Jackson 5: Walk On By
From Goin’ Back to Indiana (Motown, 1972)
Public Enemy: By the Time I Get To Arizona
From Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black (Def Jam, 1991)
I had made passing reference to the Jackson 5 song during all the MJ coverage – it’s from a medley of “Walk On By/Love You Save” recorded for the group’s live Goin’ Back to Indiana album. It’s hard to imagine someone really improving one of the most epic, monster funk jams in soul music history but the Jackson 5 really understand the power of that vamp, especially at the breakdowns that come back every 30 seconds.
It’s the incredible ferocity of this moment that Public Enemy so beautifully wields to their full advantage on “By the Time I Get to Arizona.” What they do at 2:47 in their song is nothing short but a complete distillation of the badassessence of everything that came before it – The Jackson 5, Isaac Hayes, heck, we’ll show Burt Bacharach and Hal Davis love here too. They then take this 200 proof spirit, douse the song in it and then light it all on fire.
To put it in a less convoluted-metaphoric way: the moment where the vamp slams in on “Arizona” is, to me, the “Greatest Moment of a Public Enemy Song That Doesn’t Come At the Beginning.”
Seriously, think about this a second: P.E. has probably the all-time best song openers in hip-hop history. To wit:
1) How Flavor Flav’s “yeaaaah, boy!” slides into Chuck D’s “bass!” at the beginning of “Bring the Noise.”
2) Chuck and Flavor Flav combining to yell, “Nineteen Eighty Nine!” on “Fight the Power.”
3) The horn punches sliding into the descending sax – plus Chuck’s “Yes!” – on “Rebel Without a Pause.”
4) The line, “I got a letter from the government, the other day…” on “Black Steel In the Hour of Chaos.”
…you get the idea.
In this case, the key moment isn’t at the song’s beginning but rather, when “Walk On By” drops in unexpectedly, as Chuck intones, “by the time I get to Arizona!”
The impact is simply devastating. The group flips the first chorus of the Jackson 5 song, which includes the screams of the audience. On the Jackson 5, those screams reflect the fans’ excitement; on “Arizona,” they sound more like cries of terror, as if P.E. has swept into AZ with an ungodly fury. This is Krishna’s arrow, Fudo’s sword, Thor’s hammer. It takes a nation of a million Minutemen to hold them back.
Lastly, I’d be remiss in not at least giving due credit to the excellence that is Mandrill’s “Two Sisters of Mystery” since it provides the main loop that runs through “Arizona.” On any other song, this would be the highlight – those angry, buzzing guitars, the slurring bassline – but as good as it is, when the J5 come through, there’s no contest.
(A note by a commentor reminded me that I should include the video for “Arizona” which takes things to a whole ‘nother level. I forgot they even made a video for the song and watching it now, you can see that even visually, the group knew how to time the use of the “Walk On By” vamp perfectly with the explosion of violence you see depicted on screen. Mississippi goddamn, this was one incredible video.)