Happy 45th Anniversary to James Brown’s thirty-eighth studio album Hell, originally released June 28, 1974.
By the time James Brown recorded Hell, his thirty-eighth studio album, he’d already invented soul music as we know it and was delving deep in the growing genre of funk. While it would be understandable for most artists to slow their roll by this point in their careers, Mr. Brown was hitting his stride. One of the man’s many nicknames is, of course, “The Hardest Working Man Show Business,” and with Hell, released 45 years ago, The Godfather of Soul put in some serious work to craft one of the best albums in his mammoth catalogue.
Hell was a follow-up to the successful The Payback (1973), a funk-heavy release that’s considered by some (including myself) to be the best full-length of Brown’s career. The double album featured massive groove-heavy jams that were frequently over seven minutes in length. The famous story is that it was originally intended as the soundtrack to the Blaxploitation film Hell Up In Harlem, but was rejected by the film’s director. The Payback had a unity in theme that was absent on my of James’ Brown earlier works. Hell builds off of the success of The Payback. There are fewer marathon jams, but there is a strong sense of cohesion throughout the album, even as Brown leads the album in many different musical directions.
Whereas most of Brown’s albums released during this era fully embrace the funk and soul sound, The Godfather and the JB’s stretch their musical legs a bit on Hell. The album incorporates styles from other genres and incorporates innovative musical arrangements for many of the songs. The varied song structure and sound makes Hell a unique album in Brown’s catalogue.
One thing that remains constant is that Brown puts together some monster grooves, and Hell is front-loaded with a pair of them. Things kick off with “Coldblooded,” where the JB’s throw in everything but the kitchen sink, as it begins with a funky guitar line, backed by almost novelty percussion and whistles, before becoming a hard-charging, horn-driven jam. The frequent changes in tempo and sound further reflect the musical complexity present throughout Hell.
Meanwhile, “My Thang” is one of the funkiest concoctions that Brown ever recorded. The song begins with some of his finest intro banter, and is followed by layered horns, sinister guitars, and a heavy bassline that are all overpowering in their delivery. The percussion (complete with cowbell) as well as the impassioned yells and screams, ties everything together to make it one of the best entries on Hell.
Recorded during dark economic times, Brown incorporates social commentary into the album’s title track. Here he shows empathy towards those who are born into poverty and spend their entire lives trying to escape this Hell of “Paying bills from the day you're born, little brother, ’til your body starts getting old.” Mr. Brown arranges another deeply funky groove, this time carried by the horn section, particularly legendary saxophonist Maceo Parker.
The Godfather had a penchant for recording new interpretations of his previous hits, adding a new spin to them each time out. On Hell, he revisits “Please, Please, Please,” the song that first really put him on the map and was one of the best known staples of his catalogue and live performances. He transforms it from a traditional ballad into an upbeat Salsa and Caribbean-influenced dance track, in the vein of the Joe Cuba Sextet’s “Bang, Bang.” The most entertaining parts of the song come when Brown mutters phrases in broken Spanish during the song’s intro and outro, often grossly mispronouncing words in the most James Brown way possible.
Brown revisits his 1971 hit “Can’t Stand It” with “I Can’t Stand It ’76,” which is a weird title for a song release during 1974. Brown doesn’t really tweak what was a winning formula for the song, which originally was crafted in the mode of earlier hits like “Superbad” and “I’m a Greedy Man.” The newer version is slightly slower, but also nearly double in length, becoming one of the JB’s famous 8-minute jam sessions, complete with Brown’s patented banter with the band members. John Morgan shines with an extended organ solo, with Parker on his musical weapon of choice, providing some vintage “cotton field funk.” Brown would later record two further reinterpretations of the song in 1976 and during the late ’90s.
Brown adds his unique JB-spin to a pair of standards. He takes the venerated spiritual “When the Saints Go Marching In” and reworks it into a string-heavy, proto-disco number that sounds completely ridiculous at first blush. However, Brown’s arrangement of the song maintains its gospel sensibilities, through solid guitar work and deft bass-playing.
Mr. Dynamite later shows his continued fondness for Holt Marvel’s “These Foolish Things Remind Me Of You” as Hell features his third take on the song. Brown first recorded it as a doo-wop influenced pop ballad way back in 1961. Thirteen years later, he updates it again to fit with the music of the time, converting it into a lush, dense, mid-tempo tune that would be at home on an early Curtis Mayfield record.
Hell does sag during a stretch located in the back-half of Side B of the first album. Brown’s decision to take T-Bone Walker’s traditional blues classic and remake it as a “Shaft” sound-a-like is a questionable one. Ballads like “A Man Has to Go Back to the Crossroads” and “Sometime” are soft and squishy and entirely too maudlin, though the guitar work on the latter is quite impressive.
At times Hell does sound influenced by some of Brown’s contemporaries. “Don't Tell a Lie About Me and I Won't Tell the Truth on You” would sound at home on one of Funkadelic’s early ’70s albums. The song shares some sonic similarities with the aforementioned group’s “Nappy Dugout,” released the year before, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The track is doused in bluesy funk, buoyed by a seriously heavy guitar groove and high-pitched organ trills, and backed by banging drums and odd percussion sounds. The frequent breakdowns allow for horn blares and James Brown’s guttural yelps and shouts.
Hell ends with the epic “Papa Don’t Take No Mess,” another revered entry in Mr. Brown’s extensive body of work. The album version lasts close to 14 minutes, carried almost the entire way by another distinctive guitar groove and serious funk-powered horns. It seems odd that Brown would record a such a long dedication to the virtues of his father’s tough love, considering that he had an extremely complicated and at times non-existent relationship with his own father. But the artistic license pays off, as Brown’s passion and emotion meshes perfectly with the towering musical performances to create a funk and soul masterpiece.
Following Hell, James Brown continued to record albums at an impressive rate, often releasing a pair of albums a year. Unfortunately, rather than innovating, Brown began to chase trends, rather than set them. Like most musical acts in the ’70s, he began to embrace disco far after its heyday and recorded essentially flavorless albums. After releasing solid albums like Reality (1974) and Sex Machine Today (1975), the quality of his releases began to noticeably dip.
Hell still belongs in the pantheon of great funk and soul albums. There’s very little Brown couldn’t do as an artist, but even so, creating a monstrously funky album that also features credible efforts at Salsa and gospel is impressive. Brown’s mind was as creative as ever, and even with his thirty-eighth album, he knew how to make music that would endure nearly half a century later.