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Kool & the Gang’s ‘Wild and Peaceful’ Turns 50
With songs like ‘Jungle Boogie’ and ‘Hollywood Swinging,’ the 1973 jazz-funk album pioneered party and dance music before the advent of the disco craze.
By Marc Myers, WSJ
Sept. 12, 2023 5:50 pm ET
Kool & the Gang PHOTO: JAMES KRIEGSMANN/MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES
Just before disco reached mainstream status in 1974 with the Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat,” live funk bands dominated at clubs in many urban markets. The bump was a dance rage, and Kool & the Gang was one of many funk-bump bands touring then.
The group’s first album, for De-Lite Records in 1969, was an instrumental, followed over the next three years by two live albums and two studio LPs. All five failed to generate much crossover heat. In 1972, “Soul Makossa” was released by Manu Dibango, a composer and saxophonist from Cameroon. The Afro-funk track reached No. 35 on the Billboard pop chart. Eager for a similar hit, De-Lite urged Kool & the Gang to cover it. As Ronald Bell recalled in a 1975 interview with the U.K.’s Blues & Soul magazine, “We figured we could come up with our own ‘Soul Makossa’ because we had always played in that funky groove.”
The result was a trio of self-produced songs with a “Soul Makossa” flavor: “Jungle Boogie,” “Funky Stuff” and “Hollywood Swinging.” All appeared on “Wild and Peaceful,” an album released 50 years ago this month that changed Kool & the Gang’s fortunes and altered the direction of jazz-funk, soul and dance in the months before and after disco’s emergence on the national stage.
“Wild and Peaceful” reached No. 33 on the Billboard album chart and was the band’s first Top 40 release. On Billboard’s pop singles chart, “Funky Stuff” peaked at No. 29, “Jungle Boogie” at No. 4 and “Hollywood Swinging” at No. 6. The crossover album also launched a new party-album genre thick with horns, percussion and whistles, a celebratory backdrop that would become Kool & the Gang’s signature sound.
The record’s momentum benefited from several trends: Slickly produced dance music had gained ground following the Spinners’ 1972 release of “I’ll Be Around.” In addition, Sly and the Family Stone, the country’s top crossover funk-rock band, was fading as glossy funk began appearing on albums such as War’s “The World Is a Ghetto,” the Ohio Players’ “Pleasure” and Stevie Wonder’s “Talking Book.”
All of these artists were greatly assisted by the ascent of black FM radio and urban contemporary shows hosted by DJs such as Frankie “Hollywood” Crocker at WBLS in New York. His cool flamboyance and showbiz nickname became the inspiration for the title of Kool & the Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging.”
In turn, “Wild and Peaceful” would influence several generations of recording artists, most notably Earth Wind & Fire, Chuck Brown’s Soul Searchers and Nile Rodgers and Chic. The LP’s singles also became a sampling mainstay of early hip-hop artists in the 1970s and beyond. According to the website WhoSampled, Kool & the Gang’s songs have been sampled nearly 2,000 times to date.
“Wild and Peaceful” opens with “Funky Stuff,” kicking off with a lifeguard whistle and a horn fanfare followed by chants of “Parrrty!” and “La-di-da-di-da.” The former chant would become a mainstream euphemism for getting high and dancing and the latter would famously be adapted as conversation filler by a nervous Diane Keaton in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” in 1977.
“More Funky Stuff” follows, which like many sequel songs back then was an extension of the hit and appeared on the B-side of the single. This allowed early hip-hop artists with two turntables and a mixer to go back and forth between the two tracks to greatly expand the song’s length.
A gong kicks off “Jungle Boogie,” with chants of “Get down, get down” as braying horn riffs set the tone for the bass, electric keyboard and rhythm guitar. The song plateaus with chants of “jungle boogie” and a “Soul Makossa”-inspired voice urging dancers to “get down.”
“Heaven at Once” is one of the album’s most interesting tracks. A tightly arranged horn riff backs spoken dialogue between 13-year-old Rory Bell and his older brother—the band’s bassist Robert “Kool” Bell—on achieving global peace and unity.
The opening riff on “Hollywood Swinging” features drums, bass and horns that are quickly joined by overdubbed rhythm guitars and keyboards. The lead vocal by keyboardist Ricky Westfield is delivered as an autobiographical remembrance about joining the band.
The LP’s B-side shifts to songs with extended instrumentals. “This Is You, This Is Me” has a Sly Stone feel driven by horn riffs, saxophone solos and a vocal peppered with throwaway lyrics: “If you don’t understand the words to the song / It’s all me, it’s all you.”
Similarly, “Life Is What You Make It” showcases the horns punched up by bass and guitar. The 9½-minute closing track, “Wild and Peaceful,” returns to the band’s jazz-soul roots and was designed as a cool-down, make-out ballad, complete with Dennis Thomas’s flute, Mr. Bell’s throbbing bass and solos by Mr. Westfield, trumpeter Robert Mickens and guitarist Clay Smith.
Moving forward, Kool & the Gang’s knack for dance music, helped by producer Eumir Deodato, would lead to timeless dance hits such as “Ladies’ Night,” “Celebration,” “Joanna,” “Too Hot” and “Summer Madness.” But in 1973, “Wild and Peaceful” showcased the band’s jazz-funk party purity, untouched yet by disco’s sheen.
Mr. Myers is the author of “Rock Concert: An Oral History” and “Anatomy of 55 More Songs” (Grove Press).