I had that dream again last night. I think I have Carsonitis, but please, let me explain.
Don’t get me wrong, usually my dreams are chock full of happy normal things, like Trailer Park Boys
, the work of Kierkegaard, and boobies. However, every once in awhile my mind takes a sinister turn and all of the sudden I’m in the audience on The Tonight Show
, where my so-called sub-consciousness is at the mercy at the witty banter of Johnny Carson. As usual, Carson is doing his Carnac the Magnificent bit and each time, it’s the same punchline that he ever so dauntlessly raises to his forehead:
“Gold Chains, razorblades, and a diseased yak”
With a flick of the envelope, Carson flips open the envelope and unveils this grand joke: Isaac Hayes. What happens next is always hazy, but it ends up with me waking up in a cold sweat and yelling “Hi-yooooooo!” I then spend the next couple of minutes deeply confused about what just happened:
Isaac Hayes" What the Fuc
k" (Why I’m not more concerned about the diseased yak part is completely beyond me.)
Yes, Isaac Hayes. Most of you know him as Chef from South Park. Some of you know him as the dude who wrote “Theme from Shaft”. Still, a handful of you may know him as yet another celebrity cog in the very profitable “religion” of Scientology. Sadly, what most people don’t know him as is for his immense contributions to the development of soul music as a credible artistic genre. I’m talking about Hot Buttered Soul
, and I think that’s what my dream was trying to tell me.
Let’s back track here to the 1960s for a second. Rock music had begun to merge with folk by the way of Dylan and the Newport festival. Where in the 1950s, the genre was indirectly regarded as trying to ruin the status quo of “real American values”, in these turbulent years, it had become conscious of this power and began to explicitly try to revolutionize society. However, R&B music, the other dominant genre in American popular culture, had taken an awkward course of development. Though from 1963 to 1965 the concept of R&B had disappeared from the charts as a result of the rosy belief that race issues were solved by this time, the ensuing Civil Rights Movement reinstated the idea that black communities were separate from the rest of the country and by 1965, the "black" charts were reinstated by Billboard Press. Ironically, where the nature of 1960s counter-culture, that is often symbiotic with rock music, was becoming more accepted by mass society, R&B, which commonly found a stronger base with the oppressed classes, was the most commodified.
Thus, it is safe to say that R&B was going through a major identity crisis during these years. Though R&B had become increasingly popular, it remained to be dominated by the behemoth known as Motown, with its ringleader-cum-control freak, Berry Gordy at the helm. For Gordy, hit singles meant dollars, and thus went to great lengths to ensure that his hits kept rolling out the record factory. With a Fordist production line, a handful of prodigal (and not to mention prolific) songwriters like the Holland-Dozier-Holland trio, Norman Whitfield, the Funk Brothers, and strict marketability quotas, Motown has often been viewed as the empire that deafened the capabilities of not only artists within the label itself, but was seen as the key representative for all R&B music in America up to this point.
However, that wasn’t to say that this was a complete monopoly. Motown periodically faced competition and one such example was a Memphis-based label known as Stax. Where Motown often showcased highly polished, no frills tunes, Stax embellished some of the grimier, rawer and overall, more self-satisfying tendencies of Southern rural music that had been well established since the days of slavery. Stax also housed a talented young songwriter and studio arranger by the name of Isaac Hayes. Hayes was one of the key figures of the Stax sound and after a few years of working behind the scenes, he began to step out and record his own material. But it wasn’t until 1969 that Hot Buttered Soul
would be released and change the way America, perhaps even the whole world, would see R&B music. It perhaps is no coincidence that also in 1969, the name “Soul” had been adopted by Billboard in place of R&B. Surely such a name change would suggest not only a change in the sociological condition of America, but also in the music too.
For the most part, Hot Buttered Soul
is important because it explicitly illustrates a shift a way in which a soul record was generally regarded simply as a market-oriented commodity produced for simple consumption and disposal. Now with Isaac Hayes and Hot Buttered Soul
, the idea that such music can attach more difficult structures and ideas became a bold and even intimidating one. Where most R&B songs of the day featured simple rhythms, insanely catchy melodies, and short lengths for the sake of radio playability, Hot Buttered Soul
featured just four songs. Four. And the album is 45 minutes long. There are no immediately catchy melodies, but instead pulsating rhythms, psychedelics sonic explorations of sound, heavy emotional lyrics, and an indulgence-fueled bastardization of old pop jingles. One thing is certain: if Berry Gordy ever got hold of this, he would’ve fired Hayes on the spot.
But simply enough, I probably could lecture to you all day bout this album’s supposed sociological relevance, but this recording really is brilliant. The first track Walk on By
is a mesmerizing cover of a Burt Bacharach classic, stretched out to a monster 12 minutes. The song opens with a gorgeous and heartbreaking string passage that melts into a bluesy psychedelic melange of cool wahs, fuzz-heavy guitar licks heavy use of studio cross-fade, throbbing bass, and Hayes painful crooning. ‘Hypnotic’ is the key word here and one can only marvel at the way Hayes employs the use of space to explore sonic territory previously uncharted in R&B. Though Hayes’ brilliant organ playing gives the song that extra kick of momentum, it’s the guitar in this song that makes the sound complete with its tone that just oozes hedonism. The song ebbs and flows with a powerful use of dynamics, finally ascending to a majestic, if unorthodox, blend of orchestrated precision and raw psychedelic tones. Take it from me, words cannot do this song justice.
is definitely a mouthful of a title and needs plenty of time to even pronounce, which is probably why the song clocks in at over 9 minutes. With its dirty James Brown-like shuffle, tight drum beats, and more of that slinky wah guitar, this track is brilliant in maintaining the sinful, yet at the same time, earnest mood of the album. I have no idea what the lyrics are about—Hayes seems to be singing about obdulla oblangatas—but it doesn’t matter, because this song is one dominated by the persistence of a tight groove and provides a great pre-cursor to sound of funk that would soon dominate the 1970s.
meanwhile is a soothing ballad that wonderfully utilizes Hayes’ powerful and sultry voice which lets you affirm why you loved “Chocolate Salty Balls” so much. The orchestral arrangement has a very pristine tone, which is great, as it allows the vocals to be take the center stage. At 5 minutes, this is the shortest song on the album.
Finally, By the Time I Get to Phoenix
is a 19-minute long catharsis of broken love and pulsating rhythms. I shi
t you not, you will never find another song as emotionally gripping and consequently devastating as this track. The first 9 minutes is simply Hayes speaking calmly over the soothing arrangement of static organ pulse and a light dusting of the ride cymbal. Listening, to Hayes you can hearing the earnestness of his intentions in the lyrics and you can affirm the pain that love has caused this man. The last half of the song sees the song take its course into a full on orchestral arrangement that slowly soars to an orgasmic sonic climax, and then fade into obscurity.
So there you have it. This is the motherload of soul right here and its capabilities that transcend any rigid conformities of the radio. 1969 was a landmark year and Hot Buttered Soul
is the perfect depiction of the frustration and potential that was thriving under Soul’s glossy shell. Marvin Gaye wouldn’t release What’s Goin’ On
until another two years and even then that wouldn’t be able to touch the brilliance of Hayes’ finest moment. Arguably, the only other major innovator at this time that could detract Soul away from its addiction to the radio was Stevie Wonder and I mean, c’mon the man is blind. Why, the US already allowed a cripple to be president a few decades ago.
Finally, this album has not only a cool title, but one of the most bada [color=“white”]s[/color]s album covers ever. Just look at it: The smooth shaved head, plethora of gold jewelry, dark shades. It looks like Hayes is about to make Mr. T his bi
Actually, I’m sure this actually just boils down to taste. To say that this album single-handedly changed the scope of soul music is certainly a tall order, and I’m not gonna try and sugarcoat such a lie anymore. However to say that the perfectly coordinated product of its time and its definitely one among the handful of landmark albums of this soul is definitely something worth saying.
God bless you Mr. Carson. I’d say the same for Mr. Hayes but I’m not very well versed in Scientology.