JAMES BROWN Soul Classics (Simply Vinyl)
For some reason I've never properly appreciated the music of the Godfather of Soul. Yes, I've slogged through innumerable compilations of the hits, and I have "Live At The Apollo" but never really appreciated why soul aficionados held it in such high accord. Enter the increasingly inventive Simply Vinyl label, who have just reissued a slew of early 70s JB compilations that mash up the essential hits with some of the longer, looser grooves that inadvertently spawned hip-hop and its myriad sub-genres, arguably the most popular form of music girdling the globe today.
"Soul Classics" is where I started liking James Brown. Beginning with the immortal "Get Up, I Feel Like Being A Sex Machine", a song I've always harboured a sneaky admiration for, it suddenly all fell into place: the hard-hitting grooves of JB's band, the reduction of the lyrics to act as simple, spontaneous conduits of emotion and feeling, the overwhelming sense of self-belief that seems to power these recordings, some of which are approaching forty years old.
I have a few caveats: the version of "Give It Up, Or Turn It Loose" is a pale shadow of that which opens the recent "The Hip Hop Years" compilation, some of the longer tracks, such as "Hot Pants (She Got To Use What She Got, To Get What She Wants)" seem to ramble on rather longer than strictly necessary, and the sound quality of this reissue zigzags alarmingly from the stunning (I've never heard the bassline on "Sex Machine" slither quite like it does here before) to disappointingly tinny, compressed and distorted on some of the early tracks. Nevertheless, "Soul Classics" conclusively demonstrates that power and thrall that this man possesses when he's hot. If you've tried and failed before with the music of James Brown, this is the place to try again.
JAMES BROWN Live At The Apollo (Polydor)
What a time capsule this set, recorded on 24 October 1962, is. Dating from an age when multi-artist package tours found groups and singers battling each other for maximum entertainment density, the amount of tension and release squeezed out of this half-hour set seems astonishing to modern ears. It amply demonstrates MC Fats Gonder’s opening assertion that Brown is “internationally known as the hardest working man in show business”. With its medley of hits and the band’s brief, frenetic instrumental bridges acting like punctuation between songs, it really does seem like a relic from a lost time.
James, of course, cajoles, pleads and howls like a force of nature. His musicians, of course, are tight but knot-loose. However, the sweaty ecstasy of the crowd response says more than words ever could about what was going down in Harlem that night.
As an album, “Live At The Apollo” has some rough edges that betray its pioneering status. (Live recordings were comparative rarities at the time, Brown financing the recording himself as his visionary record company couldn’t see the commercial potential of an album that contained no new songs.) There’s nothing like an authoritative track listing anywhere in the packaging, just a vague inventory of “his famous hits” that, whilst in the correct sequence, fails to point out that over half of them are presented in fragmented segued form. The side break is positioned partway through the gargantuan ten minute rendition of “Lost Someone”. The vinyl pressing of “Live At The Apollo” I was sent seems to be of unknown provenance: it’s recently been reissued, seemingly with the extra tracks found on the CD version, as part of Universal’s mostly woeful Back To Black series, but mine’s a Polydor pressing of indeterminate origin. It generally sounds almost shockingly vivid (as promised on the sleeve), albeit a tad distorted in places.