February 17, 2020

1972’s Cabbage Alley is often lauded as the band’s finest collection, and it certainly has a strong case

It’s been said many times (often by me, come to think of it) that the early to mid 1970s were an unrivalled time of experimentation and boundary-blurring, as bands discovered and played with new influences all the time. Jazz and rock became almost interchangeable, as did country and rock. Funk bled into rock through the likes of Glenn Hughes and Tommy Bolin, and the other way round with Funkadelic and Graham Central Station. What we have here is another example of that latter osmosis, as what was an unremarkable instrumental New Orleans funk outfit in 1969 ended up as support on the massive Rolling Stones Tour Of The Americas in 1975, all through development and widening vision, without a single audience-alienating sudden change along the way. That is the story of The Meters, spread across six discs here, and which we shall investigate forthwith.

Now, clearly I’m going to slant this review toward the rock influence in the band’s material. Not to the exclusion of all else, as that would be a disservice, but from the point of view of this site that’s the central point of interest for most, I would suspect. From that point of view, the first disc here can be almost disregarded as a formative stab, containing as it does the band’s first two albums, 1969’s The Meters and 1970’s oddly titled Look-Ka Py Py. Both of these albums are entirely instrumental, filled with short tracks which mostly seem to have the air of a jam session about them, with the rest of the band almost a vehicle for Art Neville’s Hammond organ, which takes most of the melody lines but too often has the cheesy sound of a baseball mascot tune. There is some nice music here, but it is very light and inconsequential.

Disc two immediately sees things improving, as the band discover more of their musical mojo. Occupied entirely by the third album, 1971’s Struttin’, plus some very strong singles from the time, subtle changes are happening all over. Vocals become commonplace, and guitarist Leo Nocentelli has clearly acquired a wah-wah pedal and is liking it! Art Neville’s organ sound also begins to become a little more Jon Lord and less Henry Mancini. No overt rock stylings as yet, but the music is tighter and punchier throughout, with real composition now the order of the day. There is also the first curve-ball in the way of material, with a cover of Glenn Campbell’s Wichita Lineman completely out of the blue, and giving a clue as to the influences which were seeping in. Did I mention that the drummer went by the marvellous name of Zigaboo Modeleste? Hell, that man was born for stardom! Things were about to get interesting.

On Disc Three, we start to see the real peak of the band’s career in terms of their wild and searching experimentation. Leo has acquired a much fuller guitar tone to go with his wah-wah, and is by now a mile away from the thin and reedy tone of the first recordings. 1972’s Cabbage Alley is often lauded as the band’s finest collection, and it certainly has a strong case. Even the cover art becomes more interesting, with the title illustrated, rather literally, by an alley entirely blocked by, yes, a giant cabbage. It’s not exactly Hipgnosis, but it’s eye-catchingly surreal for sure. The rock influence is really taking hold in places here, and oddly enough the track sequence is changed here so that the four most rock tracks are the first four (indeed, several of the albums in this set are resequenced, for no discernible reason). No matter, as it is the order here that we are concerned with, and first up, the soulful and bluesy Do The Dirt, could almost be a lost Free track, with the vocals oozing Paul Rodgers from every pore. Smiling is a nice funky riffing instrumental while the socially-conscious You’ve Got To Change (You’ve Got To Reform) cruises along in gritty fashion not unlike some of the heavier material from War. Best of all is the following Stay Away, which has the guitar crunching and soloing in a glorious mixture of power chords and fat lead lines. This is so far removed from those early albums in only three years it’s quite astonishing. The remainder of the album is heavier on the funk and soul, but delivered in a very powerful manner. There is also a balladic take on Neil Young’s Birds, and bonus tracks in the shape of Chug Chug Chug-A-Lug parts 1 and 2 – hideously titled, but Part 2 in particular really motors along meatily.

The disc is concluded by the first half of the next album Rejuvenation, which largely retreats back to a more straight funky style, though a deep and satisfying one, but just when you think the band have gone back into their safe shell, along comes the second half of that album opening Disc Four, and we are hit with the astonishing twelve minute It Ain’t No Use. Yes, that’s right. Twelve minutes. The first half of this remarkable piece has Leo channelling his inner guitar hero, continuing his Carlos Santana influence which had begin to take flight on Cabbage Alley, before the track drifts into a lazy, spacey-soul section before a fusion coda sounding like the Mahavishnu Orchestra jamming on Pink Floyd takes it into the fade. One can only wonder where this would have ended up had they continued for another few minutes. This is a band who were recording polite sub three minute instrumentals only three albums earlier! The album is rounded out by the rootsy Africa, which was covered in a different guise by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers decades later.

The next album, 1975’s Fire On The Bayou is slightly less interesting overall, though it is enlivened by the oozing swamp-funk of the title track and the eight-minute Middle Of The Road, which is anything but, and indeed comes along to surprise and delight just as things are getting a little light and safe-sounding. At this point in their career the band were reportedly considering splitting, but fate intervened when Paul McCartney invited them to play on a cruise ship for the launch of his Venus And Mars album, and one of the guests, a certain Mick Jagger, asked the band to support the Stones on their huge American tour that year. Fate had intervened massively, but only for two further albums.

Trick Bag, from 1976, suffered rather from the band hopping aboard the prevailing disco bandwagon, particularly on the opening  Disco Is The Thing Today, and apart from the inspired cover of James Taylor’s Suite For 20G and the spirited take on the Stones’ Honky Tonk Women , the album is a disappointment. Happily, the bonus tracks on this fifth disc are fascinating, including as they do a crack at Love The One You’re With, a nine-minute take on Neil Young’s Down By The River and an almost definitive rendition of the Beatles’ Come Together. The proof was there that they could still do it, and it is only a shame that these tracks weren’t included on the original album.

With one disc to go here, it is a bit of a disappointing end to the band’s career, as they split after 1977’s New Direction, which was ironically nothing of the sort, being the blandest Meters recording since the first two formative albums. Just as the wild, pioneering spirit of the ‘70s had crawled into its shell having temporarily run out of steam, so too did The Meters. Their work over this decade, however, is fascinating, and this box gives you all of it. All the albums, all the singles, everything – as well as a nice fat booklet with all of the information about the band, often in their own words, that you could want. Even if only for Cabbage Alley and Rejuvenation, they should be remembered and celebrated.

1+