“Listen – Get On the Good Foot Pt1 MP3″
It’s Friday and the weekend is upon us.
My brain and my bones are weary, but my typing fingers – let me tell you – are ready to go.
It’s been a short week – due to the Labor Day holiday – but it has also been, in the figurative sense a very, very long one too.
Sometimes, when you’re overwhelmed by essential tasks (work, child care e.g.), and driven to continue non-essential ones (like blogging, loading the new iPod etc.), time seems to compress. With little downtime of any kind (aside from those few blessed hours of sleep), things don’t necessarily seem to move faster, but at the end of the week, time does seem to have slipped away, unnoticed. You arrive on Saturday wondering how the preceding five days disintegrated, leaving little in their wake aside from an all encompassing feeling of exhaustion, a brief sense of relief that the weekend has arrived and some form of rest and recreation is at hand, and lastly, a feeling of impending doom as you realize that often, leisure time slips away even faster.
When I was a kid, and school was a part of my life, I used to believe that the weekend lasted from late Friday afternoon to early Sunday morning. The rest of Sunday was devoted to alternately lamenting that Saturday was gone, and dreading the approach of Monday morning. Today, with school but a distant memory, I realize that approaching the weekend that way was non only counterproductive, but also evidence of the kind of neurosis that Woody Allen was once able to translate into laughs, but the rest of us only find unpleasant.
Anyway, I know that has little to do with funk and/or soul (or maybe it does, I’m sure there are plenty of sorrowful tunes about working too hard and watching life pass you by), but I suppose it’s the very nature of “le blog” to weave a certain amount of “personal” content into the mix, the human warp intersecting with the musical weft.
That said, here comes the music.
In the world of soul and funk, there is no artist more basic and essential than the Godfather of Soul, Mr. Please Please Please, Mr. Dynamite, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, or as he’s billed on the label of today’s selection “the Creator”, Mr. James Brown.
Now, those of us that give the matter any thought at all, can delve into the roots of funk and like those of any mighty oak, they splay off into a thousand different directions, touching on the sounds that arrived in American in the mouths and hands of African slaves, and all of the mutations/developments of those sounds that followed in the next few hundred years, from New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and all points in between. You can wander off aimlessly, digressing into discussions of “funk” as a term that alternately is/isn’t explicitly musical, and how all of the meanings therein kind of end up in the same general vicinity, but in the end, if we’re being honest (and I hope we are) it is nigh impossible to escape from the conclusion that the sound of funk (at least in the way it is discussed here) is absolutely unthinkable without the existence and contributions of James Brown.
I’ve certainly known of, and heard the music of James Brown since I was a kid. Even if I didn’t own any of his records it was impossible to grow up in America in the late 60’s and early 70’s, not knowing who James Brown was, and hearing his music. However, as a white kid in the suburbs, it was also almost impossible not to take him for granted. I grew up in a home where the music of black Americans was heard often, but the vast majority of that music was jazz, and not the freaky, outside, tenor skronk of the Albert Aylers of the world, but more likely sophisticated Ellington-isms, the harsh whisper of Miles Davis and the joyful shout of Louis Armstrong.
As a teenager I grew to love soul music, both the contemporary sounds I heard on the radio and the sound of the 60’s as well. A while back – I can’t remember exactly where – I recounted my first awakening to the sounds of classic soul to the moment when I flipped over the Jimi Hendrix Experience at Monterey Pop, and heard Otis Redding for the first time. In the years that followed, I made a concerted effort to locate, and ingest similar sounds as often as possible. Strangely enough, the first James Brown record I ever purchase contained not funk, but rather a collection of his earlier hits like ‘Prisoner of Love’. ‘Please Please Please’ and the like. It wasn’t until the early 80’s, that one of my Mod/Garage cohorts passed me a cassette (remember those?), the b-side of which was a compilation of Brown’s later, funkier sounds. It was on that comp that I was struck down and lifted up again by the groove contained in the song I bring you today.
Let me begin discussion of this song by referring you to a piece I wrote about the greatness of James Brown a few years ago for the Funky16Corners web zine. That essay really gets to the heart about how I see the inner working of the James Brown groove.
I’ll provide a capsule comment here, turning on the premise that the groove we speak of works on three basic levels.
Level 1: The part that gets inside you, travels through your heart and mind bringing on an involuntary reaction to the beat that in most sane people results in movement, generally dance (or a close approximation thereof).
Level 2: This stage is less obvious, reached only by those who feel inclined to dissect the beat. These would be musicians/music hounds (me), pot smoking navel gazers (often also members of the same group, and once upon a time, me also) and rarely, gifted musical empaths who’s very nature is to fall inside and become one with the music. At this level it is possible to grasp the mechanical nature of the James Brown sound, in which the groove is broken down into its clockwork elements (Jabo, on top of Maceo, on top of Fred with JB as the counterweight turning the gears). Paying too much attention to this aspect of the sound strips it of its heart, soul and meaning, and ultimately misses the forest for the trees.
Level 3: This is the stage where you realize that pulling apart a James Brown groove like a cuckoo clock is insane and pointless, and instead of complaining that you can see the man behind the curtain you should just sit back and move your ass to the Wizard of Oz (or the New Minister of the Super Heavy Funk as he is known in these parts).
When you’re discussing prime examples of the James Brown groove, you can hardly do better than ‘Get On the Good Foot’. Here we have the Godfather dropping science about hitting a party and working it out on the dancefloor, over a high-precision horn chart, repeated guitar figure and super funky bass and drum work. The chorus also has some pumping JB organ in the background (not unlike that running under Lyn Collins ‘Think’).
The tune starts out with James deciding that he’s:
Going down to the crib Let all hang out
Where soulful people knows what it’s about
Said crib is a place,
Where people do the sign and take your hands
And dancin’ to the music James Brown band
And then he drops perhaps my favorite couplet in the JB oeuvre:
Said the long-hair hippies and the afro blacks
They all get together across the tracks
And they PARTY Ho!
On the good foot
I mean seriously, it’s all about the unity of the dance, what’s better than a song about dancing that is also eminently danceable? It just doesn’t get any better. As a record, ‘Get On the Good Foot’ is a masterpiece of the controlled explosion, in which the power of the band is overwhelming yet securely under the direction of the Groovemaster General.
Brown wields his band like a mighty weapon, unsheathed in the service of soul, bringing down the walls of each and every listener’s (and dancer’s) inner-Jericho.
This is not to say that Brown was always capable of moderating the groove. Without the proper amount of zen, even the most finely tune power plant can melt down. There’s a mid-70’s recording of Brown and band at Studio 54, where ‘Get On the Good Foot’ is taken at 150mph. The band still has it together, but the acceleration of the tempo strips the groove of its subtle beauty, conjuring images of runaway trains and little puffs of cocaine coming out of your speakers. It’s unworthy of his catalogue, and the sort of thing you can imagine a room full of toxically inebriated revelers barely noticing as they crept ever closer to the edge of the cliff.
Suffice to say, the original is plentiful, easy to find (and reissued frequently), so a taste of the real thing – the kind of thing that’ll set your soul afire when you’re dragging your ass around like a sack of dirty laundry – is never far away.