Joel Goldenberg: James Brown's Hell

James Brown performing in Zaire, 1974.

In a way, I feel cheated.

For several years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I chased down every James Brown album I could get in used record stores, whether it was Cheap Thrills or Maison de Disque or even stores out of town, and I amassed quite the collection — nearly 100 LPs.

Now they're all available for streaming on Spotify, including albums I searched for in vain, especially the rare 1971 Christmas album Hey America, whose title track presents the rare treat of JB briefly singing Hava Nagila.

But back in the Stone Age, when you actually had to leave your house to buy records and scour the countryside for rarities, my first musical encounter with JB was the 2-LP set Solid Gold, a relatively good career-spanning compilation.

I say "relatively good," because, while all the right songs were chosen, the sound was pretty bad as numerous songs were crammed onto each LP, degrading the audio quality. The worst was the massive hit I Got You (I Feel Good), which sounded like it was recorded in a room with no air. I was shocked later to hear versions with loads of echo.

Still, I was intrigued and decided to delve further into JB's catalogue. My first choice was the 1974 2-LP set Hell — maybe the odd choice of title for the album caught my attention.

Then again, I didn't realize the context — some of JB's other albums recorded before and after Hell, were a reflection of the times in the mid-1970s. Police brutality, pollution, massive crime in the streets, Watergate, unemployment, the energy crisis resulting in massive lines at gas stations and other sources of misery.

Also, JB was especially prolific during this period — in 1972 and 1973 alone, he released two 2-LP sets, two blaxploitation flick soundtrack albums and some non-LP singles including two versions of a rebooted Think, originally recorded in 1960. He was also putting out albums by the other artists on his label, such as the JBs and Lyn Collins.

Because JB was spreading himself so thin, it turns out Hell, in my opinion, is the last of his albums to contain stone cold James Brown classics.

But the album itself is wildly inconsistent — notwithstanding the title, Hell is not a concept album about conditions in the U.S. circa 1974. It should have been.

My impression of each of the tracks:

Side 1

Coldblooded: One of the best songs on the album, and a good choice to kick off the tough Side 1. A very tight, funky performance, and JB provides the toughs on the street with ways to avoid getting arrested.

Hell: This should have been much better and more profound. Instead, it's kind of trivial and has a massively annoying chorus.

My Thang: One of James Brown's best songs, period. Loads of fun, irresistible, boisterous and should have topped the charts.

Sayin' It and Doin' It: A bit of a retread, as JB's singing cohort Bobby Byrd released his own version of the song in 1972 or so. It's all right, and dancaeble, but nothing too special. Byrd's version is rougher and better.

Please, Please, Please: A version of JB's first hit with a heavily Spanish flavour. JB did a lot of song reimagining in this period, but this one is quite charming.

Side 2

• I am reviewing this side as a whole because the music involved is similar — the first three tracks are mildly funky, heavily horn-laden and kind of schmoozy versions of the standards When the Saints Go Marchin' In, These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You) and Stormy Monday. The next two songs, A Man Has to Go Back to the Cross Road Before He Finds Himself and Sometime, are greatly inferior rerecordings of songs JB released as singles circa 1969-1970. Sometime, especially, was a great single, but these 1974 versions are overarranged. Was JB attempting to emulate Barry White?

Side 3

I Can't Stand It '76-Some critics don't like this redoing of one of JB's late '60s hits, but I find it to be supremely funky and tightly played, with some playful JB vocalizing. But why the reference to '76?

Lost Someone— A double retread. This is not only a 1970s reimagining of JB's 1961 classic pleading ballad hit, but the musical track was released as an instrumental just the year before as Straight Ahead. Strangely, this song works.

Don't Tell a Lie about Me and I Won't Tell the Truth on You- Too long a title and very run of the mill.

Side 4

Papa Don't Take No Mess - The last James Brown out and out classic. Laid back, supremely funky and one of the best key changes in the middle I've ever heard. Notably, the 45 RPM single version contains some overdubbed applause and a typical JB-concert type bombastic voiceover intro.

Next time: The Beach Boys' M.I.U. Album.

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