I’ve been obsessed with Miles Davis’s On the Corner, which was originally released on October 11, 1972, for over 30 years. I first heard it, on vinyl, in about 1989. Since then, I’ve owned an early ’90s Japanese import CD, a remastered US CD from the early 2000s, and the 2007 Complete On the Corner Sessions box. I also have a bright yellow T-shirt with the album’s amazing cover art.
On the Corner sounds like nothing else in Miles Davis’s discography. (It should go without saying that it doesn’t sound like anything anybody else had ever made up to that point, either.) He was in the studio several times during the summer of 1972, but the other sessions, which produced “Ife” (issued on Big Fun), “Rated X” (from Get Up With It), and “Chieftain” and “Jabali,” neither of which came out until 2007, are stripped-down, heavy funk. On the Corner is an almost impossibly dense jungle of sound, instruments crawling all over each other like creeping vines. There are something like a dozen players on it — in addition to Davis, you’ve got Dave Liebman and Carlos Garnett on saxophones, Bennie Maupin on bass clarinet, four keyboardists (Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Harold “Ivory” Williams, and Lonnie Liston Smith), John McLaughlin and David Creamer on guitars, Colin Walcott and Khalil Barakrishna on electric sitars, Paul Buckmaster on electric cello, Michael Henderson on bass, Badal Roy on tabla, Don Alias and Mtume on percussion, and three drummers: Billy Hart, Al Foster, and Jack DeJohnette, only two of whom are playing at any given time. (The original LP infamously didn’t include a list of personnel; a complete accounting of the players didn’t turn up until the 2000 CD reissue.)
The album only has four tracks: the nearly 20-minute opener, “On the Corner/New York Girl/Thinkin’ of One Thing and Doin’ Another/Vote for Miles,” “Black Satin,” “One and One,” and the 23-minute closer, “Helen Butte/Mr. Freedom X.” But it’s a long album, almost 55 minutes. And on vinyl, it’s a lot more shrill and clattering than on CD, with much less low end despite all those drummers and percussionists. It had to be mixed that way to fit on a single LP, which makes it almost proto-No Wave at certain points.
“On the Corner…” isn’t really a medley, despite supposedly being divided into four sections. The herky-jerky, rattling groove is constant, and those distinctions roughly correspond to a series of solos. Dave Liebman is heard first, making his debut with Davis and playing as far out as anybody on the Downtown loft scene of the time. His solo is all squawks and burbles, with no relationship to what’s going on around him (because, as he told me years ago, he was recording without headphones and, since everyone else in the room with him was either on percussion or a plugged-in keyboard, all he heard was a bunch of tapping fingers). John McLaughlin is up next, delivering some truly gritty, almost postpunk guitar noise five years before punk, and then one of the keyboardists, who knows which one, gets a turn in the spotlight. The second half of the piece, the “Vote for Miles” section, is somewhere between a full-band jam and a live remix, with producer Teo Macero bringing some percussion or sitar forward for a few seconds before letting it sink back into the ocean of sound. Miles himself barely solos in the way one might expect; he comes through every once in a while, playing a few short phrases, his horn disguised by a wah-wah pedal, then vanishes again. Both Liebman and McLaughlin go even farther out toward the end of the piece than they did in the beginning, as all those keyboards squelch and squiggle around them.
The album’s middle section, “Black Satin” and “One and One,” are almost listener-friendly, at first anyway. “Black Satin” has a simple, hypnotic trumpet melody, almost a precursor to “Jean Pierre,” which Davis started playing live nearly a decade later. That’s laid over a thick, funky Michael Henderson bassline and tons of rapidly shifting percussion (including overdubbed handclaps and sleigh bells). Miles plays a lot on this track — indeed, there’s a second, overdubbed trumpet line — and it was re-edited and released as a single, though it was given the commercially unpalatable title “The Molester.” “One and One,” which opens Side Two of the LP, is kind of a remix or a Part 2 (in the James Brown/Isley Brothers manner) of “Black Satin,” with Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet prominent in the early going, and Carlos Garnett’s soprano sax taking over eventually. The synths shimmer and waver like heat off July asphalt.
“Helen Butte/Mr. Freedom X” kicks off with a brief repetition of the “Black Satin” hook, but quickly evolves into a long jam over loop-like rhythms and burbling, dubby keyboards. Miles solos at length, then hands the spotlight off to Garnett, who’s switched to tenor. Creamer, not McLaughlin, is on guitar here, and he’s a much softer, jazzier player, his phrases trickling out like cool water, echo making the notes disappear almost before you’ve registered them. Once he recedes into the background again, it’s up to the squadron of keyboardists to carry the music for more than ten minutes, creating a constantly shifting set of intertwining riffs and countermelodies that’s half Weather Report, half Tangerine Dream, with Henderson’s impossibly deep bass throbbing beneath, seeming to hover on a single note like the pulse of the earth itself and Miles coming back in to offer wah-wah-choked interjections that point the way to what he’d be doing onstage as far in the future as 1975.
It’s crucial to point out just how important Teo Macero’s role in this album is. Every time I listen to On the Corner, I hear something I never noticed before, whether it’s an actual sound — some tiny little shaker or a half-buried keyboard line — or a production trick, like the particular way he close-miked and then reverbed Don Alias’s and Mtume’s congas while still making room for two drummers. He subjects the electric sitars to some fantastic effects, too, moving them back and forth across the stereo field in a way that’s hypnotic and fascinating, without ever distracting you from hearing the whole picture.
The On the Corner sessions — the first track was recorded on June 1, and the other three were tracked on June 6, with an overdub session (handclaps, shakers, etc.) on July 7 — represented Davis’s major activity of the first half of 1972. He was back in the studio on June 12 (“Chieftain”), August 23 (“Jabali” and “Ife”), and September 6 (“Rated X”), and on September 10, he headed out on the road with a band that included Carlos Garnett on sax, new guitarist Reggie Lucas, keyboardist Cedric Lawson, Khalil Barakrishna on sitar, Michael Henderson on bass, Al Foster on drums, Mtume on percussion and Badal Roy on tabla. Players would come and go, but four of these men would be with him until 1975. On September 29, he recorded the double live LP In Concert: Live at Philharmonic Hall, which mixes new pieces like a radically reworked “Rated X,” “Ife” and “Black Satin” with music from the A Tribute to Jack Johnson album and “Honky Tonk,” from 1971’s Live-Evil.
On October 11, On the Corner was released. Critics haaaaated it; it was branded “repetitious crap” and “an insult to the intellect of the people.” Perhaps most infamously, a DownBeat reviewer wrote, “Take some chunka-chunka-chunka rhythm, lots of little background percussion diddle-around sounds, some electronic mutations, add simple tune lines that sound a great deal alike and play some spacey solos.” But here’s the thing: A lot of people now, 50 years later, are going to read that description and think, “Wow, that sounds awesome!” I mean, subtract the bit about spacey solos, and couldn’t you be describing the Bomb Squad in the late ’80s, or Timbaland in the late ’90s? On the Corner isn’t just a brilliant sonic miracle on its own — it’s a signpost to half the important developments in black music in the decades since its release.
(It was a line in the sand visually, too. Its cover art, the first of four pieces by painter Corky McCoy to adorn Davis albums, is like a cross between the underground comics of the Sixties and the emerging blaxploitation film genre, and did as much as anything else to signal that this was not a jazz record.)
Things went sideways almost as soon as the record landed, though. On October 19, with On the Corner out just over a week, Davis was involved in a hideous car wreck on New York’s West Side Highway. An eyewitness related the story to Road & Track in 2015:
He tried to make a right-angle turn at 60 mph from the left lane of the West Side Highway to the 125th Street exit across three lanes of traffic. He didn’t make it. He hit the WPA Stone exit ramp and his lime green [Lamborghini] Miura came apart like Brazilian plywood in the rain. I pulled over and ran back to his car. He was wearing leather pants and the bones of both of his legs were sticking through the pants. He was bleeding badly.
He looked at me and said, “Is my car ****ed up?” I told him the car was gone. He said, “I got to take a look.” I told him both legs were broken and he wasn’t going anywhere. I ripped up a shirt I found on the floor and told him to hold the cloth over the bleeding with pressure as it was getting bad but not arterial.
There were two large plastic bags filled with white powder on the floor and one had broken open. The interior was dusted. I grabbed the bags and ran to the sewer and chucked them. He screamed, “What the **** you doing????” I used rain water to wipe down the car as best as I could.
The cops arrived and one of them asked me who I was. I told them just one of the guys he cut off. He looked at Miles and at me and told me to split.
That pretty much marked the end of 1972, as far as Miles Davis was concerned. He would be on crutches for months, and while he’d return to the studio in November and December, laying down tracks that would eventually show up in the Complete On the Corner Sessions box, he wouldn’t play live again until January 1973, at which point he would begin a two-year sprint, playing one red-hot concert after another, revamping his band on the fly (swapping saxophonists in and out, adding a second and then a third guitarist) and creating a swirling, Afro-psychedelic funk-metal roar that the world is still coming to grips with more than four decades later. And it all started with On the Corner, not just one of Miles Davis’s greatest albums but one of the greatest works of art of the 20th century. Yeah, I said it. You disagree? Go listen again.