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Monday, December 17, 2012

Bo Diddley: The Black Gladiator


BO DIDDLEY: THE BLACK GLADIATOR (1970)

1) Elephant Man; 2) You, Bo Diddley; 3) Black Soul; 4) Power House; 5) If The Bible's Right; 6) I've Got A Feeling; 7) Shut Up, Woman; 8) Hot Buttered Blues; 9) Funky Fly; 10) I Don't Like You.

For an «early rocker» from the 1950s to do something worthwhile in the age of Led Zeppelin, Lou Reed, and Amon Düül II, he would really have to divide himself by zero — children of the «un-accelerated era» as they were, in most cases, their mentalities just could not cope with the idea of having to modify and adapt their styles every two years or so. By 1967, Bo's engine had stalled completely, and he wisely retired from the business, biding his time, rethinking his attitu­des, and waiting for a suitable opportunity.

The opportunity eventually came in the emergence of the funk scene — with James Brown, Sly Stone, George Clinton, etc. establishing a whole brand new, powerhouse market for black music, Bo Diddley sensed that there just might be a small corner in that market for himself as well. After all, wasn't Bo Diddley the original «funkster»? Single-chord groove-based African dance music and all? So he didn't exactly invent syncopation or the «chicken-scratch», but these are just tiny technical details — of course, The Originator had a right to stake his claim here, and that is just what he is doing on The Black Gladiator (a title that James Brown must have envied).

Few people know about this record, and a small handful of those that do has predictably dis­missed it — «Bo Diddley having nothing better to do than to jump on the funk bandwagon, with expectedly laughable results etc.». Hold on, brothers and sisters. Maybe this is just a chronology effect: after so many same-sounding, self-plagiarizing, openly mediocre albums from Bo in the mid-Sixties, The Black Gladiator simply comes through as a stunning ray of light by sheer con­trast. But it is also an objective fact, I suppose, that as the first hole-burning electric laser beams of ʽElephant Manʼ cut through the speakers, everyone will just have to realize that, at the very least, Bo has managed to turn over a heavy page here — the likes of which most of his original colleagues were never able to deal with.

The trick is that The Black Gladiator is not really an attempt to make a «generic funk album with Bo Diddley's name on it»; it is an attempt to make a Bo Diddley album with a strong funky undercurrent. ʽElephant Manʼ, ʽBlack Soulʼ, ʽI've Got A Feelingʼ (nothing to do with the Beatles song), and ʽFunky Flyʼ — all of these «jams with vocal support» are really quite close in melodic structure to the «old» Bo Diddley. But the guitar tones are tougher, snappier, occasionally even acid-drenched; the old pianos are replaced with loud, jerky, stuttering organ passages; and the overall level of volume, «dirt», and grittiness is completely in keeping with the standards of 1970, even if one good listen is enough to understand that the man in charge must have had his basic schtick worked out at least a decade earlier.

Nor is the album particularly monotonous. The four titles listed above do sound very close, but there is also a mad, ear-piercing  «dance-gospel» celebration (ʽIf The Bible's Rightʼ); several old-fashioned 12-bar blues numbers, either just modernized for the psychedelic blues-rock era (ʽHot Buttered Bluesʼ — a somewhat misguided retort to Isaac Hayes' ʽHot Buttered Soulʼ), or milking the «Bo Diddley persona» for exaggerated comical misogyny (ʽShut Up, Womanʼ); an update of the «hey, Bo Diddley» routine (ʽYou, Bo Diddleyʼ — "who's the greatest man in town"?) with a well-engineered funkified variant of the Diddley beat.

Oddball-est of all is the next installment in the ʽSay Manʼ series: ʽI Don't Like Youʼ is a joke dialog between Bo and another of his female sidekicks (possibly Cookie Vee) which is not only set to a funky groove as well, but also unexpectedly shows Bo's operatic side, as he occasionally breaks out in mock-Spanish serenading — taken out of context, this would simply look dumb, but in the context of this totally freaked out, hyperbolic extravagance makes for a grand flashy finale to the album, fifty percent silly pomp and fifty percent hilarious self-irony.

All in all, this is an exhilarating experience. It ain't much in the way of new melodies, but it is a near-perfect update on Bo's personality — somehow, The Black Gladiator manages to sound completely different from the old stuff and yet, at the same time, preserve each and every element that is necessary to make a Bo Diddley out of an Ellas McDaniel. But remember — this record must be played loud from the very first notes, because if you are not sucked in by the first beats of ʽElephant Manʼ, you might miss the train altogether. Thumbs up.

4 comments:

  1. I dunno. Never heard of this one before. Looks pretty dicey.

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  2. If you are born in McComb, Mississippi, 1928 you don't need modernisms to display a pissitude. And that's something Bo Diddley seems to have understood in 1970. Life is not wonderful, the world is even less and rock'n'roll is the perfect way to express it. A first glance at the titles already tells us what we may expect.
    So Bo Diddley does what he does best, moreover makes sure he presents a nice set of riffs (reworked or not) and above all sounds mean. That organ even sounds Jon Lord mean - no sappy Billy Preston here. So what if Bo Diddley is jumping a bandwagon? If it means a rejuvenation? Allows the artist to explore all the bitter depths of his soul? Which were in Bo Diddley's case as bitter as any antihippie could be?
    Just compare what the British post WW-2 baby-boom guitarists were doing at 40+.
    By all means a damn fine record.

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  3. And so Bo enters his Blaxploitation period. From the perspective of 2012, who DIDN'T see this coming? But if it kept his career alive, all the better. It was probably the smartest move he could make. It's also interesting to note that Bo's absence from recording studios corresponds exactly to the time that Jimi Hendrix spent as the world's leading guitar hero, and picks up immediately after Jimi's demise. I'm not insinuating any conspiracy nonsense, but it may have been that Bo sensed the opportunity to reinstate himself at the top of the guitar idol game, regardless (or willfully ignorant) of the existence of Clapton, Page, etc.

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  4. Bo didn't retire in 1967. He just didn't release a new album. He kept gigging at hippie venues like the Fillmores (East and West) and releasing the occasional single.

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