After the extremely raw and early funk of 1964 – 1969 and the insanely hard hitting funk of 1970, James Brown settled into a highly creative and fertile period of pure ’70’s style funk. Highlighted by heavy bass and drum tracks, regal horn lines, and distinctly seventies wah-wah guitar, JB crystalized his previous efforts into the FUNK we all know and love today. This era of Brown’s music has been collected on the stellar 2 disc set Make It Funky: The Big Payback 1971 – 1975.
The music James Brown and his band created from 1971 to 1975 is some of the greatest funk ever recorded by anyone ever, and no mere stray thoughts would do it justice. Therefore, a song by song analysis, sometimes just a few words or thoughts long, has been made. Note: after years of hearing, absorbing, and downright studying these songs, Wifey and I have almost formed an entire communicative language based solely on JB’s grunts, “heh’s,” and other assorted one liners which are often times unintelligible. These lines, culled almost entirely from these two discs, are certainly open to interpretation of both meaning and actual words spoken.
1. “Escapism” – A fine intro to the new sound of James and the JB’s – an intensely funky vamp with JB rapping over top about all sorts of topics. Includes classic JB stammering about Byrd having “an outta site tune” and other assorted hollerin’. Part 2 is insanely funky with some classic conversations between JB and the band. Wifey and I often use “adds to the cornbread” from the line “when you forget the grits is groceries, and it adds to the cornbread, you can lose your thing” to describe dismay or defeat. Used in a sentence: “I got reamed by my boss today and it really adds to my cornbread.” “I’m not trying to add to your cornbread but you just missed our exit.”
2. “Hot Pants” – The horns, twin guitars, and killer bass line all drive this song throughout the entire near 7 minutes of pure funk. The pace takes on a hypnotic groove about midway through and hearing the rising fever of JB’s temperature for hot pants is indeed a rare treat.
3. “I’m a Greedy Man” – Things get really, really serious here. This is one of the all time funkiest songs ever recorded. The bass is unrelentingly pulsing and writhing, while the congas, drums and horns percolate in, around, and between the ever growing tension. James’ delivery is dead on and all at once you can hear his frustration, pride, ego, and anger. The screams go to a primal place amongst a seemingly unending supply of “heh’s.” Meanwhile he is so impassioned he continually asks Byrd for permission to scream yet again. But it doesn’t end there; Byrd supplies excellent counterpoint to JB’s proclamation about he and the band being greedy men. Name by name James goes through and only when he reaches “Cheese” can he not even believe they can all be so greedy. “I don’t care, I just don’t want them to know…”
4. “Make it Funky” – “What choo gonna’ play now?” “Bobby, I don’t know. But whats ever I play, it’s gots ta’ be funky!” With an opening line like that most bands would probably fall short of such funky expectations. But this is James Brown and the JB’s and the song goes epic in it’s near 13 minutes. By the time the last 3 minutes hit and JB shares a call and response with “Friendly” Fred you realize how absolutely ridiculous the entire journey has been. We also get to hear a list of JB’s favorite southern foods, including “buttered steak,” “grits is great,” and “funky cornbread.” Delicious! There is so much going on in this song, both musically and lyrically, it easily bears repeated listening.
5. “King Heroin” – Probably the greatest, deepest, most effective anti-drug song ever performed. Even if you peel the message away and just focus on the music it would be a beautiful piece of somber late night jazz. Fred Wesley’s horn arrangement is gorgeous and it might easily be the prettiest song they ever did. Throw in JB’s dead serious recital of the horrors of heroin and you have something really, really special. This is serious business that demands full attention. Find a time when you can listen without distraction. You will never hear something like this ever again and you only get it hear it for the first time once.
6. “I Got Ants in my Pants (And I Want to Dance)” – It’s James Brown. It’s 1972. It sounds exactly like you would think it would sound with a title like that. Funk with a capital ‘F.’
7. “There It Is” – The wah-wah guitar scratching on here is somewhat akin to songs from the Shaft soundtrack, but where Shaft had moments of beauty, and an almost light funk, this is back alley dirty nightclub funk. Even the screams sound like he’s going to kill you. JB tears it up on the organ and everybody gets deep into the cut.
8. “Get on the Good Foot” – This song is so funky it really shouldn’t be. It’s one of those rare songs that almost sound unreal, as if this never could have really happened. The liner notes almost make it seem like a throwaway track but this was a huge deal at the time. There’s no way to even describe it to someone. The rhythm is incredibly hard to decipher, and there is a lot going on from everybody involved. Heck, even the bridge sounds like something out of a progressive rock album with it’s tight change up and return to the head with that great bass break. Even James’ delivery seems to be a step behind the beat. If anyone ever wondered why people consider the JB’s to be the greatest funk band of all time this would be a great study. “…and that’s on my bad foot!”
9. “Don’t Tell It” – Another epic exercise in laid back, greasy funk. JB sounds downright angry about filthy rotten streets, funky roads, and telling his woman how many times he told her not to “tell it.” Not sure about you, but by the sixth time I had this angry impassioned man screaming at me I would probably listen to him. What’s really surprising about this song is the beautiful and completely surprising bridge that could almost be it’s own song.
10. “I Got a Bag of My Own” – That is one funky, ridiculous bass. JB gives his measurements and proclaims he “don’t shoot nothing but ball and chain.” Whatever you say James…
11. “Down and Out in New York City” – An incredibly moving and semi-autobiographical tale of JB’s days as a shoe shine boy and being helped by all the “fat cats in the black hats.” The intro alone is enough to move a man to tears, let alone the proclamations of being down and out in the city. One of the few JB songs I can think of that has an acoustic guitar. Fred Wesley’s horn arrangements are stellar as usual and take an ordinary song and make it into something regal. “No one gives a good damn” indeed…
12. “Think” – A funky remake of an earlier hit for JB in the early sixties. Once again JB sounds angry even though the lyrics don’t really call for such attitude. Not quite sure what he was so angry about around this period, but you can hear an overlay of anger throughout most of his vocals right around ’72 and ’73. Must have been fed up with the man.
13. “Make It Good To Yourself” – Wifey and I often say “did you make it good to yourself?” to ask whether we did the right thing or not. Sometimes it’s hard to make it good to yourself, but JB and the JB’s most certainly make it good here in this much too short jam and end to disc one.
Part 2 coming tomorrow…