WAS JAMES BROWN A SIMPLETON? (by Dr David Starkey)
In 1973 the sound of black singing seemed to dominate the airwaves. I had a one-bedroomed flat on Sydenham Hill in southeast London, which was close to Dulwich Village.
James Brown was the name of the singer who had captivated me on that sunny afternoon while listening to the radio and soon enough- perhaps surprisingly- I began to buy his records, momentarily suspending purchases of more popular Caucasian singers such as Elton John or Gilbert O’Sullivan. However, my inter-racial love affair with this man was quickly curtailed once I discovered that this dapper, charismatic and very agile crooner was all too capable of singing relative nonsense. More importantly, I suppose, was the additional worry that he did not possess a sense of humour. Let me explain. Remember the Average White Band? Well, James Brown did and seemed to be threatened by their name. Average White Band? Surely this was a self-deprecating and knowing reference to the fact that a white band playing black music were already at a distinct cultural disadvantage. So what did Mr Brown do, he put out a record, in response, under the title the Above Average Black Band or AABB. The paranoid gesture, I think, underlined his immense insecurity, his humourlessness — and ironically, it showed his actual lack of soul.
It is only recently that I have become aware of another Afro-American singer — courtesy of some my more in-tune-with-the-times students. His name is Gil Scott-Heron and, although American and Coloured as well, he definitely has a sense of humour. Not only that, but a poetic and political compass that Mr Brown could only dream of. Heron is also politically and historically astute. His lyrics are droll, especially on the subject of Ronald Reagan (a man who makes James Brown seem as lucid as Trevor Phillips, the well-spoken one-time Chairperson for Racial Equality). In Brown’s straightforward world the president is ‘funky’ — and ‘people, that’s bad’ is his only advice. No proper solution to any problem is ever proffered. To quote his own words, Brown, too often, is ‘Talking loud but saying nothing’. Brown’s paean to the corruption of Watergate is cringingly facile. ‘You can have Watergate but give me bucks and I’ll be straight’ has no other lyrics but the eponymous ones in the song’s title. These are repeated over 30 times. Perhaps even 40. And this, I find, is indicative of James Brown’s simplistic, revolutionary-lite, but ultimately ‘lazy’ world view.
And have you seen his interviews? The man seems half-insane with his speaking-in-tongues gibberish which would make Diane Abbott (Labour MP) look vaguely coherent by comparison. Oh, and he did a song called ‘The Grunt’. I presume Mr Brown is no stranger to drugs.
James Brown, sadly, was a bit of a buffoon, But that doesn’t prohibit one from head nodding or dancing round a handbag or even getting on the good foot (as long as you don’t suffer from gout in both feet, like myself).
In conclusion, I would say that James Brown can take it to whichever bridge he wants but I’ll be listening to Heron’s revolution on whatever medium there is available (especially if it ‘ain’t’ on TV). Whatever. Speak to the hand. And so on.
(note: this really wasn’t written by Dr David Starkey)