Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Buried Treasure #4 and #5

The Dramatics - A Dramatic Experience
Chairmen of The Board - Skin I'm In

For this feature, I’ve decided to bundle together two of the more casually undersold soul vocal group albums. It may just be a matter of audiences and critics expecting soul vocal groups to stay in their place – specifically, to deliver simple, infectious two and a half minute pop songs rich in luxurious harmony. Yet The Temptations very successfully expanded their approach with Norman Whitfield behind the controls – and many now rightfully view the likes of ‘Cloud Nine’, ‘Psychedelic Shack’ and ‘Masterpiece’ as classics of the genre. My mind has been jolted back to ‘A Dramatic Experience’ thanks to Mojo’s refreshing inclusion of ‘The Devil Is Dope’ on their Stax covermount CD this month. Both that and the Chairmen of the Board record left a lasting impression on me during my childhood.

The Dramatics’ claim to a place in soul history has not been helped by their timing. Part of the expansionist phase of Stax Records, a costly experiment that ultimately destroyed the label – critical assessments of their output have tended to be tied up with the label’s unfortunate fate in the mid-seventies. Similarly, ‘Skin I’m In’ was Chairmen of the Board’s final long player, and by some distance their most musically ambitious and audacious. It too became tied up in the demise of a record label – in this case Holland-Dozier-Holland’s Invictus label. The label’s star, Freda Payne, had effectively been on strike for much of 1971-2 in a dispute over artistic control, whilst Chairmen of the Board themselves launched litigation against the label in 1972.

Both albums are clearly indebted to the crucial role of their producers. The Dramatics had already forged a strong relationship with producer and writer Tony Hester, but his somewhat autobiographical stamp is all over ‘A Dramatic Experience’, along with his preference for lavish string arrangements and sound effects. Jeffrey Bowen not only brought in the original line-up of Funkadelic to perform as Chairmen of the Board’s imperious backing group, but also made the mellotron the domineering presence on several tracks.

Both albums have a somewhat schizophrenic identity. Half the tracks on ‘A Dramatic Experience’ represent a proto-concept album addressing the evils of drug addiction and drug pushing. The remaining tracks are rather saccharine ballads in the manner of The Stylistics. ‘Skin I’m In’ also devotes nearly half its tracks to romantic ballads dominated by falsetto singing, but the remaining half is futuristic aggressive funk, incorporating a masterfully produced suite of music centred around Sly Stone’s ‘Life and Death’. Taken as a whole, this four song suite is one of the best pieces of pop music ever crafted. The under-appreciation of these records has inevitably centred on their supposed lack of focus, although such a perspective ignores the necessity for light and shade, and indeed neglects to emphasise the careful balance between confrontation and reconciliation that both these albums achieved brilliantly.

‘A Dramatic Experience’ more than lives up to its title, achieving a unique drama by veering unexpectedly from the violent and terrifying to the lush and romantic. I would argue that there is a place on the same album for the exquisite ‘Fell For You’, the angry ‘Hey You Get Off My Mountain’ and the palpably uneasy ‘Beware Of The Man (With The Candy In His Hand)’. With age and experience, I’ve come to realise that this is an album that neatly parallels the addictive properties of narcotics and physical attraction, and is therefore a good deal more complex than simply being a piece of anti-drugs propaganda. Indeed, writer and producer Tony Hester apparently became a drug addict himself! The balance on ‘Skin I’m In’ is less thematically and conceptually advanced, but there’s little doubting that the group and their outstanding musicians imbue the ballads with as much nuance as they provide energy for the party tracks. Funk writer Dave Thompson describes ‘Skin I’m In’ as ‘hard funking and almost gratuitously aggressive’ – but one wonders whether he simply skipped over its more tender moments.

I remember a Geography teacher at my school, who was a kindred spirit to me due to his love of 70s soul, funk and blues, being somewhat staggered that I had enjoyed the music of BT Express as a child, such were the unashamedly sexual implications of their music and lyrics. I protested that I had no idea what the ‘It’ of ‘Do It ‘Til You’re Satisfied’ might have been at that age – I was more than happy to accept that it could be merely innocent dancing (or indeed anything you wanted it to be – I don’t think I was missing the point!). Perhaps though, it’s these two records that best capture the contradictory impulses of the musical education my father offered me. If you’re desperate to stop your children experimenting with narcotics, I would strongly advise you to present them with a copy of ‘A Dramatic Experience’ at a formative age. The cover image alone is positively terrifying (a portrait of a particularly beastly Devil) and the music is psychologically intimidating too. Ushered in by a wave of crackling hellfire and anguished torment, ‘The Devil Is Dope’, a mind-blowing track on so many levels, is enough to convince any child that all drugs are inherently evil and should be avoided at all costs. By way of contrast, ‘Life and Death’ and ‘Everybody Party All Night’, with their defiantly minimal lyrics, are superb rallying cries for hedonism – ‘if it feels good it’s alright’ apparently. The hit single ‘Finders Keepers’ also seems to urge a rather guilt-free, unrepentant stance on sexual morality (‘I’ve found the love you lost and I’m gonna keep her!’).

Both albums benefit from a concerted attention to detail. The string and horn charts that lavishly adorn ‘A Dramatic Experience’ emphasise its theatrical qualities, a technique echoed by the extraordinary mellotron orchestration on ‘Morning Glory’ and ‘White Rose (Freedom Flower)’ from ‘Skin I’m In’. Similarly, the slinky groove of ‘Finders Keepers’ rests not only on its Stevie Wonder-inspired Clavinet pattern, but also on the occasional interjection of offbeat handclaps and the creeping menace of The Dramatics’ ‘Beware Of The Man (With The Candy In His Hand)’ is underlined by a sudden switch to a high-end bassline in the song’s chorus.

Another strong quality of both albums is the ability of the group’s dominant vocalists to thoroughly inhabit the worlds of their songs’ protagonists. Ron Banks and William “Wee Gee” Howard developed the gritty end of their vocal stylings for the ghoulish drug nightmares of ‘A Dramatic Experience’ whilst General Johnson, handling 90% of the vocals on ‘Skin I’m In’ captured palpable desperation in the face of injustice on the title track, and a driving sexualised urgency on ‘Life and Death’. By way of contrast, on ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ he sounded sweet and vulnerable.

These two enduringly powerful albums are rich in visionary ideas, with expertly produced, brilliantly executed musical foundations. Both records belie the notion of the vocal group as a charisma-less entity – with all the tracks oozing personality, conviction and theatrical expression. Released within a year of each other, the records provide sterling proof of just how adventurous the soul music of the early seventies could be. If Timbaland and The Neptunes might be the Holland-Dozier-Holland and Norman Whitfield of contemporary soul – who exactly are the Tony Hesters and Jeffrey Bowens? And are there any vocal groups now who could match this standard of delivery?

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