Review Summary: He’s known as the hardest working man in show business and this album contains all the proof you’ll ever need.
There are different manners to approaching a live performance. Some bands decide to include long improvisations such as in Deep Purple’s Made In Japan
or The Grateful Dead’s Live/Dead
. Other bands give 150% of their energy in order to create an incredibly intense performance, evident in Iron Maiden’s Live After Death
or Motorhead’s No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith
. Nevertheless, in order for a live performance to be worth attending, a band or an artist has to provide an extra incentive. Now, you will probably ask yourselves why I am writing about Deep Purple or Motorhead in a James Brown review. Well, this website’s user base consists mainly of rock and metal fans and I’m proud to admit that I’m one of them. So, is there a reason for those fans to listen to this live album? The answer is an emphatic yes!
First of all, Sex Machine
is a double LP that clocks at 64 minutes. However, its first two sides were recorded in studio with added reverberation and overdubbed applause making this album not 100% live. The reason for that is that his backing band left James Brown shortly before the planned recording of this album, so he decided to record some of the tracks in studio. Nevertheless, don’t let this fact make you ignore this album because it contains some of the funkiest music ever recorder by Mr. Dynamite himself. James Brown’s voice is not the only highlight of this recording though. He is being assisted by his backing band, the J.B.’s consisted by the legendary Bootsy Collins on bass and his brother Catfish on guitar among others. Bootsy Collins was just 18 at the time and not much later he quit the band while joining George Clinton’s Funkadelic at the age of 20.
The live parts of this album were recorded at Augusta, Georgia in 1969, 17 years after James Brown’s release from a youth detention center there. The music itself is mostly funk and soul and the whole album serves as a testament to Brown’s amazing skills as a performer. The man must have been an absolute professional. His voice is top notch hitting the right notes all the time while at the same time he is dancing and interacting with the audience. The band even though not being together for too long at the time sounds extremely tight and seems to have developed a strong chemistry.
Almost every song on this album has been performed in an alternative manner compared to its studio version. From the extended version of the opener “Sex Machine” with its hypnotic rhythm to “I Got the Feeling” which is reduced in half in order to serve as the link between “Bewildered” and “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose”. The former is a doo-wop adaptation of the 1936 original love song in which James Brown’s passionate screams and howls are accompanied by a horn section. The song, which became a staple in James Brown’s concerts, is definitely a highlight of this album. On the other hand, “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose” along with “Licking Stick – Licking Stick” are prime examples of the (at the time) innovative slap-bass technique which would later characterize funk music, courtesy of Bootsie Collins of course. Moreover, James Brown was known as a social activist and a serious supporter of education among black youth. This is evident in “Brother Rapp” and “I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing”, both highly rhythmic anthemic songs for equality among races and in education. Furthermore, one of the absolute highlights of the album is “It’s a Man’s Man’s World”, an iconic song with great crescendos, called chauvinistic but interestingly enough co-written with a woman. In addition, a popular dance at the time called Popcorn is being represented by 3 tracks; “Lowdown Popcorn”, “Spinning Wheel” and “Mother Popcorn” are the least interesting tracks of the LP and their value is almost purely historic. This leaves us with “If I Ruled the World” in which James Brown shows his singing abilities apart from screaming and howling and “There Was a Time”, “I Can’t Stand Myself” and “Please, please, please” which are all fine funk songs.
To sum up, you shouldn't listen to this album because it was voted as the 34th greatest album of all time in a VH1 poll of over 700 musicians, songwriters, disc jockeys, radio programmers, and critics in 2003. You should listen to it because it contains what music is all about. Dammit, you should at least listen to a few tracks because it contains what life is all about; passion. So, put on your dancing apparel because James Brown will make you feel the groove.