Back to the Essence
“Somebody please take me back/to when the artists were poor/‘cos when they made less/they gave us/so much more” sings Tanya Stephens on the opening song of her wonderful recent album. The Isley Brothers could be the definition of the supreme (and supremely important/influential) artists who never really saw the financial rewards, or for that matter the international renown, that their wonderful music and years spent hustling on the chitlin’ circuit should have brought them. Listening to this 34-track, 155-plus minute compilation is both a painfully effective lesson in just how much classic music is passing quietly out of the annals of history into the hearts and minds of the far-too-few, and, for someone whose musical knowledge covers a wide range of contemporary artists and genres but falls off fairly quickly after the late ‘80s (like mine), a shock akin to that probably experienced by anyone getting an eyeful of the story J.K. Rowling purportedly ripped off as the basis for Harry Potter—good God, THAT‘s were it all comes from.
Certainly, the embarassment of riches contained here should be enough to enrage anyone to the point of apoplexy at the lack of acknowledgement paid to these heroes. Even their cover of “Summer Breeze” instantly brings to mind the styles of modern Brit soul singers like Gabrielle and Lewis Taylor (whose retro sound I adored without ever discovering its roots), and was sampled on Aphrodite’s lush drum’n'bass roller of the same name. Meanwhilst, “Groove With You” has recently been sampled (if not simply imitated) by a Ludacris track, and contains important cues to Bee Gees ballads to come, not to mention nicely encapsulating the sound of Simply Red’s entire career. And on “Live It Up”, they make the guitar scream to within an inch of its amp whilst Ron comes off like a deep belly James Brown against the liberating shrieks of his brothers in the background. It’s the second, instrumental part that really hits home though, for all the world like a higher speed session for Herby Hancock’s Headhunter. “Take Me to the Next Phase”‘s bassline is also a close (if more deliciously fluid) relation to that of “Chameleon”, which the Brothers then overlay with stomps, *Uhh*s and live audience background cheering before bringing what sounds like all of them in for some chanting at the end. Fantastic. And all that in just three songs.
“Move Over and Let Me Dance” finds them in the same voice as the fabulous “Twist and Shout” before it was nicked and anaethetised by the Beatles, accompanied by horn stabs and a (perhaps disappointingly) restrained young Jimi Hendrix on guitar. This is followed (and admittedly, if unsurprisingly) blown away by their legendary first track from 1959, “Shout”, which overcomes slightly thin, echoey production effortlessly thanks to its gospel/soul/doo wop infectiousness, intensity that verges on the manic, and multiple style/tempo changes ranging from the barnstorming to the pulpit with no warning or hesitation, just some utterly gobsmacking singing from Ron. Rarely in history have four and a half minutes passed so joyously and divertingly.
I’ll have to refrain from just babbling rapturously about the music on offer here (“Brother, Brother” and “Footsteps in the Dark” have the instantly affecting intimacy and timbre of vintage Marvin Gaye, dammit!), because their social and racial significance is just as important. Here, after all, are the people who soundtracked the rise of Afrocentricity with “It’s Your Thing” (”...do what you wanna do”), released an album called Go For Your Guns and wrote incendiary dancefloor/revolutionary anthem “Fight the Power” (“Those that got the answers—rip/take/give ‘em away”)—and in never embodying anything other than self-assurance, love, soul, celebration and enjoyment, they lead by example as much spiritually and socially as musically. They are the root, the source that’s equal parts buzzing energy and velvet softness, of the mindset of black artists like Andre 3000 or Cee-Lo Green, whose “If you let me, I’ll be everything, probably” lyric perfectly sums up their aura (and message) of explosively talented potential.
Complaints? Well, above all, ending the compilation on an R. Kelly track that reduces Ron Isley to supplier of (gorgeous) backing vocals is a crying shame. Yes, the former may have copied the atmosphere of their ballads to a T, but he’s replaced the genuine affection and vibrant musicality with tales of infidelity in hotel rooms that are both as silken and, ultimately, as thin as penthouse bedsheets. What I wouldn’t have given to hear some of Ron’s collaborations with Burt Bacharach instead, licensing problems be damned. Oh, and along with the proto-Hancockisms come the occasional warning of the coming ‘80s jazz-funk apocalypse, though nothing that flavourless. It would also have been great to hear the original bossa nova ‘60s take on “Who’s That Lady” so beloved of ?uestlove, not that the version present isn’t superb. Still, I suppose I shouldn’t have things too easy; tracking down a copy should be only a minute part of the penance I need to do for passing up on the Isleys for so long.
Please, please fight the superficial, sensationalist power of MTV and invest in this double helping of golden soul heritage; this is music that needs us to keep it alive as badly as we need it. Rarely has the word essential been so deeply warranted.