Monday 24 August 2009

Diana ROSS and The SUPREMES: Greatest Hits

(#52: 17 February 1968, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Stop! In The Name Of Love/Nothing But Heartaches/When The Lovelight Starts Shining Thru His Eyes/My World Is Empty Without You/Where Did Our Love Go/Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart/Come See About Me/I Hear A Symphony/Reflections/Back In My Arms Again/You Keep Me Hanging On/Whisper You Love Me Boy/The Happening/Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone/You Can’t Hurry Love/Baby Love

Now we get the other side of the story, but also, and more importantly (and far too belatedly), the first all-female number one album. How does it feel when a man doesn’t love a woman, and moreover uses her as a willing doormat? When we listen to the Four Tops there is no doubt that Levi Stubbs loves the woman who will never love him back; his dolorous protests are Technicolor, raging, steadfast. But when we listen to the Supremes we do not hear such howls. Diana Ross has never had the broad power to her voice that someone like Martha Reeves has – so the Supremes could never have done, for example, “Nowhere To Run.” As the mounting anger of “You Keep Me Hanging on” demonstrates, she is more than capable of expressing reasonably passionate displeasure.

Mostly, however, Ross insinuates. Don’t knock it; insinuation is one of her deadliest and most effective weapons. She teases ultimata, purrs threats and caresses confessions out of sinning partners. Her various “ooh”s more indicative of triumph than submission. Even though all bar (in part) one of these sixteen songs was written by the same team responsible for the Four Tops’ central body of work, the Supremes’ feminisation of the Tops’ noise has proved durable and subtly potent, even if there isn’t the same “group” feel to the Supremes’ work as there is to the Tops; rather than four righteous horseman riding in the face of personal apocalypse, Ross and the Supremes are rather like three girls chatting at a ‘bus stop, one monopolising the conversation with her monologue of despair while the other two absentmindedly concur – those deeply unsettling, deadpan-verging-on-robotic “Baby, baby”s all the way through “Where Did Our Love Go” – while they powder their noses and polish up their lips, going along with her but not really listening.

As with the Four Tops collection, the songs here are assembled in commonsensical rather than chronological order. Dave Godin knew that any compilation of songs worth compiling had to tell a story, even if he had to make one up. The key song here is, for the third consecutive week, the opening one: the enormous swirl which whiplashes “Stop! In The Name Of Love” into existence is one of the great black pop intros that side of Chic’s “Good Times” (and the intro to the latter owes almost everything to it, even as its blast escorts it into the future). Here there is no overt evidence that Ross’ man is actually going off with this other girl; her paranoia is as radiantly rationalist as that of Stubbs’ on “Bernadette” but expressed in a radically more controlled manner. She wonders if “her sweet expression” is “worth more than my love and affection” – in other words, does the look of love supersede the reality of love? Both Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard are actively involved here, too; their shouts and cajoles forceful and dynamic, lively in a way which only resurfaces intermittently throughout the remainder of the record. The spectacle turns into one of an extended dream, inspired by Ross’ paranoia, where she imagines every possible and impossible betrayal scenario in her head.

In “Nothing But Heartaches” Ross reflects on how she loves him but how he can’t stop instilling doubt in her mind; her three-syllable “ooh” in the first half of each verse followed by the longer, downward-skiing monosyllabic “oooooh” in the second half suggests internal emotional confusion, magnified by the strange behaviour of the tambourine, which suddenly breaks into fortissimo double time, again in the second half of each verse. Both this track and “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Thru His Eyes” reach back solidly into the Shirelles/Chiffons girl group tradition, but neither displays the hapless, helpless submission evident on, for example, some of the Ronettes’ sides. “Lovelight” sounds less like Motown than anything else on the record, with its Dexy’s-anticipating baritone sax/trombone unison lines and thudding, on-the-beat beat, but here Ross finds happiness and enlightenment again, even though she is rudely interrupted by an isolated but abrupt tidal wave of “aaaaaAAAAH!” newly escaped from (or, more accurately, setting the scene for) “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.” “My World Is Empty,” however, takes the Supremes into “7-Rooms Of Gloom” antechambers of terrifying loneliness – again, the third empty house/room in as many weeks; what did this bode for 1968? – with its solemn introductory organ which soon begins to haunt Ross’ abandoned house (“I find it hard for me to carry on” she intones as an ominous harmonic modulation lurches into view).

Then we flash back to the beginnings of pain and, as far as the Supremes were concerned, their own beginning; “Where Did Our Love Go,” with its handclaps and foot stomps borrowed from the Dave Clark Five’s “Bits And Pieces” (and, with subsequent irony, borrowed back by McCartney for “Got To Get You Into My Life” and “Penny Lane”), its abrasively cuddlesome vibes and those beyond curious “baby, baby”s which put me in mind of no one as much as the Human League. As ever, Ross coos to keep her countenance, but the overall sound is noticeably softer than that of the Shirelles or even Motown colleagues such as the Marvelettes; as with those long, showbiz gloves the Supremes were apt to wear, this represented determined entryism, and the Supremes certainly succeeded in opening more doors throughout the sixties than most of their peers. So gentle, so welcoming…and don’t stop to notice the claws concealed under the gloves…

“Love Is Like An Itching” is a violent-ish wake-up call; a bristling Northern Soul stomper with a luminous vibes topline, the girls’ “Whoo!” inspiring a modulation from minor to major. Ross is on fire, and says so in a manner which makes me wonder whether she wasn’t the real inspiration for Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire”; she is sick with unrequited love (“Far beyond imagination”) but strangely seems to be enjoying it: “What’cha gonna DO-OOO!” she rhetorically exclaims in a shocking triple high jump, followed by a nearly offhand “Oh yeah!” Holland-Dozier-Holland have much fun with medical metaphors and the “-ation” section of their rhyming dictionary, particularly when the two sides cross swords in Ross’ “Causing my heart constipation.”

As side one approaches its end, catharsis makes itself distantly known; the fade-in tom-tom intro heralds “Come See About Me,” the Supremes’ most luminescent plea for twoness, and once more a great group performance, the song’s lines evenly divided between caller (Ross) and responders (Wilson and Ballard). There is a sublime pause in the music – as though gathering breath for the final onslaught of helplessness – before the final, gloriously climactic verse, which sets the best possible trail for the brilliant “I Hear A Symphony.” Here the frustration of “Where Did Our Love Go” – echoed in that solitary quote of “baby, baby” halfway through – is resolved, starting with a hesitant cushion of vibes, the arrangement building up almost imperceptibly as Ross wins back her own confidence, one breath at a time, until we are finally faced with lush grand piano, tambourines which turn into sleigh bells, endless upward key changes and “I hear violins” which anticipates both Hendrix (“Trumpets and violins I hear in the distance”) and Martin Fry (“When Smokey sings, I hear violins” – but note the way he sings “violins” with just enough inexactitude to make you wonder whether he’s really singing “violence”). It is a rush of unassailable, undeniable ecstasy and the perfect closer for this journey of a side of music.

Fittingly, side two begins with “Reflections,” and its “Are You Experienced?”-inspired (and “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”-inspiring) introduction. It is now 1967, times have become darker (for Ross if for no one else), and the Diana Ross we now hear is a new, less obviously welcoming woman; her tone is low and severe, with car alarm sirens regularly breaking into her numbed deconstruction of a love and a life destroyed, the “Reach Out” flute/piccolo lines now seeming to mock her plight. She becomes exasperated – “ALL this love that I gave ALL to you,” her terribly frustrated “wasted” and a “through the hollow of my tears” worthy of TS Eliot. Overall I am put in mind – or, to be precise, Lena put it in my mind – of Kraftwerk’s “The Hall Of Mirrors” and its semi-knowing protagonist (“Even the greatest stars discover themselves in the looking glass”). And, of course, of Syd Barrett, but those particular reflections are for another time.

“Back In My Arms Again” offers a happy ending, however, and never was a happy ending harder won. The “OOOOH!”s here are far more forceful than those on “Nothing But Heartaches” (“So satisfied….OOOOOH!!!!”), but this is a triumph of savage self-assurance, a defiance driven home by the thudding tom-toms which almost drown out the chorus. Ross is not listening to her friends’ advice, indeed has a friendly go at both “Mary” and “Flo” – the only point on the album where she actively acknowledges the other Supremes – before opting for self-determination and perseverance; but is she doing this out of unforeseen reserves of strength, or because she can’t exist without him, however much of a shit he might be?

More to the point is the escalating fury of “You Keep Me Hanging On” with its channel-swapping Morse code guitar, one of James Jamerson’s most inspired basslines and slapping/slapped percussion triplets (the latter again borrowed from, or foreseeing, “Reach Out”). Ross begins the song bewildered, baffled and broken.but it’s clear that Wilson and Ballard, with their “Oo-oo-oooo-woo-oooh”s, are encouraging Ross to break free. Gradually, she does, her anguished “HEYYYYY” bridging the way towards her now enraged “Why don’t you be a MAN about it?” and “You’re just USING me!,” finally leading to a defiant “Get OUT! Get OUT of my LI-IFE!!” The reticent insinuator discovers boldness, the transition is aesthetically faultless and, as Lena says, the whole is like a downer variant on “Always Something There To Remind Me.”

“Whisper You Love Me Boy” is a momentary return to the early (1964) days, but the restrained, old school feel of the track is again deceptive; the initial signifiers of devotion (“Hearing you say swee-eeet things”) give way (again, via a rhetorical key change) to buried frustration (he’s NOT loving her the way he should, or even at all), the girls’ “Come on and WHIS-per!” virtually demanding that he reveal himself.

“The Happening” is perhaps the most extraordinary song on the record; written for a now mostly forgotten 1967 comedy film starring Anthony Quinn by Holland-Dozier-Holland in conjunction with Frank de Vol (despite what the composer credits on the sleeve and label say), its coldly rationalist view of its year is directly contradicted by its chirpy, say-yeah musical setting which even the odd chordal shifts do not dispel unduly (nor indeed does its then-fashionable treated-guitar-as-sitar). In this song Ross suffers the most grievous of all her losses – real or imagined, perhaps, but then the song goes on to question reality: “Is it real? Is it fake? Is this game of life a mistake?” Suddenly we are in the land of Tim Hardin and Ian Curtis, and yet the laughing brass, the “fickle finger of fate” reference appear to decry or belie this innate misery. “It’s not a dream,” warns Ross, however, “It’s not all bliss.” 1967 will, she implies, surely and sternly turn into 1968. And still, in Ross’ own voice, is this weird aura of acceptance of her ghastly fate.

“Love Is Here” also verges on the psychedelic with its unending trapdoors of metric and harmonic irregularities, the plaintive harpsichord doing little to cushion Ross’ spoken grief: “Locked away from me….UHHHH!” she gasps as if felled, somewhere between a gulp and an electrified breath. “You persuaded me to love you,” she accuses. “You just WALKED!” she protests. “LOOK at me!” At song’s fade – “…and as the lonely song fades in the air...” – one senses that she is practically giving up on life.

Finally, two further gasps of emotional improvidence disguised as upbeat philosophies. “You Can’t Hurry Love” undermines its own homilies with its barely buried angst; the cries of “NO!” and “NOOOO!!,” Ross’ heartbroken “How many heartaches must I stand before I find someone to let me live again?,” the references to “You Keep Me Hanging On.” She’s open to patience but is being suffocated by impotence. And then the tale concludes with “Baby Love”; she’s missing him like the Chiffons or the Dixie Cups would have done (but not as melodramatically as the Shangri-La’s did), but every corner of the song is subverted by the unspoken; Ross’ drawn-out “I get this neeeed....” followed by a deep breath and a sighing cry of “OOOOOH!” She fades from our picture in evident pain – “’Til it’s hurting me, ‘til it’s HURTING me” – and we consider the strange role that baritone saxophonist Hank Cosby plays in these proceedings; he solos, gruffly, on almost every track – does he represent the Man, the Accused, who won’t or can’t talk? The dreamer awakens, sees him lying next to her, and wonders what goes on in her soul, and indeed in his. Would his name happen to be Frank? We could believe so.