(Programming note: I might make these kind of entries a regular thing if I get enough response to this one. Not sure yet. Let me know, space cadets!)
Pop music has, in a kind of way, been around for about as long as music itself has, yet there are sometimes songs that resonate uniquely throughout human consciousness. There are songs that, for whatever reason, are from bands that everybody has long since forgotten but the melodies themselves are reprised so often they sometimes become a kind of inside joke among musicians. For example, most people probably can’t name off the top of their head who sang “Tainted Love” first (Soft Cell), but probably have heard at least one cover of it in addition to the original song. See also: “Personal Jesus” (Depeche Mode), etc.
We’re not gonna talk about one of those ones that everybody’s heard of. All of y'all had already heard those songs before. We’re gonna talk about a song called “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell and the Drells.
“Tighten Up” is a pretty catchy funky song, where Archie Bell urging listeners to dance along, and calling in each instrument from his backing orchestra, the T.S.U. Toronadoes, telling them to “tighten up”, which apparently means lay down a funky-as-hell solo. Seriously, just listen to that bass tightening it on up for a moment…
This song took the country by storm beginning in Archie’s home state of Texas and continuing to spread as Atlantic records picked it up in 1968 (it had been recorded in ‘66 and distributed on Ovide, a local Houston record label). Pretty funky, right? Well, it sounded even funkier when James Brown’s orchestra, the JBs, covered it…
That’s Maceo Parker filling the role of Archie Bell and leading the band. “C'mon drums!” I love it. It has that same funky, catchy, can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head melody, that same bassline walkin' along so nice and easy you just want to walk along with it. It’s got that same kind of snappy drum line to it. But the character of this song is changed by a different group of people playing it. The guitar comes in sweet and soft. The bass flows just a little more smoother, muted. The horns come in slow and strong, but they show off the full range of skills on display in James Brown’s orchestra. (After all, Maceo Parker alone is an insanely talented individual and does a great job leading the band here.)
Ok so what about bands that aren’t funk bands? Well, R.E.M. did a cover of it too:
Definitely more jazz than funk, but it’s still instantly recognizable as the Archie Bell and the Drells song we listened to before. Go ahead and listen to that one again to compare. I’ll wait here.
All done? I know, right? So we’ve now evolved this tune and its constituent components–even now it’s basic instrumentation–and yet it still retains exactly the same character that made it so popular to begin with! But do you want to see how deep the rabbit-hole really goes? Do you? Well, have you ever heard of Yellow Magic Orchestra?
“Tighten up, Takahashi!”
Yeah that’s right. Even Japan’s answer to Germany’s Kraftwerk did a really excellent cover of “Tighten Up”. I’ve only in this entry picked out the covers that I personally think are good ones, but there are a lot more, and it raises a really interesting question for me: what is it about very specific songs, many of them one-hit wonders, that causes generation after generation of musicians to continue covering them? In the case of Archie Bell and the Drells, my personal hypothesis is that many musicians feel about them the way I do: that they were grossly under-appreciated for their contribution to music. “Tighten Up” continued to become nationally popular and even internationally, earning a gold record for selling over one million copies, but it was a success that has otherwise eluded Archie and his group.
Alright space cadets. I’ll leave you with a remix of the original tune: