Tuesday, 29 January 2013

James Brown's Deep Funk - No synthetic effects. No safety nets... Cold Sweat.

In 1967, the year of Sgt Pepper, when popular music seemed to be trying to become ever more complex and sophisticated, James Brown decided to buck the trend and strip everything right down to the basics. The Funk. The one. He put out a record called Cold Sweat.

Cold Sweat was basically just a groove that just kept on building. From 1967 on this was pretty much JB's template on all his single releases. Forget the words or the tune, those are for "listening" to, this is for dancing.

Arguably more influential than the rest of the Sgt Pepper styled psychedelic complexity of 1967, James Brown hit on one of the most important and influential ideas of the late 60s. The funk revolution emphasized rhythm, made everything else subservient to it, including the vocals, and relegated melody and lyrics to a mere supporting role. Guitars became percussion instruments and individual parts became syncopated within the whole musical arrangement. And in so doing, he pretty much invented modern dance music and had a massive influence on rap. James Brown is the most sampled artist in the world.

However, the important thing for me is that, unlike a lot of modern dance records, on most of the old JB hits the band played live. And it feels alive. It breathes. You can hear the drummer sweat. Dance music always seems to me to be far more intense, hypnotic and dangerous when it's being played live with no mechanical input, no drum machines, no synthetic effects and no safety nets. A machine will suck out the funk. It'll be precise. It'll play on the beat. Not behind or in front. So there's no tension. There's no sense that anything could go wrong, speed up, slow down or do something weird.

I know there was a lot of discipline in JB's bands which the musicians sometimes found difficult to deal with (see the 1968 Apollo Can't Stand It clip below as a glorious example of how much that discipline paid off) but there's also a sense of unpredictability and danger. There is tension. And here is release. And when the tension builds, the release can sometimes be truly sublime. On the (superior) version of Cold Sweat on the 1967 Live at The Apollo album the band go into a solid groove during Maceo Parker's sax solo (starting around the 2:00 mark on the clip below) while the drummer, the great Clyde Stubblefield, compliments and pushes Maceo onward to the climax of the solo (around the 3:30 mark). For a very brief moment drummer and saxophonist are soloing together. Without the drummer performing the usual anchoring function the band appears to leave the ground and levitate.

Cold Sweat live at the Apollo 1967

It is evident towards the end of that remarkable performance (one of my favourite ever pieces of JB music) that this music, though apparently simple, is not easy to play. It's intense and demanding and easy to foul up. What is not played is just as important as what is played. That's the funk part. However it's the human element, the amazing proficiency and timing of everyone in that band, plus the sweat and the danger and the funk, that make it so damned hypnotic. And danceable.
And that is where the art is.

Mother Popcorn on TV in 1969
An astonishing band performance. On Maceo Parker's solo (around the 3 minute mark) the band let the brakes off to hit overdrive while JB duets with Maceo by way of yelps, screeches and screams.

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