May 9, 2008

Back Tracking, Volume 1: The Chambers Brothers

When I was, briefly, an arts and entertainment columnist for OU Student Media's website (hub.ou.edu), I submitted two features on a semi-regular basis. The first, "Make Me a Mixtape!", consisted of themed mixes and song-by-song explanation that increasingly delved into ridiculous amounts of snark and detail as my tenure went on; the second, "Throwbacks Are In", examined albums that had been overlooked or newly revived by modern trends. Only one installment of "Throwbacks" ever ran (it was over Los Bravos), but in retrospect it was probably too much to sustain the interest of the reader to have a whole album conceptually dissected, historically explained, connected with artists who sound like they'd used it for source material, and advertised as suddenly relevant again. That's both overbroad and overbearing, so I consider it a lesson learned.

Yet my passion for music 20+ years old hasn't flickered. In this, which I hope to be a weekly series, I endeavor to put my thoughts about incredible SONGS, old (and underrated, and influential, and otherwise) as they may be, up for consideration.

The Chambers Brothers - "Time Has Come Today"

Last night, I found myself insomnia-stricken and did what I usually do: plant in front of my computer and rifle through iTunes for stray awesomeness. It arrived. The thoughts about this song, which I published on my personal blog, went like this...

"It's such a fucking gorgeous, gutty, nasty, soulful, badass, charismatic record. Joe Chambers sounds like an enraptured black Baptist preacher in full apocalypse mode (with call-and-response from Willie, Lester, and George Chambers), except he's basically singing about that moment when you look around you and you realize you can't do anything but run full speed at the rust-red horizon at sunrise because where you've been is the dispondent quiet after the storm. "The rules have changed today (hey!) / I have no place to stay! (hey!) / I'm thinking about the subway (hey!) / 'Cause a love has flown away... (hey!) / My tears have come and gone (hey!) / Oh, my Lord! I have to roam! (hey!) / I HAVE NO HOME! (hey!) / I have no home... (hey...) / Now the time has come! (time!) / I have no place to run (time!) / I might get burned up by the sun (time!) / But I'll have my fun!" The uneven syllables and variable stress on the words are vintage full-force-and-fury-of-the-sermon. Where can I join this incredible church?

And it's not so much Joe Chambers is singing as he is stomping his voice's foot so hard he could put that vocal through concrete. It's glorious. The guitar is by turns hauntingly chiming and sneering. Brian Keenan's heavy bass drum foot/snare drum hand are punishing. I've not yet found another song so psychotic but so on the light side of The Force. Fuck you, Sly Stone. The time has come. TODAY!"

That sums up my personal reaction to the song very neatly (and much of this column must be personal in order to say anything unique) -- but I think it's a hugely exciting article out of time. When it was released in 1968, the charts were a free-for-all of weirdness. '68 was the year that Friend and Lover hit with "Reach Out of the Darkness," a chipper piece of Canadian baroque-folk-pop, but it was also the same year in which Arthur Brown got to #2 with the marginally insane "Fire" (sample vocal - "I am the god of hell fire! And I bring you!") - and '68 was the year the cities burned in the wake of Martin Luther King's slaying, and "Say it Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" was the top hit of the summer - and also the year Led Zeppelin minus Robert Plant convened behind Donovan for the trippy, semi-sinister "Hurdy Gurdy Man". The Hot 100 was loaded with duality, with pop trifles like "Yummy Yummy Yummy" by The Ohio Express and "Hello, I Love You" by The Doors; with vitriolic protest music like "Unknown Soldier" (also by The Doors); with the simplistic, breezy bossa nova pop of Sergio Mendes and Dionne Warwick placing three songs in the Top 10 between them; with out-and-out odd pastiches like Status Quo's "Pictures of Matchstick Men" and "Green Tambourine" by the Lemon Pipers. And "MacArthur Park" was a #1 hit. So a shouting, bashing, incendiary, vaguely anti-establishment slice of pristine soul-rock, for the one time ever in Billboard history, doesn't look terribly out of place. And that's not the craziest part.

The song's slow burn through a six-minute psychedelic breakdown-buildup-explosion, punctuated by the Brothers' shouts of "TIME!" and Lester Chambers' rock-steady cowbell work, makes it a particularly bold genre "tweener". As a gospel-inspired song by a black band with a group vocal, it obviously qualifies "soul," yet the straightforward guitar attack and booming drums suggest "garage rock," and the middle six minutes of guitar solo jam and haunting hook definitely scream "psychedelic rock." Yet its uncut version became the bigger FM hit of the two edits included on Time Has Come Today. The band's leanings weren't hippie-unsympathetic, as they had recorded a shelved session as Bob Dylan's backing band, but for a group of Mississippi black boys and their white New York drummer to crank out a soul-rock document on par with the Oakland Stroke of Sly and the Family Stone seems fairly incongruous. Therein lies the record's greatest virtue: it defies you not to believe, and if you're hearing it clearly, it wins every time.

Here's a brief performance video of the band doing their hit on Ed Sullivan.

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