Pictures Are Dead, Man: Miles Davis’ On the Corner Turns 50

Honoring an avant-funk masterpiece that’s still ahead of its time

On The Corner magazine ad (Image: Pinterest)

How do you describe a vibe? Or rather, “Mommy, what’s a Funkadelic?”

Without a doubt, it’s my job to do just that here. But On the Corner more or less synthesized and perfected the concept of a vibe even if it didn’t quite invent the thing. So where do we start? Funkadelic really did not just invent this thing but gave it the only useful vibecabulary: Free your mind and your ass will follow. Maggot brain. Funk had barely begun hitting its stride and it had already mutated into dark, wavy psychedelic molasses on Maggot Brain itself and Sly and the Family Stone’s blown-out, drum-machine-embracing There’s a Riot Goin’ On. But even with proto-shitgaze distortion on the latter and ten minutes of sad funereal guitar soloing to the heavens keynoting the former, the greatest and most innovative jazz musician to crash-land on rock ‘n’ roll further distilled this interplanetary swamp from the origins of verses and choruses themselves.

On the Corner is all jam, like the epochal Bitches Brew before it. But it improvised in sound and rhythm rather than scales, at least up until the trumpeter goes wild freestyling over the “Black Satin” reprise “Helen Butte.” You’d be hard-pressed to find any album with funkier bass, which can only be taken stock of not in slaps or thumps but in blobs burping all over the numbing repetition of all the percussion layers, which at any given time sound like looped breakbeats, tabla ragas, or jingle bells. And that’s just on “Black Satin,” the album’s greatest achievement and one of Davis’ most memorable “songs” in a career that isn’t exactly known for being hummable. That inside-out exotica of a theme, riff, or what have you is the perfect center of the On the Corner experience, the part that’ll stay in your head long after the band has grooved off into other directions, be it druggy Latin-funk or electric organ bleeding out. In 1972, jazz critics hated the thing and rock fans didn’t know it was there waiting for them to discover. 

Miles Davis On The Corner, Columbia Records 1972

Rock fans, of course, did, and now this free-flowing stream-of-consciousness triple-groove odyssey is rightfully canonized as one of Miles’ best, from an unstoppable period that begins with the warm, glowing In a Silent Way and continues all the way to 1975’s furious, drum’n’bass-preceding Agharta. Some of these highs were higher, but the day-glo cartoon cover art and intense repetition hammered the kaleidoscopic array of the music into something like catchiness. Check out the opening title track, where each measure seems designed to fit an even nastier riff variation inside, as if each successive minute of the 20 was one-upping the last; in a way it was. Davis was simultaneously absorbing (Stockhausen, Funkadelic, Indian instrumentation) and broadcasting: He expressed an explicit desire to make music that young black men would love, rather than white jazz critics. Who better to explore the intricacies of previously unbeaten rhythms for nearly an hour than a rock- and funk-obsessed jazz genius?

The tape-splicing structure, continents-apart rhythmic devices, collaged song-tracking  all expressed a perfect desire to leave known genres earthbound and make the impossible come together. On “Mr. Freedom X,” sitar jousts with organ and brass while entire armies of percussion pop against each other’s volleys into a stacked, clattering perfection that never feels overwhelming. Maybe a little crowded, in the way a great sold-out show is. Davis’ sometimes unsure cohort (saxophonist Dave Liebman and arranger Paul Buckmaster couldn’t get past the ramshackle disorganization of the sessions) helped On the Corner grow a cult legend that culminated in a Guardian feature titled “The Most Hated Album in Jazz.” But Davis followed his muse (and his drugs) and frankly, the squares should know better, having already processed free jazz and Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics. (You can hear plenty of Corner in Coleman’s work, especially the all-one-theme Dancing in Your Head from 1977, the year punk broke.) 

Back cover of On The Corner (Image: Discogs)

But while it took decades to surface as an improv-psych classic, it’s not exactly like 1972 was a golden age for jazz. It was the dawn of funk and fusion and MVP John McLaughlin’s own mind-blowing jazz-proto-metal fantasias with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. On the Corner was morphing with the times, its recognizable home planet was not. It’s downright dance music compared to what the genre looks like today with Makaya McCraven and Kamasi Washington. Not to mention how pop it now feels, all the wah-soaked Clinton and hip-hop that’s been forged in its wake. Mommy, what’s a Stankonia? Davis didn’t put musicians’ credits or pictures in the sleeve because the parts ultimately didn’t matter to the whole. You could hear everybody but really, just dig the machine. Plus, he was on a lot of crank: “Pictures are dead, man. You close your eyes and you’re there.”

Most importantly, from the title and its colorfully dressed characters to its friendly yet alien aura, On the Corner is the rare avant-garde album about connection. Miles Davis got exactly what he wanted: A time capsule to be discovered by future generations who can’t believe how ahead of its time it grooved. It could be said to have singlehandedly invented the late, masterful Greg Tate. It’s still unfolding; there’s no telling whether the next sound in rage rap or viral TikTok pop will spin off wah-sitar funk. It sounds like a full-on party from an era that never existed, where multiple parallel timelines and planets lined up to create a transcontinental flow of majestic polyrhythm and groove. It becomes itself.512d 

 

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Ted Miller

Ted Miller is trying to collect the head of every Guns ‘n Roses’ guitarist for his rec room. He currently has three.

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