The Isley Brothers Are The Most Important American Band Of All Time

Read The Liner Notes For Our Remastered Edition Of ‘Go For Your Guns’

On July 25th 2019 » By Andrew Winistorfer

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“With the possible exception of the Beatles, no band in the history of popular music, and certainly no African American act, has left a more substantial legacy on popular music than the Isley Brothers.” — Bob Gulla, ‘Icons of R&B and Soul’

The Isley Brothers, all five of them, who decamped to upstate New York in 1976 to record the funk classic Go For Your Guns, were not the same Isley Brothers who started as a precocious gospel group more than 20 years earlier. A second generation of brothers Isley had joined O’Kelly, Ronald and Rudolph in the group, as Ernie, Marvin, and in-law Chris Jasper had become members of the band full-time for 1973’s 3+3. But the bigger change was in the group’s sound. They started in gospel, but in the decade-and-a-half since their first LP, Shout!, they’d gone from rock ’n’ roll upstarts, to Motown signees, to Black Power soul brothers, to acoustic folk balladeers, to, in the early ’70s, pioneers of funk and arguably the most visible and popular group working in that genre.

More than maybe any other band or artist, you can chart the changes in Black music — how it was played and what it was called — via the Isleys. They’re the only group in the history of music to have a demonstrable influence on both the Beatles (who covered the Isleys’ take of “Twist And Shout” for one of their biggest early hits) and Ice Cube (who rapped over this album’s “Footsteps In The Dark, Pts. 1 & 2” on “It Was A Good Day”). Go For Your Guns is often considered among fans as their best album — they were often written off as a “singles band,” which does this album and roughly seven or eight more in their catalog a disservice, but it was also a transitional one for the group. They’d cement their status as a funk group on Go For Your Guns, but it was also the beginning of the second half of their career, which led them to going full disco (1979’s Winner Takes All) and slowing it down to make one of the best quiet storm albums (1983’s Between The Sheets), before transitioning to ’90s baby-making jams (1996’s Mission to Please) and a commercially successful comeback (2001’s Eternal).

Go For Your Guns is the literal halfway point in the Isley’s 30-original-album catalog, and was the culmination of years of genre-hopping and switching the style up while watching the money pile up. But it also laid the groundwork for the Isleys to continue on for another 30-plus years, a commercially (it hit No. 6 on the Billboard Top 200, and stayed on the charts for 40 weeks) and critically successful album that spawned samples, dance parties, and many today-was-a-good-days.

An unbelievable true fact: Despite charting new music in every decade from the ’50s through the ’00s, with the exception of a self-published 72-page book by Rudolph’s daughter, there has never been a book-length dissertation on the Isleys. No tell-all that ends with Ron getting out of jail for tax evasion, no two-volume doorstop by Peter Guralnick, no competing books pitting the group’s eras against each other, no autobiographies chronicling tours on the Chitlin Circuit and high times. This booklet doesn’t have the heft needed to fully capture the group’s story, but here’s a Cliff’s Notes version: Formed in the mid-’50s as a teenaged gospel quartet by the eldest four Isley Brothers (O’Kelly, Rudolph, Ronald and Vernon) of Cincinnati, Ohio, the original configuration of the group quit performing when Vernon was tragically killed at age 13 when riding his bike. In 1957, at the urging of their parents, the remaining three brothers moved to New York to make it as a rock ’n’ roll band, and the first song they wrote together was “Shout!” — later dipped in gold for all human memory in Animal House. This first dispatch was a million-selling hit, and later the title of their 1959 debut LP, which had covers of “Rock Around the Clock” and “When The Saints Go Marching In” as padding (they really were a one-single band back then).

It’s here, in the early ’60s, where the Isleys story becomes a non-offensive music version of Forrest Gump; they somehow found themselves connected to a veritable who’s who of popular culture. Their second album’s lead single was “Twist And Shout,” a song given to them by a producer named Bert Berns after a young producer named Phil Spector recorded a version with the Top Notes that Berns found lacking. Spector’s famed Wall of Sound production technique was formed in reaction to Berns’ and the Isleys’ version blowing Spector and the Top Notes’ out of history with a fiery, cacophonous take. “Twist and Shout” blew up, which led to a then-rising group from Liverpool hearing it, covering it, and it going the 1960’s version of viral (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off gave the Beatles’ version — which has less swing than the Isleys’ — the final victory; it’s Ferris’ parade people imagine when they sing it in the car).

In 1964, the lead guitarist on their tours through the Chitlin circuit behind 1963’s Twisting and Shouting was a kid named James Hendrix — you know the one — whose impact on the band is heard in his raucous and unhinged guitar playing on their single “Testify (Pts. 1 & 2).” When the Isleys toured the U.K., their backing band was a local group called Bluesology, which featured a flamboyant pianist named Elton John. They’d do time in Berry Gordy’s Motown Studio A for two albums (get yourself to the superlative This Old Heart Of Mine post haste), before eventually taking the reins of their career once and for all, re-launching their own T-Neck records, their label home for the bulk of their career from the late ’60s on, revived after they closed it when they jumped to Motown.

Their albums in the early ’70s and leading up to Go For Your Guns run the gamut from singer songwriter covers (the underrated and brilliant Givin’ It Back, which covered songs by the white rock artists that jacked the Isleys’ sound to hit the charts) to soul-funk (3+3) to a glitter rock album (Brother, Brother, Brother) and points in between. The lead single from their finest pure dance album, 1975’s The Heat Is On, “Fight The Power (Part 1 & 2)” (man, the Isleys loved the two-part song), was later interpolated on the most iconic Public Enemy song (“Fight the Power”).

So now that we’ve set the tableau: It’s 1976, and the Isleys and their brother-in-law head up to upstate New York to Woodstock (Bearsville, to be specific) to record their 15th album (they’d eventually record eight albums in Woodstock, which has to be a record). They’re 22-years deep into their career, and they record what might be their most perfect song, a single that would launch a thousand breakbeats, and would be rapped over for the best L.A. rap song of all time: “Footsteps In The Dark (Pts. 1 & 2).” A searching slow jam sung by Ron in his silk sheet upper register, it’s a song you could lay down on, with a groove so thick it’s more buoyant than a pool noodle in the Dead Sea. With lyrics questioning if monogamy is possible and realistic, and if the memories of other loves not taken will overcome you eventually, it predates Tinder profiles seeking non-monogamous relationships by 40 years. It would never be released as a single on its own, but it was all over R&B radio for years, where it inspired the kids who were the first superstar rappers, including Ice Cube, who used it for his biggest non-N.W.A. hit.

Go For Your Guns is more than just “Footsteps,” obviously. It’s a seven-track dynamo, powerful in its brutal efficiency. This album came out at the peak of punk, and though I’m not ludicrous enough to suggest the genre had any impact on this album, its efficient 34 minutes are stripped down to the essentials, the very definition of all killer, no filler. It starts with its lead single, “The Pride, Pts. 1 & 2,” a politically charged, laser-focused song meant to rally Black politicians and civilians, built on Marvin Isley playing his bass like it’s a bow and arrow, yanking his strings and hitting bullseyes. The glittery swamp funk for “Tell Me When You Need It Again, Pts. 1 & 2,” a song that will make your record needle drip with sweat, yields to the Guitar Hero power crunch overdrive of “Climbin’ Up The Ladder, Pts. 1 & 2,” a song that sounds like Hendrix’s ghost performed on it.

The album’s other two singles — “Livin’ In The Life” and “Voyage To Atlantis” — cover the spread that the Isleys go over in the run time of Go For Your Guns. “Livin’ In The Life” predicts the mutant funk of Talking Heads albums like Fear Of Music, while “Voyage To Atlantis” starts laying the railroad tracks for when the group would jump to doing full-on quiet storm R&B (a move completed in time for Between The Sheets). By the time the album ends with its mostly instrumental rave up title track, you’ve been funked six ways from Sunday.

Go For Your Guns would go double-platinum, its songs ubiquitous on Black radio, but somewhat muted on pop and rock stations. A central question of the Isleys’ career — though they’re well respected and have been in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame since 1992 — is why they’re not afforded a place of widespread esteem in the pantheon. While many of their songs are the very fabric of modern music, songs that will be played in movies, commercials, public spaces and at weddings until our children’s children are dust, the Isleys never had that major crossover moment, no “Respect” or “What’s Going On” or “Superstition”; the closest they got was with their first single. They were powerhouses on the R&B charts, and occasionally impactful on the pop ones, but they were always just outside the central canon. This is probably why there isn’t a cottage industry of Isleys scholarship like there should be, and why they’re not a band you immediately think of when you think, “Who are the best bands of all time?”

While it’s tempting to place that lack of a crossover at least partially on their never-still sound, the Isley’s shape-shifting wasn’t just because they were such dexterous musicians and could do so many styles. Their shift from a crossover rock ’n’ roll band, à la Chuck Berry, to Black radio stalwarts via all of their styles of R&B and soul and funk and disco, was a means of survival. White, rock radio stations paid their bills at one point, but mostly ignored them as the ’60s gave way to the ’70s, so they had to always keep up with the sound of now, an ever-new target they managed to hit for 50-plus years. “The Isley Brothers’ journey from a cross-racial following to a mostly Black one challenges a still too commonplace assumption: that countercultural rock music, after it emerged proclaiming ‘Born to Be Wild’ and ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ pursued within its quest for freedom ideals of integration and civil rights,” writes Eric Weisbard in Top 40 Democracy, a book about the history of the charts that has within it probably the best biography of the Isleys that exists.

But to Weisbard, the Isleys getting boxed out of the rock canon due to white bands appropriating the sounds of Black performers is only part of the story: “The bifurcation of R&B and rock is not primarily a story about a shattered civil rights dream. And the growth of R&B as its own category is at least as important. African Americans, well before and long after the movement peaked, sought culturally unifying but commercially viable music against ever mutating barriers, including white appropriation.”

The Isleys were the best at riding those barriers, ready to change their sound with the times more than maybe any band ever. Ultimately, their place in the pantheon, or not having a crossover is probably immaterial to Ron and his brothers now: They got to make the music they wanted to make for more than 50 years, without the dictates that come with trying to stay on the pop charts. Instead, being the most prolific and successful R&B group on the R&B charts was prize enough. And their influence can never be denied; the sentence that opens this booklet should be the prevailing line on the Isleys forever, with the caveat that the Beatles were never sampled on a Notorious B.I.G. song.

Go For Your Guns, then, isn’t merely an album of funk classics that have been sampled prodigiously. It’s the crown jewel in one of the most peerless catalogs in the history of American music.

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Andrew Winistorfer

Andrew Winistorfer

Andrew Winistorfer is Vinyl Me, Please’s Editorial Director, VMP Classics A&R, and an editor of their book, 100 Albums You Need In Your Collection. He’s written Listening Notes booklets for 10 Vinyl Me, Please Classics releases, and co-produced Nat Turner Rebellion's Laugh to Keep From Crying. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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