The mid 60s was an extremely fertile period for James Brown. By then he’d moved away from the tear-soaked, down-on-his-knees gospel/soul that defined much of his early career. Relatively straightforward 12 bar song structures were replaced instead by jerky, jagged one-chord grooves. Brass stabs emphasised the first beat – “On the one!” as he’d instruct his musicians, and the tracks would tick along with well-timed metronomic precision. No-one knew it at the time, but the Godfather of Soul was inventing funk.
To be in James’ band then must’ve been terrifically exciting, yet extremely stressful. Here you were, creating this new form of dance music, all the while unable to enjoy playing for playing’s sake, lest you miss the beat and risk a fine from the boss. James Brown records are littered with phlegmily barked instructions; “Horns! (Bap! Bap!) Maceo! (Toot! Toot!) Pee-ann-er! (rinky dink dink dink) – every musician hitting his part with laser precision. Miss the beat and you’d find your pay packet a wee bit lighter come the end of the week.
When you strip the records down into their component parts, they’re extremely simple affairs. Take 1965’s Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag. Individually, there’s fairly little going on; a rickety-tick drum beat played by Melvin (brother of Maceo) Parker, a repetitive, a see-sawing, octave-hopping bass line, a simple horn section, blasting ‘on the one’, a chicken scratching guitar, stuck forever on a Major 9th chord (I think it’s Db, though the released recording was sped up half a tone to make it faster and more energetic, so this, muso minds, would in effect make it an E major 9th) and James’ gravel-throated lyric about an old guy who’s discovered he likes the new dance all the kids are doing.
James Brown’s Star Time box set – one of THE essential additions to any serious music collection features the complete, unedited take of Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag. When the track was originally released as a single, it was edited so that ‘Part 1’ became the a-side, and the extended funk workout that followed was renamed ‘Part 2’ and featured on the b-side.
James Brown –Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag (Parts 1, 2 and 3)
The box set includes James Brown’s declaration that, “This is a hit!” before a note is even played, and for the next 7 or so minutes, the band follows their leader with an unnerving mechanical rhythm. The whole recording sounds tight and taut, lean and mean, stripped of unnecessary excess and flab. It fair packs a punch.
A favourite dancefloor filler in this part of the world, it can make my pal Greg move in ways a white man from the west of Scotland has no real right to. Soul of a black man, feet of a rhythmically-challenged Glaswegian. Right on.
You know this already, of course, but James Brown’s influence goes far and wide. Early 80s DIY punk/funk collective Pigbag named their signature instrumental Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag in clear homage. An instantly catchy 8 note riff, it failed to chart initially.
Pigbag – Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag
Nowadays, Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag is ubiquitous with over-zealous, celebratory football chants and montage soundtrackers who think they’re still making yoof programmes for the TV, thanks in no small part to Paul Oakenfold’s ‘monsta!’ souped-up makeover around 20 years ago, but Pigbag’s original version took 2 or 3 goes before it went chart-bound. The Jam, in particular their keen-eared, sticky-fingered bass player Bruce Foxton, must’ve been blushing slightly when it eventually started gaining airplay.
By this time their own Precious, out as a double a-side with A Town Called Malice was starting to get played on the radio and you couldn’t help but notice the (cough) similarity between the two tunes.
The Jam – Precious (12″ version)
The Jam even went as far as naming their posthumous live album Dig The New Breed, a line from the James Brown tune that kicks off this post. Which just goes to show, what goes around comes around.