Monday, June 11, 2012
JAMES BROWN, Startime
Melody Maker, June 15th 1991
by Simon Reynolds
This four-CD mega-anthology reveals that there are actually two James Browns. The first is JB the patrician and patriarch: the disciplinarian who fined his musicians for the most miniscule misdemeanors; the black Statesman whose august presence could quell a ghetto riot; the black capitalist who monitored every last minutiae of his business affairs; the righteous role model with his anti-drug, pro-education songs ('King Heroin', 'Don't Be A Drop-Out'). This "hardest working man in showbiz"/"Say it Loud I'm Black And I'm Proud" JB is possibly the single biggest factor behind that particularly white/male version of soul that sees it as the music of spiritual fortitude. I recall one NME soulboy scribe declaring (having just slagged off some 'decadent' Goth group) that if he ever got to be Prime Minister, he'd make it compulsory for schoolkids to listen to JB for 3 hours a day, so that they could learn all about pride, passion and dignity. Totalitarian of passion, or what?!
But there's another JB that's worth digging through the R&B Reaganisms to recover: the JB that wasn't about being a control freak, but about freaked-out loss-of-control, voodoo possession, delirium, enslavement by the rhythm. The first disc, Mr. Dynamite, is unsalvageably antiquated, all huff'n'puff, horn vamps, hoary old showbiz dynamics. But from about 1966's "Bring It Up" onwards, Brown's music gets progressively more African and 'avant-garde': songs devolve into closed grooves, minimal, mantric, mind-exterminating and interminable. 'Cold Sweat' remains the definitive JB title, capturing the frigid feverishness of the sound. Tracks like 'I Can't Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)' and 'Ain't It Funky Now' are coition-combustion engines, "desiring machines", offering a stern, oppressive, exhausting brand of bliss.
On Seventies trax like 'Funky Drummer', 'Sex Machine', 'Superbad', 'I Got Ants In My Pants', 'Doing It To Death' and 'Hot' (the basis of Bowie's 'Fame'), almost every other guitar tic, bass palpitation and drum lick sounds déjà vu. But that's because they've been sampled by a thousand rap groups. If JB and Kraftwerk were the twin godfathers of hip hop, it's because there's an affinity between the coldblooded Teutonic technocrats and the fiery human volcano that would scandalize many a soulboy: a certain arid, clinical, maniacal precision of sound. Afrika Bambaata understood the 'Man Machine'/'Sex Machine' connection; that's why the Pharoah Of Electro persuaded the King Of Soul to collaborate on the 1984 single 'Unity'.
Madness, machismo, magnificent monotony: get up, get into it, and get involved.