We all know that The Age of Aquarius produced a lot of songs that mirrored the social unrest of the times. From Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" to Edwin Starr's "War," there were a helluva lot of musicians angry at The Man. One of angriest such songs came from the unlikely source of a jazzman who was previously not known for his singing. Nevertheless, keyboardist Les McCann achieved immortality for his soul-jazz classic rendition of "Compared To What."
If you're not familiar with the tune, just one verse out of it should give you a pretty good idea of the rage contained within, not to mention the vintage lingo: "The President, he's got his war / Folks don't know just what it's for / Nobody gives us rhyme or reason / Have one doubt, they call it treason / We're chicken-feathers, all without one gut (God damn it!) / Tryin' to make it real — compared to what? (Sock it to me, now.)"
The song was actually written for McCann by 60’s R&B singer Gene McDaniels, the man who also penned the 1974 hit "Feel Like Makin' Love” for Roberta Flack. Like McCann, McDaniels was not generally not known to be the rebellious type.
McCann's partner in crime for this song, Eddie Harris, was also a giant in the jazz of the greasy variety, his tenor sounding as righteous as Maceo’s alto. Benny Bailey rounds out the front line with a rather sassy sounding trumpet. Recorded live at the fledgling Montreaux Jazz Festival in the year of Woodstock, “Compared To What” is the opening track of the McCann/Harris Swiss Movement release.
There’s been scores of other versions since this original; Flack, Ronnie Law, Brian Auger, even Al Jarreau. None of those cats could give the song the edge that McCann, Harris and the rest of the band brought to it on that June day in Switzerland. But after all these years of them trying, a most unlikely source, the space rock band Mushroom finally came up with a worthy runner-up in 2000.
A truly wiggy instrumental group (go to allmusic.com and check out some of their song titles sometime, just for giggles), they brought in a fairly obscure but McCann-like vocalist in flamboyant ex-Sister Double Happiness frontman Gary Floyd to handle the incendiary lyrics. Meanwhile, Harris’ part is filled in by Beck sideman Jon Birdsong’s cornet with Carroll Ashby’s trombone adding a second soloist. Mushroom adds a few far out electronic effects to the proceedings, but the psychedelic sounds actually fit the of-its-time lyrics. And the groove is just about the same as the original, except that band leader Pat Thomas' drums are blissfully higher up in the mix.
The only thing it lacks is that electricity of performing it live. But hey, it’s not a bad rendition at all. If there's any band out there today who can capture the trippy essence of the late sixties, it's Mushroom.
Listen: Mushroom – "Compared To What"
"One Track Mind" is a more-or-less weekly drool over a single song selected on a whim and a short thesis on why you should be drooling over it, too.