Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Feuerzeig Video Covers Project: Number One (The Rutles), with KRAMER

How Covering Neil Innes Made Me Think About The Isley Brothers' Role In The Black Art Aesthetic (The Feuerzeig Video Covers Project: "Number One" [The Rutles], with Kramer

Number One” by Neil Innes, recorded and performed by his legendary band The Rutles in 1978 (pretending to be 1963), is different than most Rutles songs, in that it is not simply a parody, or even tribute, of The Beatles. A dance song in its own right (still played in clubs on “mod night” and not just for joke value), it’s debatably the most rocking song on the All You Need Is Cash soundtrack (especially since they didn’t include “Get Up And Go” after John Lennon warned Innes that McCartney would sue him for plagiarism).

Unlike “Twist And Shout,” the lyrics are not about dancing, but based on pun on how your “significant other” is like a chart-topping hit (“Toppermost to the poppermost” was an early Beatles mantra, and this is played up in the documentary, for which the song was a soundtrack). It also manages to use the “love/shove” rhyme in a way that doesn’t make me cringe!

Though performed in that style the Beatles perfected in the early 60s, it uses the “La Bamba” chords and recognizable call-and-response vocals, but also adds a weird guitar riff with cowbell and a bridge with handclaps and minor chords entirely lacking in The Beatles version of “Twist In Shout.” Because of this, some claim it’s even better. Since it’s based primarily on a song that The Beatles themselves didn’t write, the song calls attention, and pays tribute, to the original hit by The Isley Brothers—who were themselves multi-platinum mega-stars by 1978 when The Rutles recorded “Number One.”

“Twist And Shout” is a fun dance song that endures over 50 years beyond its original composition and recording. It has basically become a “standard” in the “great American song book”—even if the most famous version these days is by a British band. Written by Phil Medley and Bert Berns, it was originally recorded by the Top Notes, but for practical purposes the definitive, sanctioned and sanctified, original version is by The Isley Brothers.

The Top Notes version was actually produced by Phil Spector in 1961—but before he had developed his signature recording style. Songwriter Berns, who later wrote other 60s classics as “Here Comes The Night,” “Piece Of My Heart,” and “Hang On Sloopy,” before dying at that age of 38 in 1967, felt Spector had ruined the song, which lacked energy, soul, and rawness, and did not catch on. So he decided to go back in the studio with The Isley Brothers in 1962 to show Spector how he intended the record to sound.

The choice of the high-energy gospel-influenced Isleys, who had already hit with their classic “frat-party” song “Shout” a few years earlier, proved to be fortuitous, as the song reached #2 on the US R&B charts, and #17 on the crossover US Pop hits, serving as a perfect follow-up to early signature song, “Shout” and capitalizing on the Twist dance craze. Within a year, the Beatles covered it on their first album Please Please Me.

In England, The Isleys version hadn’t been a hit, yet The Beatles were avid listeners of American R&B and turned the song on to a wider audience, as it became the showcase to the album and their live shows (which often opened or closed with this high-energy number). When Beatlemania hit in America in 1964, they brought “Twist And Shout” back to the states---and the song may have even played a bigger part in establishing them as a high-energy rock and roll band—who could shout-- here than their originals like “I Wanna Hold Your Hold,” which seem tame by comparison.

In fact, the song, which was not intended as a single (during an era when singles were more the industry standard than the album), became so popular that Vee-Jay records, who still owned the American rights, released it as a single to cannibalize on Beatlemania, and it reached #2 on the charts in 1964, only prevented from reaching #1 (Number One) by the fact that Capitol Record’s official Beatles single, the long-awaited for, and much hyped, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” was occupying the #1 position. [1]

In England the song, like many of the Beatles other covers, had the effect of popularizing the original American R&B hit by The Isley Brothers, but in America it had a different effect. One can understand why many R&B acts felt the “British Invasion” was being used by the major labels to cannibalize, and even erase, the crossover popularity that many black acts were beginning to have. While the Isley Brothers version wasn’t exactly forgotten (as say Irma Thomas’s original version of “Time Is On My Side” was), its popularity was certainly eclipsed by the Beatles version in “white America” at least. The Isleys themselves, who were going through a chart dry-spell in 1964, (even though they were writing and recording such songs that later became classics, including “Who’s That Lady?” and “Nobody But Me”---later a hit for The Human Beinz) had some very interesting things to say, and to testify about this song.

II. The Isley's "Testify"

In 1964, The Isleys wrote and recorded a song called “Testify,” featuring Ronald Isley’s amazing lead vocals, and Rudolph Isley’s spoken, shouted vocals, alongside the amazing guitarwork of their new, young, guitarist, Jimi Hendrix. It’s a fun, funny, complex, but also incredibly raw (even sloppy?) and even strangely defiant song. It doesn’t seem they cared about having a big hit at this point—but were relishing their role as a soulful, albeit comic, dance-band beloved on the “chitlin circuit,” which this song celebrates, and it’s amazing that it was even released on vinyl. At over 6 minutes, it occupied two sides of a single, which was released on their own T-Neck records to be sold at shows, and for posterity.

In “Testify,” Rudolph Isley adopts the role of the sanctified preacher even more exuberantly and loosely than on “Twist And Shout.” It makes much more room for improvisation, while keeping the beat.  After a brief organ and guitar trade off, here’s how Rudolph verbally introduces the song on the record:

(talks/shouts) Brothers and sisters, and to ALLL this song may concern,
If you wanna have some soul, if you wanna be a witness,
I want you to listen while I testify. Maybe I can help you get some soul to be a witness baby,
You wanna be a witness?
ALLL it takes it the rhythm (yeah, yeah)
In your feet (yeah, yeah)
Don’t worry bout the music, baby (yeah, yeah)
You gotta have the beat (yeah, yeah)
Now you got soul (horns) You got soul (horns) You got SOUL (horns)

At this point, it goes into a fairly conventional James Brown-esque song with horns,
but then a great early Hendrix solo, as they prepare for the next movement, which takes the song to a whole new level. As they introduce the choral theme:
I’m so glad, I’m so glad, I’m so glad That I got some soul….

Once this chorus is established, they impersonate Ray Charles, James Brown, Little Stevie Wonder, and Jackie Wilson-- all whom testify how they “got some soul.” The line between talking and singing beautifully blurs in the testifyin’. After about 5 minutes of this comic, theatrical, musical tribute in which various Isley brothers take turns imitating these classic, and notably all more popular, crossover acts, they take a detour:

Rudolph Isley:
Thank you very much, thank you very much Jackie, you truly burnt this morning,
Yes, You truly testified this morning, son. Yes, you testified this morning.
If you don’t testify no more, you testified this morning. But right about now,
We goin way ‘cross the water (“Jackie” does one more scream)—
Testify, I heard you baby—But we goin’ way ‘cross the water, Jackie.
Waaay over there,  (and some cats with?) long hair—
By now they got some soul. I said BY NOW they got some soul.
I don’t know about yesterday, but by now
(Isleys break into silly Beatles impersonation:
“I’m so bad, I’m so bad, I’m so bad, I’m so bad.”
And then switch into the “I’m so glad that I got some soul” chorus)
As the song fades to its ending….

The pun on bad is hilarious! While the Isleys do give the Beatles some credit for bringing some “soul” into popular consciousness during this time, for obvious reasons (with a knowing wink), they have to remind their audience (the live audience who needs no reminder, but also people like us who only get to hear the song on record, in retrospect, and were drawn to it, in part because of the presence of Hendrix, or our interest in the Isleys because of their bigger later hits) where the Beatles got it from. And, yes, “Twist And Shout,” may have written by a white guy, but the Isleys “own” it, at least as much as The Beatles do.

In a way, “Testify” (not to be confused with the George Clinton song of the same name) fits in very much with the separatism of Malcolm X, during this time, playing to, and celebrating the entirely black crowd and encouraging self-determination in contrast to Malcolm’s criticism’s of Martin Luther King as an assimilationalist. If we can build economically self-sustaining communities, we don’t need the approval of “white America” unless it’s under our own terms (and when will be paid those reparations you promised).

In a musical context, it’s a far cry from Berry Gordy’s Motown’s vision at the time. Yet, this somewhat autonomous chitlin circuit was under siege,[2] and the Isleys themselves realized they could create beautiful music and have a crossover hit on Motown (The Holland-Dozier-Holland penned “This Old Heart Of Mine”), but it would be a mistake to reduce Motown to a mere assimilationalist organization. At its peak, when it was still based in Detroit during most of the 1960s, this organization presented a paradigm for black capitalism (small c capitalism) that, in retrospect, comes closer to Malcolm’s vision for self-determination than has been achieved in the music business since that time. As entertainers, the Isleys could have it both ways, soon breaking away from Motown to create amazing funk grooves and soul ballads (and even covers of 70s white “soft rock”) to showcase Ronald’s voice in their biggest hits during the late 60s and mid-70s (including “Fight The Power,” which later influenced Public Enemy).

“Testify” itself has become something of a lost-classic, and gained a life of its own, largely because of the presence of Jimi Hendrix, for both black and white fans who are fascinated by his “early work” as he developed his chops, even more showcased in his other single with the Isleys, the self-referential “Move Over And Let Me Dance” (move over rover, and let Jimi take over). Most myths of Hendrix’s brief stint with the Isleys propounded by the largely white rock critical establishment emphasize how Hendrix was hemmed in by this relatively conventional soul band at that time—yet one listen to “Testify,” should show how this song is anything but conventional! In fact, as Hendrix himself came back from “way across the water,” and began to work with more black musicians (from Buddy Miles to Arthur Lee), Hendrix’s own career was on the verge of taking another turn, which could be its own essay (see David Henderson’s epic biography).

But to get back to the Isleys’ point in parodying the Beatles in “Testify”—it’s true;  the Beatles did learn the art of soul from performing their own covers of R&B songs, specifically when Lennon sang lead. You can hear how their cover of Berry Gordy’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” became a huge influence on songs like “You Can’t Do That” while an original like “All I’ve Gotta Do” came out of Arthur Alexander’s “Anna” for instance. There is no song in the Beatles songbook, however, based on “Twist And Shout” in similar ways—they left that for The Rutles to do with “Number One”—which may be a parody, but it has just a little too much soul to be a mere joke.

As far as I know, The Isley Brothers felt no particular solidarity, or even interest, in The Rutles, and Neil Innes, “way cross the water,” may not have been thinking about The Isleys much for that matter. Certainly, I wouldn’t even try to cover The Isley Brothers “Testify” in a “piano van” even with a musician as a great as Mark Kramer joining in. It was hard enough to rock, and have some soul, in this band-less, dancefloor-less context, to pull off “Number One,” or “Twist And Shout” which I often collage with “Number One” when I’m playing for audiences in supermarket parking lots, who know “Twist And Shout” more than “Number One.” But, man, I would love to be even a teeny-weeny part of a band that can create such a raucous, sanctified,----and thought-provoking- piece as “Testify.” And if that remains impossible, at least play the three, or is it 4 songs, alongside of each on a “mod night” radio show, or if it that’s impossible, at least write this essay, for inclusion in the “Piano van” art installation piece in a gallery.

Here’s the Isley’s 6 minute single version of “Testify”

I also include this alternate version---from a live performance, which unfortunately was not filmed (as far as I know), but you can see The Isleys with Jimi rocking an all black crowd at a small venue. This version doesn’t have as many verbal comic theatrics, but gives Jimi more room to let loose.

Here’s the version of Kramer & I performing The Rutles “Number One” in 2013:

Here’s the Isley’s Recorded version of “Twist And Shout” that was a hit:
Here’s the Top Notes “original” version.
And here’s the Rutles performing “Number One” on NBC TV’s “All You Need Is Cash.”

[1] I will avoid an aesthetic contrast between the two-records. Both have their advantages, and I ultimately see it as a draw (and both The Bealtes and The Isleys did it better live, especially when they were still able to play in small clubs where people could dance!)

[2] (see my chapter on the murder of Charles Sullivan in 1966),

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