Never has an album so angry sounded so sweet.
Daryl Easlea 2011
When you think of 70s protest soul, you think of artists such as Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Sly Stone, yet The O’Jays – Eddie Levert, Walter Williams and William Powell – are routinely confined to the party circuit on their Love Train. Well, Ship Ahoy should join What’s Going On, There’s No Place Like America Today and There’s a Riot Goin’ On as one of the decade’s most questioning, confrontational works.
Ship Ahoy is a dark work wrapped in a honeyed veneer. It was, of course, the product of their producers/writers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and showed how inventive they had become. Working with arranger Thom Bell, Bobby Martin and Philadelphia International Records’ house band MFSB, they crafted a remarkable work that built on the success of its predecessor, The O’Jays’ breakthrough success, Back Stabbers.
But all of this arrangement and behind the scenes work would mean little without its final delivery. The three-piece vocal group brings their years of experience – they had formed in 1958 – to the material. Lead singer Levert comes across like a soulful investigative journalist with too much personal interest in his story throughout, commanding the album like a righteous, wronged man in search of the truth.
The title-track was a nine-minutes-plus opus that explored the ignominy of the slave trade, unfolding with much whip-cracking and call-and-response vocals. Seven minutes in, when it breaks down and Levert starts singing "tote that barge, lift that bail", it is chilling.
Ship Ahoy contains four more classics – opening track Put Your Hands Together is a fine call for brotherhood; Don’t Call Me Brother builds on the paranoia and fear of their previous album’s title-track. For the Love of Money, written by Gamble and Huff with bass player Anthony Jackson, is another classic, exposing the greed in society. Although made famous in a reggae-disco guise by Third World, the original Now That We Found Love is a rueful comment on the next steps in a relationship – and a metaphor for the gains made in the Civil Rights movement.
In the wrong hands, Ship Ahoy would all sound like a grim sermon. In the hands of The O’Jays and the whole PIR team at their best, however, never has an album so angry sounded so sweet.