The 1974 double-LP Get Up With It is the final studio album of the Miles Davis electric “fusion” era, and contains the funkiest, hardest, and wildest music of his career.
This wasn’t conceived as a studio project per se, like 1972’s On the Corner. Miles was rushing in and out of recording sessions with regularity throughout the 1970s, and while the bulk of the album features the “Pete Cosey lineup” (that’s the easiest way for me to remember this voodoo funk period), some of the tracks are recorded a bit earlier.
No doubt, at the time, this gave the impression that the album was a collection of leftovers, like numerous post-retirement Miles Davis albums of the ’70s like Directions, Circle in the Round and Water Babies. But like the 1974 release of Big Fun, which was composed of tracks recorded 1970-72, Get Up With It has a cohesion to its sound. To my ears, it sounds very much like a modern album…and, by that, I mean a ’90s rock album (21st century pop music is terrible).
1990s rock was defined by a lot of experimentation, and it was common for the great artists to jump across genres every couple of songs. It’s not quite the same as the musical brew of the late ’60s, but more of a channel-surfing thing. Maybe everyone was just taking cues from Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Who knows? My favorite ’90s albums — Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Stone Temple Pilots Purple, Hole’s Live Through This, R.E.M.’s Monster, Radiohead’s The Bends and OK Computer, Metallica’s Load & Reload — have that jukebox attitude. Get Up With It carries that very same vibe, and I think that’s the reason why I love it so much.
The two epics, which fill sides one and three, couldn’t be more different in mood and texture. And the shorter songs range from boogie blues to trip-hop dance to dissonant noise. And yet it all feels so similar. There’s a similar plan of attack from Miles and his bandmates, and to my mind it comes down to two things:
One, Miles on the keyboards. While piano and keyboards were always a staple, at this point Miles takes the keys himself, but he uses the instrument almost purely for assault. It’s there to bludgeon you, shock you, to hit you upside the head until you’re kissing canvas. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Miles did little more than just punch the keyboard, or mash his forearm down for dissonant effect. Which brings us to…
Two, these songs are angry. Very angry. And very dark. That dark, violent side to Miles Davis was in full evidence on the 1970 landmark Bitches Brew, even though the spirit of the early fusion years was one of exuberance and discovery. But genius does come with bits of madness, and it’s that darker side that emerges. The move into fusion split the jazz world down the middle, and when On the Corner dropped, the conflict just exploded, and the furious backlash over that album has become the stuff of legend. It’s famously said that On the Corner baffled, frustrated, and angered the entire music world, and while I’m sure there were genuine fans who “got it,” Miles’ disappointment was very real, and his music continued its angry, dark funk descent.
This isn’t to say that Get Up With It is a “dark” or “heavy” album. There are so many moments of beauty to be discovered. But that’s my own judgement, based on the music of my generation: hip-hop, grunge, punk, thrash, electronica. 1970s Miles Davis was the heaviest cat on the planet. Today? He’s just another one of us. Good Lord, the dissonant noise and chaos on some of these songs are enough to melt the walls, certainly more than the hippies or disco kids at the time were willing to tolerate.
Anyway, I’m rambling on here, as I often do when I’m still figuring things out. This is such an astonishingly deep and layered album that I find myself having to sit and reflect after playing each side (yeah, even when playing my digital “needle drop” copy). It’s very difficult to play through start to finish, not because it’s difficult listening, but because there’s just so much to absorb. And I’m remembering different moments each time. That is the hallmark of a great album, a truly great album.
On the Corner is widely regarded as Miles Davis’ most overlooked, least understood album, but I don’t believe that holds anymore. I think Get Up With It holds that honor now. This final phase of Miles Davis’ fusion era was pretty much dismissed out of hand. I don’t think anyone but the diehard fans (whoever they were back then) and the truly brave were willing to give this album its proper due. And the younger generations, those of us who discovered Miles after his death, well, we’re a bit backlogged at the moment. Do you know just how many albums this man released during his lifetime? Do you have any idea how intimidating it is to wade through all of this?
Yes, Kind of Blue is the universal touchstone. In college, it was the default jazz album in everyone’s CD collection. But just try to work your way past that without devoting several years as a music scholar. I don’t think older folks appreciate this. When I told my wife Marcela that my Miles Davis library had reached 25 albums, she was stunned; then I told her I was only halfway finished. We are talking about an immensely deep musical legacy.
So is that enough for now? Good Glavin, I’ve barely touched upon the music. Just wait until “Rated X” hits your ears. Does “techno/speed metal” even exist yet? There’s probably a half-dozen new musical mutations on this album that have yet to be discovered by the rest of us. Whatever. That’s enough for now. Just get your hands on this album, already. It’s a monster.