Tuesday, April 6, 2010
Archie Bell & the Drells: Tightening It Up- Best Of (1967-79)
Nothing that Archie Bell & the Drells recorded after "Tighten Up" could hope to achieve the earth-shaking simplicity and singularity and simple joy of that masterpiece. Inherent to the song's content is the awareness that it's made of lightning that could never strike again. Usually when you buy a greatest hits CD by a group with a particular song that overshadows everything else, you find a lot of attempts to recapture the moment (witness, say, Chubby Checker), and what a moment they had in this case. But Archie and the Drells were an Atlantic and Stax band, and Atlantic and Stax (not to mention Archie) were smarter than that. "Tighten Up" stands apart and outside because that's the way it's designed. Only one song -- "Do the Choo Choo" -- even half-heartedly exploits the luck of their signature 45.
Luck is a key word. "Tighten Up" just falls into place, sounding so off-the-cuff it's easy to believe it was an accident. I don't think it was, but we're not talking about that today. All over the other eighteen grooves on this superb disc, what you hear is not luck but hard work. Seriously hard work to produce some of the hottest, most disgusting '60s-'70s soul you've likely never heard. The Drells were pretty consistently successful on the R&B charts, but nothing they did aside from "Tighten Up" permeated the culture, so it's not unreasonable to expect this is all new to you. It was to me when I got this several years ago. I realized instantly I'd found something incredible. Just how incredible is something I continue to learn.
The journey really starts with track #2, "I Can't Stop Dancing," a mini-opera of Archie lamenting the fact that he can't "eat my lunch in peace" because anytime he hears music, he is incapable of stopping his body from responding. Comparable (to an extent) to concurrent Motown singles but just a little bit nastier, this is a remarkable document of joy outside social unrest. Archie even nods to the Coasters with his spoken word interludes, but here you start to realize that -- outside of his emceeing role on "Tighten Up" -- he is a perfectly capable and cheerful soul vocalist.
You won't find much sadness or emotional range in Tightening It Up, but I resent the notion that fun -- which is what every fucking cut on this fucking comp is, and pure and in spades -- is somehow a lesser achievement than reflection. Even "Do the Choo Choo," the ripoff number, is a capably performed and enthusiastic -- and funky -- novelty. But it's on songs like "(There's Gonna Be A) Showdown" that you wonder why anyone else bothers, so concise and complete is Bell's command of rock & roll glory with a snazz and sympathy that keep you from understanding the point of other music, because fucking Christ, this is a real jam. Like James Brown or the Beatles, Bell is about precision. If you aren't seduced and knocked out by the countup in the bridge of "Showdown," if you're not ready to surrender and apply to truce with the boastful Archie, who is certain -- and correct -- that he's a better dancer than you, I wouldn't trust you with a kitten, much less a radio dial. I have "Showdown" on 45 and it's a prized possession. I used to play it on stage and felt the unmistakable sensation of a gap of forty years disintegrating as we all became participants in Archie's oblique competition. We know he's the Top Cat, so we only bother fighting because we want to see how it feels to walk with the master. He knows he's good, so you'd better be better.
Bell's skills as a frontman shine on the slower numbers, especially the priceless and pricelessly sick slo-jam "Love Will Rain on You," which may in fact be the most confident ballad I've ever heard in the R&B genre. Bell represents coy, cocky purity. He feels no need to prove his shit to you because you already fucking know who he is and what a motherfucker he is.
Four cuts from 1969 represent the Drells' versatility. "I Love My Baby" is so tight one wonders how it landed on dance floors without heads exploding; rhythmic shifts and unexpected shakes and turns abound, but it all flows like a Box Tops number. The trickiness pays off on what's maybe the second greatest Archie Bell song, the immortal "Girl You're Too Young," which is the sort of song we listen to today and wonder how the fuck anyone ever managed to pull shit off and make it sound like it was just another day at work. But that's what I'm telling you... this was working class fucking music, okay? This is the sound of people at a factory elbowing their way through to do their damndest to make everyone get it. You don't get results like this unless you know where every note is supposed to sit. Just the first forty seconds of "Girl You're Too Young" (listen below) are hard (harder than virtually any Motown single) and transcendent to the point you feel the years and times are being transported to you, feelings and losses and moments like the one "Tighten Up" documented, only now filtered through experience and emotion. What's curious is that even given the time to think about it all, Bell and the Drells don't lose their illusion of spontaniety. If we knew how they did that, we'd all do things differently I bet.
"Girl You're Too Young" also offers a fascinating glance at the racism of the times ("Don't make your people hate us") and it's as sexy as Prince's "Adore," with an extra layer of the forbidden. But given these two singles, you might think you have some idea of where the Drells are headed and what they're capable of, then they go and throw you right off the track with the entirely unexpected "My Balloon's Going Up," a left-field play at innocence that fuses Spanky & Our Gang with Stax/Volt in a way that makes the Fifth Dimension sound even more contrived. Just as when he was slamming the door on you in "Love Will Rain on You," Bell sounds convincing even with this song's self-help platitudes. By "A World Without Music," Bell has nothing left to prove, everything he's throwing at you is so flawless (but flawlessly raw).
The experimentation pushes into Holland/Dozier/Holland territory with "Don't Let the Music Slip Away," but there are still unusual melodic and rhythmic changes that throw you into a warped groove even before the perfect drums and bass fall in. The Drells are doing a bit more singing now, adding an interesting "straight" counterpoint to Archie's casual, ruthless flamboyance. The '70s songs from here on follow rather than set trends. It's possible to track the evolution of soul music and soul production through these songs: "Wrap It Up" is a delightful George Clinton imitation, "Dancing to Your Music" inevitably calls attention to a Jackson Five comparison, with a decidedly adult bent (but curiously, not nearly the coarse and streetwise adulthood depicted in the '60s sides). "Ain't Nothing for a Man in Love" could be a Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes reject; Archie charms on it but his voice wasn't made for this kind of thing. "I Could Dance All Night" is generic but enjoyable disco. "The Soul City Walk" (1975) is the same, except equipped with an unbelievably catchy chorus and Archie's most confident singing in years. It's surely the first '70s cut to build on the evolution heard in the first nine tracks.
It's merely a prelude, though, to the staggering "Let's Groove," which actually sells itself short at the start as a cheap sequel to "Tighten Up," but is in fact a state-of-the-art, utterly magnificent smooth soul knockout that lives in but transcends the disco genre. The chorus (even more infectious than that of "The Soul City Walk"), belted out seductively by the Drells, swims and floats above the killer funk groove that you never want to stop (six minutes feels like not quite enough, which is the way it should damn well be) while Archie chirps along encouraging the proceedings the way he would if this song existed in your dreams. Every second of "Let's Groove" is valuable, smart, convincing, but it's body music and makes no apologies. Archie sounds like a dictactor when he demands we all "get out on the floor" and "dance, dance, dance some more" and the drama of that relentlessness creates a communal sense of importance. We have to groove because it's all we've really got, now as in 1976. That "Let's Groove" isn't a world-famous track baffles me. Listening to it right now I keep wanting to take out my headphones and scream "WHAT THE FUCK" at them, because why is this so goddamned fresh?
I couldn't get behind the overly drawn-out R&B balladeer move "I've Been Missing You" if I didn't think Archie's voice was still one of the world's most charming. Luckily, that's the only drag close to the end of the disc. The group puts their signature on the disco movement with the other three closing songs, "Everybody Have a Good Time," the audaciously catchy "Glad You Could Make It," and the particularly cunning "Strategy," all loud, capable, resilient, and propulsive. The Drells don't sound like they're in the shadow of "Tighten Up"; they sound like they're in the permanent shadow of a series of beautiful and transformative moments, the first of which was captured on tape on that first single. Everything since then has been an exploration of the meaning of that moment, and each exploration has taken these guys somewhere new. Holy fuck, this is a great record.
This Rhino comp presents all the songs in their original (usually mono) single mixes. I have considered picking up a couple of Bell and the Drells' LPs, but I'm not sure I want to spoil the perfection of this album that I love so dearly. I know the album version of "Tighten Up" is often preferred because it's a bit longer and adds the full intro with delectable opening bass. Maybe someday. I don't think I need Archie to prove he could record a whole album of great stuff at once, because he recorded a masterpiece over a twelve-year period without even meaning to. But perhaps someday I'll take a listen and report to you.
Below: Listen to two of the sickest Archie Bell & the Drells tracks. These are WMA format because I ripped this CD before I stopped using WMP. If you can't play WMAs, fucking call me on the phone if you have my number or at least email me so I can get these songs to you some other way as soon as possible because you need them urgently. This is the screaming dancing "aww, yeah" sound of liberation and life. Thank you.
(Also: Read a very keen interview with Archie Bell here.)
(There's Gonna Be A) Showdown (1968)
Girl You're Too Young (1969)