My Pop Life #238 : Hot Pants – James Brown

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Hot Pants   –   James Brown

Hot Pants…

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Number 2 Somerfield Road, Finsbury Park.  Top flat – under the eaves, a one-room attic dwelling with two sloping ceilings.  I lived there with Mumtaz, my girlfriend whom I’d left in 1980 to explore South America with my brother Paul for a year’s travel, but returned after four months spent in Mexico with tail between legs and Hepatitus B.  She took me back in, and life went on.  Finsbury Park, as noted in My Pop Life #42 was a delight.  Every now and again we could hear a muffled roar of delight from Highbury as Arsenal scored.   Not that often obviously, ha ha ha.  One-nil to The Arsenal was the 80s cry.   My beloved Brighton & Hove Albion’s cup run in 1983 took us to a semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday at Highbury.   Down the road.  I went to the game, which we won 2-1 thanks to a brilliant Jimmy Case free kick.  We were in the Cup Final!  1983 was clearly a blessing all round.  Laurie Jones was downstairs, communist, comrade, veteran of the Cable St riots against Moseley’s blackshirts and maker of his own wine.   In work mode :  the premiere and run of  Steven Berkoff’s “West” at the Donmar Warehouse in May of that year.   My first fully professional, fully paid proper acting job.  We ran there for five months then filmed it for the new Channel 4 (see Let’s Dance My Pop Life #221).

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In saxophone playing mode I was on this tune – Hot Pants.  Deceptively simple, it has to be precise, punchy, tongued exactly, every note must be the right length, it must attack, and the timing is everything.  Like all of James Brown’s magnificent work, the percussive element is primary, and the bulk of the tune is carried over one chord until the bridge, the long awaited release of the bridge.  Take it to the bridge.  Shall I take it to the bridge?  The famous cry from Sex Machine.  One of the genius elements of James Brown is how long you have to wait for the bridge in almost every song.  He knows his dynamics.  So did George Mack.

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Who?  This fella, a tremendous Anglo-Nigerian singer from Finsbury Park.  Where did we meet?  How did we find out that we were both musicians?  I cannae remember captain.  But this I do know – I was playing Hot Pants in the flat while Taj was at work because the band I was in at this time – George’s band Arc Connexxion – had it in their set.   I was one of three horns in Arc Connexxion, an afro-pop outfit which was a bit Fela Kuti, a bit soul, a bit funk, and a bit of George’s own compositions.  It was fun.  Looking back, it is exactly the kind of band I long to play in right now, here in New York : dance music with a brass/woodwind section, african-influenced.

I’d bought James Brown’s 30 Golden Hits while I was at LSE a few years earlier, exploring the landscape of soul music with my Glaswegian friend Lewis MacLeod. We were beyond aficionados, we were obsessed with hunting down the very best soul tunes of the previous 25 years.  Motown of course, Stax Records indeed, Atlantic’s huge six-album box set, Philadelphia Records and then all the other smaller labels – Sue Records, Curtom, Brunswick, SAR, Hi, et al.  I remember buying Stay With Me Baby by Lorraine Ellison one day like finding treasure on a desert island and we played it over and over, What A Difference A Day Makes by Esther Phillips, Why Can’t We Live Together by Timmy Thomas, Love TKO by Teddy Pendergrass, all golden.

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But James Brown was the record which got played a lot.  James Brown was on King Records, an independent label based in Cincinatti, Ohio. The greatest hits album was on Polydor and was a great primer to the man’s genius.  Hard to remember life before the internet, but the moment I saw Please Please Please on television I’ll never forget – the famous cape drama, the anguish, the concerned bandmates, the eruption of emotion when the cape is cast aside Yet Again. It’s magical theatre of soul music so it is, check it out, never gets old :

Lewis and I were hooked frankly.  Each song was better than the last – I Got You, Night Train, Think, I Feel Good, Out Of Sight, Try Me, I’ll Go Crazy,  Poppa’s Got A Brand New Bag, Cold Sweat.  We wished we could see him live.   He never came.  But, eventually, he did.  It was in Brighton one summer in Stanmer Park in the year 2000.  It was called the Essential Festival.  James Brown’s star had waned, he hadn’t charted for years, but his name was still synonymous with legend.  However, he was 67 years old, all the hype was that he only did 20 minutes in all, the bulk of the show was the band and younger singers & rappers.  And by then I’d immersed myself in Live At The Apollo the greatest Live Album of all time, and gorged on the youtube clips of the man in his prime, It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World, Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud) and the ubiquitous, brilliant Sex Machine.  I didn’t want those images to be replaced by a disappointment.  So I actually chose not to go.  Do I regret it now?  Kind of.  Yes.  Of course.  Other people I’ve rocked up to when in their 70s – McCartney, Aretha, Roberta Flack – and one in his 90s the amazing Tony Bennett – were all superb.  We were a little nervous about Aretha because there was some word of mouth that sometimes she “doesn’t turn up”, well she certainly did that night (see My Pop Life #225) god bless her, so that was nonsense.  But I remember distinctly deciding to swerve the great Godfather of Soul James Brown.  A fairly childish decision really.  The great festival- going kid of the 1970s had turned into the tight-assed muso-snob of the millenium.  But since I wasn’t there, I can’t tell you about The Essential Festival that year.  Silly me.

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Arc Connexxion rehearsed at George’s house just down Blackstock Road from where I lived.  Once a week in the evening.  I do not remember the rest of the band at all.  Who were they?  A racially mixed bunch who could play Motown, Fela and James Brown.  Out of my league perhaps, but playing a James Brown horn line is considerably easier than attempting John Coltrane or Stan Getz (see Desafinado My Pop Life #68), in fact playing in a horn section (this was my first time) is easier than playing solo.  But you have to be tight.  Tight as a camel’s arse in a sandstorm tight. The tongue on the reed has to be exact.  Percussive.  I loved it.  Our crowning moment was playing at Notting Hill Carnival after Aswad in August 1983 where we were last on the bill, and didn’t get to play Hot Pants after all (see My Pop Life #42).  We were hustled on and told we could play one song before the curfew and Carnival had to close.  We played Martha Reeves’ Dancing In The Street, and hundreds of people who didn’t want to go home yet did just that.  Fantastic.  It was our biggest crowd ever.

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Jenny and Lulu went to the James Brown gig in 2000 and reported back disappointment and a sense of a great artist being wheeled out, a circus act.  Jenny says that apparently James Brown actually was James Brown for one whole song (I should have gone), after which he went off and the young performers, rappers and funkateers played for 15 minutes before he came back, but he just couldn’t do it again and he simply stopped being James Brown and became a kind of JB tribute act and so she was sad.  So was Lulu.  A few years later Jenny and her sister Lucy saw Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis who were both in their late 80s and while Chuck was still Chuck Berry, Jerry was on a zimmer frame and scarcely present.  I’ve felt this way about Brian Wilson, my absolute musical hero, for the last few years.  They’re wheeling out a cash cow.  He’s not Brian anymore.  Leave him be.

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But James Brown?  If you think about it he has to be the greatest genius of popular music.  You could argue Louis Armstrong and it might be difficult to resist.  But JB is a giant.  He emerged from the 1950s as a fully formed soul star before the term had even been invented, fusing R & B and gospel into a funk sound a whole decade before it was even thought of.  During the 1960s the sound was honed and streamlined, the melody lines erased and the rhythms amplified and tightened.  The Vocals were punctuated howls, shrieks, shouts and calls.  Astounding. Pure dance music.  Popular, political, immersive, irresistible.  He was the first and most popular artist to be sampled on the turntables of DJs in the South Bronx, the drum breaks of Clyde Stubblefield are all over old skool hip hop.  All hip hop.  When he stole the rhythm and riff of Bowie & Lennon’s Fame from Young Americans for his song Hot (I Need To Be Loved, Loved, Loved) in 1975, no one blinked.  I suspect Bowie thought it was an honour frankly, which indeed it was. JB was infamous for running his band like a military outfit, musicians would get fined for missing a cue or a bum note or a snare hit on the wrong beat or being seconds late for rehearsal.  Not greasing their patent leather shoes or tying their bowtie.  A number of times bandleader PeeWee Ellis walked out only to come back, but in 1970, Ellis, Stubblefield, Fred Wesley and the other Famous Flames never came back and JB then recruited players from Cincinatti band The Pacemakers to replace them, include Bootsy Collins (see Give Up The Funk My Pop Life #138). He called the new band The J.B.s.  His rhythms are in house music, soul music, funk, hip hop, jungle, drum & bass, disco, you name it.  Michael Jackson’s greatest influence.  I can’t do him justice in this bloglet of mine and by the way he was probably bonkers too but what a musical giant.  What a towering extraordinary figure in the musical landscape. What a force.

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When The Brighton Beach Boys played people’s parties or weddings we would play a whole load of other material – disco, funk, ska, rock n roll and even Steely Dan and ELO, and when he can, our very own nutty drummer the itinerant rhythmicist Theseus Gerrard (mentioned in My Pop Life #111 and others) gets up to sing Get Up Offa That Thing and the whole room goes up to a different level.  We played it at Caroline Lucas’ 50th birthday in Brighton at the Indica Gallery in town which is based in an old church, and Theseus quite naturally climbed into the still-present pulpit to deliver his message of funk.  He’s a natural the fucker.  The funk of forty thousand years.

So I’ve played at least two James Brown songs in my short musical career.  Hot Pants is my favourite.  Could I get to play anymore before my ultimate death?  I’m 63 now.  Time is ticking…

 

The original number one hit single from 1971, Parts One & Two

Live and direct in 1985…

My Pop Life #237 : Have You Seen Her – The Chi-Lites

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Have You Seen Her – The Chi-Lites

One month ago today
I was happy as a lark
But now I go for walks
To the movies, maybe to the park
And have a seat on the same old bench
To watch the children play, huh
You know, tomorrow is their future
But for me just another day
They all gather around me
They seem to know my name
We laugh, tell a few jokes
But it still doesn’t ease my pain
Well, I know I can’t hide from a memory
‘Though day after day I’ve tried
I keep sayin’ – she’ll be back –
But today again I lied

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It entered the UK Pop Charts on 15th January 1972.  One of the most original and enduring songs of that era, today it still stands out as timeless superior music.  That Christmas we had enjoyed and endured Benny Hill singing Ernie endlessly smirking at us the grubby little toe-rag, then The New Seekers had cleansed us and tried to help us all to sing in Perfect Harmonover.  1971 had been my year of sentience musically, by which I mean to say that I had started listening to music in a different way.  Being catchy and easy to hum wasn’t enough any more.  Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep they sang.  We had other words for it.  And alongside the dross of Jonathan King and Johnny Reggae there was Rod Stewart and The Faces dropping Maggie May, there was Labi Siffre’s utterly magnificent It Must Be Love and there was Isaac Hayes with the astonishing Theme From Shaft (see My Pop Life # ).  I yearned for more complex music now, and wasn’t too discerning or careful – well I was 14 years old.  It was pot luck really.

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I’d bought Pictures At An Exhibition by Emerson Lake & Palmer, a moog-synthesised Mussorgsky mess which I irritated my family with.  I also had the Van Der Graaf Generator LP H to He (Who Am The Only One) and the title alone should give you a clue to its genesis.  Great band though, they still sound astounding in 2020.  And I had The Moody Blues finest hour In Search Of The Lost Chord which the entire family can still recite word perfectly I’m sure, I certainly can.  One of my LPs that got played downstairs.  Random post-hippie albums. Long Players.  But the singles chart was still the thing for all of us.  Top of the Pops on Thursday and Pick of the Pops on Sunday.  Religious observance of both.  Indeed I am not the only person to hold the music of 1971 so close to my heart – one fella, music journalist David Hepworth, has written a whole book about it.

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My friend Martin Steel tried to acquaint me with this particular book of the old testament a few years ago but some technical issue prevented it.  Thus I haven’t read it, but I sense through the osmosphere that this is a faintly rockist tome, and concentrates on white boys and guitars, which is both a shame and a flipping disgrace.  I wait for the day when Black Lives Matter infiltrates that particular monolithic way of consuming music, which I have struggled with for most of my life.

I’ve already chosen a number of songs for this story from 1971 which burned into my ear and thence my soul as I grew into a teenaged boy : Imagine which I’d just got for Christmas from JD my mum’s 2nd husband, Jig A Jig which I’d mistakenly taken into a music lesson at school, Bad ‘n’ Ruin which became my theme song later on in life, first single purchase The Banner Man, learning how to play the sax with Y Sharp, swooning to Tired Of Being Alone and Morning Has Broken, absolutely loving I Don’t Blame You At All.   All so vivid.  When I look at the Chart rundowns now from that era – you can do it on Official Charts dot com https://www.officialcharts.com/charts/singles-chart/19720109/7501/ – it feels like a blessed time, pre-worry, post-trauma (see My Pop Life #84) just bumbling along in East Sussex without a care in the world.  In theory.

In fact of course I was undergoing my sexual awakening.  Luckily for you dear reader I remember little of this nightmare, and indeed I would not lose my virginity for another two years, but stuff was happening.  In those days sex was almost completely suppressed, despite the hype of the 1960s.  My mum was reading The World Is Full of Married Men by Jackie Collins and there were a few well-thumbed pages in there.  You would find torn pages from a porno mag like Mayfair or Penthouse in a hedge walking along, discarded by some wanker.  The toilets at the train station in Polegate were covered with barely suppressed erections, phone numbers, boasts and pleas.  I shared a bedroom with my brother Paul so wanking in bed was out of the question.  No, this always happened in the bathroom.  Indeed I remember a few years later Simon’s friend Patrick Freyne accusing me of wanking one day as I emerged from the bathroom in St Anne’s Crescent.  Scarring.  But no girl (or boy) had ever touched it in early 1972, even through my trousers.  No, I was an innocent teen, and romantic at that.  Other lads my age – Pete, Conrad, Spark – they were already experimenting with girls in 1972.  Simon too started to go out with the school beauty Kerry Day.  The only girl I liked at school was Sarah Jane.  I did eventually go out with her, but we never had sex.  Sex was rare.

It was all about romance.  Falling in Love.  Holding Hands. Going Out With Each Other.  It was All Terribly Important.  Who Fancied Who.  All that.  There was a group of girls who I’d walk past on the way home from school – I’d catch the train from Lewes to Polegate, then the bus from there to Hailsham town centre and walk home.  On the edge of the estate – now called Town Farm, but dubbed Sin City when we lived there because it housed all the problem families – was a grassy play area and one day a small female child stopped me with an “excuse me?”.  She pointed to an older girl around my age.  “What’s your name? My friend Sharon fancies you”.  Well I told her and can remember almost nothing else but I’m wondering now whether this would have been almost my first sexual kiss, some weeks later I’m guessing, stretching it out a bit.  There was an underpass so the kids wouldn’t get run over, and the kiss was in there.  Was there also a fondling of tit?  Probably.  Maybe. That didn’t burn into my memory like you thought it would.  But I didn’t really fancy Sharon anyway.  It wasn’t a keeper.

My first girlfriend proper was Pam Wicks.  In the year below me, from Seaford.  Lovely girl.  She didn’t take sugar in her tea and persuaded me to give it up.  She came over to Hailsham a few times and spent the night on the settee downstairs, but I was last to bed and we had a little exploratory romp and rumble in the wee small hours.  No sex though.  Both a bit scared I think.  We liked each other a lot, but again it wasn’t destined to last really.  I didn’t love her.  She was like a mate.  We’d tease and joke around a lot.  Listen to music.  I think this must have been about a year later to be fair when I was 15.  Nothing like that happened when I was 14.

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The Chi-Lites in 1971

The song burned into me like all the great music of that era.  The dirty fuzz guitar with the sugar sweet harmonies blew me away, yes, but when lead singer Eugene Record starts that soulful monologue you have to listen.  And when he says, in a perfect rhythm

I keep sayin’ – she’ll be back – but today again I’ve lied

All people of a certain age will sing Waaahhh I see her face everywhere I go.  Magic.

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There are a couple choruses then an outstanding bridge :

Why, oh why
Did she have to leave and go away ? oh yeah
Oh, I’ve been used to havin’ someone to lean on
And I’m lost
Baby, I’m lost

And after another chorus and another bridge the song starts to wind down – but Eugene is not done, oh no.  He’s been sitting on that bench for some time now – a month perhaps – and he’s been thinking it through.  The soulful monologue returns :

As another day comes to an end
I’m lookin’ for a letter or somethin’
Anything that she would send
With all the people I know
I’m still a lonely man
You know, it’s funny
But I thought I had her in the palm of my hand

And then finally, after five minutes of music, he sings.  A cry, a sorrowful cry of pain, of loss.  Jenny’s favourite part of the song.  The line when he says “with all the people that I know I am still a lonely man” was the one that struck me at the time, and still does.

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The single was re-released in the UK in 1975

So why has this song resonated with me so deeply, when I have never sat on a bench and wept for my lost lady love?  Don’t get me wrong, I had a terrible time when Miriam, my first love,  left me behind in 1975 – but I knew exactly where she was, and I would see her many times a week at school and even lived under the same roof that summer because her brother was my dear friend and her mother didn’t want me to lose everything (I did though – for another time).  Have You Seen Her?  Who?  The song came out about six months after my family got back together after a 9-month homeless period – all scattered around in different places, waiting to be re-housed by East Sussex County Council.  Eventually we were offered a council house on Salternes Drive (Sin City) and we’d been there about six – 9 months when this song appeared.  Maybe deep down in the unacknowledged recesses of my gut I’m missing my mother.  My mother as she was before all the breakdowns, hospitalisations, anti-depressants and suicide attempts.  Before the madness.  Before the fall.  Maybe.

But maybe it’s just a great pop song.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Chi-Lites :