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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Spinning Wheel" is a most unusual jazz fusion track... and I love it

This song is out there, but it's a good kind of out there because of how Blood, Sweat & Tears mediate all its intricacies and oddities.

For the first time in a while, I'm staying in the same decade for another day. Malvina Reynolds' "Little Boxes" came from the early 60s, and today I go forward just a few years to 1968, where I find... a very different song in nearly every way. Yesterday, my focus was minimalist folk; today, it's a very maximalist jazz fusion track by one of the most sonically intriguing groups of its time.

I've known the music of Blood, Sweat & Tears for much of my life thanks to my father. Their mix of R&B, rock, and jazz is distinctive when combined with the quirkiness they always insert into their arrangements in one way or another. That quirkiness is certainly audible on "Spinning Wheel," a song that in one way or another says to go with the flow despite whatever life may throw at you. I, for one, hear this message in how, despite just how eclectic the track's sonic influences are, it retains a clear direction: onward.

As a brass player, I gravitate to "Spinning Wheel" first and foremost because of its very active horn section. The horns introducing the song with a syncopated rhythm give it both a distinctive opening and an immediate sense of urgency, before the piano enters to anchor the instrumental and dial things back a bit. From there, the horns largely play a complimentary role to David Clayton-Thomas' lead vocals, often playing background figures that accent syncopations behind his more straightforward vocals and the piano's steady rhythm. I particularly enjoy this compositional choice across all genres. Having a syncopated backing line in back of straight rhythms, or vice versa, gives any arrangement an engaging push and pull that draws in listeners, while also making the moments that the parts sound together — which they do in the later sections — all the more impactful. Combine that push and pull with the increasing intensity of the backing lines, and you get a song that is constantly moving forward.

Of course, the horns also do get their moments to shine by themselves. In the break after the psychedelic... bridge (this song really lacks a full chorus), the horns lead the song back into the verses with a really fun couple measures where they play block chords first on staccato (detached) eighth notes, then on triplets, then in the rhythm from the introduction. Little moments like these build up the transition to make the landing back into the original form feel all the more satisfying. Then, of course, there's Lew Soloff's trumpet solo, the one section in which "Spinning Wheel" goes full-on jazz, with a swung beat and double-time drumming from Bobby Colomby and punchy backing chords from the rest of the band. If I were a trumpeter, I would 100% transcribe that solo and learn it myself.

Both above the horns and in the gaps they give, David Clayton-Thomas delivers a somewhat psychedelic set of lyrics that all come together around the visual metaphor of the titular "spinning wheel" — a carousel, given the many nods to "rid[ing] a painted pony." All in all, his lyric emphasize that, as the world keeps going around, we have to accept what life throws at us. He provides optimism with the idea that "[s]omeone is waiting just for you," a motivation that likely keeps a decent amount of people motivated even when facing difficulties.

Already, you get the sense that "Spinning Wheel" is an unconventional piece for its time, especially considering its chart success — it hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks. Well, there's unconventional, and then there's downright quirky and weird, as I promised earlier. The song's ending is... um... out there. After a brief switch to a 5/4 rhythm —anchored by trombonist Jerry Hyman — the song suddenly switches to... a playing of "O du lieber Augustin"? Yup, the old Austrian song, also known in the anglophone world as "The more we get together." Producer James William Guercio — whose adeptness with horn bands clearly translated to his subsequent work with Chicago — said a mastering error led to an overwriting and the decision to insert the Viennese melody. I honestly hear it as appropriate for the song, given its carousel imagery.

"O du lieber Augustin" is first heard in between playings of the 5/4 rhythm, before the two lines are sounded together in a near cacophony that seems to just barely hang on by a thread, likely because it comes right at the song's end. It's an ending that makes me laugh every time I hear it because of its downright silliness, especially when, following the final chord, drummer Colomby remarks, "That wasn't too good," followed by laughter all around. It's clear that Blood, Sweat & Tears didn't take themselves too seriously, and I think this attitude is what makes "Spinning Wheel" work despite all its different directions and quirks. Even with the detours the song takes, the band knows they'll reel it in at the end in a way they'll enjoy — and that enjoyment subsequently rubs off on those who listen to it.


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