Like I say, everybody got his own thing
I’m gonna bring it on down for you
Now, I want you to bear along with me for a few minutes while I set it up
I want your imagination, I want you to travel with me
Oh, come on, come on
Now everyone knows that the sexiest thing on earth is a bald man – that’s not opinion my friend, that’s a fact*, a stone cold inalienable fact. Ladies love us so because they know that with a bald man satisfaction is guaranteed – I don’t mean to brag, or boast, again I am simply relating fact, my man, fact. Now this has always been the case and always will, but if I were to look for vinyl proof of this fact then I would need to look no further than Isaac Hayes Hot Buttered Soul from 1969. A record which, incidentally, has one of my favourite LP covers ever, rarely has a man flaunted his baldness with such aplomb and to such effect too, hell ladies seeing this would simply not have stood a chance** – I even find the typography seductive, although I fully accept that might just be me.
Anyway moving swiftly on, the above rap (and I use the term in its archaic sense of meaning ‘talkie bit’ on a soul record) is taken from the 19-minute version of Jimmy Webb’s ‘By The Time I Get to Phoenix’ which closes Hot Buttered Soul and I’m not being perverse starting with the last track, because my view is that if you can smell the genius there you’re able to just totally get this LP. The rap lasts for 8:33 and gives a dramatic back story to the events of the song, somehow Isaac Hayes manages to seem sincere rather than ridiculous, stretching his syllables over that single organ note so far that when the note actually changes about 9 minutes in, it’s just electric. He also manages to steer clear of being a bit too ham-fisted a la Barry White too, it’s a well-judged affair, we do want to travel with him. But that’s me now, I had to learn to like soul music first before I could like this.
Musical though my parents are soul music was just a no-no in our house, it just never occurred, I think it was just too clean and neat for their blues and reggae tastes and to a large extent I wouldn’t demure. I liked some of the poppy Motown stuff but soul in the 80’s was a pretty hideous beastie as far as I could see, slick-suited insincerity reigned, or even worse it was the province of those divas who mistook volume and ragged edges for genuine feeling. Yuk! It wasn’t ’til I got to university that my friend Matt introduced me to wiggy soul, that I finally got it – Ahh soul had its freaked out edges too! After the stone-cold genius of The Temptations ‘Papa was a Rolling Stone’, Ike Hayes was up next, first Shaft and then he bought a certain LP for the cover alone… oh yes.
It’s totally irrelevant that two tracks (half this LP) are cover versions, Isaac Hayes so completely and utterly transforms, transposes and transexies these songs up that they may as well be his own. ‘Walk On By’ is the opener here and whilst I do love the original and The Stranglers’ versions inordinately, the version on Hot Buttered Soul really is something else, man. Again, there is a fantastic tension, as there is on ‘By The Time I Get to Phoenix’, between the smooth orchestration and the Bar-Kays’ shit-hot rhythm playing, stabs of guitar speckling the perfect background. But as always and befitting such an ego-driven LP (and I mean that in a good way), it is the voice that is king here and Ike had one to absolutely die for.
Just to hear him pleading and begging, or dismissive and scolding, or just out-and-out frisky, is to believe him. It’s one part honey, one part whiskey, one part rainy Sunday and a final part sunny Saturday. He sells these songs a treat, which is just as well because if you stick a 12-minute fully orchestrated tune in front of me, complete with climaxes, grand sweeps and panoramic vistas of emotion, then it needs to be damn good – otherwise it would just be totally unendurably rank. Okay so you could argue that he’s not blessed with the voice of a fallen angel like Smokie Robinson, or Al Green, but who else was? that’s simply not a valid criticism. For me Isaac Hayes talents lay in selling the song, plain and simple, a more difficult thing than people would credit.
I’ve talked about it before but one great thing about being exposed to Beastie Boys and the whole Def Jam scene at a tender, untutored age is that in later years I would be, and still am sometimes, presented with an Eureka! moment when hearing some funk or soul LP years later. The wonderfully named ‘Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic’ ^ gave me a shock out of the blue, when half way through the leather-trousered prancing and grinding I was suddenly presented with the piano figure from (my favourite) Public Enemy track, ‘Black Steel in The Hour of Chaos’, snatching me away from the sheepskin-rug-in front-of-an-open-fire of my fevered imaginings, straight back to the prison showers. Oh yes. The lyrics are, umm, something else too:
Let me stop procrastinatin’
Standin’ here, and narratin’
Find my emancipator, she’s a love educator
Cerebral, cerebellum, a medulla oblongata
The ballad that opens side two, ‘One Woman’ always gets dismissed in reviews of Hot Buttered Soul, standing as it does between so many juggernauts. A tale of a man caught between two women, one ‘Making my home’ the other ‘making Me Do Wrong’, it’s every bit as odious as it sounds. By the end of an overly saccharine 5 minutes we’re left none the wiser, as our protagonist, I think, simply decides to have the best of both worlds. It strikes a glaringly false note on what is otherwise, an excellent LP. Guess that’s why everyone ignores it.
But don’t let’s leave on that note, let’s wind it all back to the beginning,
There’s a deep meaning to this tune
Because it shows you what the power of love can do
I shall attempt to do it my way
My own interpretation of it
*I refer you to the work of, amongst others; Storey, J & Brynner, Y The Kojak Factor: Why Chicks Dig Us Bald Dudes Soooo Much (2008), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
**pity them. Go on, take a moment out from your busy daily schedules to pity them.
^I aspire to one day having a chest large enough to wear a T-shirt with the song title on.