|Chairmen Of The Board|
[The Guardian, 1999]
CHAIRMEN OF THE BOARD
CHAIRMEN OF THE BOARD/ IN SESSION
BITTERSWEET/ SKIN I'M IN
ANY OTHER BUSINESS
STREWTH, but the man had an afro on him. An afro the size of a grizzly bear's arse. Even his bandmate General Johnson, he of the magnificent carved features and busby hairdo, looked dwarfed next to Harrison Kennedy's afro. You could have bred a colony of starlings in that thatch. And remarkable as Harrison's barnet was, it was by no means the most noteworthy thing about Chairmen Of The Board. For COTB were a storming soul band, one of the best of their time; and as their time was the early Seventies, that means they were very good indeed.
Nowadays COTB are remembered, if at all, for their early, poppy hit Give Me Just A Little More Time. Well worth remembering it is too, catchy and jaunty, with the General's plaintive, rasping vocal marking a definitive moment in the evolution of the Detroit sound. COTB were assembled by Tamla Motown's fabled Holland-Dozier-Holland team, on the lam from Berry Gordy's outfit to launch their Invictus label. Invictus is more than 20 years defunct, but these reissues show how close they came to matching the greatness of their old paymaster. While producer Norman Whitfield pioneered the so-called Psychedelic Motown sound, COTB - largely under the guidance of Johnson himself - produced four albums' worth of mind expanding, toe-tapping and pants-swelling music, veering from tuneful, raggedy R&B with the punching power of billiard balls wrapped in a sock, to countrified gospel and fuzzed-up funk. All four are collected here, two to a CD, with a not quite so enthralling double-disc anthology mopping up the extra singles and solo efforts. It's eclectic stuff, for sure, wayward even; but stuffed with bona fide knockouts.
The first two albums have their fickle moments, prey to the fashions of the day. Eddie Custis's piano lounge interpretations of popular weepies did little for the band or the ballads. Still, it's easy to forgive them thanks to belters like Tricked & Trapped, All We Need Is Understanding and above all Johnson's own gobsmacking Patches, which combined a country-style poor-boy narrative with enough emotive power to blister paint. He was so pleased with it he included versions of it on both LPs, and you can understand why.
By album three, changes were afoot. Custis was gone. The initial flush of success which had seen COTB score a series of hits in the UK was failing to repeat itself in the States. And with the commercial acumen that would see them out of business in double quick time, Invictus was putting solo COTB albums onto the market in competition with the band's own product. Yet despite Johnson's own reservations about it, Bittersweet remains a marvellous piece of work. Written almost entirely by the General and co-producer Greg Perry, it features Johnson's masterpiece, Elmo James, in which he returned to the theme and style of Patches and somehow bettered it. Johnson was even more scathing about Skin I'm In, a collaboration with the Parliament/Funkadelic players. Yet it's an extraordinary record, wildly ambitious, frequently awe-inspiring and altogether brilliantly deranged, particularly in its cover of Sly Stone's Life & Death.
These CDs are a treasure trove, no less. And the occasional rhinestone merely shows up the lustre of the diamonds.
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