Some common criticisms: it sounds dated; it’s good only for background music at dinner parties; the album’s supposed influence is marginal at best (by 1973, funk, jazz-funk and jazz fusion were already in full swing, and though hip-hop might lose a couple of songs that sample these ones, the genre as a whole would remain strong because there were that many other funk, jazz-funk and jazz fusion records to crate dig through); the album is incredibly front-loaded; I’ve read reviews of Thrust (Herbie Hancock’s follow-up) that claim that because Mike Clark is a better drummer than Harvey Mason (he is), the grooves are better (they aren’t); the album’s reputation as the best-selling jazz record at that point in time (it’s lost this accolade since) is kind of perverted when you think about just how many better jazz records were released before it and how this one is more funk than jazz.
Y’see, I get all that and I get where every one of those criticisms / complaints are coming from (except the Harvey Mason one; he’s just not as flashy as Mike Clark, but the man manages to bring the entire group back after wandering around on the first half of “Chameleon” and practically hoists everyone on his muscular arms on the second half), but I still enjoy Head Hunters. Immensely. Sure, it has aged, but not as much as you think; Herbie Hancock has always had a habit of embracing then-modern technology that ended up dated within a decade from Crossings‘s reliance on the Moog synthesizer to Future Shock‘s reliance on DJ scratching, and this one has aged better than both (even though the latter came out a decade later). And though I’ll admit that it’s a shame that Herbie Hancock uses synthesized strings for the hook on “Vein Melter” – great title – instead of real ones (but it’s not a big deal), I can’t imagine the bass line, and thus, the improvising over top, of “Chameleon” being played on acoustic instruments.
As for this record being only good as good background music for dinner parties (/for trying to impress someone), I’ll concede that Head Hunters isn’t threatening music, which is fine because I don’t need my music to be threatening. But worse, it’s not transportative music (I made up a word!); Herbie Hancock has a lot more colorful records for you to put on and get lost in preceding (Sextant, anyone?), and it’s impossible to get lost in Head Hunters if you’re not dancing along to it. Though Miles Davis’ On the Corner, Miles Davis’ own non-jazz record for the non-jazz kids the year before, is assuredly a worse album, at least it tried to put you somewhere (on the street, on the corner) through its dense sounds. What Herbie Hancock has done here is essentially stripped away that density until he had the grooves, and then threw some of the most melodic hooks of his entire career on top of them. In other words, Miles Davis had a right to be angry at how the public accepted this one in open arms and rejected On the Corner, though he should’ve seen that one coming.
And sure, when people think of Head Hunters, I’m sure their minds automatically jump to the bass line of “Chameleon” or the ‘um-da”s (played on a beer bottle) of “Watermelon Man,” but the second side deserves praise too. For people who came here chronologically and are disappointed by the relatively safe playing as compared to Herbie Hancock’s jazz fusion trilogy, “Sly” – dedicated to Sly & the Family Stone – is the only track that possesses any sort of danger; the first two minutes is essentially the band – specifically the rhythm section – flexing their arms and getting ready to do the fastest groove on the album. And over top of that groove, Bennie Maupin is finally allowed to cut loose.
As for the last one, everyone’s favorite spanking child, “Vein Melter,” it was my least favorite track when I first heard it, but I’ve warmed up to it considerably, and now I find it much more rewarding than “Sly”: it’s like Herbie Hancock told Harvey Mason to play Tony Williams’ part on Empyrean Isles (his best non-jazz-fusion record, for the people who have no idea about any album in Herbie Hancock not named Head Hunters)’ “The Egg” so that Herbie Hancock could try playing something new over something familiar (not really a far-fetched concept considering Hancock dug up “Watermelon Man” from over a decade ago, completely disassembled it and rebuilt it into something completely new and better, whereas the “new version of an old song” trick from any other artist would’ve been a red flag of a complete lack of new ideas). And is it just me, or does the song also sound like Herbie Hancock listened to Miles Davis’ “So What?” right before the studio? (I’m mostly getting this vibe from the cadence melody at the 2:58 mark onwards.) (Though I’ll concede that the first 40 seconds of this song is a complete waste, so too were the last 7 minutes of On the Corner.)
But as far as I’m concerned, “Chameleon” and “Watermelon Man” are so great that “Sly ” and ”Vein Melter” could’ve been completely dead weight and this would still be one of the best records of 1973. “Watermelon Man” is the more immediate but less rewarding of the two; though the whistling is definitely infectious and Bennie Maupin’s entrance (counterpointed by Herbie Hancock) might be the album’s best melody. Unlike any of the songs on Thrust, “Chameleon” doesn’t just ride its groove to the finish line; at the 7:37 mark, it shifts like the name suggests it might, becoming a completely different song, with Herbie Hancock letting Paul Jackson be the foundation and improvising on a warmer electric piano before the returning to the main theme.
Also, I’ve never been at a dinner party where this plays, but if this is the sort of thing that is spun at dinner parties, clearly I should frequent less house parties and clubs.