In his 2005 book, Like A Rolling Stone, Greil Marcus essays a theory that the single snare beat that introduces Dylan’s masterpiece of spleen and sarcasm opens a kind of musical Pandora’s box, paving the way for all of rock’s innovation to come, from The Beatles yea unto The Pet Shop Boys. Apparently. Not only that, it was also the percussive fanfare that heralded the swinging 60’s, flower power, the Vietnam war, the space age, neo-liberalism, the internet and reality TV. Or something. It’s often a little difficult to keep up with yer man Marcus. However I think I managed to grasp the central conceit that everything Bob had achieved up to that point was condensed into a single moment producing a cultural big bang.
As Dr Stephen Hawking says in The Simpsons, your theory of a donut shaped universe intrigues me Homer, I may have to steal it.
Naturally, Greil, whilst well intentioned, had it hopelessly wrong. Right idea but four years too early.
A world away from Bob Dylan’s bohemian New York, Memphis (home of Elvis and the ancient Greeks), Tennesse to be exact, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton’s Stax label had spent the 1960’s… well, being Stax really. By simply doing their thing and getting on with it, the label had soundtracked the decade as adroitly as any number of Blowin’ In The Winds. Due, in no small part, to the songwriting team of David Porter and Isaac Hayes – the Memphis Goffin and King. Always assuming of course that you’re willing to imagine Carole King saying things like you put the hurt on me, Mamma.
Having built up a breathtaking back catalogue with the likes of Sam and Dave, William Bell and Carla Thomas, the Stax wheels then came off in spectacular fashion. If the death of their most iconic star, Otis Redding, in 1967 wasn’t enough, a year later their distribution deal with Atlantic came to an end leaving the New York label with the rights to all Stax recordings.
Not being one to hang around moping, executive vice president Al Bell simply ordered his charges to record a new batch of classics, turning first of all to in house songwriter and producer Ike Hayes. This was by no means the no-brainer it sounds. Ike’s solo debut had flopped embarrassingly and being a prudent, circumspect soul he was in no great measure as keen to re-enter the spotlight as the later recording of such classics as Chocolate Salty Balls might lead you to believe.
Ike gave it some thought. Stax was known predominently for its singles output but Ike bridled somewhat at the suggestion that black audiences were only good for hanging round the jukebox in the nearest roadhouse. The core demographic that had paid the Stax rent these last years was, he reasoned, capable of a little more sophistication. Ike laid down the law. He may even have put the hurt on a few mammas. Total control. Over content, arrangements and of course production. Un production d’Ike. This would be his Sergeant Pepper. Sort of.
The result of course was the towering behemoth that is Hot Buttered Soul.
Bursting into life with his staggering version of Walk On By, Ike sets out his stall and it’s a stall that will be trading in melodrama, grandiosity, angst and downright cissy-struttin’ funkyness. Where Dionne Warwick warbles stylishly, Isaac Hayes wails his pain, building up to a crescendo of soul-searching with the confession that (you guessed it brothers and sisters) you put the hurt on me Mamma. In between choruses The Bar-Kays bring it down abruptly with some deep, deep, deep reverb guitar that, for some reason, always reminds me of the bit in Apocalypse Now when the sniper is shooting the guy off the bridge.
Next up, the preposterously titled Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic turns down the heartache and ups the funk quota whilst overlooked side 2 opener the relentlessly optimistic One Woman strays admirably into the territory occupied by Gladys Knight. And there you have it.
But wait, how to fill the remaining 18 minutes of side 2? Are you ever in for a treat boys and girls.
Since Ray Charles recorded Georgia On My Mind in 1960 the idea of cross-pollinating genres had become perfectly acceptable. So it was really a shock to no one that an artist like Isaac Hayes would tackle Jimmy Webb’s geography defying country anthem By The Time I Get To Phoenix. What was surprising was how he transformed it from a tale of wistful melancholia to a mind-expanding cultural event. Choosing to take a prequal approach to the song, Ike begins by filling in the story before our hero legs it in the (very rough) direction of Oklahoma. This he does in the style of a declaiming preacher getting old testament on our collective skinny white ass. A role backed up by a single church organ note, played without pause. Or perceptible change in volume. Or change in vibrato. FOR EIGHT MINUTES! After 30 seconds you’re thinking mmm, ecclesiastical. After two minutes you’re considering shifting the needle along a bit. After five minutes you’ve lost the power of free will, labouring with a thousand yard stare and under the illusion that you’ve morphed into a giant insect.
But Ike knew what he what doing. The tension builds up so that after eight minutes it’s a massive relief when the song proper kicks in and he makes it as far as Arizona. What Ike had been doing all along was delivering a state of the nation address. His tale of love gone sour was the story of post-war America.
If sunny side up doo-wop was the soundtrack to the optimistic Kennedy years, the national loss of innocence that came with Johnson and the looming spectre of Nixon needed something darker.
She’ll laugh when she reads the part that says I’m leaving, ‘cos I’ve left that girl so many times before. Regular readers will recall that I’m not much of a lyric man but that line just slays me. Twenty words, only two of them longer that one syllable, that savage both parties. The one for being fickle and capricious, the other for failing to take that caprice seriously. This wasn’t just some dude leaving his lady (as I believe cats used to call their chicks back then) but a country questioning their leader. A leader with a self-satisfied smirk who can’t believe that the proles would ever question his authority. An establishment that knows it can’t stop change but continues to send in the national guard with batons drawn. This, to be sure, was putting the hurt on me. Mamma.
And as Ike reminds us, she just didn’t know I would really go.
He could of course have left the song to fade satisfyingly at this point and it would still have been a major musical milestone. But no, Ike realised that somewhere around 1992 a muscularly challenged East Midlander with dodgy hearing would discover his magnum opus and need not only lyrical but also sonic persuasion.
Welding a magnificent coda to a work of almost perfect execution, he anticipates, by some 40 years, Wikipedia’s definition of a coda as “technically, an expanded cadence”, by technically expanding the shit out his cadence. Strings swell, percussion rumbles and horns do whatever it is they do as the song builds and builds to a colossal tsunami of emotion. And then it hits you. At precisely 11 minutes and 31 seconds the world, musically, politically, culturally, shifts on its axis as The Bar-Kays shift key with the fluid ease of a young bream being released from a net into the River Spey. It’s the sound of Dr Dave Bowman in the previous year’s 2001, entering a technicolour hyperspace. And in the summer of 1969 it’s the sound of Apollo 11 landing on the moon, not the glory of Armstrong’s giant leap but the sad resignation of Michael Collins stranded in the command module. It’s the sound of the senseless, bloody slaughter at Hamburger Hill and Nixon’s knee-jerk reaction to introduce the draft lottery. It’s the sound of the police wading in to break up the Stonewall riots and ultimately being defeated by L.O.V.E love, brothers and sisters. It’s UCLA sacking Angela Davies for daring to have a voice. It’s the sound of Young America waking up and shouting “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore”.
I’ve been listening to Hot Buttered Soul for over 25 years now and that chord change gets me every time. My skin tingles, I shush the family quiet as I hear it approaching. I get glassy-eyed and barely hear my daughter ask “Dad, 1969 really was the heaviest year, wasn’t it?”
Two years later Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder made black lives matter even more conspicuously with What’s Going On and Where I’m Coming From respectively. But let’s not forget that it was Isaac Hayes that did it first, did it baddest and did it best.