The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

As with many other artists, my delayed appreciation of James Brown was a direct result of the militant absolutism of mid-‘80s NME, the music paper which told its readers that they should listen to Aretha or JB for half an hour every morning (“Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)” indeed) in order to teach themselves some dignity, which routinely sneered at and decried the New Pop I loved in favour of a regime of grey purism. Those grunts and unadorned grooves seemed like the Protestant work ethic personified, sweating for the benefit of…more sweat? And all despite my love of electric Miles, of Sly Stone and George Clinton, of hip hop (when it’s good), and even unto Steve Reich and Kraftwerk…none of whom would have developed anywhere near the same way had it not been for what James Brown began.

Of course, JB’s grooves only sound unadorned and minimalist to outsiders. The key to the greatness and radicalism of his music lies in his inverse and decidedly non-Western approach to song construction; despite his unapologetic worship and reclamation of capitalism (which to the black society of the late ‘60s onwards, shaken to its core, was more than enough), Brown built his music from the rhythm upwards, as opposed to the melody downwards, as everyone from the Gershwins to the Beatles did. An early instructive comparison would be to play his Live At The Apollo Vol 1 side-by-side with Coltrane’s contemporaneous Live At The Village Vanguard; in both records, note how any concept of melody is systematically deconstructed until every voice, every instrument, is a drum (just as “Chasin’ The Trane” burns to its essence of tenor and drums alone).

Having thus liberated rhythm, there was nothing to prevent Brown from proceeding to rework notions of the song, or the single, as radically from a musical perspective as Dylan had done from the lyrical. “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” forms the bend in this particular river; his band having improvised a slow seven-minute groove, Brown simply speeded up the master, crammed it into three minutes and released it as a single. His multiphonic screams are as superhuman as those of Archie Shepp on “Mama Too Tight,” but the band are tighter than an unforgiving noose. And with “Cold Sweat” Brown eliminated almost everything except the rhythm – now stuttering yet slinky in a way R&B hadn’t quite managed up until 1967 – and his exclamations, though far from meaningless, appear as randomly cut-up as when Eric B and Rakim actually did cut him up from “I Know You Got Soul” onwards.

Like Miles, Mingus and Sun Ra, Brown was a legendarily hard taskmaster as a bandleader – and some of this tyrannical urge sometimes spilled over into his private life, with disastrous, and latterly comical, consequences. Unlike the great jazzers, however, who only drove their musicians in order that they could shed the trappings of cliché and express themselves directly, and originally, Brown seemed to want to make his band a single, indivisible, impersonal force, choreographing their arrangements and responses to the nanosecond. Yet this paradoxically freed them up; listen to things like “Mother Popcorn” or “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud” – or, crucially, listen inside them – and note how musicians like Fred Wesley and Bootsy Collins actually emerge as recognisable individual voices. That is while you’re not busy luxuriating in the absolute certainty and elasticity of the horns and guitars, Clyde Stubblefield’s right-angled drumming (like Dannie Richmond with Mingus, he never quite nails the centre of the beat, merely suggests its existence). As a machine the JBs set the tone for the electro, hip hop and techno to follow a generation later; and both Reich and Kraftwerk are on record as stating how key Brown’s influence was on their own approach to the machines and humanity of rhythms. But Brown’s music is never quite inhuman; however stringently applied, he never stops swinging.

The Star Time box set is crucial listening; coming from the opposite pole from Ray Charles, but equally vital in inventing what we know as “soul music,” it is one of the documents of its century. But 1969’s Soul On Top should also be investigated; one of Brown’s rare excursions into maximalism, with Louie Bellson’s LA big band and Oliver Nelson’s arrangements, he tears into “The Man In The Glass” with appropriate ire, and the reworking of “Papa’s…” with Brown screeching traded fours with Maceo Parker’s tenor cements the umbilical cord with ‘60s New Thing jazz. And for those who justifiably decry Brown’s eventual descent into a Nixon-supporting, state-crossing car-chasing cartoon of himself – from the British commercial point of view, it is depressing that 1986’s unironic flag-waving “Livin’ In America” was his only top ten hit here, most of his sixties classics having been confined to the specialist soul/R&B lists thanks to the innate racism of the British music industry and media at the time - 1973’s double The Payback has to be absorbed; as chilling and desolate a commentary on post-Vietnam despair as anything Gaye or Mayfield were producing at the time, as stark a drug diary as Grievous Angel or Berlin. Then listen once more to the near-inhuman joy of side one of Off The Wall, or Prince when he still cared, or any hip hop, and realise how and why Brown mattered as much as – or even more than – Presley or Sinatra. Simultaneously showbiz and avant-garde, underground and mainstream, brother of the downtrodden and the richest motherfucker in nascent black capitalist society…where Sly noted blearily that there was a riot going on, Brown rolled up his sleeves, went out on national TV in April 1968 and literally stopped a riot. Functional yet multilayered, never less than bloody or driven, he started things in music which deserve never to be stopped.

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