Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Long-Suffering Completist: James Brown's Singles, Volumes 1-9

The vast majority of music fans can live happily with a one- or two-disc James Brown best-of. Once hooked, the wise will head for Star Time, a four-disc collection which is that rare thing, a box set which is good from beginning to end. But for the soul and funk junky, such compilations only scratch the surface. James Brown recorded a huge mountain range of music, and while his hits are easy enough to acquire, those willing to get lost in his catalogue will find the experience equally exasperating and exhilarating. Brown recorded incessantly, bursting into studios on a whim and sometimes even setting up a recorder on stage after live shows to strike while his band was hot. His releases followed the shotgun approach: Brown apparently believed market saturation was the way to go, so during the 60s and 70s three or four LPs and a dozen singles annually was his standard output. Brown was also apparently fearless when it came to experimentation: besides his funk singles, he recorded orchestrated ballads, big band jazz, blues, a weirdo "rock" album, instrumental dance LPs, instrumental soul jazz LPs, live albums, studio albums disguised as live albums, and a whole constellation of side projects featuring his sidemen, friends, and girlfriends.

The enormous variety is not without its problems, as many of his experiments fall flat. His instrumental albums in particular suffer from Brown's delusion that he could play the organ. But despite the failed experiments, his bands were nearly always superb, and even his lesser album tracks offer fiery singing and funky playing. Problematically, a huge number of his albums are out of print or available only as expensive Japanese reissues, so eminently listenable LPs like the instrumental Ain't It Funky (1970) or the fake live Super Bad (1971) are prohibitively expensive or just impossible to track down.

Fortunately, his music is gradually getting the good treatment it deserves; numerous two-disc collections have appeared since the 80s and 90s which go into greater detail than just his biggest hits, and a massive campaign by the noble folks at Hip-O Select aims to reissue all of his original single releases, both A- and B-sides. This enormous labor of love, while an act of exemplary discography, is perhaps not the best place for non-obsessives to get their funk on. Many of Brown's singles were duds, and even masterpieces are often edited, overdubbed, or abbreviated for airplay (for instance, the immortal "Get Up I Feel Like Being A Sex Machine" was originally released as a single lasting a teasingly brief 2:51).

Hopefully, Brown's long-lost out-of-print King LPs will someday make it to the digital realm, preferably as a box set rather than as individual albums—there is a lot of overlap, as Brown regularly reused the same track on different albums. In the meantime, though, the release of his complete singles will give the JB addict plenty to chew on.

From The Singles Volume Seven: 1970-1972, here's the super-rare instrumental B-side to his 1970 Christmas single "Hey America":

And from the most recent collection, The Singles Volume Nine: 1973-1975, here's "People Get Up And Drive Your Funky Soul", which also appeared on 1973's now out-of-print Slaughter's Big Rip-Off and in a massive, highly-recommended nine-minute version on the 2003 reissue of the rarities collection Motherlode:

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