BACKBEAT

BACKBEAT

RHYTHM & ROOTS by CHRIS BOURKE

 

The day I arrived in Motor City, some lines of Janis Joplin’s came back to me like a warning. If you’re looking for the end of the road, she sang, “You might find out later that the road’ll end in Detroit.” Beside me on the Greyhound was a black guy returning home after three years in Oakland. He had two brothers, one called Ronald, the other Donald. One was a foreman on a GM production line; the other was a junkie doing 10-15 for murder. He described how the latter held people up with a gun and a shout: “Break yourself!” (ie, I’m gonna make you broke). But he also recalled how each Christmas the kids of Detroit would go to the Motortown Revue, where all the big Motown names could be seen in one show for just $1.  

The next day, I came to the end of my road: 2648 West Grand Boulevard. The modest two-storey wooden house was anything but grand, but the sign declared it was “HITSVILLE U.S.A.” Like Detroit itself, the birthplace of so many Motown hits didn’t have a welcome mat, but Miss Holland – whose brothers wrote ‘Heat Wave’ and ‘Reach Out’ – showed me around. The offices where the songs were written resembled cells; the walls were covered with old publicity pics and typically tacky album covers, and the only display of note contained a lurid Jackson 5 costume and a glove of Michael’s.

Then I entered the Snake Pit, and the magic took over. It was more like a catacomb than a recording studio. It was tiny, with a wooden floor. There was a Steinway grand with broken keys, a toy piano and a few music stands. The control desk had three tracks. I closed my eyes, breathed in the atmosphere, and concentrated on James Jamerson.

Motown hits were so much part of the aural wallpaper when growing up that I took them for granted; they were already classic hits before the format existed. In 1980 a one-sentence album review made me think of chestnuts like ‘Reach Out’ in a different way. Greil Marcus described The Motown Story as “The history of James Jamerson’s bass-playing, on 58 hits.” I started to break down the elements that connected all those hits: Jamerson’s fluid bass lines that so stimulated McCartney; the on-the-beat drumming of Benny Benjamin; the jazz-pop piano of Earl Van Dyke, Robert White’s sparse guitar licks and the distinctive no-frills percussion section (tambourines, hand claps, foot stomps). Collectively known as the Funk Brothers, the Motown band was as distinctive as Duke Ellington’s and even more anonymous.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown has changed all that. The big-budget documentary has been like Buena Vista Social Club for R&B, rescuing legendary musicians from demeaning obscurity. The unfortunately named Allan “Dr Licks” Slutsky started the ball rolling with his self-published musical biography of Jamerson, just out when I visited Motown 14 years ago. And he is the musical director of the moving documentary that shows the ageing Funk Brothers preparing for a reunion gig, with current big-name singers along to help pay the bills. It is exhilarating, a spirit carried through on the soundtrack of the same name (Hip-O/Motown). An exuberant Joan Osborne and Bootsy Collins wipe the floor of pretender Ben Harper – a leaden embarrassment – but can’t steal the show from the Funksters. Three remastered instrumental tracks recorded in their 1960s heyday are thrilling to witness.

The box-office success of Standing in the Shadows must have encouraged Miramax to fund Only the Strong Survive, about the classic soul stars who are still performing. Filmed by Don Pennebaker (director of the seminal documentary, Dylan’s Don’t Look Back) and his wife Chris Hegedus (Startup.com) it’s more cinema-verité than Motown-slick but is just as effecting. Thirty years after their last hits, these singers have only got more soulful as they stay afloat with dignity. The soundtrack on Koch confirms Wilson Pickett is still wicked, all energy and testosterone; Jerry Butler the “Iceman” is now a statesman; and Sam Moore and Rufus Thomas are irrepressible (or at least Rufus was till his death late last year). The Chi-lites are gravity defying, and Anne Peebles rekindles her smouldering groove. If the Funk Brothers felt ignored, imagine the alternative: performing ‘In the Midnight Hour’ every night for nearly 40 years.

Al Green has stayed aloof from oldies shows, venturing from his church for the occasional secular concert that reveals his ageless grace. His classic early ’70s albums also have the timelessness of great art, thanks to the “less-is-more” production philosophy of Willie Mitchell and the deep swamp rhythms of the Hodges brothers (assisted by the MGs’ Al Jackson, who is not so much a drummer as a delicate metronome). I’m Still in Love With You from 1972 is possibly the most consistent of these albums, now reissued in a budget series on Shock; ‘Love and Happiness’ is the definition of soul, opening with a gospel tease before getting down to things erotic and conjugal.

On the other side of town tuning into the same radio station but rarely meeting were the noise boys and girls featured in A History of Garage & Frat Bands in Memphis 1960-1975. Shangri-La Projects in Memphis have just released the second volume in this series, which captures a “big-bang” moment of rock’n’roll when the British invasion motivated a local amalgamation of current sounds: surf licks, Chuck Berry riffs, girl groups and blue-eyed soul. Our own route wasn’t dissimilar – from Wild Things and the La De Das to Betchadupa – just further from the muddy waters.

The Kings of Leon are the current torch-holders for the Devil’s music with their spirited debut Youth and Young Manhood (RCA). Despite the Zep-salute graphic design the Kings are no Black Crowes pretenders: this is rebel rock for a new century. The Followill brothers are the best Southern sibling rhythm section since the Hodges, but their mentors are Cream (without the heroics) and Iggy’s Stooges. ‘Happy Alone’ is happy in the garage; soaring guitars turn ‘Joe’s Head’ into a pop song; while ‘California Waiting’ is a meeting between Blondie and Blam Blam Blam. With their reinvention of classic styles, the Kings of Leon could share a stage with the White Stripes, but as headliners for creating grits rather than Art.