Julian Cope’s Album of the Month

James Brown - The Payback

James Brown
The Payback

AOTM #24, May 2002ce
Released 1974 on Polydor
Side 1
  1. The Payback (7.35)
  2. Doing the Best I Can (7.50)
Side 2
  1. Take Some - Leave Some (8.22)
  2. Shoot Your Shot (8.08)
Side 3
  1. Forever Suffering (5.42)
  2. Time is Running Out Fast (12.37)
Side 4
  1. Stone to the Bone (10.05)
  2. Mind Power (10.35)

We Got A Right to the Tree of Life

When James Brown released The Payback in April 1974, it was the leanest, wisest, most self-assured record of his outstanding career. Here, within the grooves of four long sides of 12” vinyl, was a distillation of his most streamlined late-60s and early-70s meditational funk. Though it was neither his first double-LP nor even his first studio double, The Payback was so spectacularly laid out that it transcended time itself. Indeed, I once had a five and a half-hour wait in Malaga airport, which I passed playing The Payback on endless heavy rotation. Blink and the time was gone. Sure, there are still two (extremely long and portentous) ballads fighting away in the grooves of this album. But even these so-called ‘ballads’ are themselves pretty damned groovy - so groovy that they are almost lost among those other six massive meditational assaults, each of which ranges from between seven and a half to twelve and a half minutes.
Something else was very different about this record. The Payback was housed in a wonderfuelled gatefold-sleeve depicting the self-styled Godfather of Soul omnipotent and looking down benignly over Black culture, his hat ablaze with the remarkable statement: “We got a right to the tree of life”. Whereas the record sleeves of previous albums had always opted for either the showbiz or the bland, the artwork for The Payback was a Black Power statement of considerable depth. And it was a statement that could only have been instigated by the lyrics and song themes that James Brown had worked up for the album.1
Sleeve-notes by Alan M. Leeds inside the gatefold commenced: “It all began with forty acres and as mule… a simple desire for one whose personal branch on the tree of life struggled to protect itself from the dangerous branches of lust and greed.” Black Americans’ remove from ownership of the land was countered on the inner gatefold by sleeve art which depicted an idealised black farmer. And, on the back sleeve was step two of the Godfather of Soul’s Utopian grand design. Here was the stylised profile of a black man, his cranium fizzing and illuminated with mathematical equations, whilst overhead hovered the large yellow buzz words ‘Mind Power’.
And, as though all these statements were not proof enough of James Brown’s incredibly high intentions, so further evidence could be seen in the form of Damn Right, I Am Somebody; a companion album packaged in similarly weighty style. Repeated banner quotes across the album sleeve screamed the headlines Positive Thinking, Positive Thinking, Positive Thinking; and this all interspersed with Think That You Are Somebody And You’ll Be Somebody. This LP was released on James’ People record label and credited to Fred Wesley & the J.B.’s, the former being the Godfather’s long-time musical producer.2
In its totality, James Brown was now providing a whole cultural package with which to educate, empower and shamanise his audience. For those who still wished only to dance, hey these grooves were from down below. But for those who also wanted to be in the know, James Brown’s decades of searching within were finally being enlisted to look after those without.

But before we address the enormous weight of the music of The Payback itself, I’ll take you on a brief ‘non-soulboy’ trip back through the early career. This is necessary in order to at least show that there was downright will at work in the experimental ways of James Brown which led him inexorably towards that incredibly spaced-out funk which was so dangerously distilled to perfection on The Payback.

The Birth of ‘On the One’

Nobody in music, no-one nowhere not ever so-o-o-o-o validated my argument for the rock’n’roller as shaman like Mr. James Brown. From his apprentice days in the 1950s as a Little Richard copyist, through the 7” single release-after-release-after-endless-release showbiz days of the whole of the 1960s, via his sustained cultural heights as teacher and bringer of wisdom to his beleaguered black American audience which he attained throughout the 1970s, even to his fabled two-state police chase and subsequent jail sentence in 1988, James Brown has always epitomised what the shaman spirit could be and could achieve. On his records he’s a Godlike figure (‘the hardest working man in showbusiness’) summoning up songs right here and right now, often as charmed, intrigued and mystified by his own abilities as are the members of his ensemble and his audience. Indeed, listen to “Funky Drummer” and we can almost hear him thinking to himself: “Did I just come up with that? Awl-righttt!”
Even more shamanic has been James Brown’s ability to not only influence greats such as Sly Stone, Miles Davis, George Clinton, but to be in turn influenced by them. That is the confidence of the truly great. As T.S. Eliot pointed out, the talented borrow but the genius steals. And James Brown at his height was a master musician and singer so sure of himself he often didn’t even need to play or sing on his own records - confident in the knowledge that the musicians laying down the music were all of his own choice. Sure, he was an organist supreme and added hugely to the sound that his backing band the Famous Flames made, but only when HE SO CHOSE. And even as early as 1961, 7” instrumentals were staples of James Brown singles release schedule.

Of course, such massive LPs as 1962’s James Brown Live At The Apollo sustained the career of James the Showman. But all the time a parallel figure existed in the form of James the Shaman. What I mean is that such aspects of James Brown as James the Orchestrator, James the Fixer, and James the Figurehead, were all slowly merging into James the Forerunner of every future rock’n’roll shaman from Jim Morrison to Iggy Pop, from Malcolm Mooney to Damo Suzuki, from Shaun Ryder to Keith Flint.
And, probably most influential of all was James Brown’s dedication to putting all his songs on the one. Whereas music of the day chose to emphasise the 2/4 or the 4/4, the Godfather stupified his early producers by insisting that the first beat of each bar be where the accent lay, giving his music a tumbling endless groove which would influence all future music. Indeed, later soul giants from the late 60s of Parliament to mid-80s of Troublefunk, sacrificed and submerged their songs and arrangements in order to achieve the continuous performance which the Godfather himself had instigated.

James Brown changed the focus of the song until it shifted dramatically from the original two minutes of verse-chorus-verse to an anything goes of umpteen-minutes-with-maybe-a-coupla-hollers-if-yooz-lucky. And when you think about it, most casual fans of James Brown would be unaware that the words: “Get Up, Get On Up, Get Into It, Get Involved, Get Involved” were actually sung by his cohort and long-time MC Bobby Byrd.
This was a shaman’s confidence in his apprentice; and it was a confidence which Miles Davis would later emulate during his own mid-1970s funk period. Unfortunately, coming outta jazz and lacking James Brown’s incredible dancing, Miles Davis churlishly chose to turn his back on his (admittedly mainly white intellectual) audience, standing eyes-closed and trumpet lowered, taking in the scorching wa-funk of his much younger musicians. This was to become an acceptably aloof stance for later rock’n’roll shamen such as PiL-period John Rotten, but it was only accepted by Miles’ audience because they were, in the main, white and middle-class. And, whereas Miles was the son of wealthy black parents, and a Juilliard-schooled jazzer playing to an intellectual crowd, James Brown was raised in his aunt’s brothel and initially aspired only to entertain audiences at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theatre. James Brown may have later called himself a greedy man. But really he’s always just been a very hungry man; someone who pulled himself out of poverty but never truly left it behind. And had he ever done a Miles Davis and turned his back on his audience, they would have kicked his underachieving ass and bundled him right off the stage.

Which, of course, brings us conveniently to James Brown the dancer. For in James’ need to become the consummate entertainer, his dancing turned him into a showman so fine that a slo-mo replay of James’ steps only confirms that he was dancing in another dimension. As I commented earlier, true shamen constantly re-appraise themselves and constantly serve new apprenticeships. Like the incredible Dervish dances which George Gurdjieff taught his dance ensemble in the early 1900s, James Brown repeated his dance steps so often and invested so much time in perfecting them that his dancing became, to all intents and purposes, superhuman. Indeed, I truly believe that, in the late 60s and the 70s, James Brown glimpsed the divine so many times he even temporarily dwelled in it. Not in some removed Christ-like way. Not separated from his everyday. But RIGHT DOWN IN IT, like George Gurdjieff himself but even greater.

Picking up the money at each show himself.
Schooling the musicians and sacking the underachievers.
Running his own production company.
Doing the deals himself.
Putting food on the tables of all those who worked for him, and nourishing the lives of all those who listened to his songs on a completely different level to any white artist.
Getting down in it and becoming the eye of the hurricane.

James Brown’s band was changing so often during this period that it would be impossible to explain any such protracted goings on. Suffice to say that when Bootsy Collins famously-but-temporarily swelled the ranks then left due to In Concert LSD-influenced ineptitude it made sod all difference. Now, how funky is that? James was the Godfather of Soul. And never was a nickname so magnificently placed nor so accurate.
By the late 1960s, James Brown was so funky it defies description. James Brown 7” singles had become quicksilver things which altered the very smell and touch of your surroundings. And if a single was not doing the business, it could be withdrawn and replaced with another version of the same song.
But the push towards the new decade was a time of massive progression for Soul. And the sound of James Brown slimmed down and down until it streamlined into the pure rush of grooves such as 1968’s “I Got the Feelin’”, 1969’s “The Popcorn” and “Funky Drummer” and 1970’s amazing “Brother Rapp”. Armed only with words, explaining to the ignorant what was the effect on those listening to such mysteriously-syncopated singles “Mother Popcorn” is as abstract as describing the spiritual merits of a Methodist church service to a Born Again Christian. But James continued to up the stakes and pushed his sound ever tighter and evermore mercurial.
Then, in March 1970, the mindblowing austerity of “Ain’t It Funky” made all his recent singles seem as leaden as contemporary hard rock, and anything just a coupla years old, such as “Cold Sweat” seeming as antiquated and ostentatious as “MacArthur Park”. Seemed like just James and the drummer were left in this band. How could such a large ensemble of musicians make such massively subtle contributions to music?

Open Up The Door, I’ll Get It Myself

Of course, this is just a review of what I consider to have been James Brown’s shamanic height, so please excuse some of the seemingly random musicology. But any jump from showman to shaman needs explaining because so few really do it. Little Richard was so far ahead of the pack that he actually joined the clergy that he was supposed to have been subverting/replacing. Frank Zappa could have achieved it if he’d just had a little more faith in the musicians he’d hired. But, like many genii, Zappa didn’t understand himself well enough to admit his own ignorance even to himself. Jim Morrison did it so easily (but so briefly) that only the coolest people in the world recognise it. Off the top of my head I can think of no-one else.
James Brown, on the other hand, sustained and ordered the chaos around him for almost two decades. In the 1970s, his hard work policy grew and grew until it was out of all proportion. And although the fundamental funk album Hot Pants, with its 8-minute title track and almost 10-minute opener “Blues & Pants” was born out of that policy, so was a lot of the regular soul ballad-type material which is of no use to us here. There It Is featured the genius of “Talking Loud & Saying Nothing” and “Greedy Man”, but was still full of soul schmaltz. Similarly, so was too much of the huge double-LP Get On The Good Foot. And, unfortunately, there were also a coupla patchy live albums Super Bad and the double live in concert Sex Machine. A couple of film soundtrack albums, Slaughter’s Big Rip Off and Black Caesar, contained some incredible grooves, but (in terms of usable shamanic tools) the sheer weight of James’ output was undermining the groove itself.

But I don’t want to say negative things about a genius like James Brown just because his music is not always the tool that I require. If the critical listener’s expectations are outside the parameters of the artist’s intentions, our judgement ain’t worth shee-it! Accept the artist’s metaphor or butt out, I say. On to the music.

I Don’t Know Karate but I Know Ker-ayyzee

Opening with the massive seven and a half minute title-track, The Payback immediately locks into a hugely compulsive spaced-groove. Grinding guitar is punctuated with seven-league-bass, as a reverbed and mysterious call-and-answer unisex choir responds emotionally to the Godfather’s tales of cuckolding, hoodwinking, sell-outs and lowlife morality. James wants revenge for it all and now is the time to collect. “Revenge, I’m mad,” he shrieks. The opening moments of the album are all spent in this confusion of angry claims. When James, out to get any lowlife mother, threatens: “I don’t know karate but I know ker-ayyzee”, the choir reverentially but uncomprehendingly call in unison, “Yes, we do.”
This fucking groove is too much - sounds as though James is walking down the street threatening everyone. The choir appear out of doorways and alleys just in time to answer his defiant stance, before ducking back indoors. The brass is hanging on every street corner, waiting for Mr. Brown’s poetically timed arrival. Ba-ba… Ba-ba… Bap!
Then a strange and abrupt climax segues into the lush Mancini-rations of “Doing the Best I Can”. Here, we’re deep in unjudgeable areas for the kind of review I’m intending. It’s an I’m-for-real-man-questioning-his-woman’s-leaving which I have to culturally almost sidestep. The call-and-respond of “I’m For Real” is a beautiful and hauntingly mournful cycle which continues for three long minutes until it becomes a proto-meditation in the same vein as The Janettes’ “Sally, Go Round the Roses”. James is vamping on “Me & Mrs. Jones” and Fred Wesley is playing the trombone of a starving man. It’s a chillingly slow stoned groove which closes side one of this album.

Side two is just two massive grooves. “Take Some - Leave Some” is eight and a half minutes of ever-circling skeletal bass cycling round a brass and drum theme from an imaginary TV cop series, with James explaining the nature of a life thinking about food. And this life thinking about food is being inevitably worked into the fabric of The Payback. Getting out of second-hand-me-downs is the next priority but it’s way behind the food. We’re now listening to the first of several allusions to the practicality of Mind Power, not as an aid to the higher spirit, but as a way of transcending hunger. When James tells us that his friends all “Need It”, the report is about good food, new shoes and a suit of clothes. But, says James, you can’t be greedy. And all the time, this cycling groove is arcing clockwise around the room like an ever-upwardly spiralling elevator.
Then ver-rooom, we’re into the Shaft-life of “Shoot Your Shot”; eight minutes plus of fast ricochet funk that spunks us to the wall like an outta-control-firehose. James is in one helluva mood as he declares: Shoot your shot or get the shit shot out of you. Now, there’s the “Poet” that Sly was talking about on There’s A Riot Goin’ On. 2 Mesmerised and cross-eyed, the structural interior of the listener wearing headphones begins to shake and flutter at the syncopation of this mighty rhythm.

Side Three opens with the suffering 6/8 blues of “Forever Suffering” with its endless choruses of “Suffering”. Then we’re blown to pieces by the 12 minutes of “Time is Running Out Fast”. The beginning is a strange mix of moods from the sampled orchestra from the front of the earlier “Doing the Best I Can” directly into an African groove which anticipated and must have inspired Funkadelic’s amazing “Brettino’s Bounce” from their Electric Spanking of War Babies. “Time is Running Out Fast” is a strident monster with a quasi-Cuban shaman of the Alan Vega variety ya-ya-ya-ya-ing pre-verbal proto-Hispanic over Fred Wesley’s hungry-man trombone. It’s an epic groove through backstreets and alleys in the middle of a scorching sunny day, and it kicks my dick into the dust.

And so to the final and most major side of The Payback, which kicks off with the startling brass of “Stoned to the Bone”, 10-minutes of the most shuffling on-the-one so far. But we’re deep in the heart of the album by now and it’s this side which pushes The Payback into transcendental territory. On and on and in and deeper in there - a deadly meditational groove. James tells us how he has got a good thing that he ain’t gonna give up. He wants permission to holler from the ensemble. Sure James, say the band, holler and howl all you want. But still James pleads for permission. Then he’s off to the organ to add the kind of spaced bell-toned precision Hammond that takes away this white punk’s hope. Soon he’s back at the mike to tell the arriving brass that they “must turn me loose!” He ain’t gonna give it up and the sheer joy and the wrath of James inspires the ensemble to a man to say they ain’t gonna give it up, either. Can James holler again? Sure, then off into a claustrophobic and more subdued version of the song’s primary riff. The cleanness of the studio is an advantage with this music, so perfect and clear is the sound. You sort of wanna be informed that the cleaning lady kept it spruce and litter-free time, too.

And so we find ourselves in the final and superlative space-grooves of “Mind Power”, the ultimate track both artistically and chronologically. What is this groove? Space is everything, and “Mind Power” features the most economical bass line ever. It’s a single boom every four beats for the whole of the opening groove, a ploy which anchors the track in a way that still allows the boat to move forwards. James tells that we’re living in the most crucial time he’s ever known and the sense of urgency so evident in his vocal delivery gives real portents to even the supposedly light-asides. And James Brown on this record is a very funny man, talking to the ensemble, egging them on, suggesting riffs, even throwing around Biblical allusions. Here on “Mind Power”, James is telling his audience that what they have had to survive upon is mind power. People in Britain call it vibe, James informs us. Others know it as ESP. But James likes to call it What-it-is-and-what-it-is. He’s giving it all a cultural context and in so doing he’s dignifying the whole process. Perhaps there’s no point in even explaining this monumental groove and the presence of James Brown upon this track. Suffice to say that his presence is warming, uplifting, invigorating and totally liberating. And I guess what’s most surprising is just how much of what James was saying in 1974 is still pertinent today. And again over that empty taut tightrope groove, in which space between instruments makes the sound actually austere. What-it-is-and-what-it-is his band sing as the song tails out into a long slow fade.

And so, as we close The Payback down and wonder where all the time went, we consider had we not better just put it back on again and stare at the Moon for another hour. 3 Obviously, I have a belief that real deep exploration of this period of James’ groove could bring finely tuned shamanic results. Of course the huge use of James Brown samples in modern music is evidence enough of our current need for this timeless rhythm. But, like the motorik Neu! groove which propelled much of the Krautrock-inspired late mid-90s music, the groove of The Payback, once-discovered or re-located, is there for us all to use not in a dance setting but as one of the accepted propellants of the modern urban meditation music.

  1. I write ‘worked up’ because of the immediacy of many of the grooves on The Payback. Often James’ technique of giving the ensemble a limited palette of song parts and responses enabled him to come upon far more than was ever actually written. Elsewhere, I have written of James Brown’s own obvious delight when a riff, lyric and groove all switch on simultaneously.
  2. James Brown’s companion albums are a real source of nourishment. My other favourites include the J.B.’s monumental groove album Hustle With Speed and the Cope family’s primo party album Breakin’ Bread, credited to Fred Wesley & the J.B.’s.
  3. If you get the chance to listen to Damn Right, I Am Somebody, a whole other world of sub-plots and undergrooves soon emerges. James Brown continued in this direction for quite some time afterwards, delivering more large double-LPs, my favourite being Hell, with its long slimmed-down side four which featured the single track “Papa Don’t take No Mess”.