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Case Study: James Brown’s Super Bad (1971) December 20, 2006

Posted by wallofsound in Uncategorized.
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For most listeners, even though James Brown records are now widely heard in adverts and samples, Super Bad is strikingly distinctive. It is also music obviously made for dancing (a point missing from most analyses of his records). In this context the music is packed with a fervent energy, coiled like a spring, building but never quite releasing a dense musical tension. The sound is strongly rhythmic, driving forward supporting the punctuation of vocals, guitars and horns which stab, plead, cry, and eventually reach moments of ecstatic delight. Brown is the dominant personality, sole vocalist and the dominant sound. His words encourage and direct us, and the musicians in the band. This record is part of a world of communal dance, creating a party atmosphere with an undertow of sex and sweat.

In the right cultural context these associations are triggered by specific formal elements of the music. The conventional verses-chorus structure has been collapsed into one dense musical theme which is repeated three times with some minor variation, then interrupted by a bridge section, repeated, interrupted again, and finally repeated several times with variation until the fade out. There is no strong melody, and the words are a series of hooks sung and played over a strong, driving rhythmic pattern. In European terms the record is musically unstable: it follows a conventional blues forms, but the emphasis is on the driving rhythm section and subtle emphases in the beat; the music builds harmonically over relatively long stretches of time, and the releases of tension are limited to short punctuations at the end of the bridge (Brackett 2000, 134-136).

Brown’s voice has a wide range and a full resonance, and he sings in his Southern African American speaking accent, with strong rhythmic effect. The band plays in a key which pushes Brown to sing at the very top of his register. Combined with the inflections drawn from blues and gospel styles, this create the sense of yearning and emotion often associated with his style. The words are delivered as exhortations, driving on in successive waves, punctuated by pitched grunts and groans (Brackett 2000). He sometimes reinforces, some times anticipates, and sometimes responds to the propulsive drive of the band. All the instruments, including the voice, are mic-ed close giving them a full resonance and highlighting Brown’s diction. His voice is mixed to a volume that makes it prominent against the other instruments, but instead of being back in the distance, they are independently discernible and forceful. The communal, party atmosphere is reinforced by the crowd noises, which were over-dubbed for the single release.

The drums are central to the rhythmic drive with the kick drum hitting the first beat of the bar, and the other drums dancing around the beat to produce the jerky punctuations. The bass, guitar and horns constantly alter their role. In the verse/chorus sections the horns punctuate and the guitar moves between rhythm and the kind of fill role usually taken by the horns, while the bass emphasises the drumbeats. In the bridges the singing continues and the horns return to a more traditional role of lead and harmonic filler roles, the guitar follows the drums in quadruple time while the bass changes the feel of the section completely by punching into the spaces between the drumbeats. All the instruments end the bridge section with a double time staccato riff which momentarily releases the harmonic tension, but simultaneously drives the bridge into a new verse. This verse leads off with a sax solo which catches the emotional style of Brown’s singing: full, forceful, and with untempered pitches and a slurring of notes. It is hard not to respond to the driving beat and the exuberance of the sound and the musical tension creates a sense of expectation which is never fulfilled, never quite released.

But, there is another, more culturally specific, level to the record’s meaning that may be only available to some listeners. Brackett argues that what is important about these qualities of musical form is how they fit into African American culture. He suggests that this record represents a 1970s revitalisation of black American forms after the assimilations of earlier R&B into the pop mainstream. The lyrics draw upon characteristic African American expressions where sound and performance are more important than the meanings of the individual words removing the distinction between audience and performer (Abrahams 1976; Gates 1988). It is the intertextuality of the words and musical phrases — ‘right on’; ‘brothers and sisters’; ‘I got soul’; ‘soul power’ — to other James Brown songs, to African American vernacular speech, and the rise of black power politics in America at that time, which are important (Brackett 2000, 128-134).

The instrumentation and lack of harmonic development also echo these concerns with a strongly affirmative black culture. The emphasis on rhythm and the relative demoting of harmonic development within the performance can be understood as an example of the ‘double-voice’ of the African American (Gates 1988). That is, using the ‘language’ of European society, but expressing it in a African American way. The style of the sax solo draws heavily on the way of playing established by black power Jazz avant guard players like John Coltrane (see Kofsky 1998; Litweiler 1990). The recording style and overdubbed crowd sounds are most likely an attempt to present or suggest a live recording, perhaps to recreate the commercial success of LP’s of Brown’s live shows, but it also signals the importance of performance over composition. Most of Brown’s recordings in this period were improvised in the studio, and the ‘lyrics’ consist of instructions to the band. This adds to the sense of communality reinforced by the use of African American street talk.

This record will mean different things to listeners in different cultural contexts. I know there are a group of listeners who feel it is nothing more than an overly repetitious, musically impoverished cliché. They will probably say it is boring. To dancers it is a physically charged, dance classic. To African Americans (of a certain age) its an articulation of an empowering cultural movement. Each of these meanings is culturally specific, but each relates to qualities within the materiality of the recorded sound.

Extract from Tim Wall (2003) Studying Popular Music Culture (Arnold)

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