Wednesday 19 August 2009

The FOUR TOPS: Greatest Hits

(#51: 10 February 1968, 1 week)
Track listing: Reach Out I’ll Be There/Where Did You Go/I Can’t Help Myself/7-Rooms Of Gloom/Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever/Standing In The Shadows Of Love/Something About You/Baby I Need Your Loving/You Keep Running Away/Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over)/Ask The Lonely/Bernadette/Darling, I Hum Our Song/Without The One You Love/It’s The Same Old Song/I’ll Turn To Stone
It is an extraordinary picture, and I have no idea of its origins, yet it can tell the story better than any given thousand words. There they are, four tall men in immaculately matching suits, open-to-the-sternum shirts and medallions, alive and kicking at the country club. Note that their voices are presumably so powerful that they do not require microphones to be heard. Behind them we see a largely attentive, appreciative and white audience – and to the left of Duke Fakir we can even glimpse Boris Johnson – astounded and rapt by the spectacle they are witnessing. The ghetto culture of Detroit, landed in the midst of the Young Republican khaki-clad gentry.

That, of course, was always one of Berry Gordy’s principal aims; to get white people to listen to black music, as well as – and more importantly – to establish black pop music as a long overdue commercial force in itself, to enter its nation’s transistor radios and transform their gummy static into florid, bold lines of colour communication. To prove that Hitsville USA could do it bigger and better than any Tin Pan Alley or Brill Building hustler.

And few, if anyone, did pop better in the sixties than Motown. After years of referencing on the part of the Beatles and Stones, this tale finally arrives at the first direct Motown entry. Ostensibly a collection of the Four Tops’ singles (with a few well-chosen B-sides) from 1964 to most of 1967 – their reading of the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” appeared on the UK charts towards the end of 1967 but had to wait until 1971’s Greatest Hits Volume 2 to be compiled – and covering all of their key work with Holland-Dozier-Holland, the tracks on Greatest Hits do not appear in strict, academic chronological order, the failing of many a contemporary comprehensive CD anthology, but seem to tell a very specific story. Given that the album – a British-only issue – was almost certainly put together by the head of Motown’s UK A&R operations (and the man who thought up the compound name “Tamla Motown”), the late Dave Godin, a visionary who later proved himself more than capable of telling extremely profound stories in his Deep Soul Treasures tetralogy, this is not an unfeasible guess.

Consider, for instance, how “I Can’t Help Myself” appears early on in the proceedings, its Northern Soul-inventing dynamo underscoring Levi Stubbs’ hapless but curiously euphoric declaration of unfulfillable infatuation, only to be recast towards the end of side two in the despairing “It’s The Same Old Song.” Most of the critical applause in the Motown male group department continues to run towards the Miracles and especially the Temptations, and the Four Tops, whose history comfortably predated both, perhaps still await their proper critical due. But listening to the group at their finest, and to the fractious baritone of Levi Stubbs, a baritone as capable of going to screaming extremes as John Surman, demands some revision of thought.

Poor Levi. As with Gene Pitney in a parallel world, he was encouraged to suffer on our behalf; throughout these sixteen songs he is hardly ever happy, and even when love presents itself openly to him, he continues to worry about it ending or not actually existing, as on Jo Hunter and Stevie Wonder’s “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever,” one of the few songs here not written by the H-D-H team, with its “need to know you need me too” catch subtly undermining the song’s overall jaunty ecstasy.

And when his love is secure, he becomes ever the more paranoid. “Bernadette” is one of the most frightening, and certainly one of the loudest, declarations of insecurity in all of pop. Climaxing the gradual deconstruction of the Motown song which H-D-H had begun with “Reach Out,” the song’s attack and chord structure are more in keeping with the Chocolate Watch Band or the 13th Floor Elevators than, say, Junior Walker. Over James Jamerson’s restless, Mingusian Fender bass Stubbs howls his Othelloesque cry of doubt, presaging and far outdoing “Backstabbers” with his preacher roars – “I NEED you NEAR!,” “ALLLL!!!!” He admits to us that his feelings are going far beyond standard insecurity, and the sainted subtext of the song’s titled subject is not overlooked: “That’s why I place you high above,” “You mean more to me than a woman was ever meant to be.” There is a heartbreaking, stretched middle eight with flute, piccolo, bassoon and French horn unisons where Stubbs collapses in abject awe. Finally, when the song seems to have retreated to a land of echoes the other side of the Styx, Stubbs suddenly roars it back into existence; as with the Hendrix of “I Don’t Live Today,” he will not let go of whatever is destroying him.

“7-Rooms Of Gloom,” the follow-up, views the wreckage of the inevitable rift and destitution. H-D-H appear to be stretching the pop song, let alone the Motown model, beyond its perceived limits; the full rhythm section, whose appearances had gradually been getting later and later in Four Tops singles, does not appear until halfway through the second verse, and the words sound improvised, fearful. It is true that H-D-H modified “Gloom” into a more palatable form as the basis of R Dean Taylor’s “There’s A Ghost In My House” but here Stubbs’ desolation is worthy of Lear. “Lonely WALLS! They STARE at ME!” he soliloquises, before paraphrasing “Paint It, Black.” Apart from its being the obvious downside to the Supremes’ “The Happening” and a logical adjunct to Love’s “Seven And Seven Is,” “Gloom” does take the form of a theatrical performance far more clearly than it does that of the pop song. If David Ruffin was Motown’s Gielgud, his grief classically moulded, then Stubbs was the Olivier; elemental, quixotic, profound.

It was quite a journey from 1964’s “Baby I Need Your Loving,” the group’s first US hit. Commonly deemed the primary inspiration for the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” the parallels are obvious, not just in the song’s chorus but also in the pond splashes of florid piano, the incrementally increasing emotional scope of the song. Stubbs is no happier here than on “Gloom” but there still glimmers the option of hope – he has not yet been disappointed or betrayed by love. “Some say it’s a weakness for a man to beg,” he explains, before beginning to crumble (“’Cos lately I’ve been losing sleep” and the diplomatically coruscating “Has ALLLLLLLL been…”). But it would be wrong to focus on Stubbs alone and forget the immense contribution of the rest of the group; throughout, their responses to Stubbs’ calls are impeccable and their range – contrabass to operatic soprano/falsetto – deceptively startling. “Loving” in particular demonstrates their collective power; despite its woebegone sentiments it is one of the most alluringly elevating of all early Motown discs, the brownstone dwarfing rising sun of the chorus immediately recalling Drifters sides like “There Goes My Baby” and reminding us of the group’s roots in doo wop.

But “Ask The Lonely” from not long afterwards is equally as disorientating in its own way. Revealing the seldom visited cavern of the deep low register of Stubbs’ voice, this is a grandiosely damaged ballad in line with Jack Nitzsche epics like the Walker Brothers’ “Love Her” and PJ Proby’s draining “I Can’t Make It Alone.” Taking its lyrical cue from Sinatra’s “Only The Lonely,” Stubbs’ mournful intonations slowly develop into something more disturbed, as on the tightrope vibrato of “They’ll tell you” which in turn introduces grandiose piano, cinematic vocal harmonies and Stubbs reaching towards operatic skies. His final, terrifying cry of “Ask ME!” makes us remember that Jackie Wilson was his cousin.

On “Where Did You Go” dreamy Nelson Riddle strings are abruptly cut off by Stubbs’ stern lament. Like Val Doonican, he is alone in his room (“I now sit QUIETLY…/Hoping you’ll RETURN”), and an Erroll Garner piano tinkles bizarrely through the second and fourth bars of the first chorus, with its implied alternate jazz tempo. Again, Stubbs methodically and patiently breaks down; in the second chorus he asks, bemused, “Where DID you go?” only to be answered by an unbroken, conversational string line. “No matter what I try to do,” he finally confesses, “I can’t (here comes the crumble) go on without you,” and once again he falls to his spotlit knees, screaming “Where did YOU GO?”

“I Can’t Help Myself” is irresistibly buoyant, its diagonal piano/bass unisons and its confident tambourine/snare-driven strut providing the template for Northern Soul, but its singer remains besotten, unfulfilled, already dangerously obsessed. Stubbs’ “Sugar pie, honey bunch” becomes something approximating a threat, nicely offset by his above-it-all glides of “oooohh!” after every chorus. But “Standing In The Shadows Of Love,” the darkness to “Reach Out”’s light, is an exercise in smouldering paranoia to rival Gaye’s “Grapevine.” Here, Stubbs is more affronted than broken; witness his reproachful “Now, wait a minute!,” his stern reprimand about absence of conscience. He declares his rage more than he sings it. Following the song’s unexpected modulation he ups the ante, and in so doing – “Your cryin’ ain’t gonna help me now!” (i.e. “Tears Are Not Enough”) – provides one of this collection’s many roadmarkers towards New Pop. As with Lexicon, the increasing paranoia of the singer is matched by the increasing intensity of the songs, and the sequencing is indeed ingenious; “Something About You” begins with an incongruous chorus of Duane Eddy snarling saxes before morphing seamlessly and beautifully (because so unexpectedly) into the Northern Soul model, although the lead guitar is noticeably restless. Halfway through, a furious baritone sax rips into the song’s fabric, even getting cheered on by Stubbs, before more vocal call and response work of mounting dramatics.

On “You Keep Running Away,” Stubbs’ pleas deconstruct his manliness as semitones descend behind him – “Just look at me!,” “I used to be proud; I used to be strong” – with a surprising, mournful horn section straight out of Stax. “But I can’t get you into my arms,” he eventually confesses; as ever, the love strictly exists within his own mind. “Shake Me, Wake Me” takes Stubbs’ paranoia into new dimensions: “I hear my neighbours talking,” he proclaims, as the rest of the Tops distantly buzz “She don’t love him” over creeping bass and piano. Suddenly, in the second half of the song’s chorus, the song turns into something like a Tony Bennett ballad before a key change heralds a once again offended Stubbs: “I CAN’T believe I’ve been replaced!” he complains, before violently shifting into Lou Reed waters. “Somebody TELL me that I’m dreaming!” he wails. “Wake me when it’s over” he weeps into the encroaching nothingness.

“Without The One You Love” reaches back into the world of spirituals for its scant comforts (“I’m like a motherless child”), though note “I’m not living baby, I only exist” in light of Obi Benson’s subsequent contributions to Gaye’s What’s Going On? “Life’s not worthWHILE,” sobs Stubbs over a mildly dissonant harmony, while “I Turn To Stone” sees the group virtually abandon human form altogether, despite its uptempo shuffle appearance (its musical structure foretelling the Foundations’ “Build Me Up Buttercup,” not to mention the Electric Light Orchestra’s “Turn To Stone” a decade later). “I would be like a statue in the park,” admits Stubbs over a surprisingly seventies-sounding production.

But the Four Tops clearly presage New Pop, and certainly its key metapop aesthetic, in both “Darling, I Hum Our Song” and “It’s The Same Old Song.” The latter was a deliberate nod to “I Can’t Help Myself” but a very artful and emotionally affecting one, its archaic lyrical language (“Sentimental fool am I”) nicely balancing musical nods to the future; with Stubbs’ “dance to the music” we realise that the Four Tops will eventually turn into Sly and the Family Stone; and more tellingly it abandons “Myself”’s precarious optimism for unfettered, doomed pessimist realism. “Darling,” however, is a more astonishing achievement; taking the form of a Miracles-style smoocher (complete with Platters staccato piano), Stubbs and the Tops consider their loss, but all they can do to articulate the emotions they are feeling is to sing the inarticulable; long, gruff “HUMMMMMMM”s of varying length and intensity while Stubbs addresses the song through the fourth wall (“I’m sobbing through my song,” “That’s the part that I like best!”). Not only does this comfortably outdo similar efforts at the time by the likes of the Stones, but it also sets us up for Kevin Rowland’s in-depth expansion of the notion on “This Is What She’s Like.”

“Reach Out” comes first on the album, as it inevitably had to, but I have left it until last because, almost uniquely of these songs, it articulates a way out, it approaches fulfilment. As with Doonican’s “Scarlet Ribbons,” the song is the key to the rest of the album because it outlines in depth, both emotionally and artistically, what the other fifteen songs have been searching for. The opening flute/piccolo harmonies – quickly approximated by McCartney for “Penny Lane” – are set against whiplash side percussion and Jamerson’s already roving bass and its unfettered modality was as great a shock to Motown as “Good Vibrations” was to Mike Love. Here, encouraged by the rest of the group, alternatively harsh (their untranscribable, backwards roars of approval) and soothing (the androgynous sustenatos of “Reach out”), Stubbs offers a light of guidance. His voice is as comprehensive, all-embracing and unavoidable as that of Chuck D; as with Public Enemy, you have to listen to and acknowledge his power. As soon as the singer turns his mirror away from himself and out onto the world, his magic and capabilities become lucidly apparent; unlike the Dylan of “Like A Rolling Stone” he doesn’t condemn, but welcomes, embraces the uncertainty and insecurity of others. Remember that the song came out at a time when an entire society – and certainly the Four Tops’ own society - needed reassurance. The burning you sense is a righteous light, Stubbs reassures us; he leads us on and then gives the metaphorical game away, after many rhetorical pauses of semi-silence: “Just look over your shoulder!” Not “by your side” but “over your shoulder”; he has already climbed the mountain and is encouraging you to do the same, outdo him. His is the song of the spirit, the church of us. “Reach Out” is as holy as “God Only Knows” but necessarily more encyclopaedically global; like Billy MacKenzie, Stubbs’ voice holds nothing back; it is everywhere, smiling, overcoming its own failings, spreading its own successes. Whether it’s the streets of Detroit or the unshaded nooks of the country club, the Four Tops were there for everyone who was, and is, able to feel their message.