Sunday, 17 June 2012
VARIOUS ARTISTS: Soul Motion
(#174: 30 October 1976, 2 weeks)
Track listing: You To Me Are Everything (The Real Thing)/You’re The First, The Last, My Everything (Barry White)/Lady Marmalade (LaBelle)/It’s In His Kiss (Linda Lewis)/T.S.O.P. (The Sound Of Philadelphia (MFSB)/Get Up And Boogie (Silver Convention)/Disco Lady (Johnnie Taylor)/Ms Grace (The Tymes)/This Is It (Melba Moore)/That’s The Way (I Like It) (KC and The Sunshine Band)/When Will I See You Again? (The Three Degrees)/More, More, More (Andrea True Connection)/Armed And Extremely Dangerous (First Choice)/Didn’t I Blow Your Mind (This Time) (The Delfonics)/Me And Mrs Jones (Billy Paul)/Lovin’ You (Minnie Riperton)/Wake Up Everybody (Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes)/Let’s Do The Latin Hustle (Eddie Drennon and BBS Unlimited)/(Are You Ready) Do The Bus Stop (The Fatback Band)/Love Train (The O’Jays)
(Author’s Note: The above track listing is based on the actual order in which the tracks appear, as opposed to the order incorrectly listed on the album’s rear cover. In addition I have preserved the actual song titles and artists, correcting the numerous errors and omissions on the sleeve, in an act more to do with exasperation than slavish fidelity to record covers.)
In the sixteen-and-a-half years I spent commuting daily between Oxford and London, I got quite used to seeing the low-rise K-Tel office building on Western Avenue, and even though K-Tel’s best days were firmly behind them by the time I had started commuting, it still baffled me a little as to how successful a multinational conglomerate could be satisfied with such pokey little offices, in the limbo of M40 motorway between Park Royal and Acton Town. In fact the building is set just before the crest of a hill, at the top of which only a slight twist in the road reveals the first sighting of London as it is known and recognised; the Post Office Tower (I know it is now called the BT Tower, but let love and life rule and call it the Post Office Tower) in the distance, and soon afterwards the recognisable west London skyline, dominated by the outline of Charing Cross Hospital (and, later, the Hammersmith Ark). I passed it twice every day, where the K-Tel sign remained until well into the nineties, following which it disappeared and the building degenerated into FOR SALE disuse.
Going back through some of those old K-Tel collections, it is perhaps easier to understand the appeal of such undemonstrative premises, for K-Tel, despite its Canadian origins, always struck me, in its British manifestation, as a cheerful cottage industry, clearly limited by budget constraints and whatever major labels were prepared to license out to them on a fixed-term basis, a business not too bothered how its end products looked as long as they were in some way useful, as well as inexpensive.
To sum the philosophy up, the sleeve of Soul Motion, designed by Peter Eaton & Partners Ltd, pays so little attention to classical formalities such as getting track orders, song titles and artists correct that it’s almost as if someone had thrown together a C90 (or, to be fair, a C120) tape and scribbled a rudimentary track listing on the front. Nor is there any room left for the stock monochrome artist photographs we find on the likes of 20 Dynamic Hits; instead we have a graffitied wall where people think to spray-can the likes of Linda Lewis and Eddie “Drennan.” It was the third in a series of grab-bag compilations of current and recent soul and disco hits produced by K-Tel, its two predecessors being Super Bad (1974) and Souled Out (1975 – there’s a title we’ll be coming across again), and all similarly designed. Was social deprivation really concomitant with the often highly sophisticated music to be found on the records themselves? How worse could the punning titles get?
Or did K-Tel have a better and more realistic idea of what albums meant to the people who bought and listened to them? Do glorified tape compilations satisfy what we want from an album? The history of the album, as this tale has in part tried to demonstrate, has frequently been a struggle between the respectable craving for long-form works of art (which were why albums were originally invented, so that those listening to a lengthy classical work didn’t need to get up and change the record every three minutes or so) and a corporate cynicism trying to make more short-term profits by taking a currently popular artist, shoving their one or two hits together with ten tracks of filler, and calling the end result an “album.” Art and cynicism are about the last two things I’d associate with K-Tel; they wanted to make money, not create a definitive, annotated retrospective, but they were also very clear in their motives – no filler (well, not much), some condensing of tracks to get twenty on one album, a cheaper and easier way to buy and own the hits you hear on the radio and maybe dance to. The cover of Soul Motion suggests a different demographic from the faux-sophistication of The Best Of The Stylistics Volume II; I’d be surprised if many over the age of about twenty bought it.
Yet bought it they did, enough to get the record to number one for a fortnight and therefore into this tale, and you hardly need, I think, to be reminded that multi-artist compilations had by now sneaked back, or been allowed to sneak back, into the album charts, and there they will stay until the end of 1988. Given the frequency with which “Various Artists” will assert themselves, it has to be concluded that a vast swathe of record buyers wanted all the hits, together in one neat bargain of a package, and weren’t too fussed about how the package was delivered or presented to them. Some might say that the blunt honesty of this kind of approach is more “truthful” than a thousand concept albums, but plenty of others would say the exact opposite.
As a coherent album, Soul Motion doesn’t really have anything to say about itself; its twenty tracks range from 1971 to 1976, just over half of them were number one hits in either the UK or the USA (none did the double), and its programming is fairly conventional – many immediately recognisable hits up front, followed by more hits and the occasional curveball, then a sequence of slow jams for the ladies, and then gradually revving the mood and tempo up again. I don’t believe there is any deeper subtext to the programme; these are hits ordered and siphoned by professionals. So examination of the album as a whole is pretty pointless, but that does not of course mean there’s nothing to say about the songs or artists themselves. That being the case, it is best to examine artist by artist and find out just why the record would have been such an attractive proposition to impressionable teenagers, from George Michael to Siouxsie Sioux.
The Real Thing
The only fully British track on this record; they came from Toxteth, Liverpool, and some of them were in an early sixties group called the Chants and knew Paul McCartney from the Cavern days. As The Real Thing they got by for six years until they managed to land a spot on New Faces (I always remembered them as being on Opportunity Knocks but see the comments section below); they won repeatedly and their “debut” single quickly went to number one. Even in the lamentable mid-1976 days of Top Of The Pops it’s not difficult to see how “You To Me Are Everything” would stand out so readily; a natural number one with Eddie Amoo’s lead vocal skilfully combining vulnerability with emotional generosity. The strings (or possibly string synthesiser?) towards the end quote “Love’s Theme” as a sort of acknowledgement of influence. They had further hits, with successive lower chart peaks, and by 1977 had delivered the concept album 4 From 8, including “Children Of The Ghetto,” to a deaf world. In 1979 they enjoyed something of a comeback with “Can You Feel The Force?,” their best record; yet some still recall above all else the jingles they recorded for the Godfrey Davis car hire firm.
Born in Galveston and raised in South Central LA, a first-hand witness to the Watts riots, it’s not surprising that White wanted to put something of the past far behind him. Hence the sighing flutes and echoing harpsichords characteristic of his early work as a performer; a lushly romantic counterpart to Isaac Hayes’ sternly classical approach. Were you to depend on British oldies radio stations as a reliable barometer of anything, you’d think “You’re The First…,” his only British number one, was the only record he ever made. Unlike the version routinely trotted out on radio, this retains the crucial spoken intro (or at least some of it) but manages to omit the entire second verse and chorus and is quick to fade the song out before the spoken coda (hence we have an incomplete understanding of the pain and struggle which lie behind the fact that White and his Other have “made it”). Best to find the original albums, particularly 1974’s Stone Gon’, which Paul Lester once urged me to listen to, saying that side two was practically the Cocteau Twins. And he was right.
One of many perspectives on Philadelphia to be found on this record, they were once Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells before jazzing themselves up for the seventies. Again, radio here appears to think that “Lady Marmalade” was their only record – thus omitting, amongst many other achievements, “Morning Much Better,” their remarkable nine-minute-plus take on Cat Stevens’ “Moonshadow” and, from the same album as “Marmalade” (Nightbirds), “You Turn Me On” and “What Can I Do For You?” In fairness, one can understand the record’s continuing appeal; the opening chants of “Go, Sister Soul” sound like pre-emptive Girl Power war cries and Allen Toussaint’s cowbell-heavy production doesn’t put a foot wrong; the performance sounds live, the organ both light and provocative, the singers give deep collective breaths which resonate like a gong, the horn-dominated middle-eight provides an entirely unexpected Picardy third, and Patti LaBelle’s French soul coaxing tutorials are delivered with as much dynamic urgency as her phenomenal 1978 reading of “Teach Me Tonight” (last seen in its full version on the Soul Jazz compilation Barrio Nuevo which unfortunately is currently out of print; please petition the label for a reissue). Given the involvement of Philadelphia, New Orleans and (via co-author Bob Crewe) New Jersey, this is one of the junctions in seventies soul music where everything seems to meet. And given its chart-topping, million-selling status in the USA, its continuing popularity and the fact that two subsequent cover versions made number one in Britain, how could the original have stopped at #17 in our charts in the spring of 1975, prevented from climbing higher by such heavyweights as Mike Reid, Peter Shelley, the Rubettes and Kenny?
From West Ham, but with a record made in America, Linda Lewis’ early work belies the misleading picture of her given by her short list of hits. Possibly the first British black female singer-songwriter to attain critical and commercial success – folk-tinged albums like Lark (1972), Fathoms Deep (1973) and Heart Strings (1974) paved the way for everybody from Joan Armatrading to Corinne Bailey Rae – this volatile Betty Everett cover from 1975 was her biggest British hit, though the arrangement and production were by Tony Silvester and Bert deCoteaux. She certainly attacks the song with great gusto; her five-octave vocal range put her in the same class as Minnie Riperton although the extreme highness and glee with which she delivers the song is near-childlike. An enthusiastic Michael Jackson is certainly near the mark, a predicative Clare Grogan even more so as Lewis scarcely sounds older than twelve – her sopranino shoots up like a rocket to shower the instrumental break with colour and verve.
The Philadelphia story goes almost back to the beginning of post-war popular music, to the days of Dick Clark and American Bandstand. If one of the unspoken purposes of Soul Train was to show that which Bandstand would never dare – in terms of styles of music, that is; Clark was instrumental in demolishing the colour bar on his own show, and many soul and R&B stars benefited from his and the show’s patronage – then its theme tune, “T.S.O.P.,” was a calling card of action. Gamble and Huff had experimented for some time with the next logical step from Motown – marrying easy listening strings with blues rhythm sections and singers somewhere in between, thereby creating an opulent earthiness – but “T.S.O.P.,” a US #1 in 1974, was a largely instrumental gesture of radicalism. Here, the carefully balanced males and females – strings and brass for the first major key theme, answered by saxes for the second minor key riff – are artfully held together by the purposeful rhythm section; guitars, bass and drums echo off each other in a manner that anticipates Simple Minds. Tension is carefully built up until the Three Degrees finally enter; their entry is later than Bowie’s on “Sound And Vision” but then this record partially persuaded Bowie to go to Philadelphia and find himself a way out. “People all over the world,” they call out when words are formulated (see also the final entry in this section), “let’s get it on.” Disco is born, and although in terms of its timescale this isn’t quite America getting over, or rid of, Watergate, it does say, “Don’t worry, America – there is a future, and here is where it starts.” Oh, and the MFSB Sigma Sound studio orchestra acronym stands for exactly what you think it stands for.
Originally called Silverbird, until an American band objected, and once nearly having Donna Summer in their line-up, Silver Convention were the creation of Munich-based writers and producers Sylvester Levay and Michael Kunze. The modus operandi was simple chants alternating with long instrumental workouts. “Save Me” attracted many ears in the spring of 1975; “Fly Robin Fly” was their breakthrough, reaching number one on Billboard later the same year; and 1976’s “Get Up And Boogie” was a US #2 and their biggest British hit. As ever, they don’t have much to do except sing the title over and over with vague rock chick accentuations, with abrupt “That’s right!” exclamations from the producers and plenty of funky clavinet and a strange string chart which sounds like von Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic auditioning at the Grand Ole Opry. So on one side of mid-seventies Germany you had Kraftwerk and Autobahn, and on the other side this. Slow it down a little and you practically have “Autobahn” here; it’s the same beat, more or less, and the same clear lyrical minimalism.
The only real dud on this album; “The Philosopher Of Soul” sounding a very long way from the pioneering soul/country/urban fusion of “Who’s Making Love?” and the startling anti-balladry of 1973’s “I Believe In You (You Believe In Me)” but then by 1976 he needed a hit, and this one went all the way on Billboard whereas his previous works of distinction had not. It sounds like Warren Beatty’s Shampoo idea of disco; interminable and ponderous, I doubt whether anyone would dance to it now. Taylor does his best but is clearly slumming it – his “Shove it in, round about”s are one step short of humiliating – and his committed delivery and the gospel-derived antiphonal handclapping do not lift the record out of its mud. “Girl you oughta be on TV – on Soul Train,” he bellows at one point, and the word “discotheque” makes its always unwelcome appearance. Still, hear how the bored bassist decides to start improvising towards the end, the free wah-wah guitar squelches punctuating the middle eight, and Taylor at one point lamenting “Lord, I miss you so.” One can understand his dilemma.
Part of the original Philly sound, their big American moment was 1963’s “So Much In Love,” followed by nothing much except, in Britain, a bizarre deep soul reading of the show tune “People” in 1969, a comeback of sorts in 1974 with “You Little Trustmaker” (the “doobie-doobie-doobie” vocal bassline sounds like Kevin Ayers) and finally a UK number one with “Ms Grace.” A deliberate old-school doo-wop finger-snapper decorated by florid seventies orchestrations, the song is rare amongst hits of its period in that it actually swings, and the passing of the lead vocal line between all of the group’s frontline is refreshing.
Like so many others, she got her break in the Broadway production of Hair, proceeding to several well-received albums in the early seventies. But then her career temporarily ran out of steam, and so Van McCoy was prevailed upon to bring her back. “This Is It” has an ebullience entirely lacking in the later work of the Stylistics, and what is most remarkable about the record is that Moore phrases the entire thing like a jazz song; her vocal mumbles between each line, the way she makes lines like “I’m lost for words” become a one-breath melange of abstract vowels. A blast of optimistic freshness to a British chart which badly needed it.
KC and The Sunshine Band
Miami, of course, and although George McCrae got the breakthrough hit with “Rock Your Baby,” it was the backing band who got the career. Like “Lady Marmalade,” “That’s The Way” works as an intersection of world music – here there are Latin features, African influences, Brill Building insolence, horns that seem to breathe in and out (like Gil Evans once did for Claude Thornhill) and disco, as an epicentre of Utopia, brings them all together into an unmistakeably American blend. In addition, Harry Wayne Casey’s vocal answers questions I have asked myself for many years; where does that voice come from? And, listening to this anew, it dawned on me; listen especially to his two “babe, oh babe”s about halfway through the song – it’s Neil Young! The Sunshine Band to cut Tonight’s The Night and “Like A Hurricane”? Would that really be the strangest thing that has ever happened (have you heard Americana yet?)?
The Three Degrees
They were, quite consciously, Gamble and Huff’s Supremes, and there are moments on their eponymous debut album – released in 1974, fully eleven years after the group had formed – which will make you shrivel up with tears (“If And When”) and others which will make your blood course with renewed fury (“Dirty Ol’ Man”). But this was their big hit, the only Philadelphia International single to make #1 in the UK (and in doing so held off “You Make Me Feel Brand New”). Fourteen years down the line, the record only makes sense as a sequel to “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” If in the earlier song the girl was perhaps fearing sex, or its aftermath, more than welcoming it, “When…?” is the resigned sigh of the same girl, now a grown woman, who has done it but is still wondering whether there is anything more to life, including love. Bobby Parker’s electric piano boils like a smouldering kettle underneath the arches of strings and brass and the Degrees’ coos. As was the custom with Philly records, emotion only leaks into the closing moments, when rhetorical questions turn to pleas and cajoles. If only their most famous fan, Prince Charles, had listened to the song more attentively.
Straight out of Nashville, a porn star who got her one musical break in Jamaica; finding that she could not take the money she had earned from working in Jamaica out of the country, she instead set to recording “More, More, More.” Producer/arranger Gregg Diamond had the song ready and waiting, and it is noticeable how True’s need amplifies and spreads with each set of verse and chorus. The trumpet solo set against percussion – including, again, that cowbell – perhaps anticipates Herb Alpert’s “Rise.” And then there is that eight-bar break in the middle, the sample heard around the world, which a generation later Toronto record store owner and DJ Marc Costanzo would use for a song he was making for his band Len, entitled “Steal My Sunshine” – a record which could stand as the bridge that connects one century and millennium to another. Also involved in the record was Toronto musician Brendan Canning, and he used the money he made from its international success to kick-start the Broken Social Scene collective into being – a group which, it seems to me, have addressed and answered all the questions which beset musicians in our time and forged a path towards the future, a group whose implications go far beyond Canada, and music, and perhaps even society. And so a one-off dance record – made when Canning was barely nine – helped make now possible. These connections are apt to happen.
Also from Philadelphia, the corny Dragnet intro to “Armed” is almost enough to deflate the most enterprising listener, but the percussion track has been sampled many times, and despite a rather forlorn echo being placed on her voice, lead singer Annette Gaunt depicts a convincing picture of the dangerous streets of America, if not quite Womack’s “Across 110th Street.” On which subject…
…it is perhaps the most moving sequence Tarantino has ever directed; despite the restrained humanity of the acting in Jackie Brown, it is still a highly silly film with a sillier story. Pam Grier’s Jackie is in the apartment of Robert Forster’s bondsman, Max Cherry. Neither is young, and they mutually admit that, but they are growing closer together. Forster asks if he can put a record on; Grier says yes. The song is “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind (This Time)” and Forster, who admits he is not much good at small talk, attempts to explain exactly what this song means to him. Grier doesn’t need to hear it, of course, but likes the fact that he tries, and also that he is clearly a vulnerable man in need of love. So they bond. And, going past the tally-ho French horn intro, it is also the work of Thom Bell. The song’s procession is stately and elegant, performed with great beauty and control – but that is not what the song is about. The bridge is menacing – “Get this thing through your head, there’ll be no more” – and it gradually becomes clear that the singer is leaving her, and that the title is a disappointed rhetorical question. Didn’t I do it? Why didn’t I? Towards the end, a cry of “I got to leave you baby!” makes the intention entirely clear, but Dave Marsh reckons the guitar on this record predicates grunge, and indeed this is in many ways an archetypal Nirvana song. There was always a disturbing undercurrent in Bell’s work with the Delfonics that is either not present, or very carefully suppressed, in the Stylistics.
Consider the setting. Tinkling piano, alto sax, cocktail guitar. It could almost be 1942, not 1972. It could be a response to “When Will I See You Again?” if that singer shouldn’t really be with him. But they meet every day, at the same time in the same café, “holding hands, making all kinds of plans.” They know this is so disastrously wrong, but as Paul stutters, it’s much too strong “to…let, it, go, now.” He holds that last “now” after the song’s harmonies modulate so that a feeling of dissonant poignancy is revealed. Then he can’t hold in his emotions any longer. He pronounces the title as an anguished acappella. “It! Hurts! So! Much!” he exclaims. The orchestra seem to be pummelling against the singer, but not in the same way they did with Humperdinck on “The Way It Used To Be” – what if she did pass by one day, this Mrs Jones, hear the song and remember something she’s spent half a lifetime trying to forget? The singer keeps repeating her name and appellation, rolling it around his throat as if he cannot quite credit it, or the situation. They know it’s dangerous – the same place, the same time; surely they must be found out sooner or later? As the song wanders towards its end, he breaks out and improvises – and here is where things become really disturbing. “We’re gonna hold hands like we used to,” he sings – implying that he may have known Mrs Jones for rather longer a time than, say, Mr Jones. If he himself has a wife, he never mentions it. And, finally, and scariest of all: “We know…THEY know…it’s wrong…” Who are “they”? In one way the song is a follow-up to “Running Scared” except now both parties are afraid that Mr Jones “might show.” But think about the wider implications; this was America’s number one over Christmas of 1972, a time when the nation had just re-elected Nixon without really knowing what it was doing, or letting itself in for – cannot the metaphor be extended and amplified, the notion of having to spend half one’s life creeping around, under cover, being “extra-careful,” while all the time doing something one knows is fundamentally wrong – isn’t this song really about Watergate? Listen to the same singer’s “East,” recorded nearly at the same time, and watch those doubts fly like scattered recording wires fleeing a bullet.
A number two hit in 1975 Britain, and therefore not my remit to review it; furthermore, any personal thoughts I do have about the record – and there are many – fall, I regret to say, into the None Of Your Flipping Business category. So the synthesised birdsong, the “Black Bull” production credit (Stevie Wonder, for Taurean and contractual reasons), the minimalist but empathetic musical setting, the unavoidable poignancy of the “while we grow old” section sung by somebody who never got the chance to grow old, the song’s origins as a lullaby for the infant Maya Rudolph, the Rotary Connection history – you’re going to have to wait for Lena’s thoughts on all of these, and I am sure more.
For God’s Sake, America – WAKE UP!
Written in 1975 by McFadden and Whitehead, and used as the Democratic anthem for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign the following year, this is an optimistic warning of a song; Teddy Pendergrass sings the words with great restraint and emotional profundity, even the bitterly sardonic references to “Let It Be,” although this edit loses out on the crucial verse about the doctors and the elderly. Note how both strings and bass are stung into action by the words “war and poverty” and how, again, Pendergrass emotionally takes off into Levi Stubbs country once the song proper is done. “WAKE UP!” he barks frantically towards fadeout. You mean we are dreaming this record?
I don’t think I’ve heard it since it was in the charts, over thirty-six years ago, but Drennon, from Newark, is a far more substantial character than the record in itself suggests; a violinist, composer and arranger – as a musician, Stuff Smith was among his early tutors – Drennon is also an important figure in Latin, salsa and charanga music; at the time of “Latin Hustle,” he was part of the group Orquestra (Tipica) Novel. And yet something about the record is strangely familiar, namely the main two-flute riff. Strings and brass thicken the sound in individual layers; a wordless chorus materialises and eventually sings the title over a flurry of flamenco handclaps. Air? An Associates instrumental (it could so easily be)? And then the “A”s travelled to the Avalanches, who I remember sampled the track for Since I Left You. Everything leads to its own poignancy.
The Fatback Band
From New York, and harder than most of the rest of the music under consideration here – both saxophonist George Adams and keyboardist Don Pullen were members at one time or another – “Bus Stop” crept into the overall terrible UK charts at the end of 1975, and even in this truncated form it is startling. Nothing about the record seems to fit with anything else on it, and that’s a big part of its magic; the bass and organ suggest a midway leyline between Booker T and Derek Forbes. There is what Lena calls “the wonderful bossiness of dance records” (thanks as always to Lena for many of the ideas and terminologies used in this piece) – a sergeant major type appears: “Don’t stop! Keep the groove!” His barks of “Don’t stop!” steadily become more demented (“I’ll tell you when!”). There is a fake fadeout. There is a decided resemblance to “Family Affair” – it is as if the sun of Sly Stone, in imploding, has afforded all those satellites to drift into orbit. It is a salutary reminder that such radical music was still capable of getting into our Top 20 at a time when radicalism seemed to be the last thing on the menu.
All Join Hands
For it is about Philadelphia, and the cowbell – why not call this album Cowbell Motion? – and the O’Jays, getting their time, and their US number one, at last with this affable update of “Peace Train.” But of course this is a peace and a happy ending hard won – this joy is also capable of radiating to things like “992 Arguments” and “For The Love Of Money” – and we can close by noting that this is the last song on the soundtrack of Stillman’s The Last Days Of Disco; it is the song danced to by the couple in the subway train, and as everyone else joins in, the meaning of that term “people all over the world” is instantly and intimately understood. If only we had the nerve to see that vision through in the Oxford Tube coach, somewhere in the vicinity of 620 Western Avenue.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 02:02