Music: God is in the Details

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The Independent Culture
"FELLAS, I'M ready to get up and do my thing!" James Brown's hoarse call to arms in the opening grooves of "Sex Machine" is enough, still, to fill any club dance floor. "Sex Machine" was one of a series of records with which he changed the course of popular music, and for once that is not hyperbole. By ridding black music of almost anything except its African- American rhythms, he took dance music back to the heart of the ghetto and also to the edge of the avant garde. This is music as pure, organised sound.

But the brutal simplicity of the music belies a kind of perfection. Every note is intended; nothing is wasted. "Guard your intervals; treat them like dollars," Stravinsky said. James Brown may not have been thinking of Stravinsky, but he knew all about dollars. The details of "Sex Machine" still show up, sampled in hundreds of rap and hip-hop records.

Brown, who had first made his name with searing soul ballads like "Please, Please, Please", made "Sex Machine" after firing his previous band and replacing them with teenagers who used to hang around the studio in Cincinnati. A young bassist called "Bootsy" Collins and his brother Phelps "Catfish" Collins were responsible for the textures of the record: a dark, bubbling cauldron of bass and a dry, scratching, insistent guitar riff. Over this spacious, almost atonal backing Brown grunts and calls; the words ("Get on up", etc) are almost irrelevant. It is almost 50 seconds into the record before some blues piano establishes a real key centre (E). The momentum builds and builds; there is no harmonic movement, no escape from the imperative to release the tension by dancing.

Then Brown calls out to his band: "Shall I take it to the bridge?", and the one harmonic shift of the record takes place: up to the fourth, like the first chord change in a blues. And the musicians sit there for 16 bars, riding Phelps' riffing until at Brown's insistence the band "Do it like we did at the top!" and crash down on seven staccato quavers. Everything, and everybody, is subservient to the rhythm. The record returns to the E chord and the blues piano interjections until Brown eventually calls things to a halt.

There is a danger of over-analysing records like these, but Brown's achievement was considerable. At the end of what had been a songwriters' decade, he dared to go further than anyone in stripping the music to its bare bones. It took pop music more than a decade to catch up, but at a time when pop was flirting with ever greater complexity and ever grander "concepts", records such as "Sex Machine" provided a blueprint for the future.

Alex Webb

James Brown: Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine - Polydor, 1970 (released as a single in Britain 1972)