JAMES BROWN 1933-2006

Showtime came on Christmas Day, 2006. James Brown is dead, as a stupid rave tune once said - and it’s not a good feeling. Bobby Gillespie hit the nail on the head in NME’s unexpected JB tribute when he said: “The funk singles he was releasing in the late 60s were every bit as hard and brutal as any punk record.”

It’s well-documented how James Brown not only brought together gospel, R&B and soul to spawn The Funk, invented rap and gave the world hip-hop with his grooves, but he also stripped back the glossy veneer of black music to reveal what was going on outside on the cruel streets of Harlem, Watts and any other deprived black area of the US in the 60s. He inspired others to do the same, form groups and take a positive direction in their lives. When he came out with the cataclysmic ‘Say It Loud I’m Black And I’m Proud’, Brown instigated a new feeling of pride in American black people which had never been allowed to fly in public. He gave black people a solid role model and show them that they too could make records, open radio stations and start record labels. After Martin Luther King was shot, there was only one man who could quell the burning and looting.

Mr Brown showed Mick Jagger how to do the hip-shake and gave Prince his blueprint. He also had a wild private life [a down side was occasional court appearances for domestic violence and the infamous attempt to shoot a man for stinking out his office bog or something]. He was a control freak but then he had to be in the cutthroat 60s music business. If punk was about positive change, doing things for yourself and napalming musical conventions, JB was the first black punk. When the gushing tributes, dirt about his personal life and reruns of the Electric Proms [which still pissed all over Damion Allbran’s dreary new outfit] have been buried with the coffin that lay in state in Harlem’s Apollo, it’s these records which will remind the world about James Brown.

J.B. influenced a lot more of what you listen to than you know, but, just on their own level, and entirely in my own opinion, these are the ones which did the damage, and still cut the meanest rug. They’re also in the pride and joy Swiss bank vault department of my humble record collection [although mostly available on CD, I would imagine].

“LIVE AT THE APOLLO” [King 1963]:

The one that really got the ball rolling: He figured the best way to tell the world about James Brown would be to capture the most incendiary live show on the planet. Brown combined lost-it gospel fervour, moves he’d copped from his time as a boxer and his own deep-rooted soul to create the most electrifying front man of all time. Backed by a group who, through a mixture of lethal chops and military-style drilling, were foreskin-tight and awesome in their controlled dynamism, combined with the legendarily-berserk Apollo crowd to create one of the best live albums ever made. There was actually a point to this one. We’d have to wait until November 1966 when he took over a whole episode of Ready Steady Go! and did the whole revue complete with fainting routine to realise that Black Elvis wasn’t the half of it.

Also from the 60s: high-octane R&B: ‘I’ll Go Crazy’ [1960]; proto-funkers: ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’, ‘I Got You [I Feel Good]’ [both 1965],’Cold Sweat’ [1967]; Testifying ballads: ‘Please Please Please’ [His first in 1956], ‘Try Me’ [1958], ‘It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World’ [a rare tip of the hat to the ladies beyond the usual come on lines].


I’m proud to say that I have a signed copy of this, One lunchtime in 1970 at Aylesbury College I was DJ-ing the common room on a hearty dose of California Sunshine acid and started playing James Brown tunes like this and ‘Licking Stick’. It hit me how, although it sounded so simple, everything from metronomic beat, through pinpoint guitar scratching, to the briefest horn squeak, combined like a syncopated jigsaw to create this monstrous rhythm machine.

Brown never intended ‘Say It Loud…’ to become the black man’s call-to-arms but it instilled a new pride. Now someone was saying it and things would never be the same again. It coincided with a climate of escalating discontent, stoked by events like the F.B.I. busting the Black Panthers HQ at Oakland, California. ‘Now we demand a chance to do things for ourselves…’ The black nation’s ‘Anarchy In The UK’!

“SEX MACHINE” [King 1970]:

One day the band mutinied so Brown let them go and brought in a bunch of new bloods from Cincinnati called the Pacetters who already had the set down. On nuclear bass was 18-year-old ‘Bootsy’ Collins and on guitar his brother ‘Catfish’, who spent a year turning James Brown’s funk inside out. According to Rickey Vincent’s amazing book Funk: The Music, The People And The Rhythm Of The One, Bootsy, ‘elevated The Funk to an essential level of stanky groove…it was Bootsy who engineered and asserted the orgiastic primacy of the rhythmically placed bass note.’ The first song they did was ‘[Get Up, I Feel Like Being A] Sex Machine’, the on-heat funk anthem which has never lost its power despite becoming an office party get-down fave. The brief stint with the J.B.s’ gave discipline’s raw talent direction and focus, which he would take on to George Clinton’s Mothership.

“HOT PANTS” [Polydor 1971]:

James Brown had the tightest backing group in the world, a supernatural blend of funky drummer John ‘Jabo’ Sparks, floor-shaking bass [now thundering relentlessly from Fred Thomas], toupee-slicing horns, Jimmy Nolen’s clipped guitar punctuation, all homing in on The One beat [the downbeat at the beginning of every bar], creating The Funk. It was syncopated and burned a hole in the floor [and yes he did fine musicians if they fucked up]. Hot Pants features just five tracks kicking up the funkiest, cliff-hanger grooves imaginable over which J.B. extols the joys of hot pants, nods to classic themes and uses his voice for punctuation like another instrument. The album pointed the way for the next three years as the J.B.s, got locked into the outrageous mid-tempo swang-groove which sounded like nobody before or since and was one of the most plundered albums when samplers came out. The CD contains an amazing 20-minute version of proto-hiphop jam ‘Escap-ism’.

“THERE IT IS” [Polydor 1972]:

It wasn’t just about getting down. This album displayed Brown’s social conscience with ‘message’ songs like ‘King Heroin’ and ‘Public Enemy’. By now, New York had produced the Last Poets and LA the Watts Prophets, while even Motown crooners like Marvin Gaye were asking ‘What’s Going On’? James Brown was at the front of this pride-tide and found himself not only heading a huge business empire but one of the most powerful men in the world. To his credit, he used this position to warn kids about drugs and stay in school when another well-placed directive could’ve sparked mass rioting across the whole country.

“GET ON THE GOOD FOOT” [Polydor 1972]:

The first of the mighty double albums: The title track clamps the bell-end of a relentlessly hypnotic revolving guitar figure while the brass parps a furious counterpart. That acid funk jigsaw at its most complex and compulsive, near impossible to dance to unless you’re James Brown. It was cobbled together by Fred Wesley after Brown hummed all the parts separately! ‘That was James’ formula in its purest form because none of those parts really go together’, said Fred in Funk. Elsewhere, JB told us ‘The World Needs Liberation’, ‘Nothing Beats A Try But A Fail’ and leads the band into funk overdrive on side 4’s ‘Make It Funky’ home stretch into the gutter-blues romp of ‘Dirty Harri’.

“THE PAYBACK” [Polydor, 1973]:

Another of his untouchable masterworks, The Payback was actually an inexplicably rejected film soundtrack. No matter, Brown just turned the sessions into a double album up there with his deadliest work. Groin-grinding epics like ‘Stone To The Bone’ and ‘Time is Running Out Fast’ were allowed to hit a plateau of funk nirvana and stretch out beyond the 10-minute mark. Damn right – the J.B.s at this time could have gone on forever reaching meltdown on totally compelling outings like the revenge-howl of the title track and merciless ‘Mind Power’. As J.B. says on the sleeve, ‘…now it’s time for even the Godfather to shoot his best shot…and Payback is gonna be a mutha!!!’


In the early 70s, Isaac Hayes’ Shaft and Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly sparked the Blaxploitation movie craze. Of course, any studio would have made a film especially to have the Godfather on board with the soundtrack. Both his ’73 efforts are great and under-rated. Black is a phenomenal stab at movie mood music fired with J.B.s funk, featuring the usual suspects led by Fred Wesley. The heaving ‘Down And Out In New York City’ became my theme song for a while but then flip and there’s Lynn Collins belting out ‘Mama Feelgood’.

Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off – complete with gun-toting JB on the cover – is viciously tight, car-chase frantic or sweet and seductive, again with Lynn Collins and Fred to the fore, who even get their photos on the sleeve.

“THE J.B.s: DOING IT TO DEATH” [People 1973]:

There were many spin-offs from the James Brown name. On these tracks from The Payback sessions, Fred Wesley and the J.B.s get a chance to stretch, still showing less is more, turning the groove into a sexy shuffle or taking off on horn excursions. At the same time, titles like ‘You Can Have Watergate Just Gimme Some Bucks And I’ll Be Straight’ carried on with the message. Later, the Beasties, Public Enemy and De La Soul would enjoy great benefit from this album. The following year saw Fred and the J.B.s’ “DAMN RIGHT I AM EVERYBODY” [People], which included the Public Enemy-favoured ‘Blow Your Head’.

“HELL” [Polydor, 1974]:

Still unstoppable, but causing a few scratched heads as standards like ‘When The Saints go Marching In’ and ‘These Foolish Things’ rubbed shoulders with lean, mean funk machines like ‘Cold-blooded’ and the title track. Best of all is ‘Papa Don’t Take No Mess’, one of the J.B.s’ simplest yet deadliest slo-mo funk-vamps of all, running for nearly 14 minutes. The sleeve carries a message: ‘It’s hell down here and we’ve got to make a change: Drugs are hell, War is hell, Prison is hell, Killing is hell, It’s hell paying taxes when you can’t get a job, It’s hell givin’ up the best years of your soul; In the streets it’s hell, In the ghetto it’s hell, In the White house it’s hell….’ And so on. This, at a time when black music was limbering up to escape all that with the mid-70s disco explosion.

The hardest working man in show business was putting out several different albums a year at one point, either under his own name, or productions of artists in the stable. This is where George Clinton got it. But like Clinton, the bubble burst around 1976, punctured by disco, which replaced J.B.’s street grit with mirror-ball escapism. He put out albums, usually distinguished by a decent title track, and wouldn’t really hit again until 1984 when [the rather awful] ‘Living In America’ took off on the back of the Rocky soundtrack. In the meantime, things happened like Blondie encoring at Hammersmith Odeon with ‘[I Got You] I Feel Good’ in 1980. J.B. became hip again as the towering early 70s classics gained a new audience through post-punk when groups like Bush Tetras and the Contortions used the stripped-down funk for their East Village gutter-experiments.

Then along came Eric B and Rakim, who took a 1971 Bobby Byrd tune called ‘I Know You Got Soul’ and, without crediting producer James Brown, opened the floodgates. First, hip-hop session bands recycled the old grooves then samplers came in and, for a few years, the J.B.s were mercilessly plundered on hits like Rob Base and DJ Easy Rock’s ‘It Takes Two’ which used Brown’s production of Lynn Collins’ ‘Think [About It]’. When Public Enemy started loading their incendiary sound barrages like ‘Rebel Without A Pause’ with the Funky Drummer, the plundering came to a head and Mr Brown started getting paid. He loved the career revitalisation and even teamed up with Zulu Nation overlord Afrika Bambaataa for a plea-for-peace called ‘Unity’ in 1984.

Never mind the private life and cabaret status of his later-life shows, for a few years James Brown shifted the whole axis of music and social awareness, while black music had its punk revolution early. If you haven’t already, check out any of the afore-mentioned and find out why [Californian Sunshine optional].

Kris “Da Fonk” Needs – tMx 28 – 01/07
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