James Brown - Sex Machine (1970) - Album Review
By Sergio Ariza
Defining funk forever
That James Brown is the most important figure in black music is beyond dispute. The guy was there when R&B gave way to rock & roll, and when he was already known as the ‘Godfather of Soul’ he decided to go one step further and create funk with Cold Sweat. By 1969 he had a 13-year long career, 43 top 20 hits on the R&B charts and 11 on the pop charts, and was the man most respected by his peers (who nicknamed him 'Soul Brother Number One')... but, incredibly, the best was yet to come and in 1970, the year this album appeared, James Brown would define funk forever.
1969 was a busy year - although not much more than usual – as Brown recorded 11 singles (including Give It Up or Turnit a Loose, Lowdown Popcorn, which appears on this album with overlapping claps, and Mother Popcorn); four full-length albums (the previous year he had recorded five); and several EPs. Of course, when he wasn't in the studio, he was playing live, where he was one of the biggest attractions around (in 1968 a concert of his was scheduled to prevent riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King). That another of his nicknames was "the hardest working man in show business" was no joke, because if you were one of the musicians in James Brown's band you worked every day. And in 1969 his band was a dream team with musicians of the stature of Fred Wesley on trombone, Maceo Parker on sax, Jimmy Nolen on guitar or Clyde Stubblefield and John "Jabo" Starks on drums, plus his loyal friend Bobby Byrd, who had given him a roof, and ‘a family’, when he got out of jail. In fact Byrd was the only one of the original Famous Flames left.
The fact is that in March 1970 the band decided to rebel, fed up with their leader's stinginess (and his passion for fining those who missed a note during concerts), and asked for a raise. But James Brown wouldn’t budge and so the band walked out, minus the faithful Byrd and the drummers. Soon after, Brown signed the Collins brothers, Bootsy and Catfish who were in the unknown funk group, The Pacemakers. The Godfather gave Bootsy the reins at the tender age of 19 and the bassist responded in a big way. Focusing on Catfish's terse Vox Ultrasonic riffs and the Fender Jazz Bass that Brown bought from Bootsy, and adding horns in the background, James Brown recorded some of his best songs in the few months that this formation lasted. His recordings included Soul Power, Super Bad, Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing and, above all, (Get Up I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine, which finds in this ‘fake live cover’ its definitive version; the funkiest 10 minutes in the history of music.
In funk the guitar and bass swap positions, with the latter moving to the foreground while the former staying in the rhythmic background. No one understood this point better than Catfish and Bootsy Collins, whom the master of the genre would model to perfection in their brief time working together.
This double album is divided into two parts. In the first you can listen to the JB's (his new band) in the studio, with superimposed applause to simulate a live performance. The result contains some of the best moments of his career as, in addition to the aforementioned Sex Machine, the 'medley' that occupies the second side of the first record stands out. It opens with a glance to his past as a great balladeer with what must be the definitive version of Bewildered, which does not fade in comparison with the intensity of the legendary version of Live at the Apollo. Then comes the brief but frenetic recreation of another of his funk hits I Got The Feelin', which is followed with a spectacular six-minute version of Give It Up or Turnit a Loose, a song that they completely transform, turning the jazzy original arrangement by Pee Wee Ellis into a funk bomb of gigantic proportions. Suddenly Johnny Griggs' congas are singled out, then James Brown does his magic and starts using his voice as percussion "clap your hands, stomp your feet!", then shouts "Clyde! ", and the 'Funky drummer' himself enters for the hip hop world to enjoy another historic drum 'break'. However Brown still has another ace up his sleeve, as he turns to his 18 year old bass player and invokes the magic word: "Bootsy!" - then the bass kicks in and there's not an ass in the house that can sit still. What is funk, you ask me? Funk is James Brown in 1970 with the Collins Brothers and Clyde Stubblefield playing Give It Up or Turnit a Loose.
The second record is a live recording made in Augusta, Georgia – Brown’s birthplace - recorded in 1969 with his previous band, with Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker on horns and funky drummer Clyde Stubblefield. Here you can appreciate the difference between the two bands, in this one the horns are at the forefront of both the more moving songs like I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door I'll Get It Myself), Licking Stick - Licking Stick or Mother Popcorn, and the mid tempos like Spinning Wheel, It's A Man's Man's Man's Man's World or the inescapable Please Please Please.
It is a great concert but it is not at the level of excitement that he achieved with his new band. Of course if all this album was at the level of the two definitive versions of (Get Up I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine and Give It Up or Turnit a Loose then 'we would not only be talking about the funkiest album in history (a title for which he can compete without hesitation) but of one of the most important of all times.