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Go-Go, From Scopitone to Chuck Brown

I don’t mean to slander his legacy, but the news this week of the death of Chuck Brown, the  “Godfather of Go-Go,” made me think of Scopitone, the proto-video platform for cheesily risqué musical films that Susan Sontag enshrined in the early canon of camp. Brown, who worked since the 1960s around the area of Maryland (where he was born), northern Virginia, and Washington, D.C., never made a Scopitone film. He did something better, though, leading the development of the sexy, upbeat subgenre of funk that has its own name, go-go, but could just as well be called Chuck Brown’s music. In songs like “Bustin’ Loose,” “I Need Some Money,” and “Ashley’s Roachclip,” Brown’s music is work in the service of play—party music without a sixteenth note of pretense or apology. It’s impossible to resist, immune to criticism. If it fails to make you dance, you must not have feet. 

Before Brown, “go-go” referred not to a musical genre, but to the Swingin’ Sixties style of discothèque dancing (in or out of elevated cages) now perhaps most closely associated with Austin Powers. Go-go dancing was done to many kinds of music, as we can see in surviving films made for Scopitone. A successor to the “Soundie” system of the 1940s, which presented short musical films in coin-operated jukeboxes around the United States, Scopitone was a French invention of the ’60s, and the musical shorts made for it are works of jaw-dropping cluelessness. Cheap and patronizing, jokey but witless, the Scopitone films present pop songs as the hangover dreams of a scary old uncle—pastiches of Reno lounge acts, beach movies, and girlie shows. As fantasies of druggy male voyeurism, Scopitones are precursors to hip-hop “video-ho” clips, down to the disconnect between the quality of the musical performances and the degrading idiocy of the images. Two examples: “Mother Nature, Father Time,” featuring the one-time dreamboat of the R&B charts, Brook Benton; and “I’ve Got That Feeling,” with the jazz vocalist Ethel Ennis:

Everything else in Ennis’s long career has been a protest against such degradation. A skilled pianist and composer as well as a first-rate jazz singer, Ennis has recorded a dozen fine albums since her debut, Lullabies for Losers, in 1955—including a collection of songs by women songwriters, If Women Ruled the World, in 1998. Like Chuck Brown, Ennis has lived and worked in and around her native Maryland for most of her long professional life, content in her high standing among connoisseurs of vocal jazz. I saw her perform this past Monday, at an event in honor of Gay Talese in New York, and she swung with a command that humbled the three singers who sang before her (Lauren Fox, Stacy Sullivan, and my beloved Karen Oberlin). I’m going to have to get out of New York and hear more music in Maryland.