Earth, Wind and Fire Gets Lost in “Boogie Wonderland”

Earth, Wind & Fire on their way to shop for jeans at Wal-Mart

I’ve caught up with Rashod Ollison’s “Behind the Groove” column in the Virginia Pilot‘s online edition where he displays his vast and impressive knowledge of the sweet sounds of old school soul music.   Rashod knows his stuff and it’s a trip to go back in the day when there was almost an embarrassingly diverse choice of artists.    I highly recommend the column.    It makes for a fascinating read.

It got me thinking of how so often even the best bands can slip and trip when they start tampering with the musical formula that made them successful.    When Maurice White and Earth, Wind & Fire succumbed to disco fever it produced one of their biggest hits as well as the start of their creative slide.    This was a great band that with “Boogie Wonderland,” had success with a really lousy song.

At their pinnacle there was no bigger band in Black music than Earth, Wind & Fire.  George Clinton sneered they were Earth, Hot Air and No Fire, but that was just jealously talking.   The genius of EWF leader Maurice WhitePhilip Bailey’s soaring alto vocals.  The polish and professionalism of Al McKay, Larry Dunn and Verdine White.   EWF had it all going on in a way nobody had before and nobody has since.

It doesn’t make a difference how old a great Earth,Wind & Fire song is.  “Mighty, Mighty”, “Fall In Love With Me,” “Reasons,” “That’s the Way of the World,” “Can’t Hide Love.”  Man, I love all those old joints.  They still sound good to me.

I do not love “Boogie Wonderland.”  I wasn’t feeling it in 1979 when there were still discos you could boogie in and 34 years later it’s still a song I’ll skip when it comes on.

I don’t dislike “Boogie Wonderland.  I HATE “Boogie Wonderland.”  It’s not even the worst EWF song, but it’s the worst hit they ever had.   Everything about it screamed the worst of the disco era.  Trite arrangements.  Swirling synthesizers and four-on-the-floor drumming.  Swooping strings.  Blaring honks.  Background singers.   It’s like a life sentence in Overproduction City.

Boogie Wonderland

Even the title is a lame cliché.  Where the hell s Boogie Wonderland anyhow?   That song represented a jump-the-shark moment for EWF and signaled a creative decline they never pulled out of.    Back in my D.J. days when I played that song the floor would clear like there was a fire drill going on.  I had to slap on some P-Funk to get the dancers away from holding up the wall.

I can imagine “Boogie Wonderland” was a good song to roller skate to, but I didn’t roller skate.   I’m not a “disco sucks” guy.  I like a lot of disco music.  What I  hated was when everybody and their brother felt like they had to cut a disco song even if they had no feel for it.

The insipid lyrics of songwriters Ailee Willis and Jon Lind and warbled by Mo White and The Emotions are stuck on stupid.

Dance boogie
dance boogie wonderland
Midnight creeps so slowly into hearts,
of men who need more than they get
daylight deals a bad hand,
to a woman that has laid too many bets

The mirror stares you in the face and says
“baby, uh uh it don’t work”
you say your prayers though you don’t care
you dance and shake the hurt
dance boogie wonderland
dance boogie wonderland

Sound fly through the night
I chase my vinyl dreams to boogie wonderland
I find romance when I start to dance in boogie wonderland
I find romance when I start to dance in boogie wonderland

Now that’s heavy, man!   🙄

“Jeans and T-shirts? NEVER!”

I differentiate between real bands with live instruments like EWF that were definitely slumming with “Boogie Wonderland” and playing follow the leader with the various disco groups that were largely studio bound, producer creations. Chic was one of the few disco groups with musicians who had killer chops, but for the most part the best disco was primarily a studio creation.   EWF seemed properly embarrassed as bassist Verdine White fessed up when he said,  “I guess you could say we were at the party but didn’t get on the dance floor.”

I ain’t mad at Maurice and company for chasing the disco train, but it’s so obvious it was just a play for some of those disco ducats and is about as sincere as Rod Stewart, the Stones and all the other wannabees that tried to cash in by cranking out a dance track.

It would take more than the calculated lameness of “Boogie Wonderland” to sink Earth, Wind and Fire once and all.   By the time they lumbered to 1983’s uninspired, hit-free Electric Universe it was all over but the shouting and endless “greatest hits” repackages.

Yet for one bright, shiny moment there was a happy place named Boogie Wonderland where for a while you could let the sheets of sound wash over you and distract you from all your cares.   Great band.  Lousy song.