For those who’ve seen Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 magnum opus, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song, the soundtrack will come as something like a flashback. For those who’ve never seen it, thus just kind of expecting a collection of early Earth, Wind & Fire tunes — there’s going to be a moment of transition.
So, the brilliant thing about the record for Sweetback is that Van Peebles released the music to his X-rated firebomb polemic as a promotional device. As writer Jeff Weiss notes in his essay included on the inner sleeve, “Realizing that a 15-second commercial cost a fortune, but a song played on the radio was constant free promotion, Van Peebles released the album first to build hype for Sweetback. The success on the airwaves propelled the commercial reception of the film.”
It’s notable that the LP for Sweetback isn’t labeled as an original motion picture soundtrack, or music from and inspired by the film — nope, it is instead “A Film of Melvin Van Peebles — The Original Cast Soundtrack Album: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song (The Opera).” There are a couple of actual songs on the soundtrack, such as “Hoppin’ John” or “Mojo Woman,” as well as the epic instrumental of “Sweetback’s Theme,” but many of the cuts are more … poetic.
There’s much to be made of how the cut-and-paste aesthetic of tracks like “Sweetback Getting It Uptight And Preaching It So Hard The Bourgeois Reggin Angels In Heaven Turn Around” presage hip-hop, and play more like tone poems evoking the feeling of the film itself than actual music, but that sense of feeling is what makes Sweetback the opera so important as a musical release.
The sense of frustration and anger, and a constant sense of being barraged by life itself — that’s the film, and even if you’ve never seen it, you’ll know it by listening to this LP. For all of that, it’s still pretty damn funky at times, and while not quite the Earth, Wind & Fire we’ve come to know from “September,” the instrumental chops are there from the beginning, and Van Peebles’ lyrics on the penultimate track, “Won’t Bleed Me,” provide a rallying atmosphere against those who would attempt to keep him down.
Good god, Sweetback sounds amazing. They went back to the original analog tapes for this reissue, then cut the master on the original Stax lathe located at Ardent Studios, having it pressed at Memphis Record Pressing. They kept it local, and they kept it analog, and good god almighty did Concord Music/Craft Recordings make this sound amazing. It’s vibrant, it’s rich, and there’s no hisses or pops to be found.
This is an amazing reissue. Stax isn’t cutting corners with these 60th anniversary releases. The gatefold jacket is old-school, tip-on style, and it’s heavy-duty cardboard. The colors are remarkably vibrant, and while really close inspection shows that the artwork was likely reproduced from existing elements, it takes a sharp eye to notice. Sweetback looks like you pulled it straight off the shelf via a time portal back to 1971.The LP itself is on 180-gram vinyl, and comes in a printed inner sleeve with liner notes by Jeff Weiss, which are amazing, as well as a brief note by Melvin’s son, Mario, which is nice enough.
“Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” is available on vinyl from Amazon .