Sunday, 9 February 2020

Rick James

A lusty eighties funker for you....

Come Get It! (1978)
This was Rick James' first album of delicious, ground-breaking funk/rock fusion. Further details concerning James himself and also his rivalry with Prince are covered on the review for 1981's Street Songs album.

Stone City Band, Hi! is done up to sound like a live cut, serving as a brassy, funky introduction to the show that James and his band are about to give us. Motown, James' label, had embraced his cheeky brand of "punk funk" that aimed to attract an audience of disenfranchised urban kids. They knew they had to move with the times and were more than happy to support him, even through his indulgences and questionable sexual morés.

The lengthy workout of You And I has a huge punchy kick to its brass-drum-funky guitar attack, enhanced by energetic female backing vocals. It also featured a Parliament-Funkadelic-style "everybody dance on the funk" vocal refrain, plus some sizzling saxophone breaks. Tracks like this influenced a myriad of funk/pop groups over the next few years, including blatantly pop ones like Wham!
Sexy Lady is a copper-bottomed piece of 70s cop show-style funk which when blended with James' convincing vocal results in an impressive groove. There are hints of Earth, Wind & Fire's mid seventies material about it too. Check out that classic funky guitar riff. In many ways accessible pop funk began here.

Dream Maker begins with James in full-on Barry White spoken mode, before it breaks out into a gently soulful laid-back vibe. It features some lovely instrumentation, piano and guitar in particular. James was also a fine composer and musician. Some attractive female expressions of pleasure come in right at the end, adding to the song's sexiness. 
Time to get back to some funk, I think. This duly arrives on the energetic funky disco-ish pop of Be My Lady. Listen to those disco rhythms and "ooh-wah ooh-wah" backing vocals. Very 1978-80. Mary Jane is a soulful, appealing but thinly-disguised song in praise of marijuana, dressed up as a love song to a girl. I am surprised it got through Motown's net. Indeed, it was a top five hit in the US. The funky slap-bass sound on it is superb, mind. 

Hollywood sees James diversifying into big ballad territory on a slow atmospheric number considerably embellished by some excellent, dramatic rock guitar licks. It is a finely-constructed, impressive number and even ends with a bit of reggae. Stone City Band, Bye! returns to the cookin' live atmosphere for a lively end to the album.

While James was trying to push funk music in another direction with this album, there were still a few of the ubiquitous 1978 disco influences floating around on here, which was not surprising, and certainly nothing to criticise it or him for. It still exhibited a fresh, vibrant new approach to sexually-motivated funk-soul that would grow and grow over the next few years. A non-album track that is available is a big, bassy mix of You And I that is thumpingly enjoyable.

Bustin' Out Of L Seven (1979)
This was Rick James’ second album of funky r’n’b that uses influences from earlier music such as that of Earth, Wind & Fire, Barry White and Sly & The Family Stone in particular and  merges them with rock and soul riffs and rhythms. It was a slightly less poppy/disco-ish album than its predecessor, and those vestiges of disco that were still so prominent around in 1978 were not so noticeable. It is far more of an earthy, full-on funk album. It is also not as overtly sexual as some of his other albums had been in places. The “crossover” appeal that would highlight 1981’s Street Songs had not been achieved as yet. This was very much an album for funk fans and a bit of a “one step forward, two steps back” move with regard to his quest to attract a varied audience.

Bustin’ Out is a burnin' hot Funkadelic-Parliament workout. It also has impressive 12” vocal and instrumental versions (the latter featuring some killer saxophone) that will appeal to hardcore funk fans. High On Your Love Suite/One Mo Hit (Of Your Love) is lengthy in its title and also in its frenetic, brassy, funky groove.

The chilled out, sensual instrumentation of Love Interlude shows that James has not lost his feel for a sexy number, and this is continued into the laid-back soul of Spacey Love. It is a track that is far more classic late night soul than the spaciness that its title might suggest. There is a lot of Barry White in its arrangement. Cop ‘n’ Blow is an upbeat, staccato funk number featuring some punchy brass parts and also some saxophone together with a cute jazzy guitar solo all mixing together to make an appealing number. J
efferson Ball is a lengthy soft soul ballad that sits somewhat incongruously with the album’s other material. It goes on far too long too. Fool On The Street is an attractive, breezy funk number to finish on. Once again, it is a long song, but its pace doesn’t let up, enhanced by some melodic flute-like backing.  I believe it actually is a alto-flute. It ends in positively Santana-esque fashion with a melange of Carlos-style guitar, Latin drums and jazzy brass. A great trumpet solo comes in right at the end. It is a solid, muscular funk offering, but, in comparison to the albums either side of it comes off slightly worse. If it is quality, extended funk grooves you are after, however, you will find several here.

Fire It Up (1979)

His third album, released in 1979, saw Rick James reverting to a more disco-orientated sound from the purer funk of the previous album.

Fire It Up was a chugging, relatively heavy funk number, with some rock-style drumming and some addictive percussive rhythms of the sort that Talking Heads were starting to use a lot. The unsubtly-titled Love Gun pounded with a huge thumping beat. This was industrial-strength fare and, although authentically funky, had a disco-ish rhythm to it, with those whistle sounds so popular at the time. Lyrically, going on about shooting his girl with his love gun was not as tongue-in-cheek humorous as some of his other sexually-themed lyrics. The track has some excellent fuzzy rock guitar at the end, though. Sonically, it was top notch. The extended version of the track contains even more of the guitar. It cooks to a searing boiling point. Lovin’ You Is A Pleasure is a catchy, energetic soul groove loaded with rhythmic percussion and punchy brass. It has a great drum solo in the middle. Love In The Night is a dramatic big, slow ballad with rock overtones and rock guitar throughout. James always sprang a surprise or two on his albums - this track is neither funk, disco or soul.

Wanna get funky again? Don’t worry. Come Into My Life is proper 100% funk. Over seven minutes of the real thing. Check out the bass line and the Chic-style guitar riff together with the backing vocals that were so typical of the era. The drum/bass/percussion interplay is captivating. Add to that some excellent saxophone and you have a cornucopia of sizzling funk. 
Stormy Love acts as a short, spoken interlude over a quiet bass before we ease into the sumptuous saxophone-driven smooth soul of When Love Is Gone. Once more, James always had a great soul ballad in him, and this certainly is a fine example. What a superb guitar solo in it as well. Like his rival, Prince, James knew how to merge with classic rock. This became quite a sought after album after it went out of print, but it is available again now. It is quite short, and over before you know it. The slight deference to disco trends again dulled the album’s edge just a little, making it a bit of a treading  water offering. Only slightly, though, it is still well worth a listen.

Garden Of Love (1980)
After three solid funk albums with touches of disco here and there, this was a comparatively understated (and underrated), laid-back offering from the usually “in your face”, effervescent Rick James. For that reason, it slips under a lot of people’s radar. It is a romantic album with little or no sexual braggadocio so fair play to James for changing things around a bit. Another album in his previous vein would have attracted accusations of being formulaic. As it was, he took some stick for going all low-key.

Big Time was the album’s only hit. I remember it from the time. It was a mid-pace, appealing enough light funk tale of being famous. As often on a James extended number, it featured dome excellent saxophone. I really like this track, it gets into its groove and stays there, washing over you with its warm, bassy and melodic funk. Don’t Give Up On Love finds James going all Luther Vandross-George Benson on a smooth, slick, polished “dim the lights” soul crooner. The old sexual predator had gone all mushy and tender. It is actually a lovely song.  It plays out near the end with James doing a spoken Barry White thing over some sumptuous saxophone. It merges, via some seaside/eaves noises into the even more peaceful, relaxing Island Lady - a sleepy, loved-up Stevie Wonder-ish number. Some fans were disappointed with this approach, wanting more of the insatiable, priapic James of previous albums.

When you think James will get funky again Gettin’ It On (In The Sunshine) is next, full of gentle string orchestration and plenty of glissando moments. After a while it breaks out into a more solid, slow pace beat but its overall ambience is a chilled out one. Summer Love has a bigger, bassier beat to it, but it is also a walking pace, soul number without a reference to a love gun within earshot. It’s all about sweet, sweet love baby. 
The funk finally returns, however, on the groovy Mary Go-Round, which features some nice bass-lead guitar interplay near the end of its seven minutes. Then, Gettin’ It On (In The Sunshine) is briefly reprised, acoustically, and that was it for another short late seventies-early eighties album. This was a pleasant although far less funky album but James would be back the following year with his best ever piece of work.

** Extra tracks available from the period include an extended mix of Big Time and more dreamy, island in the sun bliss in Gypsy Girl.

Street Songs (1981)
This was the fifth and most successful album for Motown funkster Rick James, a flamboyant, platform-booted figure whose attitude and music surely influenced Prince somewhat. Indeed, it has been slightly forgotten that there was a huge rivalry between the two in the late seventies-early eighties (before that Prince vs. Michael Jackson thing), and that James definitely held the upper hand. Both were young black Americans looking to take funk down new roads, trying to "crossover" and developing a new multi-racial audience. Merging their funk with rock, away from disco, the two of them were highly sexually-motivated and showy with it. They both played a mean guitar as well, although James was a bass man. Both of them liked to fill their backing bands with scantily-clad female vocalists, functioning like a pair of elaborately dressed up, ego-fuelled musical pimps.

James dubbed his music “punk funk” and gave it a rebellious, lusty attitude. James' label, Motown, nearing its last legs, comparatively, was more than happy to back the whole “punk funk” thing and gave James a loose rein to enjoy himself, it seemed. There is no doubt that much of Prince’s stylings came from this rivalry (although he wouldn't admit it), and that the initial chart success and media/fan attention was was all with James. Furthermore Prince supported James on his tour in 1979, receiving bad reviews. Soon, no love was lost between the two, although James was initially not remotely concerned by Prince's existence.

Sexually, James was motivated by straight up excess but, by 1980, with the release of Prince's Dirty Mind, the latter pushed his sexual expressiveness to the limits, something that James could not keep up with and, as the decade continued, it seemed Prince broke down all erotic taboos while James seemingly went a bit more respectable, in his music, at least.

This was an album overflowing with commercially-accessible funk and sensual, sexy romance. It is a classic of its pop-funk genre and is delivered with a confident joie de vivre and irrepressible humour. Unfortunately this has been negatively balanced by the fact that there were some decidedly unsavoury, nasty episodes that blighted James’ life further on down the line. These were blamed on drug abuse and resulted in his imprisonment. The drug addiction also undoubtedly contributed to his early death aged only 56, in 2004.

Anyway, back to the more pleasant business of this corker of an album. Give It To Me Baby is an energetic, pulsating opener, full of clavinet, rhythmic keyboards, full-on brassy breaks and funky guitar. It is a typical piece of early eighties disco-ish funk, as indeed is the irresistible funky groove of Ghetto Life. The latter also has some mildly amusing, tongue-in-cheek lyrics. James’ lyrics often showed an appealing humour which the reality of his turbulent life clearly failed to express. Make Love To Me is a slow tempo romantic groover with obvious subject matter. It has an infectious sensual rhythm to it, very “late night”. “Don’t you dare be nervous, don’t you dare be shy...” is the backing refrain, leaving James’ lover in no doubt as to what he expects. The song features some sumptuous saxophone. Mr. Policeman is a solid, bassy slice of Eddy Grant-ish funk-rock with touches of Stevie Wonder in there too, with a chromatic harmonica wailing away. It is a hard-hitting, compelling and captivating song, one of the best on the album. It carries a strong social message and is not just good time dance-funk. Its rhythms remind me a lot of some of the material on David Bowie's 1984 Tonight album.

Up next is the now iconic Super Freak, with its instantly recognisable instrumental hook line that, of course, was successfully sampled by MC Hammer on U Can’t Touch This. James’ original song is an ebullient, pounding funker with more of those light-hearted lyrics. It is a marvellous piece of vibrant, singalong funk and was deservedly a huge hit. Check out that saxophone at the end too. 
Fire And Desire is a supreme, lush, soulful duet with James’ sometime lover, Teena Marie. It is said to sum up parts of their own relationship. James’ spoken parts are very Barry White. Teena Marie’s vocal, when it arrives after three or four minutes, is stratospheric. Call Me Up is an appealing serving of upbeat funk, am ambience that is taken to the max on the short and frantic Below The Funk (Pass The J), a drug-addled but amusing end to this relatively short but immensely enjoyable album. Eighties "in your face" commercial funk didn’t get much better. The sound quality is excellent too.

To read reviews of the influential Earth, Wind & Fire's work, click on the image :-

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