103. AL GREEN – AL GREEN… IS LOVE (1975)

Greatest Records, Rhythm & Blues, Soul

Four and a half minutes into ‘I Didn’t Know’ and by now Al Green has completely lost it. We hear him laugh, but it is a nervous laugh. Then, as if experiencing a moment of crushing realisation, the performance begins to disintegrate, his voice boomeranging off the studio walls, fading away entirely before it suddenly returns to vomit its torment into the microphone. A relentlessly static rhythm casts its shadow over this emotional meltdown, a cruel companion to his existential purgatory. It seems to exist merely to mock his plight and drain every last ounce of life out of him. The strings, elsewhere luxurious and euphoric, sound defeated, strung out and grieving. The walls have closed in. It could be the rawest aural breakdown ever committed to vinyl. Make no mistake, I feel like I’m losing my little mind when I listen to it. So one can only imagine how it must have felt for poor Al…

     ‘I Didn’t Know’ comes from the 1975 album Al Green Is Love, to my mind the soul legend’s finest hour (or forty minutes to be more precise). Recording sessions began at the end of 1974, and Al Green’s life was about to change forever. Imagine if you will, being the ex-girlfriend of a bona fide global soul superstar, a man with the world at his feet. You were once the sole object of his desire. You induced in him feverish passion and yielded from his heart some of his greatest love songs. They were for you. It is over now. But how do you obliterate the memory, how do you get those words out of your head? Those songs? It all proved too much for Mary Woodson White who, on October 18th 1974 entered Green’s apartment, poured scalding-hot grits on his back as he bathed, before grabbing hold of his gun and shooting herself through the head.


     It was a turning point. Within eighteen months, Green had been ordained a Christian minister, turning his back on his lothario lifestyle. Until then, L-O-V-E really equated to S-E-X, but before the physical began to transform itself into the metaphysical, Green made this album. It’s a schizophrenic collection. If by the time of the albums release, Al was already hard at work polishing off his first homilies for expectant congregations, he was simultaneously shaking his thang in the only way he knew best. 

    So we have on the one hand the ecstatic disco-funk of ‘Love Ritual’, those jabbing upper cuts of Teenie Hodges’ guitar punctuating a hissing aural uncoiling of the libido, the whole thing drenched in orgiastic sighs and perspiration, and the next moment we hear him theologising Eros over the taut rhythms of ‘Love Sermon’ (“Love is the dimension between time and feeling/The distance from heaven to earth/At least that’s my understanding”), the tension ebbing and flowing, Green’s voice oscillating between a whisper and a scream. Here is some seriously archetypal good angel bad angel interplay.

    Elsewhere, there are more conventional love songs. ‘I Wish You Were Here’ and ‘Could I Be The One’, if not quite the equal of ‘Call Me, ‘I’m Still In Love With You’ or ‘Let’s Stay Together’, nevertheless contain the sort of aching thirst and tugging uncertainty characteristic of those, his most enduring and popular tracks. And then there’s ‘L-O-V-E’, the first song from this album I fell in love with – it featured on the Hi! Greatest Hits compilation (originally released in 1976) which was the first of his albums to seduce my ears. Of course like many other 80s teenagers, I had first heard Edwyn sing ‘L-O-V-E’ (from Orange Juice’s debut album You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever). Who would have thought that such a deep slice of southern soul could put on a floppy fringe and jangle away so discretely as to make it synonymous with the post-punk sound of young Scotland?

    But the musicianship here is definitively rooted in Memphis. Teenie Hodges’ guitar possesses all the economy and gravity (in every sense of the word) of Steve Cropper. To borrow a line from Bawb, you could say it always “kinda hits you from below.” Meantime, his brother Charles’ aireated soda stream organ sounds like a babbling brook flowing into a bubbling geyser. Those Hodges Brothers (with Leroy on bass) could play some.

     What’s in an album title? Al Green Is Love. Think about that for a moment… Al Green IS love. He IS it’s very essence. We might even use his name as a synonym for love itself. “I Al Green you.” “What the world needs now is Al Green, sweet Al Green.” Etcetera, etcetera. I could go on of course, but suffice to say, even more to the point would be to flip that title on its head and say rather: Al Green Is Broken, Al Green Is Exalted, Al Green Is Hurting, Al Green Is Delirious, Al Green Is Repentant, Al Green Is Redeemed, Al Green Gets Carnal. Al Green Gets Sanctified. Al Green Is Yours. Al Green Is Mine. But while all of these things may be true, let us content ourselves with Al Green Is Love. Perfect title. Perfect album. (JJ)

93. TEN NORTHERN SOUL GEMS (Guest Contributor: Stuart Cosgrove)

Northern Soul, Rhythm & Blues, Soul, Uncategorized

 One of the inevitable obstacles when trying to prescribe the perfect record collection is that some musical genres are undoubtedly better represented on formats other than the LP, most notably Northern Soul. In order to rectify this situation, TNPC is delighted to welcome Stuart Cosgrove, world renowned authority on the subject and author of the fantastic Young Soul Rebels who has given us his lowdown on ten classics guaranteed to fill the floor at any NS all-nighter.

Ten of The Best

  

“There is no such thing as a Northern Soul Top Ten, as it’s all in the eye of the beholder: era, styles and all-night clubs. But I like these ones from across the genre.”

‘I Spy for the FBI’ – Luther Ingram (Smash, 1965)  – The original version of an all time classic, more gentle that Jamo Thomas’s more famous version.

‘Agent 00 Soul’ – Edwin Starr (Ric-Tic, 1965) – A great special agent soul record, classic mid-sixties Motown.

‘Bari Track’ – Doni Burdick (Sound Impression, 1967) – For me the best Detroit instrumental of the lot – immense!

‘I Miss My Baby’ – Rose Batiste  (Revilot, 1966) – And if you prefer it with great soulful vocals, then here it is…

‘My World is On Fire’ – Jimmy Mack (Palmer, 1967) – Hectic riot record from Detroit in 1967. Big Wigan all nighter sound.

‘Who’s Makin Love’ Johnnie Taylor  (Stax, 1968) – Memphis rollicking dancer and illicit sex all in 3 minutes.

‘Seven Day Lover’ – James Fountain (Peachtree, 1970) – An all time favourite – modern funky northern and still a big dance-floor hit.

‘Who Will Do Your Running Now’ – Marvin Smith (Mayfield, 1969) – Chicago crossover classic.

‘I Want To Wrap you in My Arms’ – The Pro-Fascination (MOT, undated) – A New Orleans wedding band still making rare soul well into the modern day.

Melvin Brown and James Mathews – ‘Love’s Stormy Weather’ (Philmore Sound, 1976) – Love duets like Marvin and Tammi are usually male-female; this is the best all male duet I’ve heard.

(Stuart Cosgrove, Author Young Soul Rebels & Detroit ‘67)

65. LAURA NYRO – NEW YORK TENDABERRY (1969)

Greatest Records, Jazz, Rhythm & Blues

Can a troubled artist create great art? Not according to Van Morrison, who once claimed that ‘you’ve got to be happy’ to produce your best work. But Van himself sounded like a man in pain when he made the majestic ‘Astral Weeks’, and there is certainly a counter argument to his assertion. Consider for example, Sly’s fractured and frazzled ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’, Dylan’s post-marital post mortem ‘Blood On The Tracks’, the austere desolation of Nick Drake’s ‘Pink Moon‘ or the neurotic but bleakly transcendent ‘Sister Lovers’ by Big Star – astonishing albums created under great psychological duress. You may wish to add to that impressive little list ‘New York Tendaberry’, Laura Nyro’s stark but affecting masterpiece from 1969.

Reviews of the album are characterised typically by comparisons with Joni Mitchell and Carole King, alongside a complaint that the arrangements are discomfortingly sparse and the music frustratingly out of character, the least joyous of her career. There is some uncertainty about Laura Nyro’s emotional well being at the time of the recording. The lyrics at times allude to a dark crushing sorrow, an unbearable distress, and the music has an unmistakable solemnity in places, as if she had shut herself away from the world and it’s troubles. And yet, one senses, even in the more introspective compositions, a brooding at times rapturous intensity, where the most intimate secrets are involuntarily unleashed in impassioned bursts which sound as euphoric as they are harrowing.
A more accurate musical touchstone than ‘Blue‘ or ‘Tapestry‘ would be something like ‘Laughingstock‘ by Talk Talk or ‘Climate Of Hunter’ by Scott Walker, perhaps even those John Coltrane albums of which she was so fond. There is an improvisational approach to the performances, a rudderlessness or – if you prefer – a wilful disregard for conventional song structure, which makes New York Tendaberry a comparable listening experience. Nyro was unable to write music. Instead, she “[held] the music in [her] head and [wrote] the lyrics down.” Her memory bank must have been bursting at the seams as she settled down to record some of these complex jazz and gospel inspired pieces for her third and finest album in early 1969.

Nyro empties those lungs, working her tonsils hoarse with abundant expressiveness, showcasing that extraordinary vocal range. Whether her voice caresses and purrs or lets rip piercing shrieks and wails, she is by turns little girl lost, now the bruised bastard daughter of Billie Holiday, or on occasion a frenzied howling banshee – sometimes all of these within a few short moments. The songs themselves frequently traverse several changes of mood and tempo. One (‘Tom Cat Goodbye‘) resurrects itself at least three times just as it’s embers appear to die out – it leaves me feeling exhausted, my head ransacked after Nyro’s dizzying energy-sapping performance.

On the album’s opening track, the exquisitely judged ‘You Don’t Love Me When I Cry‘, Nyro’s affliction (whether drug induced or man induced) yields the most naked of confessionals [‘I want, I want to die/You don’t love me when I cry/Made me love to play/Made me promise I would stay then you stayed away/Mister I got drawn blinds blues all over me’] The production is superb, crisp and understated, and Laura’s supple delivery incredibly heartrending.
Carving out similar territory are the haunting ‘Gibsom Street’ [‘Don’t go to Gibsom cross the river/The devil is hungry, the devil is sweet/If you are soft then you will shiver/Gibsom, Gibsom street/I wish my baby were forbidden/I wish that my world be struck by sleet‘] and the beautifully understated title track which provides a fitting finale to an album replete with references the devil, Lucifer and forbidden fruit – perhaps the reason it is often misconstrued as a thinly veiled narrative documenting a personal narcotic meltdown.

Throughout, the arrangements are superb. While the more upbeat tracks, such as ‘Mercy On Broadway’ retain the buoyancy of some of her ‘First Songs’, the gunshot and gospel break is inspired – infinitely more subtle and imaginative than the more explicitly commercial production of the first two albums. Both ‘Sweet Lovin’ Baby’ and the album’s most celebrated track, ‘Save The Country’ while more readily identifiable as ‘classic Laura Nyro’ bristle with a passion and inventiveness missing from those earlier outings. It is here on ‘New York Tendaberry’, where she presents the fullest exposition of her remarkable artistry.

I first read about Laura Nyro in a Melody Maker series from around 1987 entitled ‘Pop! – The Glory Years’, which turned me on to Tom Rapp and Syd Barrett amongst others. The article on Laura Nyro spoke of a woman who had wrestled with demons, perhaps the devil himself, and one sensed she had come out second-best in the tussle. Implicit in this account – which focused primarily on New York Tendaberry – was Laura’s supposed battle with heroin addiction, subsequently disputed by many. When I finally found an old second-hand copy, it quickly wormed its way into my consciousness. Whatever the truth regarding Laura’s drug use, it was plainly clear that here was someone laying her soul bare for all to hear. I remember exactly where the vinyl crackled in those spaces between the deftly nuanced orchestral and brass arrangements. It is in those very gaps that the album utters it’s unique language and it feels odd to listen now to those silent passages on CD, neutralised by their digital subjugation. Laura herself saw it as her most natural, even visceral recording. “It is not an obvious one…not one that you really even listen to, because it really goes past your ears and it’s very sensory and it’s all feel…it goes inside, like at the back of your neck, or something. It’s abstract, it’s unobvious and yet I feel that it’s very true. I feel that it’s life, what life is to me anyway.” Laura’s own life would of course end tragically prematurely at the young age of 49. Her legacy however is secure – a series of superb albums (all wheat, no chaff), of which this is her greatest accomplishment. (JJ)

63. BO DIDDLEY – BO DIDDLEY (1958) Guest Contributor Tim Sommer (Hugo Largo / NY Observer)

Rhythm & Blues, Rock'n'Roll

Rock’n’roll is the only good thing to come from the American stain of slavery and the institutionalized race hatred of Jim Crow. The connection between race and rock is often alluded to, but rarely discussed in anything but the most superficial detail. I suspect people would rather not be confronted by this fact: those who were the most battered, discarded, and discredited by the American dream invented the music that defines our lives. Eric Clapton talking about Buddy Guy or Robert Plant mumbling a few words about Clarksdale doesn’t teach us a goddamn thing about that. Their lip service to some airbrushed sepia-toned blues ideal is a smiley face painted over the fact that people were kidnapped from their continent, jammed into slave ships where they wallowed in their own shit and vomit for months, and then they and their descendants were committed into chains and forced servitude; the rhythms, rhymes, and melodic traces of those people lay the groundwork for our music.

The entire foundation of Pre-Beatles rock was built by those shut out financially and politically from the American dream, consigned to menial jobs in an inescapable American underclass caused by Jim Crow and insurmountable barriers in class and education. Likewise, it’s important to understand that although the Beatles have come to personify a certain aspect of the 1960s’ cultural rebellion, this had virtually nothing to do with the challenges to authority posed by rock music in the 1950s. Rock in the 1950s – and that includes white appropriations, like Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis – threatened people because it carried the aroma of the disenfranchised classes, particularly African Americans. The Beatles, on the other hand, just empowered middle class and upper class white people to wear their hair long and dress funny. This kind of stylistic rebellion is far, far less threatening than the potential class and cultural destabilization posed by music that was directly descended from the semi-permanent American underclass made up of former slaves (rural and urban) and poor rural whites.

Now, sometimes, explaining certain aspects of rock’s social and musical evolution can be done in a pretty simple manner. Do you want to understand the deep, almost Bronze-age roots of Rock’n’roll? Do you want to hear how the amazing, humming, thumping, and eternal groans, shouts, and hallelujah-songs of the deep and often horrific past resonate on your Mac Pro, today? Do you want to “get” how even though America gave it’s unwilling immigrants a gruesome eight-million ton shit bag of slavery to carry around, they still gave us back one of the most powerful and ubiquitous elements of our culture, Rock’n’roll?

Listen to “Bo Diddley,” the debut 45 by the singer of the same name, released in the spring of 1955. It pretty much tells the whole story, in two and a half minutes. Then go on and listen to his entire first album, released in 1958 and comprised of most of his single releases up to that point.

The melodic, lyrical, rhythmic and cultural framework of “Bo Diddley” had existed long before it was recorded in March 1955. That one song carried a millennia worth of anthropological baggage, yet it simultaneously invented rock’n’roll’s future.

The condensed version: American and Haitian Slaves of West African descent would do something called the “Juba” dance; it’s roots lay in the miraculous meters of their ancestral lands, modified and corrupted by some of the European reels, jigs, and clog dancing slaves in the New World were exposed to. Now, since slaves were banned from owning most drums or drum-type instruments (there was a fear they would be used to communicate with their brethren on other plantations), they learned to accompany their songs by elaborate clapping, slapping, and drumming on their own body. These two traditions – the Juba dance and the claps, chants, and slaps that accompanied it – came to be known as Hamboning.

By the late 19th Century, the couplets and rhymes that accompanied Hamboning had been fairly rigidly encoded; it was also being performed in Northern cities where the descendants of slaves had moved to seek opportunity and it had also spread to the rural white poor. Recordings or transcriptions of these archival Hambones are instantly recognizable as largely identical, both in meter and lyrics, to the song “Bo Diddley.”

In 1950, Alan Lomax, that legendary archivist of folk traditions throughout the world, sat in a classroom New York City’s Harlem and interviewed a 10-year old boy named Steve Wright. Under the watchful eye of a teacher, and with reverb-less close walls of the classroom clearly evident, Wright sang a song virtually identical to “Bo Diddley.” Likewise, in late 1951, popular country and western stylist Tennessee Ernie Ford (dueting with the considerably less famous Bucky Tibbes) released a single called “Hambone.” Melodically and lyrically, much of the song is identical to “Bo Diddley” (even it flattens out the hopping Juba rhythm into a fairly manic two-step).

Taken at face value, Bo Diddley’s fairly loyal interpretation of the ancient Hambone shouldn’t have made much noise. But there is far, far more to this story.

Not only does Bo inflate the Hambone with atomic gas, literally inventing the future of the rock electric guitar, he also repudiates the prohibition enforced on his ancestors and spells out the rhythm with real drums, primal and thumping with the power of ancient ceremony. “Bo Diddley” goes on to firmly encode the Hambone rhythm once and forever by both simplifying and elaborating it into the “shave and a haircut, 5 cents!’ format that will, from that moment forward, be known as The Bo Diddley Beat. Bo Diddley, on “Bo Diddley” (and many of the early 45s compiled on his first formal album), electrifies the trials, tribulations, celebrations, rhythms and voodoo of Disenfranchised America. He takes this story, a thousand years or more in the making, and adds a gorgeously profane noise that bridges the unimaginable past and the inconceivable future, swallowing the DNA of West Africa and spitting out the Sex Pistols.

“Bo Diddley” (not to mention “Hey Bo Diddley,” “Hush Your Mouth,” “Pretty Thing,” and “Who Do You Love,” all on that first album and all carved from the same ancient, profane, future-seeing, and holy magick) has the feel of some deeply strange folk music; yet winding around under, above, and alongside these ancient and venerable melodies are the guitar, that vastly important guitar. 50 years later, that guitar is still startling, a roaring and continuous wave of humming noise that can’t decide whether it’s going to summon the saints, the haints, or both. On a lot of these first-album tracks, Bo does nothing less than invent the modern rhythm guitar, laying the foundation for everything from the Kinks to the Velvet Underground to Black Sabbath and far, far beyond. Prior to “Bo Diddley,” the electric guitar had tic-tic-tic’d in a clipped rockabilly and hillbilly rhythm, or it had replicated the shortnin’ bread walking bass and sax lines of older jump blues, jazz, and r’n’b recordings. But for the first time, on “Bo Diddley” it just roars, it just goes whaggga whagga without stopping for breath, it just sounds like a plane whirring and a train picking up speed, all at the same time.

In fact, alongside Willie Kizart’s use of distorted electric guitar to play the walking boogie bass line on “Rocket 88” in 1951, what Bo does on “Bo Diddley” in 1955 is the most important development in the artistic evolution of the electric guitar. Bo just washes the rhythm, with no needling finesse, only a desire to create a butter-churned wall of H-Bomb electricity that somehow both emphasizes the ancient spirit of The Beat, while making it something totally new. After “Bo Diddley” the guitar would never be the same; this is Zero Hour at electric rhythm guitar trinity, the magic upon which our Ramonic future would be built.

There’s more, much more to Bo’s first, eponymous album; I mean, for god’s sakes, in addition to the flat-out fatback greasy-Delta-moonshot classics listed above, there’s theslurring, stomping “Diddy Wah Diddy” and the debut of the drunkass standard “I’m A Man.” Throughout, The songs are staggeringly simple yet complete, like passionate shorthanded notes to your voodoo sweetheart; and the album is so full of energy, joy, spontaneity, and a late-night blue-lit spirit that somehow the imperfections fit right in (“Before You Accuse Me” is especially marked by tuning inconsistencies and a few missed chords).

Prior to this, other singers had shrieked with lust and howled with hope and Hadacol; but no one had done it accompanied by the thrashing, throbbing, electrified spirit that humps and sizzles and drools through this album. This makes Bo Diddley the first modern Rock’n’roll record. You are hearing the old gods of Africa going though the Stargate built by Bo into rock’s future, where they still thrive.

Everything bright and brilliant and chunky and charging and simple and simply perfect about Rock’n’roll is contained in Bo Diddley. It is the moment where the future is invented, and the past opens its’ deprived, insulted, trashed but triumphant arms to welcome it. (Tim Sommer)

Click here for our review of Hugo Largo’s ‘Mettle’, the first ever post in TNPC:

https://thenewperfectcollection.com/2015/01/30/hugo-largo-mettle-1989/

38. THE IMPRESSIONS – THIS IS MY COUNTRY (1968) / (A) CURTIS MAYFIELD – CURTIS (1970)

Rhythm & Blues, Soul

curtisWhen a state of emergency was declared in Baltimore in April 2015, some might have been forgiven for imagining they had entered a nightmarish time warp. But this would have betrayed a political perspective deficient in its awareness of snowballing social inequalities in the USA today. For African-Americans in particular, the barriers to social and economic equality remain intact. For them, the wealth gap remains, along with persistently high unemployment rates – twice the level of white unemployment – a statistic depressingly similar to that of 1971. Too many go home to impoverished environs, nearly six in ten living in segregated neighbourhoods. It is clear that the effort to attain social and economic equality has some way to go.

These statistics would have made disheartening, if familiar reading to the late Curtis Mayfield. As a driving force in black music from the early ’60s through the mid-’70s, he was a seasoned documentor of the struggle of black Americans through his music and lyrics, which blended fluid, at times lush, melodic funk/soul with measured social commentary. Before launching a highly successful solo career, Mayfield was a member and later leader of Chicago-based vocal group The Impressions. Of all the mid-60 R&B vocal group heavyweights, their music, despite significantly lighter radio rotation, is arguably the most enduring. While the likes of The Temptations only began to produce socially conscious records around 1968-69, Mayfield and The Impressions had been consistent in doing so since the departure of original lead vocalist Jerry Butler in 1962. Paralleling the Civil Rights movement, it took different forms, but was invariably dignified and gently righteous, whether urging black Americans to ‘Keep On Pushin’ in their struggles, landscaping utopian visions which mirrored the more famous dreams of more famous others (‘People Get Ready’) or lending encouragement during times of uncertainty and setback (‘It’s Alright’, ‘We’re A Winner’).

But it would be amiss of me to suggest that the music of The Impressions was a polemical belligerent brew. In fact, for the most part, it was as sweet as sweet soul music could be, the lion’s share of the songs occupying  themselves with that most perennial of concerns; finding, keeping or losing the girl. A shrewd move, guaranteeing an audience sizeable enough to ensure the other message found its way into as many homes as possible. Despite great success, and perhaps due to complications with record company distribution, their reputation seems to have declined over the years, certainly by comparison to their more conspicuous Detroit-based contemporaries. For example, Big Sixteen*, a magnificent 1965 compilation of their early ABC singles (curiously placed at No. 51 in consecutive NME Top 100 Polls of 1974 and 1985) seems to have disappeared without trace from Greatest Albums lists. It would be tempting to reassert its rightful place in the canon, but the album has long since been unavailable and its inclusion here would not be in keeping with our aim to favour those albums that tend to drop beneath the radar.

[*It took me a long time to track down Big Sixteen, finally doing so at the immortal vinyl Valhalla that was Beanos in Croydon around 1992, but not before I had been introduced to The Impressions’ music a few years earlier, through the purchase of their 1965 People Get Ready LP, which I acquired – after a somewhat briefer excursion – to the late lamented John Smiths’ Bookstore in Byres Road. A veritable goldmine that shop. It always seemed to have the good stuff]

Mayfield’s output was prolific, but unlike some of his peers, Marvin Gaye for instance, he has no single universally recognised classic album, although Superfly and There’s No Place Like America Today often vie for the accolade of his most accomplished long player. But almost everything he put his hand to between 1964 and 1976, turned to gold.

The Impressions’ This Is My Country (1968) was the first release on Mayfield’s own Curtom label. It remains their finest studio album, featuring Curtis’ trademark falsetto and skilful if unobtrusive guitar work [self-taught, he utilised open tunings to create a unique sound and claims to have slept with the instrument, so that when the muse was upon him, he could wake up in the middle of the night and write], showcased most eloquently here on the gorgeous ballad ‘I’m Loving Nothing’. By contrast ‘Stay Close To Me’ comes on like a Northern Soul floor-filler, recalling The Isleys’ This Old Heart Of Mine’,  and ‘Fool For You’ is hard-hitting brassy blues, characteristic of Ray Charles. Curtis is in control throughout and pulls the (heart) strings more confidently than ever on the achingly tender ’It’s So Unusual’ which also features some melancholic brass dispersed with dazzling effect following an unexpected momentary pause in the rhythm. ‘You Want Somebody Else’ is even better – the couplet “But my love is still true, for only you” may indeed sound banal but when Curtis drips the honey as sublimely as this, it reminds me why I was given a pair of ears in the first place.

The album is bookended by the two ‘message’ songs, first of all ‘They Don’t Know’ where with familiar restraint, Curtis laments the recent assassination of MLK:

“Another friend has gone / And I feel so insecure  / Brother if you feel this way  / You’re not by yourself  / We have lost another leader  / Lord how much must we endure  / If you feel this way  / You’re not by yourself”

It is street smart R&B, and although perhaps not all of the lyrics date very well (“Every brother is a leader /  Every sister is a breeder”) the song’s loose earthy arrangement, replete with organ, strings, guitar and horns is a winning combination.

On the closing title track, the call to action is rousing. One can feel chests simultaneously bursting with pride and righteous indignation:

“Some people think we don’t have the right  / To say it’s my country  / Before they give in, they’d rather fuss and fight  / Than say it’s my country  / I’ve paid three hundred years or more  / Of slave driving, sweat, and welts on my back  / This is my country”

Along with People Get Ready, This Is My Country is The Impressions’ crowning glory. Times were changing fast and less than two years later, Mayfield had left the group, embarking on a solo career that would take him in new directions and bring him unprecedented success. On his first solo outing Curtis (1970) he delivers the record he always wanted to make, a self-penned socio-political concept album (don’t worry, this isn’t prog rock!), a clear precursor to What’s Going On. An edited version of its most celebrated track, the nine minute uptown funk classic ‘Move On Up’, was a huge success in the UK, but strangely failed to chart back home, its aspirational message ignored by the public, who paradoxically lapped up the equally lengthy, blitzkrieg of pent-up venom that was the album’s opener, ‘Don’t Worry If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go’. And how about that opening line?

“Sisters! Niggers! Whities! Jews! Crackers! Don’t worry, If there’s a Hell below, we’re all gonna go!”

proclaims Mayfield over amplified fuzz-funk guitar and echo-laden infernal screaming, as he anticipates the tempest brewing in American inner cities, reproaching those responsible for the fragile state of race relations. This theme is explored more subtly on ‘The Other Side Of Town’ where Mayfield’s innate sensitivity to the plight of the downtrodden is laid bare:

“I’m from the other side of town  / Out of bounds  / To anybody who don’t live around  / I never learned to share  / Or how to care  / I never had no teachings  / About being fair”

But here and elsewhere on the album, the augmentation of harp and harpsichord lends to the proceedings a sweeping expansive sound which is simply irresistible. And the closer, ‘Give It Up’, Mayfield’s heartbreaking confessional, would melt the hardest of hearts

“All concern and the trusts that never happened with us  / The walk of embraces and the love of our faces  / It never happened you see and I’m so sorry”

On Curtis, Mayfield blends in everything from full orchestrations, exquisite balladry to experimental funk, ably abetted by arrangers Riely Hampton and Gary Slabo. He would go onto even greater success with his soundtrack for Blaxploitation classic Superfly,  but Curtis was his album, the one where he flaunted his talent most liberally.

And what of his influence? Well, it wasn’t only black teenagers in Chicago who were taken with The Impressions’ gospel and blues-tinged harmonising, and their influence was not restricted to young R&B wannabes. They made regular visits to play the Kingston dance halls, and their influence is clearly discernible in the rocksteady sound of late 1960s Jamaican music. A production line of eager JA vocal groups would record cover versions of Mayfield-penned classics. Among them, a young Bob Marley would have been listening intently and it is no exaggeration to say that without Mayfield, Cash and Gooden, then there would have been no Marley, Tosh and Livingston. At the very least, it is indisputable that The Wailers’ sound would have evolved into something quite radically different. Later reggae acts such as The Congos would add a third vocalist (Watty Burnett) in a bid to replicate The Impressions’ sound. Further afield, a young Belfast boy christened Ivan was similarly smitten; one doesn’t need to look very far to hear how The Impressions shaped his sound (try Crazy Love from Moondance or Gypsy Queen from His Band & The Street Choir for starters). Mayfield’s socially conscious lyrics undoubtedly cleared the path for eighties / nineties urban hip-hop / rap acts concerned more with the brutal realities of inner-city life. His legacy in soul music endures today, the voice of Pharrell Williams for example, a carefully studied imitation.

However, his legacy is also a social one. In response to criticism of the subject matter of his music for Superfly, Mayfield famously quipped “I don’t see why people are complaining about the subject of these films. The way you clean up the films is by cleaning up the streets. The music and movies of today are the conditions that exist. You change music and movies by changing the conditions. His compassion for people caught up in poverty was matched by his hope for a brighter future for all. As Gaetana Caldwell-Smith in her Obituary in ‘Socialist Action’ notes: “Mayfield inspired three generations of musicians to infuse their work with his idea of the meaning of soul. He wrote and composed with the aim toward getting people to think about themselves in relation to the world around them, to make this planet a better place for everyone.  He had personal obstacles to overcome, his own crosses to carry: raised by his mother and pastor grandmother in poverty, he became hard-nosed enough as a record producer to ensure he retained songwriting and production credits in a world where most other artists were being ripped off by record companies. More significantly, in his later life Curtis had been a quadriplegic since 1990, after being felled by a lighting rig which collapsed on him at a concert in New York, crushing his spine. But in addition to being a beacon for black Americans he became an inspiration to the disabled as well. After his accident, he remarkably found he could still sing, using gravity’s pull on his chest and lungs as he lay flat. His death in 1999, at the age of 57 was attributed to complications related to diabetes as a result of his accident. Music lost one of its greatest voices, poor black Americans one of their greatest champions. At his funeral, The Rev. Fred Taylor of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said, “Curtis Mayfield’s music told us that despite all odds, we are here and we will continue to fight until we become equal partners in the social fabric of this country.” Baltimore, Chicago, America and the world today need a few more prophets and peacemakers like him. But there will only ever be one Curtis Mayfield. (JJ)

32. FUNKADELIC – MAGGOT BRAIN (1971)

Funk, Greatest Records, Psychedelic Space Rock, Rhythm & Blues, Rock Music

George Clinton is back, and career retrospectives and reappraisals are being rewritten with relish. He has undoubtedly been one of music’s most colourfully charismatic and anarchic performers over the past 60 years. Yes, that’s right, sixty.  A true eccentric to rival those other freakish musical mavericks, Lee Perry and Sun Ra, Clinton’s influence on the evolution of popular music has been incalculable. So, in assessing the relative merit of his oeuvre of recordings, where should you begin? One might stake a claim for Parliament’s P-Funk bomb ‘The Mothership Connection’ or Funkadelic’s acid-fuelled eponymous debut or it’s insane follow up ‘Free Your Mind…And Your Ass Will Follow’. Perhaps even the later sorely under-rated ‘Cosmic Slop’ could come into contention. Parliament’s ‘Motor Booty Affair’ is also worth a mention. In the NME’s recent ‘500 Greatest Albums of All-Time’ list, the 213th greatest album ever made was reckoned to be Funkadelic’s ‘One Nation Under A Groove’. The inclusion of that album may have been designed to offset a peculiar exercise in bad taste which managed to find room for Green Day, Pearl Jam and Whitney Houston, while simultaneously overlooking the tour de force of psychedelic stoner funk that is Funkadelic’s third album ‘Maggot Brain’. To my mind, even the noblest of record collections is incomplete without it.

‘Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time
For y’all have knocked her up
I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe
I was not offended for I knew I had to rise above it all
Or drown in my own shit.’

Along with the mischievous black humour of Clinton’s lyrics, ‘Maggot Brain’ is most often remembered for the guitar solo of its title track. If, like me, you hit your teenage years at some  point after 1977, you probably grew up during an era when the legacy of punk dictated that there was no legitimate place for the guitar solo in music. This was on the whole a good thing. There may have been space for the jagged interplay of Verlaine and Lloyd, but their dazzling art-punk virtuosity stood in stark contrast to the supercilious phallic extension building of the Jurassic ‘guitar heroes’.  The Buzzcocks’ sardonic piss-take of the guitar solo on ‘Boredom’ was a bona fide punk statement of intent if ever there was one. Be as well outlawing the guitar solo right there and then. [During these years, I recall one of my TNPC colleagues and I smuggling ‘Led Zeppelin III’ home to listen to, as if it were contraband material fit only for a brown paper bag hidden under a trench coat]

So, it is important to state that ‘Maggot Brain’ is not simply about that guitar solo. And it has more in common with punk – if not aesthetically then certainly attitudinally – than you might think. Punkadelic? Well, that would be stretching the truth, but it’s fair to say that Funkadelic were punk in their own inimitable way. Not only did they occasionally share the stage with Detroit’s finest proto-punks The MC5 and The Stooges, but ingenuously, they kept sufficiently aloof from the prevailing musical and political trends to cultivate an attitude that may have been construed as nihilistic. Although it was a time of increasingly radical political consciousness for African-Americans, for Clinton & Co. there were darker energies at work, as exemplified by the inclusion in the sleeve notes of extracts of literature from The Process-Church of The Final Judgement with their bizarre syntheses of Satanism and Christianity. And the band shunned the Motor City’s premier hit-making factory, preferring instead to forge their own unique path. Times were changing of course and even Gordy’s Motown marionettes were embracing the new zeitgeist, casting off the oppressive shackles of the two and a half minute pop single to venture out into uncharted musical terrain, this new expressionism pitched against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights / Black Power movement.

There is no sharp suited foursome instructed to smile into the camera for this album sleeve. Instead, we have a picture of a woman’s head emerging from the earth, which is either screaming in agony or laughing maniacally? Inside, there is an image of the band, standing on a bit of spare ground, looking menacingly hip, no doubt tripping on acid. They did a lot of that at the time. Those smiles may not be friendly ones…

There is a macabre myth associated with the inspiration for the album title: that George Clinton’s brother’s corpse had been lying for such a length of time that maggots were found to be found crawling through the eye sockets of his empty skull when his dead body was finally discovered.  And death seemed very much on everyone’s minds during the recording sessions for the album. Consider for example, the title track, the album’s most celebrated moment. If this brain-scrambling finger-blistering slice of melancholia is a cathartic experience for the listener, just imagine how it may have felt for its protagonist Eddie Hazel. It is well documented that Clinton instructed him to ‘Play it as if your momma just died.’ Some claim that Hazel only discovered his mother hadn’t died after the recording finished. Whatever the truth, and the bulk of personnel involved in the recording have very little recollection of the event, the result was something extraordinary. An impassioned slow burning guitar that cries, weeps and wails its sorrowful eulogy, is only slowly and gradually released from its agony after a gruelling ten minutes. While Hazel sounds on his knees his guitar knocks asteroids off their courses. I imagine the walls of the recording studio sweating blood by the end, the guitar shrivelled up like a piece of dead fruit after it’s exertions. Stylistically, the track could be interpreted as an homage to Hendrix who had died shortly before recording sessions for the album began, but the moment belongs to Eddie Hazel. When Hazel died in 1992, fittingly the song provided the soundtrack at his funeral.

While Hazel was digging Hendrix, there were other influences that shaped the band’s sound, most obviously the rhythmic funk of James Brown and Sly Stone. Listen to ‘Can You Get To That’ or ‘Hit It And Quit It’ where the positive Family Stone influence is at its most bold and infectious, if made even more flamboyant by Bernie Worrell’s intensified keyboard work. On ‘Super Stupid’ Hazel amplifies the decibels with an even heavier sound – George referred to it as ‘a louder Temptations, The Temptations on acid’ – on a song that tells the story of a fatality caused by mistaking heroin for cocaine.

The ten minute finale, ‘Wars of Armageddon’ is the strangest of trips  –  percussive anarchy, frenzied axe-grinding, bubbling organ, screaming, freedom chants, airport announcements and ridiculously crude lyrics merge together in what sounds like one big Parliafunkadelicment orgy. One can divine its influence in the abstract Afro-funk of the title track to Miles Davis’ fabulous ‘On The Corner’, released the following year. It also anticipates the real party to come, aboard that Mothership…

Has there ever been a more fitting name for a band than Funkadelic? Says it all really. Perhaps if Roxy Music had been called Glam Art Trip or if Kraftwerk had simply been dubbed The Robots. In the evolutionary development of Parliament-Funkadelic, and indeed of the music of the period, the album serves as a missing link – both musically and chronologically – between Jimi’s ‘Electric Ladyland’ and Parliament’s aforementioned ‘The Mothership Connection’. There are lots of stopping-off points along the way of course, not just in the Parliament-Funkadelic canon, but this evolution was paralleled elsewhere: in jazz (the post ‘Bitches Brew’ fusion explosion) and in soul [Ernie Isley’s guitar work with The Isley Brothers for example]. Into that melting pot came Clinton and Funkadelic. They partied, preached and pounded, and alongside their monumental guitar solos, they funked it up like nobody else. (JJ)