Counterbalance No. 40: James Brown’s ‘Live at the Apollo’

James Brown
Live at the Apollo

Mendelsohn: Klinger, I didn’t want to do this one. I’ve been putting it off only because I’ve enjoyed this record so much that I didn’t want to stop listening to it. I know we have deadlines and such, but damn, this album is hot. If we finish this column I’ll have to move on and listen to something else and that’s really depressing.

Klinger: Don’t worry, Mendelsohn, Joy Division’s right around the corner. I was a little curious as to your whereabouts, but I’m glad to hear it was because you wanted to make this moment last forever. And you’re right—Live at the Apollo is a sheer delight from beginning to end, although it does raise some important questions regarding its placement on the Great List.

For one thing, James Brown had a career that spanned over 40 years. He was there when R&B met soul, and he was midwife when those two gave birth to the funk (he’s said to have kept the placenta in a jar on his mantle). So why then, of all the albums he released, is this live album from 1963—well before he had his most notable and groundbreaking hits—the one that squeaks into the top 40?

And I understand that, like many artists whose careers predate the 1960s rock boom, James Brown was primarily a singles artist. Even so, knowing that critics are vehemently opposed to ranking greatest hits and best-ofs in any respectable list, why do they give live albums a pass? Two imponderables that I hope don’t dampen your spirits here, Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn: My spirits are undampable. Mostly because I’ve been listening to this record non-stop and it’s hard not to smile when James Brown is doing his thing. As for your questions, my only answer is—why not? The sheer sonic audacity alone should be enough but if you need more, let’s dig a bit deeper. I think you answered half of the question already. James Brown was a singles artist. Live at the Apollo was the culmination of the earliest part of that singles career. He brought together everything great he had done so far, pumped it full of adrenaline, played everything in double time in front of a rabid audience—you can feel the energy coming off this record—what results isn’t just a greatest hits compilation, it’s the greatest recording Brown had ever put out.

Live at the Apollo is a different monster. Go back and listen to these singles—any of them. As good as they were in the studio, James takes them to a completely different level on stage. Brown’s voice is simultaneously sandpaper and gold. It’s not the same artist. He may have been a stickler in the studio but on stage . . . it’s . . . it’s just hot.

Klinger: Indeed, and with all the medleys and interstices and segues, this becomes a reinvention of James’s catalog to date. If we live long enough, we’ll get to other examples of live albums that take an artist’s oeuvre to another level (Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense) or at least kick it into high gear (the Rolling Stones’ Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out).

Regarding the second point, I’d maintain that James was still primarily a singles artist through the ’60s. In fact, when I first sought out this album back in the pre-Internet dark ages, I made the mistake(?) of buying his 1968 follow-up album also called Live at the Apollo. After all, that’s the one with “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “Cold Sweat” (and “Prisoner of Love”, which isn’t from The Producers, as it happens).

It turns out that this original 1963 release is the one that the critics go nuts for, and it’s hard to argue with their logic. Because you know what I heard in this album this time through? The birth of punk rock.

Mendelsohn: Say what?! Are you trying to tell me James Brown invented punk? That sounds like something he might have said later on in his life while he was being dragged out of his vehicle by the police after a high-speed chase.

I mean, I can see where you are coming from. Once you say it out loud, it starts to make a lot of sense, but I’m still going to make you work for it.

Klinger: Stick with me, Mendelsohn. Obviously James Brown didn’t invent punk a la Dewey Cox, but I contend that his influence went places he might not have anticipated. You touched on something earlier that comes into play here. James Brown was a famously strict taskmaster, but because he pushed the arrangements so hard on stage, the band was bound to get a little fast and loose. Also, James Brown has a distinctive voice, but he’s no Sam Cooke. And somewhere in Downriver Detroit, a young MC5 (to name just one example of young white kids who were on the verge of forming garage bands) heard Brown’s punchy delivery and the drive of his band and thought, “We can do this.”

Listen to the twangy guitar lines that lead into “I’ll Go Crazy” and then thread through the song. They’re raw enough to seem feasible to a generation of young guitarists—the same feeling that young British blues enthusiasts must have gotten from Jimmy Reed. Plus, this album decouples the musical experience of James Brown live from the visual experience, which is something that no suburban kid could ever hope to replicate, bless their hearts.

Mendelsohn: One other point lending credence to Brown’s punk rock cred was his DIY ethos. When he told his record company he wanted to record a live album, they laughed him off. So he just turned around and paid for it himself. Much to his delight, and I’m sure the record company’s chagrin, it turned into a million-dollar-seller. Think about the kind of balls it took to pull something like this off back in the early ’60s. The cash outlay would have been nothing to scoff at and all he was doing was re-recording his singles—it was a risky move.

Klinger: Yes, Brown and King Records boss Syd Nathan had a bizarre relationship. Apparently Nathan would release James Brown records fully expecting them to flop, and he’d do so just to teach James Brown a lesson. Unfortunately for Syd, the records were usually rousing successes, although that never diminished his belief that this time was the one, the time he’d show that no good James Brown once and for all. Poor, poor, gullible Syd Nathan . . .

But if there’s one thing about Live at the Apollo that is most assuredly not punk, or even especially rocking, and that’s the album’s reliance on the medley that dominates side two. To my way of thinking, medleys should be solely the province of mid-1970s variety shows. I get that he had a ton of hit singles to cram into the constraints of an LP format, but in the end it’s songs like “Please, Please, Please” that end up suffering. Granted, he more or less atones for it with the epic rendition of “Lost Someone”, which is one of the shortest ten-minute songs in all of pop music (if you catch my drift), but it’s still hard not to pine for full treatments of those classic singles.

OK, yes, that’s nitpicking, but someone had to say something (didn’t they?).

Mendelsohn: I’m glad that Brown didn’t give the full treatment to his standards and I think that is one of the main reason’s this album was so successful. If he had gone that route, Live at the Apollo would have just been another best-of collection. The key to understanding Live at the Apollo is embracing the fact that it was live. The cuts on this record were chosen for the way they played live and the transformation they made from the studio to the stage. It’s the reason this is the only live album in the top 100 on the Great List. Live albums are normally just rehashing of the band’s hits, just another way to fill out contractual obligations, Live at the Apollo was a showcase for Brown’s stage presence. Some bands play well in the studio, some bands play well live—Brown did both exceedingly well.

“Lost Someone” may very well be the best cut on this record and, despite the excess of melody, the rockingest one as well as Brown pioneers the quiet/loud dynamic that found its way into so many rock genres, most notably grunge (punk’s most successful progeny?). The way he pushes his vocal performance throughout this song is spectacular. The ebb and flow through the first seven minutes builds into the greatest call and response in all of music as he goads the audience into screaming and then lets then down slow only to hype then back up with with a couple bars of “Please, Please, Please”, to kick off the medley.

Klinger: Oh, he’s clearly playing a cat-and-mouse game with his audience. It’s a thing of beauty to hear. But that’s the beauty of Live at the Apollo—it’s a masterclass in performance. God bless Syd Nathan, I say, for his repeated attempts to hoist James Brown on his own petard. His shortsightedness and stubbornness were impressive even by the standards of early 1960s record men, because it gave us this fine document of a titan just beginning to reach the peak of his powers.