Sly & The Family Stone, Family Affair (1971)

Sly-family-affair

Artist: Sly & The Family Stone
Title: Family Affair
Description: single; album track, There’s A Riot Goin’ On
Label: Epic
Release date: 1971
First heard: circa 1970s

How are you with hand-me-downs? Have you spent any considerable time in secondhand clothes? Were you an Oxfam hipster before the term “vintage” legitimised the wearing of a dead man’s shoes? Have you driven a used car that smelt of a sales rep’s nicotine habit? Would you eat off a dining companion’s plate? Did your chewing gum lose its flavour on the bedpost overnight? If your answer to any of these is yes, then you’re probably a fan of There’s A Riot Goin’ On, one of the down-and-dirtiest LPs ever made and all the more legendary and essential for that. Even the flag on the front is grubby.

The sixties are dead. It’s on America’s tortured brow that Mickey Mouse has grow up a cow. Sylvester Stone, the man who fused psychedelic rock to funk and soul, is behaving erratically. He’s in with the Black Panthers and gangsters. He’s been missing gigs. It’s two years since the Family Stone’s last hit, Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). The violin case he carries with him? Full of coke and PCP, by all accounts. But Sly has a plan. He’s holed up, like a horny Brian Wilson, at The Plant in Sausolito, or at his home studio in Bel Air, and he’s recording like crazy while his pet monkey tries to fuck his pet dog, by all accounts. He’s making his own Exile On Main Street, whether consciously, unconsciously or otherwise.

Though hailed, and rightly so, as a pop classic, There’s A Riot Goin’ On (its title an answer to the question posed by Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On?) is pure filth. The Funk courses through its every capillary. The sound is muddied and muffled, like there’s fluff permanently on the needle. And yet it sings! It zings! it brings! It soars! It punches through the fog of punished magnetic tape! For an ideas-clogged meisterwerk, it even concealed two three-minute chart hits to soothe the record company’s savage breast – not to mention shipping half a million in its first year of release after summiting Billboard in its own, flag-draped right. The most decisive of the pair was Family Affair, tucked away side one, track four. (The featherlight follow-up Runnin’ Away, a blueprint for all of De La Soul, is side two, track five.)

Amid all the gung-ho experimentation, jazz freewheeling, freakouts and yodeling, Family Affair feels as honed and polished as a diamond. There’s nothing here to frighten the horses: a clicky beatbox beat, a steady rubber-band bass, some Rhodes swirls from Billy Preston, Rose Stone’s repeated, magic-hour refrain (“It’s a family affair/It’s a family affa-ai-ai-air“), overlaid by Sly’s oak-smoked tones, riffing. The cumulative effect is akin to voodoo; though hooky, singalongable and populist in construct, it’s sodden with black history and as liable to crack as Sly’s voice. What went into the making of this record is right there in the grooves: the insomnia, the introspection, the self-medication, the peek over the lip of insanity, the whole superfly soap opera with that revolving door for fragrant female auditionees whose tryouts were committed to tape and then recorded over by the next candidate, by all accounts. This is why the grooves overfloweth.

Out of all the drug-taking, love-making and piss-taking arises a social conscience every bit as vivid as the one that beats beneath Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street or Marvin’s Inner City Blues, and achieved in fewer words.

One child grows up to be
Somebody that just loves to learn
And another child grows up to be
Somebody you’d just love to burn

Mom loves the both of them
You see it’s in the blood
Both kids are good to Mom
“Blood’s thicker than the mud”

Quite the chronicler. For a man whose vision must have been permanently clouded by what the actor Steven Toast would later rhyme with Children In Need, Sly’s perception was keen. And was there ever a more hopeful vignette than this?

Newlywed a year ago
But you’re still checking each other out, yeeeeeeaaaaaahhh!

For a song whose instrumentation actually sounds as if it’s in the process of tripping over right the way through, Family Affair is in full control of its faculties. It might not pass a breathalyser test, but you’d want it at your birthday party. Head in the clouds, brain in its pants, a fist raised to black power and the other hand up an available skirt – this is a sex, politics, social change and happy hour in one hit. Nobody wants to blow. Nobody wants to be left out.

Advertisements

The Jam, Beat Surrender (1982)

TheJamBeatSurrender

Artist: The Jam
Title: Beat Surrender
Description: single
Label: Polydor
Release date: 1982
First heard: 1982

Succumb-ah to the beat, surrender

Debate continues to surround the line “succumb to the beat surrender”. Some hear it as “succumb unto the beat surrender”, which scans; others as the above, with a Mark E Smith-style “ah” to slot it into the rhyme scheme, so it sounds like “cucumber”. Hey, there are no rules in the art of pop scansion. If there were, you could be sure that Paul Weller would have long ago heeled them into the dirt with a black and white shoe. David Bowie added an extra syllable to “the” in Fashion (“You shout out while you’re dancing on thu-uh dancefloor”), and Elton John was forced to elongate Bernie Taupin’s “sacrifice” to “sac-a-rifice” in Sacrifice. And if ever a supplementary syllable sounded right and soulful and true, it’s the one at the end of “succumb” in The Jam’s last single, fourth number one and their best.

Having forced myself to single out a single from the canons of some of the all-time great singles bands in due deference to the rules of The 143 – Smiths, Beatles, Byrds, Squeeze, Blur, Blondie, Pet Shop Boys – it’s a task I feel I am now equal to with regards The Jam. Their six-year, 17-song rally from the docu-realist manifesto In The City in 1977 to the Motown-driven Beat Surrender in 1982 is virtually flawless. (Three of them even have A-sides for B-sides.) I’m guessing that even among diehards, few would put Funeral Pyre or When You’re Young at the top of their all-time lists, but neither wastes its three minutes of your time (and the former gives me quite a thrill with its unrelenting end-of-days rhythmic attack – the Buckler co-writing credit well earned).

Weller was never going to go quietly into that good night after disbanding the band, and the more literally soulful Style Council have their roots in the final noises of The Jam. There is continuity all over the shop: A Solid Bond In Your Heart was written for and first recorded with The Jam, but first appeared under the Style Council; protegée Tracie Young sings on the last two Jam A-sides and on Speak Like A Child; Polydor producer Pete Wilson has credits on swansong The Gift and entrée Café Bleu. As such, it’s feasible to read Beat Surrender as a Style Council number-in-waiting, a dry run, a handover of power. But it isn’t. It’s The Jam, in full effect, on all cylinders, tight as a Rick Buckler paradiddle. Ironically, they sound like a band with a future. The whole world in their hands.

I don’t knew exactly when Weller penned the lyric, but there are hints of the A.P.O.C.A.L.Y.P.S.E. herein.

And as it was in the beginning
So shall it be in the end
That bullshit is bullshit
It just goes by different names

All the things he cares about, he sings with feeling, are “packed into one punch.” The punch that we all felt in our guts when The Jam announced their departure? The farewell tour must have been a bitter pill for all who bore witness. But if you’re going to go out, go out with a song whose ions are positive and arrangement is bursting with life. Weller’s angelic serenade over a piano scale to begin before a pyrotechnic blast of soul power, writ large with the brass but countersunk to the floor with Bruce Foxton’s strutting bass, Buckler’s rollercoasting Tamla beat and a call-and-response from Weller and Foxton that speaks like a child of unity, not discord: come on girl, come on boy.

All the things that I shout about
But never act upon
All the courage and the dreams that I have
But seem to wait so long

It’s Weller alone who sings, “You’ll see me come runnin’, to the sound of your strummin’, fill my heart with joy and gladness.” It’s perplexing. Either it’s a crowded marriage on the rocks that’s holding things together for the kids (ie. us), or it’s three people holding their heads up high and going out in a blaze of glory. Had The Jam bowed out with their penultimate single, The Bitterest Pill, how differently we might have all felt.

Why is Beat Surrender my all-time favourite Jam track? Not because it’s their last, although its defiant attitude to sentimentality (“bullshit is bullshit”) scores extra points and there’s a sense of occasion here that’s touchable. Possibly because it confirms this power trio as the soul outfit they always strove for, even in the heat of punk’s scorching flames, and latterly came to be. Mostly, I think, because it’s a call to arms, and you need those at any age. (Little wonder the fire in Weller’s belly still burns, as even he slows down by the hearth.) As he says, at the ripe old age of 24, “If you feel there’s no passion, no quality sensation, seize the young determination.” If he ordered you to do the same tomorrow, from the pages of Mojo, you’d stand to attention on your old knees.

Just as James Beck, who played the spiv Private Walker on Dad’s Army, was my first death, I guess The Jam were my first public break-up. The other bands I’d pledged my teenage allegiance to in the late 70s and early 80s were still going: 999, the Undertones, the Cure (even my first favourite band The Sweet soldiered on), but The Jam were the first to announce their dissolution and make a song and dance about it. It was a learning experience, one to which I had little choice but to succumb-ah.

Chic, Le Freak (1978)

chic-le-freak

Artist: Chic
Title: Le Freak
Description: single; album track, C’est Chic
Label: Atlantic
Release date: 1978
First heard: 1978

Listen to us, I’m sure you’ll be amazed …

Though my formative dancing years were complicated by hormones and punk rock, I was no wallflower, as romantic as that may autobiographically be. Once the school disco had established itself as a pre-sexual playground where manoeuvres could be rehearsed in the dark in civilian clothes, to not dance was to not participate in the social whirl. You couldn’t haltingly approach a girl you fancied for a slow dance at the end if you’d spent the previous couple of Fanta-sipping hours glued to a plastic seat. You had to spin it to be in it, and you had to be in it to win it.

I consulted my childhood diaries in order to assess the vivacity of the discotheque culture at Abington Vale Middle School, and am able to confirm that there were two discos on the French trip in 1978 (although I didn’t go to the second one, which I decreed to be “chronic”), and another which I called a disco but was actually a house party at Nina Thadani’s. I hadn’t really started dancing yet. After graduating to Weston Favell Upper School in September, things hotted up. There was a disco that Christmas, held in the sixth form common room but for third years only, at which, I chronicled, “everyone freaked out.” This was the year of Le Freak, aptly French-inflected in the cross-channel circumstances. At this milestone social event, I smooched with Liz Carr. I also did a pogo with John Lewis and a “footsie” with John, Bill, Lee, Si and George, who were the cool kids. (Even though a footsie would be imminently besmirched by Shakin’ Stevens.)

By March 1979, I had thrown my lot in with punk and would only dance – or effect the Doc Martened version of a violent can-can – to approved tunes, which remained in the minority. It is recorded that a disco in March 1980 boasted tunes by the Sex Pistols and the Skids; come December, we high-kicked to the Undertones, Sham 69 and, generously, the Tourists. But as my circle approached full adolescence, we occasioned to go to organised discos in clubs or booked rooms, and, post-enlightenment and keener to move closer to the other gender, we’d dance to a wider range of music: the Whispers, say, followed by the Jam, followed by Diana Ross. Which takes us back to Chic.

There remains no limited company as likely to make me dance than the Chic Organisation, especially in my older bones. Any one of their five consecutive UK Top 10 hits from 1977 to 1978 will do the trick, but there’s something alchemical about Le Freak’s siren call – that “one-two aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa” – which yanks you onto the dancefloor. I’m right, aren’t I? You simply do not want to miss another second of its one-two-three-and-a-half-minutes of aerobic bliss. This song is like a form of conscription. Resistance is futile. (I hate being urged by others to get up on the dancefloor, and petulantly pull back, but when Chic are asking, I’m dancing.)

Sometimes it’s best not to lift the bonnet on perfection, although producer Steve Levine did just that with the mastertapes on his Radio 2 show The Record Producers and to hear the individual engine parts of Le Freak did not rob it of its mystery. So efficiently are Nile Rodgers’ forensic guitar, Bernard Edwards’ intricate bass and Tony Thompson’s surgical drums entwined in that intro, you wonder why Mount Rushmore wasn’t re-chiselled as a result and all those dead presidents replaced. As with a lot of monumental music, what’s left out is as important as what’s left in, and in the case of the intro, it’s a bass drum beat where that beat ought to go. Listen to it now. That’s mostly just Rodgers, a hi-hat and a snare. It’s the feeling you get when you ride a bike without holding the handlebars.

Had I owned the parent album – and who realistically owned disco albums? – I would have had the five-and-a-half-minute 12-inch mix, but there’s something pure about doing what has to be done to the seven-inch. There’s no fat on the record, and there can be no fat on your bodily expression. I don’t know if it’s Luci Martin or Alfa Anderson who sings the line, “Le Freak, c’est Chic,” – it could be both – but its a clarion to anyone yet to fully appreciate the international sexiness of this musical form, rooted in the warmth and sorrow of soul, schooled in the double-jointedness of funk, and smoothed of all rough edges in the studio by, in Chic’s case, the sages who wrote and played it (and engineer Bob Clearmountain). Songs like Le Freak were such staples of the disco, and remain so, you didn’t need to own them. They were being-out records, not staying-in records. They were in fact “being out, out” records.

I may have fancied myself a 14-year-old punk, but even at the height of my commitment to anarchy, I knew that disco didn’t suck. (What kind of a philistine would think that, even for a pose?) There was only so much jumping up and down you could do before your head hurt. I was never the greatest dancer, but I knew the primal power of fancy footwork’s release, even before I boast bum-fluff.

Chic wrote, produced and sometimes played some of the most significant dance music of my teens. I have hymned Diana Ross’s Diana album elsewhere. The canon of Sister Sledge twirls for itself. I even have room for Let’s Dance, which Rodgers underpinned like a master craftsman. In 2013, with Edwards and Thompson gone but never forgotten, Get Lucky reinstated Rodgers in the firmament.

Though for many of us there will always a hint of the Proustian about hearing Le Freak, this is a rush that never loses its momentum.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa –

The Shirelles, Baby It’s You (1961)

ShirellesBabyIt'sYou3

Artist: The Shirelles
Title: Baby It’s You
Description: single; album track, Baby It’s You
Label: Scepter
Release date: 1961; 1962
First heard: circa 1970s

In 1985, Billy Bragg supported The Smiths on their first US tour. He told me when I was writing his biography that he’d had a “long conversation” with Morrissey on the tour bus about a subject that proved fertile common ground, the wonder of New Jersey girl group the Shirelles. Although Billy confessed he’d always mistakenly referred to them as The Shirlettes, having misread a sleeve. I sort of prefer it.

He wasn’t being so daft. The group was, after all, named after one of its founder members Shirley Owens, just customised to sound a bit more like the Chantels (the pioneering black female singing group from the Bronx). Shirley, Doris Coley, Addie “Micki” Harris and Beverly Lee had nascent local label boss Florence Greenberg to thank for their fortunes, and vice versa, as they gave Tiara Records its first hit in 1958 while still in their teens, I Met Him On A Sunday (licensed to Decca). After a period of uncertainty and musical chairs, the Shirelles found themselves back under Greenberg’s wing and signed to her next imprint, Scepter, with whom they’d have hits until 1963. But the Goffin-and-King-penned Will You Love Me Tomorrow in 1960 was the flame that lit the touchpaper and sent up the fireworks: it was the first Billboard number one for an African-American girl group. (They were women by then, of course, and historically not yet African-American either – I rather fear it would have been “coloured” at the time.)

Burt Bacharach was already a hitmaker in 1961 when he, regular partner Hal David’s brother Mack and the equally prolific Luther Dixon (who also produced) came up with Baby It’s You. The Beatles covered it on Please Please Me, and used the same arrangement, but let’s not pretend it holds a flame to the Shirelles’ original, which oozes heartache and all-the-girls-love-a-cad inevitability.

The backing is sublime, a potent cocktail of overstatement and understatement: the tambourine sounds like it’s the size of a dinner tray, while the backing “sha-la-la-la-la”s might be made of marshmallow, and the beat played with swizzle sticks. This is no wall of sound, more like a trellis, but what blossomy delights hang thereon. The addition of male backing singers hardens the sound once the intro has lured us in with its swooning incense, but Shirley Owens’ deftly modulated and surgically emotive lead vocal brings sweetness and light to this tale of manifest female destiny written by guys.

“It’s not the way you smile that touched my heart,” she confirms. “It’s not the way you kiss that tears me apart.” Either way, she is torn apart. “Uh-ho oh-ho,” she quivers, before letting us know that “many, many, many nights” roll by while she sits, typically, alone at home and cries over this bounder. “What can I do?” NB: not what can I do, but what can I do.

I can’t help myself
When baby it’s you
Baby, it’s you

Then the mood darkens. “You should hear what they say about you,” she trills, while her sisters intone, not that subliminally, “Cheat, cheat.” He’s not worth it, this guy. They say he’s “never, never, never been true,” and yet Shirlette is gonna love him any old way, despite what “they say.” (Cheat, cheat.) Begging ought not be her business, but beg she does: “Don’t leave me alone, please come home.” Baby, it’s him.

Their manager and label boss was a woman, a woman wrote the tune of their first number one, and they made giant steps for feminism just by their success, but like most girl groups, their words were often written by men trying to think like women. Like Crazy by Willie Nelson, Baby It’s You evidently works for either gender, but in a pre-liberation era, putting up with useless blokes was, lyrically, part of the patriarchal furniture. (See also: “He hit me and it felt like a kiss,” “Tonight the light of love is in your eyes, but will you still love me tomorrow?”, “But all you do is treat me bad, break my heart and leave me sad,” and on and on.)

The singing is so affecting and true, the music appears not to have much to add, but Dixon’s arrangement pulls back at just the right moments, dropping out completely before “’Cause baby, it’s you” for maximum melodrama, and placing the “cheat, cheat” aside just far back enough in the mix to make it sound like the other Shirelles are talking behind Shirley’s back. I take issue with the organ break at one minute 40, so shrill and intrusive it threatens to blow a hole in the atmosphere, but if anything it makes Shirley’s return to the mic all the more of a relief.

It fades, as all 60s songs fade, but not until she’s implored, “Come on home.” I realise I have a soft spot the size of a dinner tray for music of this stripe and timbre from this golden age, but what can I do?

Beyoncé (Featuring Jay-Z), Crazy In Love (2003)

Beyonce_-_Crazy_In_Love_single_cover

Artist: Beyoncé (Featuring Jay-Z)
Title: Crazy In Love
Description: single; album track, Dangerously In Love
Label: Columbia
Release date: 2003
First heard: 2003

We all know that lightning-bolt feeling of satisfaction when, by hook or by crook (and it was way more of an achievement in the latter 20th century), you idnentify the original source of a sample used in a modern record. Eureka! It is the musical equivalent of Poirot’s reveal in the drawing room. Whodunit, or who-originally-dunit, has been the sport of nerds since the late 80s, when a combination of available technology and a legal Wild West combined to create a plundertopia. Even when audio-recycling was reigned in by m’learned friends and samples had to be – yawn! – cleared and credited, with all the residual paperwork entailed by this musical-industrial complex, the creativity bubbled on.

In 1994, I let light in upon the magic of Portishead’s haunting Sour Times in the old-school way. I actually had a Lalo Schifrin Mission: Impossible album (I think I was on a soundtrack label’s mailing list), which contained Danube Incident, a jangling, melancholy theme he’d composed for the show, and once I’d heard it, I reached for my copy of Dummy. Eureka! Ingeniously lifted by Geoff Barrow, it forms the basis of Sour Times. Just as The Last Time by the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra formed the basis of Bitter Sweet Symphony by The Verve a couple of years later. Having only applied to use a five-note sample, this proved actionable. But there’s no denying the drama and the brilliance of the pilfer. Which brings us to Crazy In Love.

Like millions of others, I was knocked sideways by the stomping pizzazz of this, Beyoncé’s debut single as a solo artist. The rattlingly funky beat, those blaring horns – what a fanfare it was for this newly-minted superstar, and so perfectly calibrated for her tottering, arse-shaking warrior dance. The fact that both the beat and the horns are cut and pasted from the Chi-Lites’ 1970 single Are You My Woman (Tell Me So) diminishes the song’s pop alchemy not one jot. Certainly, it was a shock when I first discovered how much of the original had been borrowed, and how little producers Knowles and Rich Harrison had adapted it, but once you’re over that, you can go back to shimmying and trying to replicate Beyoncé’s vocal aerobics.

Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh, oh no-no

Even that‘s tricky to sing along to. Unless you’re actually doing karaoke, it’s fine to skip the verse and belt out the chorus, but you’ll need to do some serious breathing exercises first. And some treadmill. She obviously has.

Got me looking so crazy right now, your love’s
Got me looking so crazy right now (in love)
Got me looking so crazy right now, your touch
Got me looking so crazy right now (your touch)
Got me hoping you’ll page me right now, your kiss
Got me hoping you’ll save me right now
Looking so crazy in love’s,
Got me looking, got me looking so crazy in love

It feels so good when you nail it. It doesn’t mean a heck of a lot, but she sells it so hard. Both your love and your touch haven’t actually got her crazy right now, they’ve got her looking crazy. Which is as much of an imposition, if poise is your thing. Additionally, your touch has got her hoping you’ll page her right now, which is a) technologically quaint, and b) borderline submissive. Why doesn’t she page you? Because she looks crazy? She also wants saving, like some fallen woman, and all because of your kiss. Good lord, has she been sectioned? It’s torrid stuff. And not for one moment do you disbelieve it.

Beyoncé and Mr Carter (her now-husband Jay-Z) have remodelled themselves as some sort of power couple, and it can cloy. From an Independent Woman to Mrs Carter? Really? But herein, they’re in harmony.

He’s there from the start – unless, like Smooth Radio, you actually favour the Jay-Z-free version – bigging her up (“ya girl, Bee”), and it really does feel like “history in the making.” Duets, we’ve had a few. But the dynamic here is so much more, well, dynamic. She’s in charge, but he gets a verse. And they complement each other: she the operatic street diva, he the cunning linguist, banging on (“y’all know when the flow is loco, Young B and the R-O-C, uh oh, Ol’ G, big homie, the one and only, stick bony, but the pocket is fat like Tony, Soprano”). It’s a bold, redolent explosion in the English language factory.

Back to the verse, and Beyoncé’s back on the tiller, explaining that she’s not herself lately (“I’m foolish, I don’t do this“) and that your love’s got the best of her (“And baby you’re making a fool of me”). You got her “sprung”, which I like, and she “don’t care who sees.” Beyoncé’s strapping voice ascends like a lark and diffuses like an exploded pyrotechnic.

None of this was on the Chi-Lites.

I made the fatal mistake of buying the parent LP, Dangerously In Love, off the back of my love for Crazy In Love and discovered, to my cost, that it followed the pattern of all R&B albums in the modern style: three good songs, all of them singles, one with Missy Elliott, and the other tracks. It’s the way. Even – to pluck a more recent example – Pharrell Williams’ GIRL, which is in the same vertiginous league, has filler. None of it’s bad, but not all of it is Happy. This need not detain us. Outside of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On, and Stevie Wonder’s six-LP rally from Where I’m Coming From, even Motown never really traded in classic albums, and maybe that’s where this neo-R&B orthodoxy grew from. (Both Marvin and Stevie had to wrest control to make their respective bids for long-playing freedom in an era when recording artists were like actors under the Hollywood studio system.)

Beyoncé used the string sequence from Bitter Sweet Symphony on her 2013 world tour. Eureka!

James Brown, Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine Part 1 (1970)

JBSexMachinered

Artist: James Brown
Title: Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine Part 1
Description: single
Label: King (UK: Polydor)
Release date: 1970
First heard: 1980s

Fellas, I’m ready to get up and do my thing!
Yeah! That’s right! Do it!
I want to get into it, man, you know?
Go ahead!
Like a, like a sex machine, man.
Yeah!
Movin’, doin’ it, y’know?
Yeah!
Can I count it off?
Okay!
One, two, three, four!

On 21 March, 1983, BBC2 repeated an edition of Pop Carnival featuring band of the moment Echo & The Bunnymen, live at Sefton Park in August 1982. I taped it, as we used to say in those days, and played it on a loop. Captivated in general by a lithe, smooth-skinned, coolly possessed Ian McCulloch in close up, lit in red and green and sliding out of a wide-necked t-shirt, I was particularly taken with his trademark, Jim Morrison-inspired freeforming. During a memorable protraction of Do It Clean, he yelled these instructions at the audience, separated from the stage by an actual moat:

“Get up! Get on up! Stay on the scene! Like a sex machine!”

Ill-educated at that tender stage in the riches of soul and funk, I wrongly assumed these provocative words to be of McCulloch’s own wild invention and not, as it turned out, a sincere tribute to Mr James Brown.

As the decade wore on, the goalposts of my mind were moved exponentially, and a James Brown best-of was added to my collection under “essentials”. Sampling had breathed new life, if not new royalties, into the Godfather of Soul’s knockout canon, and by the end of the 80s, his horns, his rhythms and his catchphrases belonged to the world. For me, it may well have been Sefton Park that cast a special aura around Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine – a critical moat, if you like – but no matter how deeply his other greatest hits burrowed under my skin, it was unimpeachable. His biggest hits in the UK up to the mid-80s had been It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World and Get Up Offa That ThingSex Machine only reached 32 on initial release in 1970 and barely charted at all in endless, greedy reissues – and then that blatant bid for glory Living In America put them all in the shade. But for an artist whose back catalogue goes classic, classic, classic, classic, classic, you need your own criteria for selecting one.

To say that it’s his best work is to perhaps undersell the marksmanship of the JB’s, who’d only just been assembled in 1970 and the horn section are relatively quiet on the track after that signature “count-off”. But in some ways, the lack of arrangement gives the music air, and over that modest but hypnotic guitar phrase from Bootsy’s brother Phelps “Catfish” Collins and the low-energy beat from “Jabo” Starks, Brown and co-writer Bobby Byrd are able to effectively duet, affecting a funky version of bants (“Dig it!” “Right on, right on!” “Shake your money maker”). When Byrd’s piano adds some fleeting colour, it’s about as complex as the five-minute studio version gets. This is stark stuff. Like a machine, in fact.

When – after teasing the band once again with a call-and-response – Brown takes them to the surely definitive bridge, and then counts it off “one more time”, nothing miraculous actually happens. It barely even goes up a gear, for all the fanfare and spoken preamble. And that’s the way I like it: the way it is. There’s steam coming off this recording, and yet the lid stays on; it constantly pulls its punches, but such restraint takes skill and judgement. It’s what, for me, renders it so irresistible, a tune you go back to again and again and again. There are elongated live versions on wax (featuring the returning Fred Wesley), but you’ll never top this original take for sheer precision and, yes, discipline.

The JB’s had a tough boss, but, y’know, dig it, James Brown ran a tight ship, he docked people’s wages and he got results. To lift a call-and-response from my second favourite James Brown tune:

What you gonna play now?
Bobby, I don’t know. But whatsoever I play, it’s gotta be funky.
Yeah!

The Ronettes, Be My Baby (1963)

ronettes17

Artist: The Ronettes
Title: Be My Baby
Description: single; album track, Presenting The Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica
Label: Philles Records
Release date: 1963; 1964
First heard: circa 1969

For every kiss you give me, I’ll give you three …

In Pop Goes The Soundtrack, the second episode of Neil Brand’s tremendous BBC4 series Sound Of Cinema, key proponent of the jukebox score Martin Scorsese remembers synching up the pre-credits sequence of his first classic movie, Mean Streets, to a classic pop tune from his childhood. Harvey Keitel’s troubled Charlie wakes up with a start in the middle of the night, gets up, passes the crucifix on his apartment wall to lean into the mirror and see if he recognises himself. He fails, then falls back onto his bed with a distant police siren wailing. As his head hits the pillow, the song strikes up with another start: bap, bap-bap, pow! bap, bap-bap pow!

“The first beats of Be My Baby just emerged,” Marty explains, “and they’re with me all the time.” Even when he’s on set, he reveals, he taps out those three bass drum beats on his right knee and the almighty crack of the snare on his left (“It’s just what I do, it’s become part of my DNA”).

Do it now. bap, bap-bap, pow!

The song itself accompanies an establishing montage of home-movie footage, both real and staged, wherein Charlie poses for the cine camera with assorted “guys from the neighbourhood”. The streets don’t look so mean with that glorious, teetering wedding cake of a pop song serenading them. My guess is that Be My Baby permeated my consciousness via pop radio in the late 60s and early 70s, but it won’t have been until I finally caught Mean Streets on video in the early 80s that the power of Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound hit me … and it felt like a kiss. It was, you might say, Scorsese’s firsthand experience of the song as a man on the cusp of his twenties in Queens (Spector, his peer, grew up in the neighbouring Bronx) that provided my own secondhand equivalent in the cleans streets of Northampton. You have to cherish these connections. There is, as I hope we have established, no wrong way to arrive at an appreciation of great pop music.

Spector went to Hollywood, of course, and it is the cinematic drama of his best productions that earn their top billing. You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, Da Doo Ron Ron, River Deep Mountain High, even the less archetypal My Sweet Lord – these nuggets were embedded into my childhood. Designed to work on radio and jukebox alike, these sonic overstatements came jam-packed. Why use one piano in the studio when you could use three?

Spector’s Gold Star was a palace of excess. That the eights beats that kick off the Ronettes’ definitive two-and-a-half minutes should be big enough to open a movie tells all. Of course there are castanets over the arrangements, which is already pea-soup with percussion; an echo chamber wraps a vacuum of loneliness around Ronnie Spector’s plea, “So won’t you say you love me? I’ll make you so proud of me”; eleven warm bodies provide backing vocals (including Sonny and Cher, and Ronnie augmenting herself); a full orchestra is wheeled in for the first time, the names of its anonymous virtuosos listed nowhere. They say Hal Blaine (bap, bap-bap, pow!) is one of the most recorded drummers in history. A cast of thousands, indeed, and let’s not forget Ellie Greenwich (also a backing singer) and Jeff Barry, who co-wrote the thing with Spector.

But the casting vote goes to another native New Yorker, Veronica “Ronnie” Bennett, aged 20 in 1963 and not yet married to the mob. Her life was not a bed of roses, especially as Mrs Spector, but she survived, and look where he is how. And in any case, her promise on Be My Baby to give three kisses for every one hypothetically provided by her prospective “baby” is one of the high watermarks of all recorded pop.

Pow!