Monday, December 25, 2006

Soul Genius

James Brown, 1928 - 2006
LP: The Payback (1973)

Although Bob Dylan famously advised us not to follow leaders, we wouldn't get far without them. Even the greatest artists are influenced by their forbears - Dylan by Woody Guthrie, Sinatra by Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles by Guitar Slim and Nat 'King' Cole. In popular music, as in religion or politics, change occurs as messages are transmitted to the masses by individuals - visionary elites, if you will. Possessed of unique sensitivities and intense drive, these remarkable souls react to their environment and invest their personal revelations with universal relevance, thus kickstarting popular movements.

James Brown, the self-styled Godfather of Soul, was such a leader. A ubiquitous and defining presence in pop culture, it's humbling to consider what a vital force Brown was in the evolution of gospel and rhythm 'n' blues into soul and funk. Rock, jazz, disco, dance, hip-hop and electronica all bear his imprint. Following his untimely demise - passing away on Christmas Day, now how stylish is that? - I’ve had my favorite Brown LP The Payback on heavy rotation.

The Payback is a key LP in Brown's development, coming at a pivotal moment following the Black Caesar LP, the death of his eldest son Teddy in a car crash and just before his career went into its famous late 70s slump. Originally conceived as soundtrack to the Hell Up In Harlem blaxpoitation movie, (but, amazingly, rejected by its director for "not being James Brown enough"!) this is a landmark funk album.

That The Payback was something of a departure for Brown is clear from the wigout LP cover, a bizarre pastoral homage to Black Power which depicts the Godfather of Soul as a benign father-figure proclaiming “we got a right to the tree of life” as he looks down upon images of dollar bills and what appears to be a post coital black couple. The sleeve notes proclaim “It all began with forty acres and a mule… a simple desire for one whose personal branch on the tree of life struggled to protect itself from the dangerous branches of lust and greed". Powerful stuff.

“Revenge, I’m mad,” declares Brown, before the hypnotic funk of the title track kicks in. Whoever sold James out - it might be the guy who stole his girl, the girl herself or even the government - they better watch out, as he warns, “I don't know karate, but I know KA-RAZY!” In the confessional ballad Doing the Best I Can, (featuring a haunting “I’m For Real” chorus) James tries everything he can think of to get back with his woman. Following that, lamenting the loss of his son, Brown's hurt is palpable on Forever Suffering, with its heartbreaking "There ain’t nobody home" refrain.

After that the band picks itself up and dusts itself off for the exciting horn workout Time is Running Out Fast, (characterized by a distinctive African flavor which gives a passing nod to Fela Kuti) and there’s hardly time to catch your breath before The Godfather hollers his way through the meditative groove of Mind Power, presented here as the key to escaping the ghetto ("You can't fool yourself/You gotta deal with it/Look in the mirror").

A funk-drenched exploration of black anger, pain and pride, The Payback takes the listener on a remarkable journey. Brown is at times vitriolic, but still soulful, energized and exhortatory, his performance verging on stream of consciousness. The wonderful JBs display some of the most amazing musicianship to be found on any James Brown record, laying down some terrific extended jams.

If you're wanting to pay homage to the late, great Godfather, this is a great place to start. Funk as catharsis, The Payback pushes Brown's groove to its telepathic limits.

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romperstomper said...

Dear Mr Le Soy: what I like about your blog is that you actually try to say something about music and put it into its larger context. You have spoken about Syd Barrett in terms of his status as a "madcap magus", and also about James Brown as a unique cultural leader. I agree with you that elites largely lead the way, but of course the masses have to be ready and waiting to receive the message.

Most music blogs simply post a few mp3s and add a few cursory words. Thank you for a stimulating read, I will be checking back.

Anonymous said...

Nice writing Le Soy. Now I see what you are up to...inspired to check this James Brown album out...Kar-azy!