school’s cavernous auditorium. Seen them several times since. Generally better sound.]

Tower was ubiquitous on Bay Area radio when I was a young man, their horns popping, their lead vocals soaring, their rhythms hot and funky. They were unlike other bands of the time. Originals. Real musicians.

And, unlike some of the other bands I lived and died with at the time, they stand careful and repeated play still.

Start with the horns, because they are the soul of the band. The arrangements aren’t complex and fancy. They’re punches in the gut. They’re meant to be. The play is direct and precise. The musicianship is extraordinary. The horns often carry the melody, harmonies and rhythm, all at the same time. The players are craftsmen. They don’t flip and fly through scales. They aren’t trying to impress you; they’re experts and they know it. They let the songs and their play do the talking.

Read liner notes and see how often other bands and artists used the Tower horns on their own recordings. There are none better.

In addition to playing, the horn players often function as a Greek chorus in counterpoint to the lead singer. Listen, especially, to ‘What Is Hip’ and “You’re Still a Young Man,’ Tower mega-hits, to get a sense of these bandmates functioning as interrogators.

Lead vocals carry on the funk tradition of, say, James Brown. You get the feeling that, while some lyrics were penned a priori, what was actually sung was what was felt during recording sessions. A listen to Tower’s live albums pretty much confirms this. Written lyrics seem more like guidelines than laws. It takes a particularly strong voice to sing with horns as the main accompaniment and Tower always had lead vocalists who could do the heavy lifting.

Tower’s drummer was always the timekeeper. Good. Necessary. Never the dynamo some bands had. Same, I feel, with the bass and guitar. Tower of Power isn’t a string band, after all; it’s all about the horns.

Here, the message is in the metal.

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