"The Godfather of Go-Go" is gone

Chuck Brown in 1992

In the early '80s when my friend Kevin and I were DJs, we'd haul our gear around in his '68 Dodge Dart or his lowered 1959 Hudson to wherever it was we were going to spin records that night. Once there, we'd haul out the turntable coffin, two huge speakers, a 28lb QSC amplifier and 8 to 10 milk crates full of records and set them up on whatever flat surface would hold it all. After everything was hooked up, we usually checked the acoustics of the room and the EQ settings by playing ELO's "Fire on High,"and then maybe "Poker" if the room sounded really good. Then, after a couple of more tunes, when we were ready to make people dance, we'd put on Kurtis Blow's "Party Time"- a 1983 track which had Blow rapping over an irresistible go-go beat, and the floor would begin to fill up.

"Party Time" was the first go-go song I heard, and its rhythms were so amazingly funky I had to find more, which led me to bands like Trouble Funk, whose "Drop the Bomb" may be the best go-go jam ever. But "Drop the Bomb" was never my favorite. That distinction belonged to a tune by Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers called "We Need Some Money," which in its eight-plus minutes seemed to capture everything that no one seems to now remember about Reagan's presidency in a blast of knowingly desperate lyrics over a deliriously happy beat. It's generally acknowledged that Brown, a guitarist, created the genre.

Though it's never gone away, in its hey-day during the 80's go-go music stood out from other "Urban" music of the time for two reasons: it took an actual band with real percussionists to play it at a time when almost everything was being recorded with drum machines and synthesizers; and the best go-go tracks always sounded like they'd been recorded during a really great party- lots of call and response, heavy horn riffs, extended jamming, getting down just for the funk of it, and always the heavily syncopated beat of multiple drummers going to town while the horns just ripped across the top of the beat.That's the genre's secret weapon- that combination of horns and drums.

Go-go inexplicably never really caught on beyond the borders of its hometown in the nation's capitol, despite the musical performances captured in the otherwise shitty 1986 movie Good to Go (aka Short Fuse), which promoted the genre on its fine soundtrack and inexplicably starred Art Garfunkel, and the popularity in 1988 of EU's "Da Butt," an embarrassingly lame example of the genre which turned out to be a big hit because it was in a Spike Lee movie. But you could hear it in some clubs, including the old Palladium in San Francisco on Saturday nights in the early 80's when they had these incredible DJs spinning until the wee hours of the morning. Sometime around 1984 I caught Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers at the Palace in Hollywood and it was a hell of a show that in my memory lasted for hours and had the entire placed drenched in sweat by the time it was over.

Brown died of pneumonia today at the age of 75, but he kept playing go-go all this time, earning him the moniker " the Godfather of Go-Go," which he well deserved. Listening to these tunes, so entwined in my mind with those of the first two Beastie Boys albums (which I've been listening to constantly since MCA's recent death), aural madeleines of an era long gone, has made me quite nostalgic for a time when things were hard, but felt much simpler, and you could just dance your problems away, if only for a little while.

Men at Work: Kevin, Buns, Marcher circa 1986.