Tuesday, 9 February 2010

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Motown Chartbusters Volume 3


(#75: 14 February 1970, 1 week)

Track listing: I Heard It Through The Grapevine (Marvin Gaye)/I’m Gonna Make You Love Me (Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations)/My Cherie Amour (Stevie Wonder)/This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You) (The Isley Brothers)/I’ll Pick A Rose For My Rose (Marv Johnson)/No Matter What Sign You Are (Diana Ross and The Supremes)/I’m In A Different World (The Four Tops)/Dancing In The Street (Martha Reeves and The Vandellas)/For Once In My Life (Stevie Wonder)/You’re All I Need To Get By (Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell)/Get Ready (The Temptations)/Stop Her On Sight (SOS) (Edwin Starr)/Love Child (Diana Ross and The Supremes)/Behind A Painted Smile (The Isley Brothers)/(I’m A) Road Runner (Junior Walker and The All-Stars)/The Tracks Of My Tears (Smokey Robinson and The Miracles)

Students of the British singles chart will be familiar with its gradual degeneration throughout the fourth quarter of 1967. That summer the pirate radio stations had been outlawed by Wilson’s Government and most of its leading broadcasters signed up to the BBC’s new Radio One (the Minister directly responsible for the closure, Tony Benn, remained unrepentant, later claiming, not without some reason, that stations such as Radio Caroline represented “proto-Thatcherism”). But it quickly became apparent that Radio One was an ill-equipped substitute; the more wayward and individualistic broadcasters were shunted to the late hours or into similar demographic ghettoes, and the ones remaining appeared neutered, both in their approach and the music they were compelled to play. The five-and-a-half-hour daily ration of pop was a scant replacement for the 24-hour drive of the pirates, and Radio One itself was for the best part of a decade engaged in an uncomfortable shotgun-arranged marriage with Radio Two in terms of wavelength-sharing.

Worse, the Reithian ethic – and in 1967 Lord Reith was still alive and active – remained in effect; the cod liver oil approach of Proper (i.e. “decent”) Culture rammed down unwilling listeners’ throats stayed a BBC template, programmed by old-timers who had been with the Corporation since the days of Al Bowlly. This anti-ethic extended to the realms of its popular music broadcasting (without which staidness the pirates would never have created a space in which to flourish) and instead of the flood of Stax, ska, psychedelia and above all Motown which had hitherto been drenching the 1967 lists, the Housewives’ Choice model was the BBC’s desired motor. True, the renegade big balladeers – Jones, Humperdinck et al – had already dented the charts substantially but with the BBC back in control their voices became dominant. Look at the Christmas 1967 chart for a real hall of shame; endless blusters of balladry, careful pseudo-country waltzes, harmless studium pop from the Second Division of the Beat boom. The Beatles occupied the top two slots and with only a few exceptions seemed to look down at the rest of the chart in pity.

This wretched state of affairs persisted into the charts of 1968, largely a hellish netherworld of Valium-friendly crooning, easy sob stories, cabaret approximations of Beat. Despite occasional hits from Aretha and (posthumously) Otis, as well as one-offs like “Son Of Hickory Holler’s Tramp” and (from the Top 20 perspective) “Dance To The Music,” soul music hardly played a part in these countdowns, unless you counted the unlovely, wobbly warbling of the likes of Solomon King as “soul.”

The situation began to change, however, in the autumn of 1968, when a concerted effort was made to revive the British fortunes of the label which in this country was then known as Tamla Motown. Buoyed by the unexpected success of the Supremes and Four Tops compilations earlier in the year, an aggressively-marketed, phased programme of oldies began to get reissued. Tony Blackburn, Radio One’s flagship DJ and a lifelong soul (and especially Motown) fan, had already done his best to get behind the partially sinking Motown ship, and his fervent championing of records like “This Old Heart Of Mine” and “Get Ready” helped hoist them into the lists. Joined by an equally aggressively-marketed programme of new releases, the reissue trickle turned into a Detroit flood by the turn of 1969, and by March the label was regularly responsible for at least half of any given week’s top ten.

The galvanising effect on the charts was immediate. The balladeers didn’t exactly go away but they soon found top five or even top ten status far from assured; the clinging stench of old was being washed away by the excitable noise of the young, especially those whose heads hadn’t been spun by psychedelia, who didn’t find supergroup jam sessions an elixir, who still wanted their rapid-fire post-Mod mixes of elemental three-minute power. By the summer we were witnessing some of the best singles charts there have ever been.

The Motown Chartbusters series had begun – as British Motown Chartbusters – in late 1967 with a view to annual updates; but Volume 3, which abandoned the “British” adjunct, was the first to make a substantial impact. It still stands somewhat unique in the Chartbusters pantheon; its sleeve, shaped in fashionable space age silver foil, the most immediately recognisable of all the volumes, its contents perhaps the best and most faultless. On the rear, beneath the obligatory 1969 moon shot, there is a somewhat demented sleevenote by the then 42-year-old Alan Freeman; I will leave it to you to find that remarkable fusion of PG Wodehouse and Wolfman Jack for yourselves, but mention should be made of his parenthetical remark, “Always knew there’d be British Justice for Martha’s “DANCING IN THE STREET,”; as a broadcaster he had played that 1964 track night after night on his Radio One show until Motown took note and reissued it. Beneath the affable bluster and multiple exclamation marks, there is a very solid sense of “our job has been done, our mission accomplished.” These were the sixteen songs which changed our charts.

How fitting, and how brave too, that the compilation – and, film and Broadway soundtrack recordings notwithstanding, this is the first of a remarkable extended run of number ones for that most perennial of chart-toppers, “Various Artists” – should begin with its most uncompromising and up-to-the-second track (even though it had been recorded back in 1967), and how remarkable, in retrospect, that of all these songs this was the one which the British public took to number one. “Grapevine” was as radical a hit single as there had ever been, and its courage fortified by the fact that its co-composer and producer Norman Whitfield had spent well over a year trying to persuade a hugely reluctant Berry Gordy, still with a wary eye on the Ed Sullivan audience, to release Gaye’s version as a single, despite Gladys Knight’s furious quadruple-tempo pound through the same song (a production also directed by a clearly frantic Whitfield) having nearly topped the Billboard charts in late 1967.

It remains one of the most elusive number ones to capture in terms of its essence and its soul (if the two are not interchangeable). Everything about the record is attached to suggestion, rather than explicit statement; the hard introductory snare drum, the hissing rattlesnake of tambourine, the quivering tongue of electric piano, the rampant lion of French horn, the slow motion police siren mono-note octave alternations of Paul Riser’s strings – these all suggest a terrible threat, a revolutionary impulse far from dormant. Gaye, meanwhile, bullied by Whitfield into singing out of his comfort zone, discovers a new, hoarse desperation and urgency to his voice; his terrified “Losing YOU!,” “I can’t HIDE!” and “pla-a-AN?” suggest the unredeemed fugitive of Orbison’s “Running Scared,” except here he is clearly running on the spot, and the spot happens to be atop a swamp which at any moment may engulf him. This is about much more than his lover deciding to creep back to her old flame; there is a four-beat tom-tom pattern which echoes throughout several of these songs, but which becomes most explicit in its processional intentions on “Grapevine”; we are not quite with the voodoo children or the magic of juju, but the smell of imminent uprising is unavoidable, over a song and melody as plaintive as the blues upon which they were based; this is a strengthened Robert Johnson, an awakened, sight-rewarded Blind Willie Johnson, spirits rising to claim back their birthrights. When this was succeeded at the top of the British charts by “Israelites,” the change was irreversible.

From this present we dart to a parallel present, or a more realistic (or, if you were Gordy, a more desirable) future. I have already dealt with “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” at length in entry #63; its Kenny Gamble co-authorship credit gives an early signal of what would happen, elsewhere in America, in the seventies, its deceptively subversive smoothness a seemingly more placid pathway down which an internationalised Motown could proceed. For some, though, the strongest future was hinted at by the glorious chord changes in “My Cherie Amour”; listening to this apparently effortless exercise in summer wistfulness helps us temporarily to forget that Stevie Wonder was still only nineteen when he co-wrote and recorded it; here already is an instinctive sophistication far beyond his years. He is in the same situation, as the “crowded street” confirms, as the singer of “Some Enchanted Evening,” but he can’t yet quite sum up the courage to go over to his idealised would-be lover and tell her how he feels; for now, he is happy simply to dream, his voice as seductive as milk, Green Gartside already being anticipated. In passing the listener may note that nowhere yet on this record has true, reciprocal love been attained.

This certainly is the case with “This Old Heart Of Mine,” the first big Motown reissue to crossover – thanks in great part to its Northern Soul second life – and the hearty, throaty barks of the Isleys come as something of a shock after the relative smoothness of their predecessors. Ronald Isley, too, is in palpably greater despair (though the Gaye of “Grapevine” is in far deeper despair – “believe half of what you see”?); here his supposed lover is more than aware of his deep love and vulnerability, enough to screw him around a hundred times and over, but still Ronald will not give up; these “Grapevine” tom toms are back in nascent form and the whole feels like the singer’s heart repeatedly being knocked against a stoneclad door; no matter how much she hurts him, she knows he will always come back, faithful for more. Furthermore, that couplet “Always with half a kiss/You remind me of what I miss” is enigmatic enough to suggest a murkier threat in her half-smile.

In a markedly happier, and perhaps more old-fashioned, mood is Marv Johnson, one of the earliest names to be associated with Motown. “I’ll Pick A Rose” had done next to nothing in the States and he had already opted to go behind the scenes and into Motown management by the time, much to his astonishment, the song made our top five in early 1969. Decidedly a more traditional song, both in terms of its crafting and the singer’s delivery, it is nevertheless one of the record’s most uncomplicatedly happiest tracks; divided in childhood by her wealthy parents, they have grown up separately, she wants to come back, and he is slowly pacing, with nerves more than anything else, around his garden, readying himself up for the trip to the train station and the journey to bring her back home. Its serial ascending key changes are joyous – the flutes and piccolos reminiscent of a resolved “Reach Out” - and, as ever, James Jamerson’s unfeasibly lively bass is the song’s anchor. But there is a degree of unworldliness about Johnson’s slo-mo meander around his garden as though, disappointed with the existing world, he has opted for a slower, dreamier one.

“No Matter What Sign You Are” is the album’s most obviously fashionable song and therefore its most immediately dated. A Diana Ross solo single in all but name (neither Mary Wilson nor Cindy Birdsong played any part in its making), it is mildly, albeit daftly, entertaining with its sitar effects, Ross’ “Ow!”s biting against the various signs, the drifting, elongated chorus of “Aquarius,” the mild double entendres (“Your water sign just lit my fire”) and the multiple references to “good vibrations” but the single, despite Ross’ staunch efforts to put spark into it – her ignitable “I love you, boy!,” her wriggling “des-iyyyire,” her awestruck “YOU MOVE ME, BOY!,” her extraordinary yowling (“AWWWWWW…HOLD ME [five times]…TIGHT!,” twice) at the fade – did only modest business.

Berry Gordy had co-written the song himself, and here was another, more dramatic indication as to why Motown needed a revival; the Holland-Dozier-Holland team had recently, and abruptly, quit the label over a royalty dispute, and both the Supremes and the Four Tops found life suddenly hard. Unlike the natural nowness of “The Happening,” things like “No Matter…” seemed forced, and Gordy was extremely reluctant to take Motown’s music into darker, possibly political waters, even after the success of “Grapevine” (and his reinvention of the Temptations shortly thereafter) had essentially made Norman Whitfield the label’s main bankable asset. The situation is thrown into stark focus by “I’m In A Different World,” the last song prepared by H-D-H for the Four Tops and one of their most experimental; Levi Stubbs enters immediately with his “In this world of ups and downs” (subsequently sampled by Saint Etienne on “She’s The One”) but the drums do not come in until after the first chorus and thereafter alternate between verses only. Again there is this idealistic vision of a better, brighter world, the kind which can only be attained by the presence of a true and deep love. Stubbs gradually re-gathers his strength throughout the song and his exclamations of “The empty life I knew/I leave it far behind” and the climactic, semi-spoken “Most of all you made me/Believe in myself!” sound astonishingly liberated; as he and the group climb the starry stairway (“But when your lovelight shines upon my face”) to each chorus we feel the singer’s deliverance. This was a Christ-like passion which Motown had to retain.

Side one, however, ends with the triumphant 1964 renewal of “Dancing In The Street”; originally intended as a song meant to stop riots, it ended up becoming a code for revolution. Marvin Gaye’s drums and Steve Reid’s chains work in emphatic empathy; there is no doubt that they are celebrating the burial of the whip and the rod, the end of slavery, both external and internal. The Shirelles could have done the song but it is Martha Reeves’ natural authority which throws its smiling demands in our face and into our bones; there is an encyclopaedic embrace – Reeves’ apex of “Everywhere around the world!” seems to revolve around itself – of all that is good and positive about humanity, a beat so insistent and persuasive that it never tramples you but doesn’t leave you alone either. Brass and rhythm seem to explode out of endless corners of neon, Spector’s global paranoia refracted into an encompassing kaleidoscope of fervent fullness. A giant of a record, and a justifiable, if belated, hit. We leave this side wreathed in smiles.

Stevie Wonder expresses a different kind of liberation in “For Once In My Life,” another 1967 recording only released as a single in late 1968 with extreme reluctance; hitherto best known as a crooners’ standard (Dorothy Squires’ 1969 reading takes the most hysterical of stages), Wonder speeds it up and exults in his emancipation. Once more, his world only makes sense and becomes good when he has someone with whom to share it; we know immediately that he has suffered and fought to attain this ecstasy, and the orchestra and chorus are with him all the way (even with those oddly atonal piccolo figures in the verses). And we cannot escape what else this performance would have signified in late 1968 – there is a perky gravity to his “I won’t let sorrow hurt me/Not like it hurt me before” – and when he reaches the impossible yelp of “MINE!” in the final “This is…MINE! You can’t take it!” – having to take the vocal equivalent of a Fosbury flop to get there - the curtains part and the rainbow is revealed. Beneath the drums and tambourine, those chains are still rattling, deep in the mix, or rather, being rattled off.

“You’re All I Need To Get By” is both the album’s happiest and saddest song; sad because of what happened to the two people who sang it – the interaction between Marvin and Tammi is so instinctive and graspable that it is hard to believe that their sets of vocals had to be recorded separately, Tammi already confined to a wheelchair with the brain tumour which would eventually kill her – but happy, again, because of the huge hope it projects. Gaye in particular is straight in with his responses to Terrell’s calls – “Come on baby,” “Ah huh HUH!,” Up the HILL!” – and the song’s momentum is unstoppable; they work steadily towards a triple climax, pausing twice on the mountain for hissing steam train sizzles of cymbal, before reaching the summit, Gaye’s “OWWW!” sounding both free and pained. Their “honey”s culminate in thrilling “YEAH!”s, the two hearts seemingly unbeatable; it is a painfully moving performance.

Next it’s back to 1965 for the Smokey Robinson era Temptations; “Get Ready,” however, has a force and drive which clearly foresee the imminent explosion of “Cloud Nine.” Eddie Kendricks takes the lead vocal, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra strings and Benny Benjamin’s furious but precise drums hurtling him on towards greater confidence – and yet, in his insistent promise that he’s going to bring her love she’s never experienced before, there is a palpable threat in the line “I hope I get to you before they do – the way I planned it.” Happiness, as with everything else in Motown, is not a simple affair. Kendricks relaxes and sits back on his last “come,” letting the rest of the group and the band take the song out with worrisome alto saxophone, bleating bass trombone/baritone sax unisons and ruminatively staccato piano.

Now we hear the voice of the authentic preacher, Edwin Starr; his “SOS” was a reissue from 1966 and the track whose renewed success was most obviously attributable to the Northern Soul boom, but the movement’s motto of “Keep The Faith” could readily be applied to these sixteen songs as a whole; Edwin has lost his baby but he’s going to keep looking for her (“From Maine to Mexico!”), his backing rumbustious, treble-heavy but appositely propulsive. These “hey, hey, hey!”s do, or should, not imply lightly-intended footsteps.

Suddenly, from these multiple worlds of elevated reason, we are hurtled back down into brutal reality. “Love Child” was the record which threw the Supremes, and arguably Motown, back into serious consideration; they sang the song as their final performance on the Ed Sullivan show, ditching their sequinned gowns and heading back to their roots. The music is tightly clenched, glockenspiel detonators, teeth-chattering Dennis Coffey guitar, as Ross muses sternly on her base upbringing; she wants love, but not like this, and there is a sternness, even a menace, in her voice which wasn’t previously present. Her aghast “OHHHH!”s are set against her barely concealed internalised, poverty-powered agony; this is a would-be mother not wanting to be the inspiration for “In The Ghetto.” Interestingly one of the song’s co-writers was the Canadian R Dean Taylor, who as an artist was responsible for some of the most sheerly paranoid Motown sides of the sixties and early seventies; but note Ross’ tearful, repeated “Always LO-O-OVE YOUU!!”s towards the fade – she isn’t trying to kill anything, simply trying to stop lives from being killed.

“Behind A Painted Smile,” another 1967 rescuee, went top five in Britain in mid-1969, and again barely registered back in the States. Composed by Ivy Jo Hunter and “B Verdi,” complete with an opening, straight flute/piano paraphrase of “Vesta La Giubba” from Pagliacci, there ensues a sudden, vicious launch into the song itself, Ronald Isley raging with vibrant intensity (“YOU! CAN’T! IMAG! INE! TEARS! AND! SORROW!”) about having to keep his countenance in the presence of the one who betrayed and abandoned him, eventually having to resort to a hurt, Frankie Valli-ish falsetto (“My life is a MAS-QUE-RADE!”), Benjamin’s drums anything but compassionate, as his brutal, short coda demonstrates. Façades, the screens of “love” – the stage becoming steadily more apparent.

Junior Walker, from 1966, has other ideas; his “Road Runner” drives along the same rhythm arrangement as “Dancing In The Street” but honed to the bone. Despite his protestations of freedom – “If you love me, that’s your business!” – those chains pursuing him are inescapable. His titular proclamations are immediately succeeded by a sighing, scolding guitar figure; baritone sax doubles up with the bass guitar as though he is walking, or running, across a bed of fiery nails (“Got to be free, baby!”), and eventually Walker resorts to his alto sax to express his real confusion and disorientation – that churning, slurring saxophone rasp which inspired everyone from Clarence Clemons to Gary Windo. One gets the feeling that he’s fooling nobody.

Speaking of fooling nobody, the record ends, as it was presumably always meant to do, with a mountain of a masterpiece, a deceptively quiet reminder that Smokey still had the key to whatever could intangibly be described as “the soul,” and the greatest understanding of the precise nature of hurt, loss and countenance retaining. Blossoming out from the embryonic petal of Marv Tarplin’s curling guitar kiss – it could almost be an introduction to a George Jones song – the voices fill the song’s fibres before Smokey, in his only appearance here as a performer, takes the centre ground. He is shattered but still trying to be casual about it; he knows that if we all faced the world as we really are it would burn the planet to ashes. But he tries, even though Paul Riser’s diagnonal, half-a-beat-behind-the-beat slashes of brass and strings tears in the chorus give away the lie. The singer still tries to reassure us that he’s doing fine; he’s seeing someone else and seemingly enjoying it, but it’s all bullshit, don’t be fooled – is he trying to make himself cry?

The middle eight rears a head of nobility to which Smokey can offer no convenient reply. “My smile is my make-up/I wear since my break-up with YOU!” he sings as though collapsing down twenty flights of stairs – and finally it all floods out, the façade demolished; in contrast to the easy rancour of “Painted Smile,” here is the greater and deeper pain, all the harder hitting because he has fought so hard to contain it; the scenery falls down around his head as he drops the pretence completely and sobs along with the song; this is PAIN, this is WRONG, how do I get to be HAPPY (again)? This was an emotion that no chart could deny – “The beat of the heart, my love, is stronger than the charts, my love” as Diana Ross earlier told us – and so our hearts were petrified, and then elated, by these spears of extreme happiness, worry, grief and, above all, freedom, the multifocal message which demanded real emotions, the dropping of MoR masks, the revelation of something which, if its mind were derived from the heart rather than the brain, might bring us closer to that other intangible soul some still call “the truth.”

(Author’s PS: And fittingly, as this album made it to number one for Valentine’s Day, I’m taking a week off - since Valentine’s Day is no time to work – and entry #76 will appear here in a fortnight or so.)

2 comments:

Mark G said...

I dunno if it's just coincidence, but the latest NME freebie is "The Golden Sound of Domino" which mirrors the front of this album sleeve exactly.

Robin Carmody said...

The first 'Motown Chartbusters' album *was* a big seller - number two peak and a year in the charts - but then it consisted very largely of hits made by the offshore stations. The second volume in late '68 contained, on the whole, noticeably smaller UK hits - entirely for the reason stated at the start of this piece - and therefore sold much less (number 8 peak and only 11 weeks on, although the album chart was reduced in length around this point).