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V/A - Hits and Misses: Muhammad Ali and the Ultimate Sound of Fistfighting

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Artist: V/A

Album: Hits and Misses: Muhammad Ali and the Ultimate Sound of Fistfighting

Label: Trikont

Review date: Jun. 9, 2004

Muhammad Ali (nee Cassius Clay) was, and will likely remain, boxing’s last great chessmaster. Skeptics claimed he couldn’t take a punch, which, like the elusive prizefighter himself, was neither here nor there. Everyone knows the “Float like a butterfly / Sting like a bee” tagline, but few can rattle off the punchline: “You can’t hit / What you can’t see.” This mix of intimidating braggadocio and Machiavellian cunning was the man’s genius.

Shortly after Ali had been permanently laid low by his lifetime of sharp blows to the head, a former Brooklyn gang affiliate named Mike Tyson came along and restored the seismic brutality once associated with Ali’s erstwhile stooge Sonny Liston, and, in the popular cognizance, boxing once again revolved around raw violence and immediate gratification. As he declined, Muhammad took an epoch with him.

Listening to Hits and Misses feels like rising early on Sunday morning and discovering a gloriously schizophrenic oldies show on college radio. With the exception of C&W balladeer Tom Russell’s opening salute, these nuggets are all mined from the mid-’60s and early-’70s, and all are anchored in anachronism. Rickety disco-funk and dry reggae pass through, but what was once called R&B gets the most play.

To understand his mid-century iconship – and, with it, the treasure chest of uniformly wholesome “We Love You, Beatles” style tribute records compiled here – you have to patronize one of your hipper video emporiums. A few of these novelty sides run down Ali’s duels with Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman in a perfunctory way, but it doesn’t make much sense until you’ve seen the Nation of Islam’s most charismatic spokesman back up his bullshit. Then, his Sgt. Pepper-level vision in the ring explains it all.

Here, you get more admiration for his charm and social conscience as you do for the “Ali Shuffle,” which, come to find out, J.W. Grasshopper and the Butterfly once put forward as a dance craze.

The lyrics are almost exclusively fannish ardor, (Betty McLaurin even drops the champ a gentle love note), with one catchy exception – The Alcove’s Coasters-style “The Ballad of Muhammad Ali,” which slaps our hero around for his abusive motormouth and predicts a Liston-administered asskicking. It’s a splendid example of the schadenfreude that sends some of us trolling the archives: Like “industrial showtunes” celebrating Styrofoam consumerism and nuclear fission, it’s the sound of the past addressing a phenom it couldn’t fully comprehend.

Ali cranked out a few smirking novelty records of his own, including The Adventures of Ali and His Gang Vs. Mr. Tooth Decay. That’s regrettably absent, but we do get the self-mocking “I’m the Greatest,” in which he takes credit for some historical events he had nothing to do with. Oh, and Foreman and Frazier take turns at the mic, too, as the proceedings near their close.

By Emerson Dameron

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