Sunday, 28 February 2021

The Brothers Johnson

The Best Of The Brothers Johnson

They were underrated late seventies funkers, The Brothers Johnson. This is probably the best compilation of their work. I’ll Be Good To You is a lovely, slow-burning piece of seductive soul-funk. Free And Single is typical grinding late seventies funk fare while the spacey, jazzy Land Of Ladies mines that old cheesy "ladies man" seam from the same era.


Get The Funk Outa My Face is a marvellous (if a little short) piece of pure Parliament-Funkadelic funk and one of their two best-known tracks is the quirky vaguely psychedelic funk of Strawberry Letter 23, the other, of course, is the dare I say stomping pop funk of Stomp, with its truly infectious chorus. 

Tomorrow and Q are gentle, easy jazzy instrumentals (the latter is funkier) while Runnin' For Your Lovin' is a laid-back, appealing serving of late night soul-funk.

Right On Time bubbles over with Parliament-style funk too, as is BlamAin't We Funkin' Now's title gives the game away doesn't it?

This compilation is a nice mixture of upbeat funk and slower, romantic soul-funk.

Look Out For # 1 (1976)

I’ll Be Good To You/Thunder Thumbs And Lightning Licks/Get The Funk Out Of Ma Face/Tomorrow/Free And Single/Come Together/Land Of Ladies/Dancin’ And Prancin’/The Devil

This was The Brothers Johnson’s debut album and one that I was vaguely familiar with. It is an impressive serving of quality, understated guitar-driven soul-funk and quite ahead of its time, soul-funk wise, in 1976.

The gentle funk of I’ll Be Good To You is one of the album’s best known tracks and starts their recording career in fine style. It is full of hooks and subtle but catchy funk.

The semi-instrumental Thunder Thumbs And Lightning Licks is sumptuously funky in the brothers’ melodic way. The thumping Get The Funk Out Of Ma Face is as funky as its title suggests. 

Tomorrow is a quiet, romantic sweet soul number, although it is an instrumental. Free And Single gets the funk back, though, big time, in most convincing fashion.

Come Together is a swampy, bluesy cover of The Beatles’ shuffler. The brothers make a good, guitar-dominated fist of the much-covered song. Land Of Ladies is just classic smoochy seventies disco-soul fare, isn’t it? Dancin’ And Prancin’ is a mix of a lively funky chorus and slower, soulful verses. 

I remember a friend of mine being really into this and playing it in his car as we drove around at night. So, whenever I hear this album I think of dashboard lights and dark streets.

The Devil is a slow burning number, loaded with wah-wah guitar and an intoxicating groove of a rhythm. It cooks on medium heat, as does this classy, late night album.

Right On Time (1977)

Runnin’ For Your Lovin’/Free Yourself, Be Yourself/“Q”/Right On Time/Strawberry Letter 23/Brother Man/Never Leave You Lonely/Love Is

Produced by Quincy Jones, this was said by some to have been Jones’s warm-up for Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, and it certainly pioneered that kind of slickly-produced, smooth soul-pop-funk that would become all the rage as the eighties approached. In 1977, though, it was still pretty original. 

It was several light years away from the punk that was all around at the time but it tapped into the contemporary disco craze but with a more classy, coolly detached groove about it. It wasn’t just all about gettin’ down, it was about feeling good about yourself and loving your lady too. There was, even back then, when I was an angry young punk, something reassuringly classy about this. I had a friend who really liked it, and I had to go along with that - I liked it too, without properly admitting it in certain company at the time. I was a punk who had the funk - a rare thing. Also, being into this got you the girls.

Runnin’ For Your Lovin’ is an absolutely lovely piece of pop funk of the sort that was so popular in the late seventies. Free Yourself, Be Yourself is breezily poppy, while still retaining a gentle funk. “Q” was, as mentioned on the “best of” review, a smooth instrumental, while Right On Time had a nice funk to it, albeit augmented by some odd, squeaky backing vocals.

Strawberry Letter 23 was a pre-Prince piece of psychedelic-ish freaky funk. Everything about it is delicious - the firm beat, the dreamy lyrics, the vocal and instrumental hooks - an excellent track. This was the one I really liked back then. 

Brother Man is another instrumental, this time a grittier, funkier one. Never Leave You Lonely combines late-night smoochy Soul with a solid, funky chorus and Love Is is a blissed-out acoustic ending to an album that only lasted thirty-one minutes but both invigorated and relaxed over its short running time. 

Blam!! (1978)

Ain't We Funkin' Now/So Won't You Stay/Blam!!/Rocket Countdown-Blastoff/Ride-O-Rocket/Mista' Cool/It's You Girl/Streetwave

By the end of the seventies, The Brothers Johnson's brand of sweet soulful funk (genre-branded as "quiet storm") was really popular, providing a classy, funkier side to disco. Other acts included in the sub-genre were the one time hard-funkers Kool & The Gang, Rufus & Chaka Khan, The Crusaders, The Average White Band, Heatwave, Chic and The Whispers and they were the other side of the funk genre to harder, grittier funkers like Parliament-Funkadelic, Graham Central Station and Rick James. There should be no underestimating just how popular this sort of funk-lite was, particularly with those who had no time for punk, new wave or heavy rock. 

This was the last of three really good albums from the group that stand up as examples of their best work and of the afore-mentioned sub-genre in general. It was, at thirty-one minutes, very short, though.

Ain’t We Funkin’ Now is, unsurprisingly, a charged-up, brassy serving of funk that features some brief individual instrument soloing near the end. Unusually, the tempo immediately drops for the saxophone-backed smoocher, So Won’t You Stay. The smooth funk returns, however, with the slick “get up offa that stuff” groove of Blam!!. It has a few hints of subsequent Talking Heads funk-influenced material about its vocal at the end, too.

Rocket Countdown-Blast Off leads into the lively funk pop of Ride-O-Rocket. The mainly instrumental Mista’ Cool has a nice, rubbery bass sound and some quirky keyboard sounds. It’s You Girl is relaxing, chilled-out soul funk and Streetwave ends proceedings with another instrumental (albeit a pleasant-enough one)which leads me to feel that they were short of material - there simply isn’t enough on here, or indeed enough of any stand out quality. You are basically looking at three solid funky tracks and the rest has the feel of filler about it. 

Check out some more late seventies funk here :-


The Best Of Shalamar

For a few years straddling the seventies and the eighties, Shalamar were one of the most successful disco pop groups around - Howard Hewett, Jody Watley and Jeffery Daniel were the vocalists, the latter two went on to have some solo success too. Where Odyssey were two female and one male vocalists, Shalamar were two male and one female.

They produced a string of danceable, singalong hits that also had enough funk about them to remain credible - Take That To The BankA Night To Remember and I Can Make You Feel Good were the funkiest of their offerings, before they veered more towards pop with the attractively-strummed guitar-riff sounds of (particularly) There It IsFriendsDead Giveaway and Disappearing Act. I like all of these singles so much, the last batch being very much part of the carefree, partying sound of 1982-83. What a copper-bottomed disco classic A Night To Remember is, let's be honest. Superb.

Also a really good track is the pop funk of the Second Time Around. I love this one too, it is full of unbridled enthusiasm and just that simple feel-good factor. 

Friends (1982)

A Night To Remember/Don’t Try To Change Me/Help Me/On Top Of The World/I Don’t Wanna To Be The Last To Know/Friends/Playing To Win/I Just Stopped By Because I Had To/There It Is/I Can Make You Feel Good

This is easily the best of Shalamar’s albums, containing four big hits and some fine other tracks too.

The album begins with the superb disco-pop of A Night To Remember, presented here in extended form. Don’t Try To Change Me continues in the same style - quality, catchy and highly accessible poppy funk.

Help Me slows down the pace, but nicely slow on an appealing, romantic groove. On Top Of The World returns to the joyful pop funk of most of the album. It features some nice bass-guitar interplay and is very much the sound of ordinary town discos and nightclubs in 1982 and was in many girls’ record collections. They all seemed to own this.

I Don’t Wanna Be The Last To Know has Jody Watley on lead vocals on a slower number. Friends and There Is Is are cut from the same disco guitar-riffing cloth and were perfect singles while I Can Make You Feel Good is one of the great disco records.

The other two tracks are the upbeat, grinding groove of Playing To Win, enhanced by some great funky guitar and the smoochy heartbreaker I Just Stopped By Because I Had To

This was a good album - it didn’t get much better than this for Shalamar. 

Check out fellow seventies/eighties disco soulsters Odyssey too :-


The Best Of Odyssey

Best known for their run of early eighties singles were one male - two female vocal group Odyssey. They are another group whose work I only own in "best of" format, although I have been listening to a couple of their studio albums recently (see below).

Their highlights are the tribute to New York in the jazzy soul of Native New Yorker, with its great line "you're no tramp, but you're no lady...", the infectious singalong disco funk of Going Back To My Roots and the equally anthemic dancefloor groove of Use It Up And Wear It Out. Both of these latter two were enormous chart hits and they stand today as great examples of just how good a classic disco single could be.

My own favourite, however, as someone who loves a good romantic number, is the heartbreaker If You're Looking For A Way Out. I’m a sucker for slushy songs like this. The vocals at the end are great.

Other fine disco cuts from them were the catchy Inside Out, the thumping, guitar and drum-driven, socially-conscious Hang Together, the slightly Grace Jones-ish Magic Touch and the classic early eighties disco funk of Together. Listen to that Chic-inspired guitar on the latter.

Also interesting is their cover of Oh No Not My Baby, done in a reggae style. It works well.

Odyssey (1977)

Native New Yorker/Ever Lovin’ Sam/Weekend Lover/You Keep Me Dancin’/The Woman Behind The Man/Easy Come, Easy Go/Golden Hands/Thank You God For One More Day

This was Odyssey’s debut album, from 1977, and it concentrates mainly on ballads, sweet soul and gospel as opposed to the more upbeat disco stuff they did in subsequent years. I really quite like it, I have to say, it has a nice appeal to it that I can't really describe accurately, other than that have enjoyed listening to it several times over.

Native New Yorker needs no introduction, it is simply one of the best New York songs, and there have been many. It made me want to go there and I eventually did. Ever Lovin’ Sam is a Motown-style ballad while Weekend Lover is a chunky but attractive ballad about an extra-marital affair with some clever lyrics.

You would imagine You Keep Me Dancin’ would be a lively number but it is a slow, moving ballad featuring a killer vocal from Lilian Lopez (I think). It reminds me of the vocal on If You're Looking For A Way Out. The calypso-inspired The Woman Behind The Man is unfortunately sung in cod-Caribbean accents, for some reason. It is enjoyable enough but more than a little cheesy. A brassy, lively backing is found on the gospelly soul of Easy Come, Easy Go, a song that also has a bit of a funky guitar sound to it and some infectious Latin grooves near the end of its seven minutes. It is the album's second best cut.

Golden Hands also has a gospel feel to it as it tells a typically seventies ghetto tale of despair, leading to eventual redemption, about a basketball player called Michael (not Michael Jordan - too early). Thank You God For One More Day ends the album on a sort of country gospel vibe. There is no doubt though, that Native New Yorker stands out as by far the finest track on the album. You should know the score by now...

I Got The Melody (1981)

I Got The Melody/Roots Suite/I Can’t Keep Holding Back My Love/Baby That’s All I Want/It Will Be Alright/Oh No Not My Baby/Hold On To Love/Going Back To My Roots

This was probably the best of Odyssey’s albums, I think, coming as it did at the height of their popularity. It had a few pretensions of being more than just a “hits and filler” album.

I Got The Melody is a vibrant, nicely orchestrated piece of very early eighties soul then we get the nine minutes plus of Roots Suite, which stretches out the Going Back To My Roots vocal and builds on the melody. Basically, it is like a long 12” version of the song. Feast your ears on the mid-song rock guitar solo and the trumpet one too.

I Can’t Keep Holding Back My Love is a mid-pace, brassy number, featuring some good mid song guitar along with its convincing vocals. 

Baby That’s All I Want is more lively, once again backed by some jazzy brass. It has that show tune vibe that Odyssey liked, mixed with a slick disco groove. It Will All Be Alright is a solid slow, yearning soul ballad embellished by more impressive guitar and a fine female lead vocal from one of the girls (I’m not sure who). 

Oh No Not My Baby is a delicious reggae cover of the Maxine Brown song while Hold On To Love is punchy, harmonious soul. The album ends with the irresistible single version of Going Back To My Roots - “zipping up my boots” indeed. 

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 A Retrospective (1974-1980)

The Spirit Of Radio/The Trees/Something For Nothing/Freewill/Xanadu/Bastille Day/By-Tor And The Snow Dog/Anthem/Closer To The Heart/2112 Overture/The Temples Of Syrinx/La Vila Strangiato/Fly By Night/Finding My Way

In my late teens, in the late seventies, I knew several boys who were really into Rush, mocking my punk taste, telling me that Rush were the real thing. I was not convinced at all, and it is only recently that I have paid them any attention at all.

As it happens, I have enjoyed my recent dabbling in their early career, they were an appealing bridge between prog and heavy rock. They had several side-long suites of music, prog-style, some lengthy instrumental workouts and their lyrics were on the weird-pretentious side. They also boasted, however, the powerhouse drumming of Neil Peart, some really great rock guitar riffing from Alex Lifeson and singer Geddy Lee’ s typically heavy rock high-pitched vocal. The latter is a bit irritating at times, like that of Journey’s Steve Perry. They had an ear for a rousing, anthemic  tune and a catchy melody too that has meant that whenever I have come across one of their tracks in a prog or heavy rock playlist I have enjoyed them.

So, were they prog or were they rock? This early stuff is their most proggy, but there is a pure, essential heavy rock power to their work that makes them a rock band with proggy inclinations, for me. What makes their stuff sound good to me are the pounding drums and the rock guitar. So, although I have pigeonholed them as prog I realise that is something that can be debated. They certainly went on to be a big stadium rock band in the eighties.

Highlights are the irresistibly rousing, Journey-like The Spirit Of Radio; the acoustic-heavy rock mix of The Trees; the lengthy but exciting instrumental edits of longer suites in La Vila Strangiato and 2112 and the powerful and captivating riffy rock of  Bastille Day

Also impressive are the short but rocking Closer To The Heart and the dignified grind of Something For Nothing. To be honest, there is something to be enjoyed in all the tracks, usually a blistering guitar solo or some relentless drumming.

Rush (1974)

Finding My Way/Need Some Love/Take A Friend/Here Again/What You’re Doing/In The Mood/Before And After/Working Man

This was Canadian rockers Rush’s debut, and a storming one it was too, leaning firmly to the hard rock side of things as opposed to the prog - I have always been more of a rocker than a proggy. The album did not include legendary drummer Neil Peart, though, and this is seen by some as a negative point, although John Rutsey’s drumming sounds great to me.  

Finding My Way is wonderful riffy rock, with Deep Purple meets Bad Company-style guitars topped off with Robert Plant-esque vocals. I seriously love the big, chunky, hard-rockin’ sound on this. The guitar soloing is awesome too as is the rubbery bass. Great stuff all round. 

Need Some Love rocks in frantic, almost punky fashion and, although Geddy Lee’s vocal is a bit stereotypically heavy rock in that high-pitched style, it suits these songs. This is simply proper mid-seventies rock of the highest order. Take A Friend is also very Led Zeppelin-esque, particularly in the vocal and guitar departments.

Here Again is a seven minute slow burner once more with heavy Zeppelin overtones. The guitar, bass and drum sound in here is just fantastic, in my view. Love it. The same can be said of the robust riffery of What You’re Doing, which rocks like buggery, as they say. In The Mood is upbeat and extremely catchy, the tempo not letting up for one second.

Before And After is one of those totally sumptuous heavy rock ballads, that, while heavy, have a melody and delicateness of touch that is really appealing. Half way through, though, the song breaks out into some glorious heavy rocking. More of that can be found on the Lynyrd Skynyrd-influenced rock behemoth of Working Man, which was one of the first songs from the band to come to people’s attention. It was a real tour de force, so its popularity is unsurprising.

I am not sure why this great rock album has remained unheralded for years. For me, it is one of the best seventies hard rock albums and an impressive debut.

Fly By Night (1975)

Anthem/Best I Can/Beneath, Between & Behind/By-Tor & The Snow Dog/Fly By Night/Making Memories/Rivendell/In The End

On this, Rush’s second album, from 1975, new drummer Neil Peart brought with him the prog rock instincts that would go on to serve the band so well over so many subsequent years. The album still contained some serious hard rocking, but there were also signs of a proggy desire for variety.

Anthem has some great riffs and rolling drums and provides more of the rock power that had been showcased on the debut album. Best I Can continues that same tradition on a frantic rocker that is pretty damn difficult to resist. Beneath, Between & Behind is also from the same mould, demonstrating more unbridled rock power - the pictures on my walls are shaking with the power.

Now is the point that the prog tradition of creating a lengthy song from several smaller ones begins for Rush, on the innovative and enjoyable By-Tor & The Snow Dog. They would go on to compose many more “suites” like this as they became more associated with prog. To be fair, though, this plays as one whole, without the changes of tempo that prog was getting known for, well not until about five minutes in, at least, when we enter a quiet, tranquil, instrumental passage. I guess this is where things start to dramatically change from the all-out, barnstorming rock of the previous album.

Fly By Night merges a strong rock sound with a slightly Genesis-like ear for a quirky melody - something in its staccato vocal delivery. Making Memories sees acoustic guitar used for the first real time, before a beautifully heavy and warm bass and drum sound bursts out, making it a short but extremely pleasant number.

Fully acoustic is the beautiful, folky ballad Rivendell, showing a real change from the first album, and the closer, In The End, is also a slow Zeppelin-style number at the beginning, before some huge grandiose riffing comes back, also in a very LZ fashion. You would think it was Stairway To Heaven’s denouement. 

So, while this album starts off rocking in a fast and furious way, its second half shows a willingness to adopt other styles, methods of composition and instrumentation. This would be the way things would progress for Rush.

Caress Of Steel (1975)

Bastille Day/I Think I'm Going Bald/Lakeside Park/The Necromancer/The Fountain Of Lamneth

This is the point that Rush really started to go prog. Personally I preferred their shorter, more up-and-at-'em kick-ass rocking songs, but their longer compositions all have their moments.

Bastille Day is a great riffy rocker with one of those high-pitched vocals that so many heavy metal bands' vocalists would approximate over subsequent years. It has a nice bass line too in the middle as well as carrying one hell of a rock thump to it. Good track.

I Think I'm Going Bald really is about going bald and thus is lyrically ridiculous, but once again it is a powerful rocker. The third shorter track is also a goodie - the infectious groove of Lakeside Park, which has a very vague reggae-funk feel to its beat. Check out the great rumbling but melodic bass on this. 

Then we get the prog - the extended suites of The Necromancer and The Fountain Of Lamneth, complete with proggy titles. I find when these tracks split into their various passages, they may as well be different tracks - the excellent riffy and melodic last part of The Necromancer, for example, (check out that great guitar solo too) but suites were de rigeur in the early to mid seventies, weren't they? The same principle applies - even more so - on the twenty minutes of the Zeppelin-esque The Fountain Of Lamneth, it simply changes in tempo too many times for my liking. That said, you can't beat the riffy bit around thirty minutes in. Sometimes Rush just hit a run, musically, and they are great, this is one of those times.

There is some good stuff on this album in both its shorter and longer songs, but I have to come down on the side of the shorter numbers.

Rush carried on in this vein for several years, releasing albums containing longer suites together with shorter, rock numbers, progressing to gain a large "stadium rock" audience in the eighties. 

Three of their most popular albums from the late seventies-early eighties are shown below. All of them are enjoyable and listenable in their own way but they are not albums close enough to me to justify really in-depth reviews. The later of the three, Moving Pictures, is the most eighties-style heavy rock of them, while 2112 is probably the one I like the best. 

2112 (1976)
2112/A Passage To Bangkok/The Twilight Zone/Lessons/Tears/Something For Nothing

Notable for its superb, lengthy multi-passage opener, 2112, one of my favourites of the band's tracks, despite its side-long length. Lordy mama - those killer riffs and those drums - great stuff. Yes, I accept that it does go on way too long (proper Rush aficionados will no doubt disagree). The problem with these suites is that they simply change tempo too many times  - but these guys could play, couldn't they? They proved themselves to be three of rock's great instrumentalists. Lyrically, however, a few heavy rock stereotypes are give free rein -

"We are the priests of the Temples of Syrinx
All the gifts of life are held within our walls..."

Back then, I found it hard to separate Rush from clichés like this. Now, I can accept them because the sheer rock power between eleven and fourteen minutes of 2112 is so barnstormingly good.

I prefer Rush when they rock more succinctly, though, as indeed they do on the remainder of the album but the trend was set here for long, multi-passage "prog" tracks (or track) to form half an album, while the other half rocked with shorter songs.

The afore-mentioned "other tracks" are all sub-four minute ones, including the very Deep Purple-esque a Passage To Bangkok, with its superb mid-song guitar solo, the Thin Lizzy-ish and attractive The Twilight Zone, the very Led Zeppelin III vibe of the acoustic-driven Lessons, the gentle, mainly acoustic ballad Tears and the stately but pounding heavy rock of Something For Nothing. All these songs are good ones.

This was a fine heavy rock album, and one which provided a nice mix of the long and the short of the group's compositions on its two distinct sides. It showcases the band at their seventies peak. I am only disappointed that it has taken me around forty-five years to properly appreciate it. The sound on it is fantastic too - warm, clear and bassy, as it should be.

Hemispheres (1978)
Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres/Circumstances/The Trees/La Villa Strangiato (An Exercise In Self-Indulgence)

Released at the height of punk and new wave, this was a classic four track piece of proggy indulgence - acknowledged on the title of the otherwise excellent final track, La Villa Strangiato (An Exercise In Self-Indulgence). Check out the pretentious cover too - most un-1978. 

Yes, Cygnus is full of prog and extended heavy rock musical and lyrical stereotypes but that should not detract from the fact that it is crammed full of great drums and guitar. I know it goes on a bit (just a bit!) but some of the rock contained therein is just top notch. Geddy Lee's strangled, high-pitched yelp of a vocal is a bit much at times, however. 

The brief pauses between passages of music on suites like this virtually turn them into separate songs, it has to be said.

I mentioned the mix of acoustic and heavy rock of The Trees on my review of the band's retrospective compilation. Circumstances is a classic, short Rush rock number, full of killer riffs. I really like Rush when they rock like this. 

As with a surprising number of albums, this was totally incongruous when compared with much contemporary 1978 material, but many people didn't give a damn and loved it.

Moving Pictures (1981)
Tom Sawyer/Red Barchetta/YYZ/Limelight/The Camera Eye/Witch Hunt/Vital Signs

This is the most popular of Rush's "stadium rock" albums, and, while extremely enjoyable, has a somewhat homogenous uniformity of sound - a slightly tinny eighties rock sound. To be honest, and surprisingly, I find myself preferring the proggy albums. Listening to it a few times, though, I find I warm to it with each play.

Tom Sawyer is a robust, muscular opener, though, with some powerful, innovative, rolling drums and chunky riffs. It features a fine keyboard solo too. In 1981 this sort of thing was very much in another world to what I was listening to, but I stick it on now and can find myself really enjoying it. 

Red Barchetta is equally strong, with a bit of a later-era Deep Purple-Whitesnake feel to it. YYZ is a kick-ass guitar-bass-drum lively instrumental. Limelight is both riffy and melodic, its riff sounding vaguely like Blue Öyster Cult's Don't Fear The Reaper at times.

The Camera Eye is the album's one nod to the old proggy lengthy track thing, but it plays out pretty well over its ten minutes, featuring some good slow riffage. Witch Hunt is a bit chugging but Vital Signs ends the album well with a slightly white reggae-sounding number.

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