Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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A Consumer Guide to James Brown

At around the time of "Mother Popcorn" in 1969, James Brown began to concern himself more and more exclusively with rhythmic distinctions, thus leaving himself ever more open ot the all-sounds-[the]-same complaints he'd always been subject to. Having enjoyed his interracial []e, he quickly faded from the consciousness of most white people. But between 1969 and 1971, while whites danced [(if at] all) to Creedence and the Stones and maybe Memphis soul (Motown was out [then], Brown scored 17--17 in three years![--]top-10 r&b hits that changed black dancing and paved the way to disco. That [most] of these were on were on Brown's own King label, which had no press list, did nothing [to] increase his access to journalists. But when he signed with Polydor in late 1971 [and] got no better. Vince Aletti wrote a [pres]cient of Hot Pants for Rolling Stone. Richard Robinson did something in [Creem]. I gave Get On the Good Foot a B [plus], and that was about it for the rock press.

What follows, then, is my attempt to make up. I overrated Good Foot because [I had] missed many much better LPs, and [here]'s a rundown on everything he did [after] dissolving King. The King stuff has [disa]ppeared almost completely (though I [did] see Super Bad, a pretty good one, here [] there), but most of the Polydors, while [offi]cially out of print, are available in [dis]count bins and used record stores. I [woul]d like to thank Pablo "Yoruba" Guzman for raising my consciousness, []ol McNichol of Polydor for compiling a discography, Vince Aletti for lending me records, and James Chance for ripping off "I Can't Stand Myself."

Hot Pants (8/71) Is it rolling, James? The hit vamp (can't call it a tune, now can you?) "Escape-ism" was supposedly cut to kill time until Bobby Byrd arrived. The title track follows and it's a killer too, one of Brown's richest Afro-dances. "Blues and Pants" suggests that the title track is a mellowed down takeoff on "Sex Machine," which is good to know. And "Can't Stand It" is not to be confused with "I Can't Stand Myself." If you say so, James. Only he doesn't. I don't think he cares. And neither do I. A MINUS

Revolution of the Mind (11/71) Ever the innovator, Brown here presents a live double-LP, "Recorded Live at the Apollo Vol. III." Good stuff, too--a consistent overview of his polyrhythm phase. But "Sex Machine" is sharper and "Bewildered" deeper on last year's live double. And with the medley on side three the tempo gets so hot that anybody but JB will have trouble dancing to it. B PLUS

Soul Classics (5/72) Brown recorded nine of these ten cuts for King; every track is good and many--"Sex Machine," "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "I Got You"--are great. But they're so jumbled chronologically--side two jumps from '71 to '65 back to '71 to '69 to '66--that it's a tribute to Brown's single-minded rhythmic genius that they hold together at all. Hearing his classic '70s dance tracks in their original three-minute formats, you begin to pine for the extended album versions--devoid of verbal logic and often even chord changes, these patterns, for that's what they really are, are meant to build, not resolve. And the chief formal advantage of top-forty strictures is that they force speedy resolutions. Time: 28:25. A MINUS

There It Is (6/72) A generous four r&b hits here, three of them--"There It Is," "I'm a Greedy Man," and "Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing"--ace JB grooves. (Who's on congas, James?) The fourth is the "King Heroin" sermon, which together with its ten-minute offshoot "Public Enemy #1" is stuck cunningly--Brown has been reading his Alexander Pope--in the middle of the dance stuff on both sides. Plus an actual song, the first new one he's recorded in years, and a JB composition called "Never Can Say Goodbye" that asks the musical question, "What's going on?" For junkies, this is an A plus; for the rest of us, it's somewhat more marginal. A MINUS

Get on the Good Foot (10/72) Only two hits on this studio double, though it takes Hank Ballard five minutes to describe its riches on side two--"he comes from all sides on this one." Lines repeat from song to song--"The long-haired hippies and the Afro blacks/All get together off behind the tracks/And they party"--and so do riffs. The hook on the twelve-minute "Please, Please" (not to be confused, of course, with "Please, Please, Please") repeats one hundred forty-eight (and a half) times. I love the hook, I even like the line, and if this were the world's only James Brown album it would be priceless. But there's a lot of waste here, and Brown's voice can't carry ballads the way it used to. B MINUS

Black Caesar (1/73) You listen to Brown for music, not songs, but that's no reason to expect good soundtrack albums from him. He should never be allowed near a vibraphone again. D PLUS

Slaughter's Big Rip-Off (6/73) As movie scores go, this ripoff is only medium-sized. At least it apes Oliver Nelson rather than Henry Mancini, and sometimes it even breaks away from the atmosphere into something earthier. Worth hearing: "Sexy, Sexy, Sexy." C

Soul Classics Volume II (8/73) In absolute terms, Brown has declined on Polydor. Even if you don't insist on great compositions (never his strength) or great singing (where he's waned physically), he just hasn't matched rhythmic inventions like "Mother Popcorn" and "Sex Machine" for the big label. And this compilation inexplicably omits "Hot Pants," which comes close, in favor of his ill-advised revivals of "Think" and "Honky Tonk." Still, eight of these ten tracks have made the soul top ten over the past two years, and not counting "King Heroin" you'll shake ass to every one. A MINUS

The Payback (12/73) Because more is often more with JB, a studio double comprising eight long songs isn't necessarily a gyp. Especially when all the songs have new titles. Not only does most of this work as dance music, but two slow ones are actually sung. "Time Is Running Out Fast," however, is a spectacularly inaccurate title for a horn-and-voice excursion that shambles on for 12:37. B PLUS

It's Hell (6/74) Great stuff on the two good sides--tricky horn charts, "Please, Please, Please" with a Spanish accent, law-enforcement advice. Then there's the side of ballads w/strings, which might be all right if they were also w/voice, and the side that begins "I Can't Stand It '76." B

Reality (12/74) Talkin' loud and sayin' nothing, Brown's streetwise factotum intones: "He's still the baddest--always will be the baddest--that's why we give him credit for being the superstar he is." A bad sign (really bad, I mean). As are "Who Can I Turn To" and "Don't Fence Me In." B MINUS

Sex Machine Today (4/75) If Someone were to airlift this one tape to you in the tundra, the remakes would be godsends. But if you own another version of "Sex Machine" you own a better one. Ditto "I Feel Good," ditto every aimless solo, and ditto the reading from Rand-McNally. Which leaves us with the symphosynth, the complaints that other musicians are ripping him off, and the putdowns of hairy legs. C PLUS

Everybody's Doin' the Hustle and Dead on the Double Bump (8/75) In which JB eases the tempo and stops using his voice as a conga drum, thus fashioning a languorous funk that I guess is designed to compete with Barry White. It's not horrible, but I'd just as soon hear the competition--after all, what's JB without intensity? And then suddenly he says fuck it and closes the record with a seven minute jam on "Kansas City" so sharp it could bring back the lindy hop, at least in dreams. B MINUS

Hot (12/75) This record has a bad rep. Most of it was reportedly cut with arranger Dave Matthews by New York studio musicians and then dubbed over by JB, and the title hit didn't do as well among blacks as David Bowie's "Fame," where its guitar lick first went public. But side one really works. If Brown did cop that lick, he certainly had it coming, and except for the sodden "So Long" everything else is touched with the extraordinary, from the cracked falsetto that climaxes "For Sentimental Reasons" to the stirring male backup on "Try Me" to "The Future Shock of the World," a high-echo rhythm track on which JB does nothing but whisper the word "disco." Unfortunately, the dance vamp and ballads overdisc are nothing new, though "Please, Please, Please" (with more male backup) sounds fine in its umpteenth version. B

Get Up Offa That Thing (7/76) "I'm Black, I'm Back?" is how JB begins the commercial message on the jacket, and the title track is his biggest single in a year and a half. "I can see the disco now," he emphasizes, and even the blues and the ballad cultivate a groove designed to reintroduce him to that alien world he founded. But he sounds defensive because he has a reason to be--he can't hit the soft grooves the way he can the hard ones. When he starts equating himself with Elvis Presley (just before the fade on "I Refuse to Lose"), you know the identity problems are getting critical. B MINUS

Bodyheat (12/76) Two or three functional dance tracks, and Brown's will always be tougher than MFSB's. But not than Brown's. "Woman" is unlistenably sanctimonious, "What the World Needs Now Is Love" is the raggedest singing I've ever heard from him, and "Kiss in 77" is "head to head and toe to toe"--in other words as "brand new" as the "New Sound!" he promises. C

Mutha's Nature (7/77) When they start writing songs called "People Who Criticize," you know they're really worried. And the anxiety always comes out in the music. C

Sex Machine (9/77) This is the same Sex Machine Brown released on King in 1970. Some doubt the claim that this was recorded in concert in Augusta, Georgia, but everyone believes in the music. On "Get Up I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine" he creates a dance track even more compelling than the single out of the same five elements: light funk-four on the traps, syncopated bass figure, guitar scratched six beats to the bar, and two voices for call and response. When he modulates to the bridge it's like the Spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters. After that he could describe his cars for three sides and get away with it (hope this doesn't give him any bright ideas), but in fact all of what remains is prime JB except for the organ version of "Spinning Wheel" (horn bands will out) and the cover of "If I Ruled the World" (thought he already did). Side four, with its powerful "Man's World," is especially fine, closing with a soul-wrenching scream that says it all. A

Jam/1980's (3/78) Free of the pretentious bluster that has marred so much of his work in the disco era, this is the groove album Brown has been announcing for years. He's finally learned how to relax his rhythms without diluting his essence, and the A side is simply and superbly what the title promises, though he may have the decade wrong. The B side is less of the same, and I bet no one who buys this record ever chooses to play it. I also bet they'd get dancing if they did. B PLUS

Take a Look at Those Cakes (11/78) The title cut is a great throwaway--an eleven-minute rumination on ass-watching, including genuinely tasteless suggestions that Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder join the fun. The rest is just throwaway--with a beat of course. B MINUS

The Original Disco Man (6/79) In which Brown relinquishes the profit-taking ego gratification of writing and producing everything himself. Those credits go to Brad Shapiro, Millie Jackson's helpmate, who thank god is no disco man himself. Sure he likes disco tricks--synthesized sound effects, hooky female chorus, bass drum pulse--but he loves what made JB, well, the original disco man: hard-driving, slightly Latinized funk patterns against the rough rap power of that amazing voice, which may have lost expressiveness but definitely retains its sense of rhythm. Plus: disco disc of the year, "It's Too Funky in Here." And a renunciation of "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World." A MINUS

People (2/90) Anybody who thinks his first Brad Shapiro album was mechanical should get a load of what a real assembly line sounds like. Original Disco Man was a labor of vanity, and when it didn't hype his career the way he'd been told it would JB went back on automatic. Shapiro & Co. respond in kind. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Two good retail sources for James Brown albums are Rock City, Broadway and Waverly, and Rainbow Music, 102 West 125th Street. The Fabulous James Brown, a useful though chintzy and poorly programmed (lots of King titles in Polydor versions) two-LP mail-order set on HRB, can also be found at Rock City. Still in print on Polydor is everything released after Jam/1980s plus must-own Sex Machine, which has been discounted around town recently. If you should find either of Brown's Live at the Apollo albums on King, ask the man if he'll take your bad[- . . .]

Village Voice, June 9, 1980

Postscript Notes:

Photocopy clipped on left margin and at end.