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Classic albums: Funk

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Funk was where it all started as far as I was concerned – it was the first ‘black’ music that got to me. My elder brother Laurence had gotten into Soul a few years earlier, but sixties Soul (Motown, Stax etc) and Northern Soul was not my thing then.

When Laurence started playing Funk that was it. I was hooked. Funk had that edge and flow to it. It was the jazzy bassline, the naggingly infectious rhythm guitar riffs and the tight horns. It was all those things, but also the sheer nastiness of it all.

The seventies was the era of the large usually 8 or 9 piece self contained band with full horns and percussion.  This coupled with improved recording and production gave the music a rich and tight sound.   Many of the exponents were accomplished Jazz musicians too.

The first records that hit home (for me) were James Brown’s ‘Make It Funky’ and ‘Payback’, Kool And The Gang’s ‘Jungle Boogie’ and War’s ‘Me And Baby Brother. Almost forgot Mandrill’s ‘Mandrill’ and ‘Fencewalk’ and then there was the Fatback Band’s ‘Keep On Steppin’ too.

The impact of Disco added another avenue for Funk bands.  Earth Wind And Fire, Ohio Players, B T Express and Brass Construction fully exploited the fusion of these various musical styles and were able to record music that was high quality and hugely popular.

As the large record corporations saw the sales potential of the more commercial end of Funk, the pressure to deliver more derivative music became too much.  By the late 70’s, the Saturday Night Fever phenomena had pushed the music towards the banal.  This was the antithesis of the origins of Funk, which lay in the urban ghettos of Black America.

Some fought against this trend and quite successfully in the case of Parliament/ Funkadelic and Bootsy’s Rubber Band.  ‘Mothership Connection’ and Bootsy Rubber Band’s ‘Stretchin Out’ remain two of Funk’s most important albums, built as they were on a combination of James Brown’s ‘on the one’ Funk and the more eclectic West Coast feel of Sly and The Family Stone, whose ‘There’s A Riot Going On’ from half a decade earlier remains another iconic album.

British artists like Average White Band, Gonzalez, FBI based their sound on the American counterparts, though generally the UK had a more eclectic sound with broader influences emanating from the cultural melting pot that is London.  One example is Cymande, who recorded three great albums in the seventies, the first, self-titled is a classic.

The fusion of Funk with the band members Caribbean roots gave a unique blend that still seems fresh today. Later Light Of The World would release ‘Round Trip’ that features the archetypal British Funk tune in ‘London Town’.

In Washington DC, Chuck Brown helped develop the Go-Go sound, his two Sussex albums from the mid 70’s ‘We The People’ and ‘Salt Of The Earth’ remain precursors of eighties Go-Go, a style that seemed to be both a throwback to seventies Funk and the emerging Hip Hop.

Funk gradually died a slow death in the eighties.  Reaganomics made it nigh impossible to keep large bands on the road, the eighties striped down sound reflected this – Cameo changed from a thirteen piece band to a four almost overnight.  The likes of Tower Of Power somewhere kept it together, albeit sporadically, though they still tour and are a must see, if you get a chance.

Hip Hop revived interest in Funk through relentless sampling of artists like James Brown, the Soul Searchers (‘Ashley’s Roachclip’ remains on of the most sampled songs ever), the Meters, Kool And The Gang etc.

The consequence of sampling and the Rare Groove scene in the late eighties and nineties saw a resurgence of interest in Funk as well as Soul and Jazz.

Later still the ‘Deep Funk’ scene inspired yet another generation to explore the delights of Funk and not only to the successful and major label signed acts, but also to a plethora of bands in the seventies/ late sixties, who wished to be the next James Brown.  The ‘Deep Funk’ phenomena mirror the Northern Soul one of thirty years before and have led to the discovery of some incredible music – but that is a subject for another page.

It also led the formation of a number of bands scattered across the globe.  Sharon Jones And the Daptones, Speedometer, New Mastersounds and the Baker Brothers to name just a few.

Seventies Funk remains a music close to my heart if I had to choose albums to take to a desert island James Brown’s ‘Payback’ and Parliament’s ‘Mothership Connection’ would be amongst the very first.

Malcolm Prangell