BETTY DAVIS: BETTY DAVIS (1973)
1) If I'm In Luck I Might Get Picked Up; 2) Walkin' Up The Road; 3) Anti Love Song; 4) Your Man My Man; 5) Ooh Yeah; 6) Steppin' In Her I. Miller Shoes; 7) Game Is My Middle Name; 8) In The Meantime; 9*) Come Take Me; 10*) You Won't See Me In The Morning; 11*) I Will Take That Ride.
In 1967, Betty Mabry was in luck, as she happened to be picked up by Miles Davis himself — and although their marriage lasted but three years (Miles later complained she was «too wild» for him, and whatever that really meant, I don't think I even want to know), it is said to have been greatly mutually beneficial: she introduced him to the «electric» scene of the psychedelic Sixties, thus being partly responsible for his transition to the fusion period of In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew (being one of the «witches», a.k.a. «bitches», herself) — and he introduced her to... umm, his bank account? Whatever — anyway, without that marriage, there would neither have been a «Betty Davis» name tag, nor, quite likely, any of these strange albums that the funk lady engineered during her short, but vivid, career.
The reason why that career never really took off, with all those albums flopping one after the other, is as plain to see as the reason why, in recent years, it has been given a serious re-evaluation, so that these days, Mrs. Davis is finally enjoying some serious popularity in knowledgeable circles. First and foremost, Betty Mabry was not much of a singer, and back in those days — heck, back in any days — a black performer, particularly a female one, was expected to live up to the standards: if you couldn't belt it out like Aretha, or coo the pants off your listeners like Diana, or rattle the walls and shatter the glass like Tina, you hardly stood a chance, regardless of how much character or personality you could offer in compensation. A racist standard, come to think of it, but nobody said stereotypes can be that easily overthrown.
Second, Betty Mabry was not that much of a songwriter, either. In reality, her «songs» are performance acts — theatrical monologues set to whatever musical backing she may be offered. Since all of her records are funk records, you can dance to these tracks, but you are not very likely to be humming them, or memorizing the (usually non-existent) choruses. They have neither any pop chart potential, nor any seductive value for those looking for musical innovation: Betty did not know that much about music to truly care about the notes, and the musicians backing her were simply having a good time in the studio.
Third, Betty «Game Is My Middle Name» Davis was admittedly way too wild, confusingly so, even, for 1973. Everywhere you look for info on the lady, you will see comparisons to Madonna and Prince popping up, but neither Madonna nor Prince were on the scene in 1973, and both Madonna and Prince, when they did appear on the scene, compensated for their provocative behavior with catchy hooks, so that you could simply close your eyes on the former — I mean, not even Tipper Gore found out about this before it was already too late. Not so with Betty Davis: the very major, if not the only, point of these «songs» is to drench the listener in waves and showers of aggressive, near-sadistic sexuality. Then again, what does one expect of a girl who, as far as rumors go, wrote her first song at the tender age of 12 and named it ʽI'm Going To Bake That Cake Of Loveʼ?..
Put it all together, and you can easily see that, even if the crazy musical climate of 1973 could allow for such an album to come out, the somewhat more predictable «consumer climate» could hardly allow it to be successful. Nowadays, though, as our tastes have shifted and mutated, the picture looks entirely different. Of course, Betty is not a «singer» in the technical sense, but what she does with her voice is impressive all the same — think something of a black female equivalent of early Iggy Pop, going all the way and never looking back. The lower part of her larynx, which she heavily exploits throughout, is her chief instrument: the lack of diversity of delivery may eventually get a bit on one's nerves, but the album is fairly short anyway, going off in one brief concentrated punch — or like a thirty-minute brutal «vocal rape», if you'll excuse the crudeness of the definition. She may be singing about wanting to "get picked up", and how she is "wiggling her fanny" to achieve that purpose, but it is pretty clear who is really doing the picking.
None of that would matter, though, if the assembled musicians were not so totally hip to whatever Betty was doing. The roster here is impressive — due to her connections in the biz, she gets no less than the regular Sly Stone rhythm section of bass genius Larry Graham and drum expert Gregg Errico, as well as certain members of Santana, including Neal Schon on guitar (well on his way to form Journey, but we will ignore that particularity), and some brass players from Tower Of Power, while The Pointer Sisters are providing background vocals. And they all cook — maybe not a prime-series «bitches brew», but, if you ask my opinion, that very title would convey the essence of Betty's debut much better than it conveyed the essence of Miles' hymn to fusion. Here we do have a certified «bitch», and she's brewing it up to high heaven.
Most of the songs follow the same simple pattern: set up a riff-based groove going, around which the lead instruments (guitar, organ, brass, in that particular order of preference) play circles with a very high degree of freedom allowed, to match the equally high degree of freedom for Betty to scatter, spit, and snarl out the exotic tales of her own sex drive and, occasionally, offering acid comment on other people's lives (ʽSteppin' In Her I. Miller Shoesʼ is a mean-spirited diatribe against the «celebrity itch»). This sounds fairly simple, and too much like a potential recipe for disaster to be credible — but just wait until you actually hear it.
The trick is that Betty's spitfire act must have invigorated the musicians as well, so that everybody is trying to match her in terms of «badness» and «nastiness». ʽIf I'm In Luckʼ starts sizzling from the very first second, as the Zeppelinish blues-rock riff rips through the speakers and is soon joined by the equally «badass» bass and organ parts. The time signatures and lead riffs change from song to song, but the drive and passion stay the same — occasionally, the message shifts from direct aggression to a more subtle threat, but this does not make it any less vicious: ʽAnti Love Songʼ, driven by bass-'n'-keyboards interplay rather than guitar, is the album's best tune, in fact, it is probably the hottest tune about sexual abstinence ever written.
By the time they get around to the last movement of this molten-lava-suite (ʽGame Is My Middle Nameʼ accidentally borrows the «crawling» guitar melody from The Doors' ʽBack Door Manʼ, and, while we're on it, this gal could definitely teach ol' Jim a thing or two about pork and beans), the floor has already most likely caved in from exhaustion — the only problem is that they were not able to come up with a properly soothing conclusion: ʽIn The Meantimeʼ is sort of a «ballad» that tries to wrap things up on a softer note, but this is also where Betty's disabilities as a singer come to the forefront, and the gospel organ melody that dominates the song is a snoozer compared to what they just did on the meat'n'potato numbers.
Still, one mediocre piece of dessert should not spoil the basic impressions of the main course — besides, if you get the remastered CD version, there are three extra, previously unreleased, cuts from the same sessions that yield 12 more minutes of violent sexual games, mid-1970s fashion, ensuring that you get your money's worth. Just remember that this ain't Funkadelic or Sly Stone — it's all a bunch of provocative «punk-funk» (Betty is sometimes called the godmother of Nina Hagen, although Nina was a far better singer and a far loonier type of person), which does not get by on the wings of inventiveness of diversity. But it does show that sometimes all you need is a spirited «bitch», a decent hard-rock riff, and a well-hewn backing band to create an enduring classic, or, at least, a resurrection-worthy one. Thumbs up, or we can just «wiggle our fanny» in acknowledgement.
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