By 1987, Ronald Wilson Reagen had been serving as the 40th President since January of 1981. He’d already enacted several major tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, while slashing social programs and increasing military spending. And it seemed for a brief moment in ’87, during the Iran Contra trials, that the evidence existed to bring Reagen down for good. That was not to be and Reagen would hold on to pass the baton on to his Vice President in 1989 to continue what Chuck D called, “12 years of R&B (Reagen & Bush).
The effects of Reagen’s rhetoric and political policies were not lost on musicians during the ’80s, though the decade is typified as having less musical social commentary than the preceding ones. Many songs such as Run DMC’s “Hard Times” focused on the challenges of making it for the average working person in the Reagen era. Earth, Wind & Fire, one of the most musically and socially inspirational groups of the 1970s joined this discussion in ’87 with their R&B smash hit, “System of Survival.”
EWF was due for a comeback by ’87. Their prior album, “Electric Universe”, was considered a disappointment by many fans of the group, in particular, because most felt that the electronic orientation of the music smothered the group’unique musical personalities.
“System of Survival” is a song that EWF came by through unusual means. While recording in San Francisco, a songwriter named Skylark placed the demo tape for the song on the front of Maurice White’s Cadillac. Liking what they heard, the band recorded the song. “System of Survival” would prove to be EWF’s biggest hit in many years, hitting #1 on the R&B and Dance charts. Again, proving how alienated the pop charts were from many veteran Black Funk/R&B artists during the ’80s, this #1 R&B song charted at #60 pop.
The song begins with an announcer’s voice saying, “The biggest unansweredd question is where is the money.” A statement that could relate to any number of socio-political problems! After which, a serious electro funk groove kicks in. The groove has the typical big ’80s drums, but the snare is much more live sounding than most drum parts of the era. The main key to the groove is the main rhythmic/melodic element, a lead synth line playing a rhythmic pentatonic figure. That figure is played on several synths and delayed, so that it creates a hyperactive, jittery wall of sound. Its also backed by funky rhythm guitar playing that accents the busy synth groove. The song title, “System of Survival” is sung by Maurice and Phillip, but also supported by a Vocoder voice.
The song goes on to lay out the common man’s plight during the ’80s, with Maurice singing “The Human race/is running over me”, with Phillip awnsering, rather unusually at that time in his lower voice, “I punch a clock at 9 to 5/just tryin to make a living.” “A plastic face/on satellite TV/says life is full of give and take/he’s taking and I’m giving.”
Maurice goes on to say “So I dance!” Which is answered, “It’s my system of survival!” The band here affirms dance, and music, as a survival strategy, a thought that goes very deep into the heart of Black experience in America. The metaphor could also be extended to anything which one enjoys and does well, which reaches the aesthetic and spiritual condition of dance. Philip goes back into his classic falsetto to sing “At times it’s the only way/Im gonna make it through this day.” After which EWF demands “Everybody get up!!! Do your dance! Stay alive!!!”
After that call, the groove shifts to a funky interlude, with bass being introduced. Prior to this the groove was skeletal, based on drums and the trebly sounds of the synths. In addition to the newfound bass, EWF’s new horn section schorches the top of the jam with a funky horn line, while Sheldon Reynolds, the new member, laid down a funky sustained, “Chicken Grease” guitar part of steady sixteenth strums.
The next verse goes on to find the band singing about the unsafe nature of the streets, after which the bass makes its presence felt once again. The song goes out on a long jam with more political news snippets, and a raging, fiery saxophone solo, backed by a more full band sound that includes bass and guitars while pushing the insistent synthesizer sequence more to the background.
1987 would see an increasing number of Black groups rekindle the fire of past years in talking about the social issues that grip the world. It was big for Earth, Wind & Fire in particular, a group that had always represented spirituality, togetherness, a strong sense of ancestry and history, as well as love, to come out so hard with “System of Survial”. The amazing thing for me about the song is the way they seemed to speak for the common, adult middle-aged person in the changing world of that day. They spoke for people just trying to work and get by and deal with all the B.S while still trying to enjoy life and hold on to some sense of hope. That’s why this song stands out as one of the most realistic and pratical in the entire EWF song book. And their usage of music and dance to get through rough times validates the reason for the groups entire existence.
“System of Survival” was a favorite of my Dad in particular, and I always think about him when I hear this track and watch this video. And the video is one of the best of its day, featuring people of all ages and walks of life doing the dances that they know and that bring them joy. “Touch the World” was a wonderful comeback for EWF that returned them to their positon as socially conscious yet musically wonderful Funkmasters. And this song itself became a part of many people’s “Systems of Survival” back in ’87, as proven by its chart and sales success!