BOOKER T. & THE MG's: HIP HUG-HER (1967)
1) Hip Hug-Her; 2) Soul Sanction; 3) Get Ready; 4) More; 5) Double Or Nothing; 6) Carnaby St.; 7) Slim Jenkins' Joint; 8) Pigmy; 9) Groovin'; 10) Booker's Notion; 11) Sunny.
Okay, we all know how much the British Invasion affected the state of mind of young American people in the mid-Sixties and all, but this is almost ridiculous — the finest combo in the history of classic R&B, a quintessentially American genre, naming one of their tracks ʽCarnaby St.ʼ? Writing an anthem to hip huggers, such a quintessentially British (mod) thing? Putting out an album cover that screams "Eurofashion!" to everyone who dares lay an eye on it? Where be The Moral Police, claiming that only white people are supposed to be influenced by black people, shamelessly stealing their culture away from them? What's up with this reverse debauchery?..
Of course, now we remember that the influences went back and forth in a million different directions, and (hopefully) understand that there was no logical, ethical, or aesthetic reason why they shouldn't have. In particular, the UK loved Booker T. & the MG's, and Booker T. & the MG's loved the UK — in no particular order. Not madly loved, mind you — not enough to have any songs by UK artists covered on this album, actually: The Temptations, The Young Rascals, and Bobby Hebb are all as American as you can get. But feeling sympathetic enough to borrow a whiff of «Euro-coolness» for their first album of the post-Revolver, circa-Sgt. Pepper era.
ʽHip Hug-Herʼ (the song) restored them to major commercial success for the first time since ʽGreen Onionsʼ — and the song didn't even at all sound like ʽGreen Onionsʼ: it was, indeed, the quintessential instrumental anthem of the young smarmy «hip-hugger», opening with a coolly non-chalant «whistling» organ theme and then transitioning into an expressive solo from Steve that managed to be nasty and arrogant without being overtly aggressive. Swinging, not giving a damn, full of life, self-consciously defying, oh, you can easily see how so many people back in 1967 could easily identify with these sentiments. Even the Doors later borrowed that swaggering rhythm track for their own ʽChangelingʼ.
Unfortunately, nothing else on the album comes close to matching that feeling. Even the brash title of ʽCarnaby St.ʼ does not help mask the fact that it is in sore need of some vocal accompaniment — its simple organ theme does not manage to be interesting on its own, and Cropper's arpeggiated guitar lines show that he must have been interested in folk-rock playing techniques (quite Byrdsy, really, rather than British), but do not show him making any positive contribution to these techniques. They seem more confident on old-school Ray Charlesian numbers like ʽBooker's Notionʼ (some mighty powerful piano playing there), or on the organ blues of ʽSoul Sanctionʼ, but neither of these compositions ranks among their finest anyway.
There are at least two excellent cover versions, though. Smokey Robinson's ʽGet Readyʼ has Booker T. wringing out a rather unique tone out of his organ (or is that an electric piano? it really sounds like something in between the two), so that the main theme acquires a mystical, otherworldly flavor. And ʽSunnyʼ takes the hook from Bobby Hebb's then-recent hit and cooks it up several different ways — guitar-based slow tempo first, organ-based faster tempo next, with multiple variations, tonal angles, and several different mini-moods that realize the tragic potential of the tune perhaps even better than the original; quite possibly, this early instrumental «promotion» may have helped in popularising the song (at least for all those artists who'd be covering it in never-ending waves in decades to come).
In the end, it all makes up for an assured thumbs up — no bad tunes and a small handful of outstanding ones — but it does not make up for a big artistic statement. Not that Booker T. and his band had one in mind — with their services in constant demand, they were perfectly happy to be the perfect sidemen in R&B's golden hour, without any significant ambitions. ʽHip Hug-Herʼ is, after all, also really just a «trifle» — although I can't help wondering how many more of such stylistically perfect «trifles» these guys could have churned out if their goal-setting mechanisms got attuned to this kind of thing.