In the early 1980s, some of the British and American punk bands began adding a new dimension to their sound. The Clash, Gang Of Four, Howard Devoto, and Talking Heads all began to incorporate elements of funk into their music. In most cases it was a matter of using the propelling bass lines, and the staccato rhythms as extensions to the minimalist punk sound.
As usual Talking Heads were an exception. They bodily embraced the sound and expanded their line-up from the standard quartet to a nine-piece funk extravaganza. But no matter the format, once one got over the initial surprise of hearing Joe Strummer’s voice singing “Magnificent Seven” or Howard Devoto’s version of “I Want To Thank You (Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin)” – it seemed a natural progression.
If punk was the untamed offspring of bloated rock and roll, funk had always been the wilder brother to the R&B and soul that dominated mainstream radio. Occasionally, bands like Sly and The Family Stone or James Brown would have a crossover hit, but that was mainly on FM rock stations, not the top forty.
In the late 1960s, when black music was crossing over in the safely packaged sound of Motown with all the hard edges smoothed down for safe handling, funk was the sound of the unrest and disquiet that permeated the ghettos of America. Angry, celebratory, and not making concessions to anybody else, it was the musical equivalent of the clenched fist raised in triumph.
Listen to any of the funk that came out in the late sixties and early seventies and you can hear the pride of a people in the blasting of the horns and the strut of the bass. There is nothing fettered or choreographed about this stuff; it’s the brassy sounds of life in the urban centres of America when hope still coexisted with the poverty and the violence, and drugs weren’t considered the only growth business.
Unlike rap music’s either unabashed paeans to consumerism and material gain, or expression of the unfocused anger of the hopeless, funk embodies the energy of potential. That the Black Panther movement’s heyday coincided with funk’s upsurge in popularity shouldn’t be seen as a coincidence; they both represented a change in the attitudes of inner city black people in America.
Digging deep into the vaults of old recordings that have been floating around New York City since the late sixties Funky Delicacies, a division of Tuff City Records, has released Funky Funky New York a collection of rare and unissued recordings of New York City Funk from 1969-1976. This truly amazing collection of tunes has devoted half of it’s tracks to the work of the Pazant brothers and their amazing band, Beaufort Express, for the simple expedient of the brother’s being accessible for interviews and their recordings from that period having survived. Judging by the quality of their performances though, this whole disc could have been devoted to them, and nobody would have objected.
Like many of their contemporaries they came up from the South, in their case Beaufort, South Carolina, to further their musical careers. Other musicians on this disc had moved up from New Orleans, while some were native New Yorkers. It was the collision of all those musical sensibilities that resulted in that distinctive funk sound we think of today.
Ragtime from New Orleans, jazz from New York, blues from Carolina, and everybody’s personal musical experiences on top of that, melded together to burst forth into something new. Although not known for being overtly political, the very first song on the compilation forced its creator to form a new band to record it because his label wouldn’t touch Roy C. & The Honeydrippers’ 1972 “Impeach The President” with a ten-foot pole.
“Impeach The President” is a classic, grab you by the seat of the pants get up and dance piece of funk music. Sitting down and listening to this simultaneously is both criminal and impossible. From the first jolt of the horns, to the pulse of the bass you’re either dead, or suffering from spinal problems if you can remain seated for the course of this song.
Hell, be prepared not to sit down ever while listening to this disc. There was that scene in that damned Yuppie movie where they all dance around the kitchen to a Motown song, and I’m thinking now, why weren’t they listening to the stuff on this disc, or its equivalent, if they wanted to dance.
Songs like “Natural Man (I Need)” performed by Family Portrait and written by the Williams brothers, snap your spine into motion unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. This is the stuff that follows the natural progression from the fields, to the church, to the blues and jazz. It feels much more like part of the family of soul full music in the literal sense, than any of its cheap imitators.
If those occasional tastes of funk that have seeped into your lives via the radio have whetted your appetite for more, than Funky Funky New York is an essential addition to your collection. The accompanying booklet gives some really good background into each of the tracks and the artists, and includes a great interview with the Pazant brothers (You can catch Beaufort Express at the Cotton Club every Monday night when they’re not touring).
One plaintive note that’s struck is the fact that the Williams brothers have not been heard of since the disaster of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. They had moved their label, Ghetto Records, back to the city of their birth, and Tuff City records has not been able to track them down. They ask that anyone who knows anything about the whereabouts of the family to contact their New York City offices.