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Milestones podcast returns June 28 with Brian Jackson in celebration of 'Winter in America' classic

Milestones podcast with host Angélika Beener returns for Season 3 on June 28
Angélika Beener
Milestones podcast with host Angélika Beener returns for Season 3 on June 28

When I asked legendary multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer, and arranger Brian Jackson about “The Bottle,” the hit song from Gil Scott Heron and Brian Jackson’s 1974 Winter In America LP, I wanted to know if the song was their way of proving that they could get hips as well as minds moving and grooving in a rebellious two-step. Heron and Jackson, one of the most important duos of the 20th century, had by this time established themselves as activist-driven, socially-conscious artists. Earlier songs like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” and “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” quickly became essential works within the social and political music canon, helping to soundtrack the next era of the civil rights and freedom movements. This time, they’d reached a different level of break-out success with “The Bottle,” a radio smash and dance club hit. I wondered what that meant to Jackson.

“I get a weird feeling about it because whenever I play that song, people go, ‘Wooo! The Bottle!’,” Jackson said to me in a recent interview for the season three premiere of Milestones: Celebrating the Culture podcast. “They jump up and down and I'm thinking, you know... when you think about the actual message of the song, it's sad. You know, it's really sad. But, at the same time, I do get it. So, there's always that kind of little dichotomy there.”

Despite the duality, in terms of “The Bottle’s” irresistible groove, Jackson’s formula was well contemplated. “I thought to myself, they're using the funkiest music out here to sell burgers. Why can't we use funky music to sell revolutionary thought?”

Brian Jackson
Christopher Smith
Brian Jackson

By the 1970s, McDonald’s was one of the biggest global brands in the country. Their “You Deserve a Break Today” slogan would also become one of the most recognized jingles of the 20th century. When the commercial first launched in 1971, this utopic image of burger and fry eating, smiling, dancing, fun family time having people was one of the most propagandistic images to ever hit the television screen. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. had recently been martyred. The Kent State Massacre had happened only the year before. The Vietnam War was in full swing. There was a national debt crisis, dope was diabolically planted in black communities, and The Black Panthers had been infiltrated and attacked. And yet, who knew we were only a happy meal away from world peace?

Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson had distinctly dealt with the ways in which television assuaged our country’s collective conscience with mindless television ads, in their satirical “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” This time, an alluringly funky dance groove was the underbelly to a tragic tale about addiction, painting a microcosm of the effects that the greatest world power was causing at home and abroad.

Their landmark Winter In America, turns 50 this year. Released on the independently and black-owned Strata-East label, Winter In America’s breakout success would be the catalyst to landing the duo a contract with a young Clive Davis and establish the group as one of his earliest signings to Davis’s now iconic Arista records. It also produced their biggest-selling song to date. But “The Bottle” isn’t the only essential listening from the album. “The H2O Gate Blues” is a brilliant and humorous roast of then-president Richard Nixon, who was the center of one of the greatest political scandals of all time. Songs like “Rivers of My Fathers,” “Back Home,” and “Song For Bobby Smith” offer a look at the plights and the joys of black America at a time when the country was finding its footing and discovering the path forward.

“I think that Winter in America has kind of defined who I am and who Gil was,” Jackson says, reflecting on the album’s meaning in 2024. “It’s something that defined a space in time, a space in thought, in attitude, and climate in the United States for young people. I think that if you were to put it in a capsule and put it up in space, it would do pretty well to give an idea of what that time was like.”

The full conversation with Brian Jackson will kick off the brand new season of Milestones: Celebrating the Culture podcast, on June 28.

Learn more about Milestones: Celebrating the Culture podcast by tuning in to WBGO’s one-hour, on-air documentary on Sunday, June 23 at 6 pm.

You can catch up on all previous Milestones episodes on WBGO.org/studios or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts!

Angélika Beener is an award-winning journalist, DJ, host and producer. Angélika has contributed her work to Downbeat, TIDAL, The Huffington Post, NPR Music, Jazz at Lincoln Center, and National Public Radio. In addition, she has contributed liner notes to several acclaimed recording projects, including two GRAMMY®-winning albums. A journalist who writes about music and culture at the intersections of race, gender, and generation, her work in public radio has been recognized by The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The New York Association of Black Journalists.