Wednesday, August 06, 2008

A little knowledge...

A little while ago, I came across an entry posted by Scott Woods at called Meme of the Day: It’s All About the Music, Man… It was essentially a selection of contrasting quotes, taken from the website’s archive of rock critic interviews, on whether or not it’s important for rock critics to know something about music. Naturally, there were quotes both pro and con, and probably the smartest comment was Jon Pareles’ commonsensical observation that, “A critic should learn as much about music as possible, from any angle that seems interesting music theory, history, psychology, literature, theater, acoustics, religion, dance, anthropology, film theory, pharmacology, economics, fashion, linguistics, electronics, sports, and all the other things that touch on music.” (And yes, for what it’s worth, I’m among the critics quoted.)

Anyway, I happened to be reading this while listening to listening to James Brown, and as such flashed on a comment that has bothered me for years. The piece was an essay Lester Bangs wrote decades ago for Musician magazine, called Free Jazz/Punk Rock. At one point, he’s discussing alto saxophonist James Chance, of the Contortions. Here’s the quote:

“And come to think of it, his sax work has a precursor in James Brown, too: that guy who stood up in the middle of the title cut on Brown's Super Bad album and took that horrible raggedy solo which probably got him fired.”

If you have only a passing familiarity with Brown’s “Super Bad,” it’s easy to see what Bangs is driving at. The solo, by Robert McCullough, is overblown and frenetic, eschewing the usual blues licks for something approximating John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” approach. Granted, McCullough played tenor, not alto, and his solo lacked the honking cacophony of Chance’s playing, but the point is clear enough.

Still, the last four words bugged me. Sure, I recognized that Bangs was riffing off Brown’s reputation as a disciplinarian who fined players for bad notes, but come on — what sort of control freak would fire a guy for “a horrible raggedy solo” and then release the track anyway? Logic should tell us that had that solo been a firing offence, we never would have heard it; the take would have been junked, and someone else’s solo would have been on the single.

Especially since the producer of “Super Bad” was James Brown himself.

For the record, McCullough — who joined Brown’s band at roughly the same time as the Collins brothers, Bootsy and Phelps — appeared on at least three more sessions with Brown after cutting “Super Bad.” He was ultimately replaced, in 1971, by St. Clair Pinckney. So no, he didn’t get fired for the solo.

But the most pointed refutation of Bangs’ point is on the record itself. Roughly four minutes into the original single, as McCullough starts in on a second solo, we hear Brown urging him on: “Come on! Come on, Robert! Come on, brother! Blow it, Robert! Blow me some Trane, brother!” How Bangs could have missed that is hard to imagine — perhaps he only half-remembered the track, and didn’t have time to re-listen before filing his piece? — but Brown’s exhortation to “blow me some Trane” suggests that he not only approved of what McCullough was playing, but was encouraging him to push the envelope.

Which brings me back to Pareles’ point. A writer who tries to “learn as much about music as possible” will be less inclined to let hyperbole lead to nonsensical statements, and that can only strengthen his or her writing. Had Bangs grasped that James Brown actually intended to merge avant-garde jazz and funk on “Super Bad,” he might have made connections that would have lead to a deeper understanding of the music, and a better essay overall. Instead, by assuming it to be an aberration, he squandered any potential insight on a joke. And not a particularly funny one, at that.

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