A tribute to James Brown, one of my greatest heroes and certainly a major influence, not least on my dancing. This was written on Christmas Day, in between basting the turkey and preparing the veg.
“'FUNKY' IS ABOUT THE INJUSTICES,
THE THINGS THAT GO WRONG, THE
HUNGRY KIDS GOING TO SCHOOL
TRYING TO LEARN. 'FUNKY' IS ABOUT
WHAT IT TAKES TO MAKE PEOPLE MOVE.”
For a guy well past his best work prior to his demise on 25 December 2006, James Brown’s death was quite upsetting. But then no one was going to steal the stage from him. Not even Jesus.
I still remember seeing/hearing him for the first time as a clueless, excited little seven year old settling down to watch the then-latest instalment of Rocky IV and being blown away by this larger than life thunderball decked out in stars and stripes – no doubt a key influence (besides the imperious figure of Muhammed Ali) on the braggadocio character Apollo Creed. Even through the jingoistic hokum Living in America you just couldn’t help but wonder at “The Godfather of Soul”, “The Hardest Working man in Showbusiness”, “Mr Please Please”…or whatever else he saw fit to proclaim himself.
Sliding into the present day and I’ve had the privilege of learning more about the man in his own words, his career, his self-forged path, plus the infamous days with the revue so well documented by key player Fred Wesley in his autobiography. Here is just a taste of his insight into the making of the man:
“The world had taught James that if you wanted something you had to get it yourself. He had never had a mother or father or anyone to provide for him, to guide him, to make a way for him. Everything he had he had to fight for and he didn’t understand giving anything or even letting anyone earn anything from him in an easy way. He had had to overcome tremendous adversity just to live, let alone achieve greatness. He had to work ten times as hard as anyone else just to have food and shelter. You can’t expect mercy from a man who has fought himself up from the degradation to the pinnacle of the entertainment world. Although he did make my life a living hell sometimes, I’m a better man for it. I will always admire James Brown for being a man true to his principles, I certainly respect him for being an extraordinary man and for making himself the greatest entertainer who ever lived.”
Undisputed and well documented facts include James being the key catalyst and driving force behind popular R n’ B, funk and the looped syncopated rhythms of hip hop (Funky Drummer, Blow Your Head etc inspired everyone from Bomb Squad to Brand Nubian). Without James we’d have no Elvis, Prince, Michael Jackson, Fame-era Bowie, Fela Kuti, D’Angelo or Neptunes as we know them. Moreover, Miles Davis, a great admirer of Mr Dynamite’s rhythms, wouldn’t have moved so earnestly into the funk realm with 1972’s On The Corner, and beyond. He prototyped the complete musical entertainer and innovator without forgetting the showbusiness part (that theatrical robe routine borrowed from a famous 60’s wrestler comes to mind).
What isn’t fully appreciated is how the man rose from the bottom of Augusta, Georgia, with next to nothing – surviving and staying ahead of the pack with only his raw fighter’s instinct to guide him. That fearless determination would prove key to his survival on the streets, endurance of prison, his thorough application to the platform of Bobby Byrd’s Avons/Flames, conquering the seldom lucrative and often life-threatening chitlin circuit, contravening the wishes of his label King Records to make one of the greatest and most successful live recordings in the history of music – Live at the Apollo – out of his own pocket and then using the proceeds to preserve the majestic legacy of the Apollo Theatre itself.
Who could forget that great story of James being scheduled to perform at Boston Garden the night following Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in 1968. His agreeing to let the concert be televised is widely credited with calming the city discontent and averting street anarchy.
Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud speaks for itself: a defiant collective fist in the bloody civil rights fight of the late 60s and a rousing soundtrack to the movement.
Then, who else would turn the misfortune of a band walkout in 1969 to his advantage and recruit from the hot New Dapps such talented hip-to-it musicians as the Collins brothers and Jabo Starks to up the rhythmic ante before Maceo and boys came home to roost?
Accepted, Brown was hardly whiter than white (heaven forbid!). There are those ridiculous demands made of his band (“Get me to the White House now or you’re fired!”), the bruises on then-partner Lyn Collins among others, and his frugal attitude to crediting his band for writing and production work (Fred and the Black Caesar soundtrack, for example). An unforgiving taskmaster and domineering personality, he was abrasive with many but inspiring in equal measure. Post-1965 he had unprecedented control over his music for a black artist, the James Brown revue was the tightest of all and he was a leading light in the black capitalist strategy incorporating radio, record company and other ventures.
However, with James it’s not so much the influence orlongevity of his career that saw him move from the early Little Richard- and Fats Domino-styled days of Please Please Please and Try Me through the new bag of Papa…, Sex Machine, Mother Popcorn, There Was a Time (doubling up on the drums with Jabo Sparks and Clyde Stubblefield live) and Cold Sweat to the period of spontaneous, often ferocious, studio alchemy that gave us the likes of Funky Drummer, Papa Don't Take No Mess and Make It Funky between 1969 and 1974. Live, these already rough and ecstatic moments of provocative brilliance reached even higher heights. This was a guy who burned with desire to be somebody and to make something of himself against the odds. He wasn’t musically trained or schooled in anything except the beat of the street and the jungle groove.
Undoubtedly gifted with an ecstasy-inducing and versatile voice plus two quicksilver feet, more often than not he was guided by a combustible spirit. You can see it on countless live footage clips (see below) and you can definitely feel it when he pours over and strains for the meaning of every syllable in recordings of tracks like Mind Power, Don’t Tell It and I Can’t Stand It (’76).
Fred Wesley should be recognised for his vital interpretation, ordering and transcription of the Godfather’s often incoherent and discordant grunts, sounds and shrieks. Similarly, he had supreme talent around him to form his vision (Pee Wee, Maceo, Clyde, St Clair and Joe Farrell among others). But get it straight. As a conductor - both musically and kinetically – and as a medium for the galvanising, empowering and uplifting potential of music (read scratchy guitar, dirty basslines, the double-hard break beats, sweet horns and organ, not forgetting those orgasmic screams of “baaaaaaaaby”) he shall remain unparalleled.
Things turned sour as the disco era dawned: creative drought, drugs, domestic dramas and so forth. This mustn’t detract from the fact that Brown continued to be a positive force, not least as a role model for kids to keep working hard at their passion (those 150-day a year minimum performance levels), to stay in school and to remember their roots.
After almost 50 years in the business and still resident of the South Carolina/GA area this seemingly immortal figure succumbed to pneumonia while conducting his Seven Decades of Funk World Tour. No other artist will ever be as synonymous with one genre of music while being able to claim a direct lineage to several others. Tap a kid on the shoulder in Ethiopia or a grandmother in The Andaman islands – they’ll know all about the ‘Minister Of Super Heavy Heavy Funk’.
I saw James in 2000 live in my hometown headlining the Brighton Festival; the pressure was on and I doubted if he could deliver. Papa didn’t take no mess that night. I was proud and humbled. Black, white or outta sight, James Brown was the greatest of all time. He definitely did it to death. With immaculate hair and teeth. Respect.
Straight No Chaser (2006)
A dispatch from 2001, in the midst of one of the most horrific events in modern history.
MY HOLIDAY FROM HELL
A summer spent travelling in the US should be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for a university graduate. Unforgettable it was – for all the wrong reasons
Tuesday. Another day, another dollar in the sweltering South.
Look for toys. Ask questions. Beware the dog.
Knock knock. An all too familiar sound. The door opened. There I stood, side on, a few paces back from the entrance just as I had been taught. My smile, although false and contorted with a grimace of desperation, offered a glimmer of hope. "I am a professional educational consultant. I can do this," I thought.
In front of me stood a hulking figure, in ripped denim jeans, sleeveless check shirt, stubbled face and frayed trucker's hat, under which sat two piercing eyes; the kind that meant trouble. It was the look of a man with nothing to lose. Before I could get into my stride and explain why this charred, clipboard-carrying figure was standing on his porch, he reached to his side and pulled out a shotgun. Raising it slowly and pointing it at my midriff with real intent, he hissed these chilling words: "Boy, you got a lotta nerve showing up here right now. Get off my porch."
How had it come to this? Well earlier that year, impulsive and unsuspecting, I had signed up for a business programme selling educational handbooks to families door-to-door. On paper it felt like a raw deal. I would have to raise all the money for flights, two weeks of training in Nashville, accommodation, food and 'office supplies'. Upon arrival in my designated area – Roanoke, Virginia, a sleepy, hilly expanse known as the "Star City of the South" – I would have to go from door to door asking if anyone had a spare room to let that summer. Once I strapped on my book bag and began wrestling with my map I would be working on 100 per cent commission – no guaranteed wage.
So why do it? The thrill-seeker in me, perhaps. I had been seduced by the road, that rebellious sense of adventure that crackled on every page of Kerouac and Hunter S Thompson. I had to walk the path. But on that particular day several troubles were weighing me down: colleagues who had jumped ship, poor sales figures, the fallout from countless six-day weeks of fourteen-hour toil in 90 per cent humidity and brushes with death while peddling along the freeway though the pitch-black night.
The neighbourhood I was working in seemed quieter than usual: no toddlers playing with their house-bound 'moms', no nannies busying themselves around the garden, no traffic. Greetings at the door were more hostile than usual, accented by a different reaction. A traumatised stare. Confederate and stars and stripes flags were drooping half-mast.
On to the next house. An elderly lady – the church-going type – recoiled from the door. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” she declared. I moped along, confused. Was I missing something here? A public holiday, a hard-line ban on peddlers, the colour of my skin perhaps?
"Keep going," I thought. I turned the corner, surveyed the street and singled out a beautiful white bungalow with a "welcome" mat in front of the door and all manner of flowers delightfully arranged around the garden. Surely I'd be safe from harm at this sanctuary? And thankfully I was right. A compassionate Irish lady ushered me in with worrying urgency. Inside, the television was on full blast. It sounded like an episode of NYPD Blue. “The plane have just crashed into the building.” She paused, looked out at the garden for a moment and continued. "I think my son-in-law’s in there,” she muttered. “I’ll fetch some tea."
The date? 9/11.
Led Zeppelin – How the West Was Won (2003)
Early adventures in album reviews. Knocked out after a one-day binge
Dudurr dudurr da/dada dada/dudurr dudurr da/dada dada… Goosebumps rising to the sound of Jimmy Page’s call to arms and it’s only track three of this behemoth three-disc live excursion. Culled from a handful of performances at the LA Forum and Long Beach Arena in their hotel-trashing heyday back in 1972, How the West Was Won surely cements Led Zeppelin's reputation and one of the greatest concert bands of all time. Four masterful artists, a band greater than the sum of its parts. Page, general and genius, remarks in the liner notes that he just happened to stumble upon these recordings – as you do. What they have clogging up their vault is effortlessly more breathtaking than the career sum of all those pretenders that followed in their wake.
The set list draws heavily from Led Zeppelin I – IV, while also building huge expectation for their next release, Houses of the Holy. CD 1 has all the earlier favourites including an extended 'remix' of Heartbreaker and a poignant rendition of Stairway to Heaven, which somehow betters the BBC Sessions version. The solo just goes on and on, raging to an ecstatic crescendo. Then skip a few tracks and your into an acoustic section, a sweet detour that plays right into the hearts of the flower power masses.
As the laser hits CD2, the musicianship of the band really shines through, particularly on a marathon 25-minute Dazed and Confused. The audience – and you – are in the palm of their hands. The funked up riff of The Crunge forms the most unlikely of interludes before making way for a little gizmatron and violin bow tinkering. This is Zeppelin in full flow – thumping, stretching and reconfiguring their material with remarkable ease. A juicy swagger is added to the mystical tones of What is and What Should Never Be, while Moby Dick is essentially an exercise in drum kit destruction (sticks not required) sandwiched between a characteristically heavy Page riff. This song more than any other illustrates why John “Bonzo” Bonham was the heartbeat of Led Zeppelin, the engine room.
CD3 has yet another typically unbelievable version of the Delta blues rocker Whole Lotta Love, complete with a barn-storming medley that stoops off at John Lee Hooker’s Boogie Chillin' and Gene Pitney's happy clappy Hello Marylou. The interplay between Page and Plant is extraordinary. Plant still wants to be the backdoor man – persistent lad. For 23 minutes you are hooked and hanging on every note. It is still the declaration of libidinous intent and a tour de force for the monster rock riff, no matter what Top of the Pops tried to do to it. Just when you thought the band would let up, the Chuck Berry inspired drum-intro to Rock And Roll blasts out of the speakers, signalling for all to restart their engines for a victory lap. All that's left is for the boys to Bring It on Home with a little help from the blues shuffle of Willie Dixon. Page and Bonham duel while Plant oohs and aaaaghs to orgasmic proportions, feeding off a now frenzied audience.
How the West Was Won brings the yesteryear high of bootlegs to the masses, an epic collection of classics with an almighty twist. Although the demo-like BBC sessions feel even more special given the intimate confines in which they were recorded, these stadium versions reveal a punchier, more expansive and dynamic group at work – closer to the legend. This collection is indeed not only how the west was won but also how the world fell too. Led Zeppelin changed the way I listen to rock music. Ah to have grown up with them… [ed: Thankfully, four years later I was privileged to be in the crowd at the O2 – where tickets were changing hands for thousands as three old men and one baby Bonham smashed the competition.]
Sonic innovators, heavy metal originators, boogie woogie bluesmen … the guise matters not. For a few hours you are squeezed into that stadium, 100,000 plus; girls with long wavy hair shake like willow trees while bushy-bearded men aim their hammer to the gods. The atmosphere is almost sacred, Rock & roll communion for dreamers and believers. There are whispers of new material, and rumours of strange rituals follow the band wherever they go. Everyone has a story and their anthem. "Wonder how long Dazed will last this time, man…”