The three albums Gil Scott-Heron recorded for Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman label are some of the most important in the history of black music. They show a multi-talented artist reaching maturity with his first recorded efforts. ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ transcended its place as an album track to become an aphorism, a slogan on a T-shirt, omnipresent shorthand for alternative culture. Over the years these recordings have been treated in a haphazard way, reissued in cheaply packaged collections that used edited versions of some of the most important tracks. “The Revolution Begins” gathers together every piece of music released by Gil on Flying Dutchman, including a track recorded with Bernard “Pretty” Purdie which has never been previously reissued. We have gone back to the original master tapes, bringing you sound that’s better than you’ll ever have heard and new clarity to Gil’s words and the musical performances. Access to those tapes has also enabled us to assemble an alternate version of Gil’s third album, “Free Will”.
Gil emerged in 1970 as the author of a novel, The Vulture, and a small book of poetry titled Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. Through a contact at his publishing company, he was introduced to producer Bob Thiele, who couldn’t afford to make an album of music, but agreed to make a spoken word record. Titled after his book of poems, and recorded with just Gil and three percussionists, the album opened with the coruscating ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’. Still enthralling over 40 years on, it’s often forgotten how good this version is in comparison to the recording Gil made with a full band for his second album. His performance is perfectly judged, bringing emphasis where it was needed, without ever resorting to histrionics. By the time he reaches the final “The revolution will be no rerun, brothers, the revolution will be live”, the listener is hooked as surely as if he was watching a weekly soap opera.
The rest of the album covered topics as diverse as the harsh conditions in the housing projects, music and a subway poster for a horror movie. Most of the work still stands up today, with Gil always retaining a sense of humour and humanity, however angry he is. “Small Talk at 125th and Lenox” did well enough for Thiele to commission a follow-up, to be recorded with a full band. Gil had been working up a number of songs with Brian Jackson, a fellow student at Lincoln University. It was Jackson who lifted Gil’s music out of the rudimentary – something Gil was always keen to point out: “Brian was integral.”
“Pieces Of A Man” is an astounding album. Recorded with a band of top session musicians, with Jacksonon piano, there isn’t a bad track. The title track is a beautiful and moving tale of the destruction of a man’s worth told from the viewpoint of his son, while ‘Home Is Where The Hatred Is’ captures the hellish nature of drug addiction and the hypocrisy of those who criticise rather than help addicts. ‘Lady Day and John Coltrane’ is not just a tribute to the titular heroes but to the uplifting power of music itself.
The album sold well enough and Esther Phillips’ cover of ‘Home Is Where The Hatred Is’ brought further attention to Gil. Thiele was keen to get a third album together and the resultant “Free Will” was Gil’s most political yet. The wondrous ‘Did You Hear What They Said?’ skewers the Vietnam War more effectively than any thousand-word polemic. The title track takes aim at those who talk about themselves rather than getting involved in helping the community. The second side is a return to the spoken-word style of the first album and in ‘No Knock’ and ‘The King Alfred Plan’ gives us vibrant attacks on the Nixon administration. The album was the final release on the label. The alternate version contained here gives us a wonderful insight into Gil’s way of working.
At the time of their release, these albums did OK, but didn’t sell a whole lot of copies. Today they are the basis for the laudatory essays that appeared at the time of his 2011 comeback album “I’m New Here” and on his death a few months later. This 3CD set contains the best from a career that was full of great records.
By Dean Rudland
banner photo © Chuck Stewart