NPR posted a story this week about the “U.S. Army’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Past,” promoting the great discovery that the U.S. Army is the largest employer of musicians in the country. It’s part of a story that profiles a new CD/vinyl box set called East of Underground: Hell Below that features four groups that participated in the Army’s show band contest in 1971 & 1972.
You can cut some slack for the guys at Stones Throw’s Now Again Records label. They’re crate diggers who have unearthed and reissued some amazing music that would otherwise be completely forgotten (the Cold Heat funk rarities comp is a favorite around here) and bring a real sense of wonder to everything they find and reissue. The East of Underground packaging is beautiful and they’ve given the whole enterprise a lot of thought and effort.
The four groups included in the box set (East of Underground, SOAP, The Black Seeds and The Sound Trek) sound like good-to-pretty-good cover bands of the era, playing songs that everyone was likely to know. It’s great that they got to make a record back in the day and even more incredible that they’re getting this deluxe reissue treatment now.
What’s a little weird is how amazed they are by the idea that Army bands reflect the musical styles of the day. Based on my own ‘80s experience, I thought every public high school in America got a school assembly featuring an Army recruiter with a show band in tow. Ours played Kool & the Gang and the Commodores instead of James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone, but it was pretty much the same idea.
NPR doesn’t pick up on this and also breathlessly reports this phenomenon like it’s somehow unusual that troops serving during the Vietnam era would be interested in and connected to the popular culture of their era.
Maybe it’s because we spend all our time around here at UTR writing about the intersection between culture and military life, but we’re not surprised by any of it. Now Again gets a pass because those guys are breathless about everything, but it’s at least mildly annoying that NPR doesn’t point out just how normal these bands actually are.
We’d appreciate any reports from readers who actually saw these bands perform back in the ‘70s. Please leave them in the comments below.
Here’s a sample of East of Undergound’s music, a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “If There’s a Hell Below”: