First off, I apologize for the video. Scroll down and ignore its terrible flashing.
Secondly: Holy crap. This is Nina channeling Ray Charles, isn’t it? The call-and-response, the freak-out at 0:59, the arrangement that sees horns and electric guitars in the background, the vamping in the background at 1:51, the breathless vocal in general… It’s all weirdly Ray Charles-esque, whether intentional or not.
Not that that’s a bad thing, and yet… There’s something weirdly off about Simone doing this; she was enough of an individual that such imitation seems beneath her, somehow. It’s like when you hear her “Revolution” from 1969 and feeling as if it’s just ripping off the Beatles song of the same name the year before:
I feel like a bad pop fan, thinking such things. One of the things I genuinely love about pop music is that everyone steals, and then twists things and turns them into something else, and so seeing Nina obviously take on some influence or another should feel like something to approve of. Maybe my problem is that I can see the original all too clearly in each of these two cases…?
Purely because the last track reminded me how powerful the piano/fucking awesome singer combo could be, here’s Nina Simone singing the hell out of a song from Hair, backed by a band that is apparently 100% in tune with what she wanted to do with the track. Sadly, this video lacks the coda to the track that’s available on some releases, where post-song, Nina comments “That should be good,” and the producer can be heard, raving over the intercom, “That’s groovy.”
It really is, and in a way that feels timeless, as opposed to forever linked to the 1960s or ’70s.
I always wondered what the story was behind Nina Simone’s epic “Funkier Than A Mosquito’s Tweeter,” every time I hear it; it’s a vicious song, clearly one born of anger with the lyrics just filled with invective and some of the best insults ever put to music (I’m particularly partial to “Blowing minds is a thing of the past/You blew your chance, that’s why you never last/You want to be a graduated mother/But in reality, you’re just another brother,” but the very next couplet – “You think you’re slick, but you could stand a lot of greasin’/The things you do ain’t never really pleasin'” – comes very close), which makes me curious who, exactly, the song was written about, and what was the igniting event. We’ve gotten used to diss songs in recent years/decades, I think, with rap in particular making it into enough of a common thing that it feels like a legitimate genre, but this song still feels light years ahead of everything else in this particular school, a song to play people who think that “You’re So Vain” is both mysterious and cutting.
Turns out the song wasn’t written by Simone; it’s actually the work of Alline Bullock, who turns out to be the sister of Tina Turner, the woman behind some classic Ike and Tina stuff, including “Bold Soul Sister” (Maybe my favorite Tina Turner song). The original (?) Ike and Tina version of the song is enjoyable enough, but lacks the viciousness of Simone’s; it seems more generically R’n’B in its arrangement, lacking the unnerving cruelty and detachment that drips from Simone’s voice in her version and the space present in the later arrangement.
Simone’s take on the song is, in fact, funky – Although it took me a couple of listens to really listen to the lyrics and realize that the funk of the title is the nasty funk, the kind that you don’t want to have; the idea of something being “funkier than a mosquito’s tweeter” is actually weirdly and wonderfully dirty, when you think about it – but it’s a different type of funk from Ike and Tina (Nikki Costa, who did another version that’s clearly based on Simone’s, tries for the coolness of Simone but gets it horribly wrong, sounding like a soulless remake and missing the point entirely, especially when the electric guitar comes in and flattens everything around it); it’s restrained for the most part, stripped down to the essentials (bongos, bass, vibes) so that the focus is very clearly on Simone’s voice – and when the drums come in at 2:25, it has such an impact that you sit up and take notice. The original version of this song is fun, rowdy and rude, but when Simone takes it on, it becomes a scalpel of pure spite, reminding the world that she’s something to be reckoned with.
I remember reading, around the time that Ocean’s Eleven came out, David Holmes talk about his inclusion of the Elvis song “A Little Less Conversation” on the soundtrack, and his talking about how perfect the song was, how bizarrely in tune with contemporary tastes it seemed despite being recorded almost forty years earlier; he said something along the lines of “All you have to do is add a breakbeat and you have a ready-made hit waiting to happen” (Something that Junkie XL proved a year or so later, doing pretty much just that and having a number one hit). The same is true, I’ve always thought, of Nina Simone’s “Some Say,” which has surprisingly propulsive horns and an amazingly tight rhythm section – Simone may be a jazz singer, but there was a period in the late ’60s when she folded in both pop and R&B sensibilities to create songs like this, which could fit into any one of those three genres – and an opening that just begs to be sampled and repurposed somewhere.
There’s so much about this song that I adore – Simone’s performance is wonderfully relaxed yet powerful at the same time, and the lyrics are weirdly Summer of Love-ish with a smirk (The timing works; this song appeared on the impossibly good Silk and Soul album, in 1967) – but it’s really about the horn section and the drums for me, if I’m honest; just listen to the way the beat simultaneously is relentless and lazy, almost shuffling over itself, or the bassline the horns provide at 0:27. This song is something that just feels irresistible, the sound of someone enjoying what pop music was turning into at the time (Am I the only person who hears Revolver by the Beatles in this, in places?) and wanting to throw her own ideas into the mix. It’s impossible for me to hear this song and not want to sing along, or at least smile.