September 2, 2004

The Pretty Toney Column: The Floaters

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Throughout the early stages of this year, Modest Mouse has risen to previously unfamiliar levels of popularity, selling hundreds of thousands of copies of their latest album Good News For People Who Love Bad News. Their newfound success has been largely fueled by the crossover appeal of “Float On,” which has garnered significant airplay on both radio and television. Unfortunately for Isaac Brock and Co., their hit single is, at best, the second greatest song titled “Float On.”

A breathtaking, near-eponymous 12-minute opus, The Floaters’ “Float On” is a slow jam in the most classic sense, creating a swirling ambiance of love and passion that stands atop the veritable Everest known as ’70s soul. “Float On” was a massive hit, topping the US R&B singles chart.

Like “Yesterday” and “Satisfaction,” “Float On” came to fruition in its songwriter’s sleep. In this case, the man in question was James Mitchell Jr., a member of the Detroit Emeralds, who arose one morning with perhaps the smoothest bassline known to man stuck in his head. This would be the bassline that carried “Float On,” as well as the Floaters, to worldwide fame. James turned the song over to his younger brother Paul’s group — then known as the Junior Floaters — and the rest was history.

Now I’m no famous historian or anything, but I’ve been told by a fairly reliable source that in the 1970s African-Americans were rather infatuated with the zodiac. (This person, a Caucasian, is reliable because they were alive in the ’70s.) I have to assume that, at least in terms of musical brilliance, the black astrological craze peaked with this epic.

The song begins with a descending piano sequence and little else when singers Ralph, Charles, Paul, and Larry sultrily announce their zodiac signs — “Aquarius, Libra, Leo, Cancer” — followed by their names. And then comes that bassline, backed only by subtle guitar, snare, and soft repetitions of the title.

After a brief interlude, the zodiac signs are repeated and the vocalists are reintroduced. Each singer then takes his turn describing his love interests, followed by an invitation for their ideal woman to join them in Love Land. Larry, for instance, wants a woman who loves everything and everybody because he loves everybody and everything.

But behind the sensual overtones and tempting offers lies the timeless bassline, which represents not only the defining moment of the Floaters’ career, but also one of the most enduring sounds of ’70s soul.

Archived article by Ross McGowan
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer