Tales From the Funk Dimension, 1970-1973 – Bo Diddley
Raven Records 196
Few things are more depressing than the sight of a legend continuing when time has passed him by. No man wants to give up the art he loves, even if society has advanced to the point where his art becomes irrelevant. Of course, every artist needs money to survive, a problem that obviously becomes magnified when no one is buying the artist's work. Bo Diddley faced such a dilemma in 1969. As acid rock, funk, and soul were topping the charts, the bluesman, who hadn't released an album since 1965, was on the verge of obsolescence. To compound the problem, his label, Chess Records, was sold to a giant entertainment conglomerate that was too large to promote each individual artist. Bo Diddley had to adapt, and with the aid of his producers, he moved, often kicking and screaming, into the realm of funk. Australia's Raven Records has released a compilation of Bo's best work from his four-year funk exploration, and while every track is not a gem, Tales From the Funk Dimension, 1970-1973 often sheds light on some lesser-known treasures.
Placing the track list in chronological order enables the listener to chart Bo's growing comfort with his new idiom. The opening cuts are all culled from 1970's The Black Gladiator, an album drenched in the psychedelia of its day. It’s not much of a surprise that this album wasn’t a big seller, as the songs are all over the map, ranging from the unintelligible vocals and wash of sound on the tripped-out "Elephant Man," the traditional blues riffs of "Shut Up Woman," and the vamping beneath bizarre vocals of "I Don’t Like You." The latter track features Bo and Cornelia Redmond trading insults and concludes with Bo diving into a laughable attempt at opera.
Tales From the Funk Dimension, 1970-1973 then progresses into territory that is more indicative of the early 1970s. Attempting to thrust Bo into the pop spotlight, 1971’s Another Dimension centers on covers of popular songs. The results are up and down with a clunky hoedown on John Fogerty’s "Bad Moon Rising" representing the low point and a gliding funky take on Elton John’s "Bad Side of the Moon" hitting the high. Also included is Bo’s original, "Pollution," a pro-environment song with somewhat dated lyrics and a driving beat. After critics impaled Another Dimension, Bo responded with his most consistent and successful album, Where It All Began. With the aid of Johnny and Shuggie Otis, he tightened and refined his sound. "I’ve Had It Hard" is a return to the signature Bo Diddley riff, while "Hey Jerome" and "Take It All Off" revel in an uptown funk strut that would make George Porter smile. Not to be overlooked is "Infatuation," an absolutely sultry jewel of a soul number that could rival the best of Motown.
Even though this compilation supposedly ends in 1973, three cuts from 1974's Big Bad Bo complete the funk transformation on this record. Taking a slick arrangement dripping with layers of tight horns, "Bite You" employs tongue-in-cheek lyrics and a suave jazz-funk style. At this point in time, blaxploitation films were all the rage, and the urban badass vibe of "Hit or Miss" or "Stop the Pusher" could have easily found their way onto many a soundtrack.
Although the songs on Tales From The Funk Dimension, 1970-1973 are certainly not the most popular of Bo Diddley’s career, this music is noteworthy. The hip-dropping beats and thick funk rhythms of these tunes have been strong enough to be sampled by plenty of hip-hop artists. Since Bo Diddley’s early 70s funk work was a springboard to success for many of these rappers, it’s high time that the general public recognizes the impressive output of this previously forgotten period of his long career.