The Mighty Imperials: Thunder Chicken

[18 October 2004]

By Stefan Braidwood

Funky Fresh Four, Flying

Boy, do I wish I’d been in the studio for the recording of these hot little numbers. This album just glows with the feel of everybody involved being totally at ease yet reveling in a single, mutual groove; having fun, testing their limits, competing a little, and above all playing their balls off. I popped this on for the first time at about 10:30 on a rainy Bristol morning, and didn’t stop grinning until about 8:00 that night. At which point I put it on again.

Quite frankly, I feel the best way to communicate the contents of Thunder Chicken would be to fulfill my word limit by simply writing FUNKY about 600 times (perhaps in a variety of fonts, with the odd interjection of YEAH!). However, as this would be unlikely to meet the stringent intellectual strictures imposed upon my feeble witterings by our beloved editor, maythesunshineevercaresshersaintlybrow, I’m going to have to employ needlessly refined and elaborate things like sentences. There was nothing needlessly refined or elaborate about the Mighty Imperials, though. They were kinda funky. You get my drift.

What makes all of this even more impressive is that irrepressible grooves were put to wax before the foursome’s aforementioned balls had even dropped properly. Sean Solomon, guitarist and provider of those itchy hot, curling licks, Nick Movshon, whose bass playing struts and bounces where others’ fears to walk, Leon Michaels, Hammond organist of joyful abandon, and Homer “The Bull” Steinweiss, whose drums must afterwards have resembled the impact zone of a belly-flopping hippo; none of these distressingly talented musicians had yet reached the decrepit sum of 17 years at the time of these sessions, recorded in the now sadly defunct Desco Records studio, NY, just before AD turned 2000. Sounds like they wanted to party like Prince said they should, only as a band, and on record.

They are joined by former gospel singer Joseph “Who’s the King” Henry for several tracks, and some juicy horns are added into the mix on occasion, but the majority of these 40 minutes are simply the sound of the preternaturally attuned foursome taking the instrumental cornerstones of funk and giving them a good workout via their own compositions. You can almost hear the little blighters grinning to each other in heady euphoria as they jammed; the recording nice and raw to give the music that authentic gritty feel, yet, thanks to the modern production, blessedly fat in the bass and powerfully percussive (in comparison to the unhappily thin sound of many 60s funk bands, whose actual live impact must now forever be lost to us). I still wince every time the unfeasibly heavy break on “Jody’s Walk” vandalises my pert little speakers.

Basically, what this amounts to is a looser take on the Memphis originals, a healthy portion of the Meters alongside greats like Rufus Thomas, and maybe touches of what the young Shuggie Otis was getting up to with his father’s band when he himself was a barely pubescent firebrand: to paraphrase the record company, “raw-ass funk, heavy gut-bucket soul, or generally having a good time” that will “bring the listener back to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when soul music was made with blood, sweat and [hah!] balls”. I’m not quite so sure about them calling it “classic heavy funk”, if only because that’s surely tautological and its pendant paradoxical; who the hell wants to listen to “funk lite”?

This will be the first time Thunder Chicken has been legitimately released (it was bootlegged by a UK company, which might explain the sampling of the “Jody’s Walk” break on a sneaky hip-hop track of my acquaintance). Sadly, if predictably, the quartet hasn’t stuck together through the intervening limbo; splitting to attend university or joining groups like the Dap Kings and the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra. In a time when so much music is the result of session musicians tweaked with Pro Tools, it is truly a shocking waste that such an uninhibited, intuitive, gleeful group playing was stifled by red tape. Oh, to have been there in the studio when life smiled at them and they laughed back, because they knew: everything they were ever going to do was going to be funky, and they’d do it together.

The Mighty Imperials, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing: I salute you. You guys were some mighty music magic, man.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/mightyimperials-thunder/