Tuesday 20 April 2010

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Motown Chartbusters Volume 4

Motown Chartbusters Vol 4: Amazon.co.uk: Music


(#84: 31 October 1970, 1 week) 

Track listing: I Want You Back (Jackson 5)/The Onion Song (Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell)/I Can’t Help Myself (Four Tops)/Up The Ladder To The Roof (The Supremes)/I Can’t Get Next To You (The Temptations)/Too Busy Thinking About My Baby (Marvin Gaye)/Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday (Stevie Wonder)/Someday We’ll Be Together (Diana Ross & The Supremes)/A B C (Jackson 5)/Never Had A Dream Come True (Stevie Wonder)/Farewell Is A Lonely Sound (Jimmy Ruffin)/Do What You Gotta Do (Four Tops)/I Second That Emotion (Diana Ross & The Supremes & The Temptations)/Cloud Nine (The Temptations)/What Does It Take (To Win Your Love) (Jr Walker & The All Stars)/Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand) (Diana Ross) 

That downward zipping piano, perversely reminiscent of the blinds swiftly being pulled up to reveal the shiniest, yellowest sunshine you ever saw. Every beat and breath in its intended place and yet it sounded as spontaneous as pop had ever sounded. The angles between the differing percussion instruments and the different voices, but always ensuring that voice at the front, so unmissable, between the sitar guitars and the snap of stringy funk, the seven-note bass comedown of the most elegant flight of stairs royalty could ever wish to ascend. After the darkest of winters – “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town,” “Suspicious Minds,” the first Stevie Wonder tune mentioned above – it did seem like the brightest and most auspicious of openings to a new age, an altered time. Such unruffled youth! Such precocious James Brown brightness, the most audacious damn-you kid since “Fingertips Part 2.” And yet he’s already singing about something, or someone, he’s lost. “When I had you to myself,” sings the eleven-year-old Michael Jackson, “I didn’t want you around.” What a strange beginning to such a bright pop song; he is already paranoid (“These pretty faces always made you stand out in a crowd”) about losing his future, and when it is abruptly snatched from him he boldly, though probably hopelessly, fights to retrieve it. But still, those first two lines; are we looking at Phil and Ronnie Spector at so early an age? The song, though not Michael, pleads “Let me live again,” and another 1969 song shared that sentiment; “Love Is All I Have To Give,” co-written and produced by Spector for The Checkmates Ltd, a purposely otiose arch of Brooklyn Gotterdammerung, marching forward in slow, solemn groom like Queen Victoria’s coach and horses in 1901; Bobby Stevens and Sonny Charles aim to out-holler each other in their respective pain and yet the track lacks a centre – it is all heavy flotilla, rose petals cast adrift, very My Bloody Valentine. A curious violin coda rides over Stevens’ fading craving; if Spector wanted the sixties to end, he constructed its heaviest possible cortege.

But The Corporation – the team of Motown songwriting regulars who spent six months, or was it two years, getting “I Want You Back” absolutely, supremely perfect before even recording it – wanted to begin the seventies more than they wanted the sixties to finish, and so lightness was the key. Thus the zip-open Coke can aura of pumping, sunny reassurance, thus the devil-doesn’t-care table-tennis interplay between the brothers and James Jamerson’s bass. But Michael rides the sharpest needle of hurt (“All I NEEEEED!!,” “BAYBEH!” “I WANT YOU BAAAACK!” “GOOOO-OHOHOH-OH-OWH!!”), he takes the hardest punches, he makes damn sure he’s the Jackson you’re going to remember, above and beyond all the others. “Every street you walk on/I leave tear stains on the ground,” the child mourns. Jackie and Jermaine provide a peremptory Greek chorus: “Spare me of this cause/Gimme back what I lost.” Can it – or he – ever be found again?

He makes a darn good attempt at doing so; “ABC,” which begins side two as surely and irreversibly as “I Want You Back” started off side one. Now he’s more confident, easier on the ascent, and the song – so deviously delicious a Sheffield group of future consequence would name themselves after it – finds him attacking the Young JB crown (although really he sounds more like a trainee Levi Stubbs – speak about an old man trapped in a young kid’s body!) with nearly frightening assurance. The song plays like a Temptations for juniors, as demonstrated by the percussion break, nearly identical to “I Can’t Get Next To You,” but for now Michael has no worries, tosses the vowels and consonants around with his brothers like orange Frisbees. But then: “T-T-Teacher’s gonna show you! How to get an A!” Wait a minute – isn’t he still only eleven? What has he learned that he can already teach? Should we already be concerned?

The Jackson 5 were Motown’s future, and Motown, as it embarked upon the seventies, would do everything to ensure the reality of this. They needed a big Future; about to leave Detroit for LA, not really sure where they were heading, they had to have new, fresher mascots. Tony Blackburn’s jolly sleevenote makes deliberate light of all this (“T.T.T. – Tremendous Tamla Talent”); as he says, Motown were celebrating their tenth anniversary, but the fourth volume of their Chartbusters series sometimes makes one wonder what they had left to celebrate.

Everywhere on the record there are dreams, losses, disillusions, some cursory and not-so-cursory attempts to fight back, to resurrect. Even “I Can’t Help Myself” makes a return appearance, having taken five years to make the UK top ten, and the also previously noted take on “I Second That Emotion” already looks like forlorn nostalgia. Most of Volume 4 is concerned with 1970 nowness and the colours and shapes which tomorrow might form if Gordy weren’t so careful.

Whatever brightness there is on the record, getting past the Jacksons, seems almost ironical and sometimes savage. Consider Marvin’s two tracks; has he ever sounded so happy, so carefree, as on “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby”? His field holler of “YEEEAAAH!,” as assuredly skyborne as the lightest of larks, gives way to an Oriental violin arrangement which anticipates Chic, and then he breaks free in the third verse, ooohing and slurring, improvising, playing with his joy (even if that “Grapevine” voodoo hint remains present). Similarly, “The Onion Song” admits that the world is in a bit of a state but he and “Tammi” sound brightly determined to fix things (“Hey world! We got a great big job to do!” sings Gaye, the scoutmaster. “KNOCK! ON! EVERY! DOOR!” he exclaims like the reddest of doorstepping canvassers).

But the references to “the face people like to wear” cast a shadow over the song, and the inverted commas around that “Tammi” are because “Tammi Terrell” on this record was actually the song’s co-writer Valerie Simpson, Tammi by this time being too ill to go into the studio; by the time this album came out, she was gone and Marvin was in pieces before starting to reassemble the pieces in a provocative (to Berry Gordy) way.

Then there were the new Temptations, as new as Whitfield was set on making them. When “Cloud Nine” hit the American airwaves and stores in the late summer of 1969, there was no response – nothing happened for a fortnight. And then, suddenly and belatedly, the track exploded. THIS was the Temptations? That sinister, hissing, rattlesnake percussion, the chattering teeth riposte between ride cymbal and Wah-Wah Watson’s Hendrix-flooded guitar? “Love Child” told from the defeated male perspective, Dennis Edwards detailing exactly where he’s gone and how and why he’s done it, Eddie Kendricks hurtling in with startling exclamation mark ad libs (“Every MAN, every MAN is free!” he screams, as though never more shackled). Then the almost sneered line, reappearing a generation later on Primal Scream’s “Don’t Fight It, Feel It” (and “Cloud Nine” already recognised the threat of that proposition): “I’m gonna love the life I live/And I’m gonna live the life I love” – even if it destroys him. Frightening, weightless and anything but reassuring, “Cloud Nine” was a bomb hurled into the backyard of Motown’s own complacency; it couldn’t have happened without Sly Stone or Hendrix, but it took the Ed Sullivan-friendly Temptations to shock the wider audience into paying attention. Much of that ferocity carried over into “I Can’t Get Next To You,” a US number one; its intro of shouts, applause and blues piano glances back at black pop’s own history before virulently swiping into the now.

Everything here is staccato, heartbeat-tense, deep, flailing; Whitfield gets the group to take the blues/”Voodoo Chile” mythology – they are gods, they can overrule nature – to pierce the bleeding core of their central pain; they can’t be loved, or even accepted. The song stops and starts like a violently drunk tramcar but never loses sight of its central, ultra-harsh thrust. The “XYZ” to “ABC” if society wasn’t so careful.

Even the album’s more ostensibly harmless tracks carry something of the political about them. Jimmy Ruffin’s “Farewell Is A Lonely Sound” is at first sight simply another in the singer’s long line of forlorn ballads, but its details are so meticulously plotted – you can smell the train station, you can see the carriage he’s getting into, catch him turning his face away from her so she can’t see him cry – that you sense there’s something more complex going on. Indeed, the song’s central lament, “You wonder why you must leave the one that you love,” makes you wonder – well, why IS he going? “I’ll be back,” he proclaims, not entirely convincingly, and in the America of 1969 there can be only one reason why he’s leaving; he’s being drafted, sent to fight.

It’s the same story with Junior Walker’s “What Does It Take”; when he’s not letting his alto do the talking, his voice slips and slides desperately through the song’s conduits; four “I tried”s, the last being a sob, the hugely disappointed “I thought you understood,” and that implies an entire history of wilful misunderstanding.

Then there are the Four Tops, singing the only song on this record not to come from within Motown. Nina Simone had already had a number two hit in Britain with her reading of “Do What You Gotta Do” – it was a double A-side with “I Ain’t Got…I Got Life” – and through both her and Roberta Flack’s readings it’s clear that Jimmy Webb’s song is being performed as a regretful mother letting her stepchild go. The Four Tops take on the unenviable task of masculinising the song and Stubbs in particular can scarcely restrain his pain; his shouts of “Make it in a HURRY!” and “Make you feel NO GOOD!” are maybe the most shocking sonics on the record. He finds it so hard to go on that Lawrence Payton takes on the first half of the last verse before Stubbs returns, damaged but still, if only just, keeping his countenance at the spectre of “that dappled dream of yours” – and he makes “dappled” sound like “devil.” He knows he’s losing her – that line “I’ve loved you better than your own kin did” is one of the record’s most profound – but he is presenting a terrifying ghost to her, his “come on back and see me when you can”s already poisoned by the impossibility of “when you can” ever being imagined, let alone happening.

But perhaps the album’s two key songs are the pair from Stevie Wonder. Usually overlooked in his history – caught midway between boy Wonder and gaining his ultimate 21st birthday freedom – both songs are necessarily transitional ones (and Wonder only has a co-writer credit on one of them, “Never Had A Dream Come True”). But “Yester-You,” one of the last number two singles in sixties Britain, is a dark song indeed, double-bluffing its exuberant major key shuffle. “I had a dream,” he sings sadly, before turning to face the fourth wall, “So did you.” His voice is a troubled rivulet of tears – “Ruuuuuules,” bleeding into “Yester-foooools” – and sometimes raging (“WHAT WE HAD!”), at other times flowing into the River Styx in so much deathly pain (his one-breath hurting roll of “thememoryof”).

Perhaps the record’s most grievous moment comes when he grimly intones about the time “when we could feel the wheel of life turn our way.” But “Never Had A Dream Come True” sees him staging a fightback. “True love is no sin,” he sings with vague, shaking confidence. “Therefore, men are men, not machines.” His life is routine shit and he knows it just as deeply as that other Detroit working-class hero Bob Seger – the lines “I work just to please the boss/Think I might as well get lost in my dreams” could have sprung straight out of one of Bob’s anthems – but he knows he’s right to hold onto these dreams, as per his striking inversion of slavery in the line “But I’m glad I’m chained to my dreams.” As the song strolls out into the future, he warns us, “Keep on dreamin’, sing along with me…keep on dreamin’.”

Finally, and most visibly, there is Diana Ross, already without the Supremes – “Someday We’ll Be Together” was originally planned to be her debut solo single and thus neither Wilson nor Birdsong appear on it, but the decade/era-closing farewell pressed the right poignancy buttons. Indeed, for about the only time on a Supremes record that didn’t involve teaming up with the Temptations, a prominent male voice is heard, that of the song’s co-writer Johnny Bristol, singing along, encouraging Diana from his control booth, except that the mikes had been left on, and when Gordy heard the result he opted to keep Bristol’s exhortations in the final mix. One would scarcely know, in fact, that this wasn’t a Supremes performance, so complete and natural is the interplay (even though the other two voices are markedly further away from Diana than before) – five “I KNOW”s answered by three “YOU”s, then two more strident “I KNOW”s and finally four “never”s responded to and resolved by a final, longer, more resonant “never.”

And, to close the record – once again, the sequencing must have been absolutely and politically deliberate – Diana, this time completely on her own, goes back to gospel and sums up the record’s disparate themes; there are the quiet verse/loud chorus alternations, her pained, exasperated “WHY DON’T YOU?” before the chorus sinks back down to restraint. But then knitting needle snares boil the song up to a euphoric, if desperate, climax; now Diana is demanding that we all reach out and touch each other, in the knowledge that we’ll still all be there. “Make this world a better place,” she sings, “…if you can,” thus making the theme of “Do What You Gotta Do” universal. That thing called “home” might not be there anymore, or if it is it looks different to the point of unrecognisability, but even if it isn’t we have to push on, build a better and less destructible one. And all the time, there’s young Michael, watching and intently listening and absorbing. “Bye bye,” Blackburn signs off. “Mind how you go” – and I think of Danny Baker’s 1981 NME interview with Michael, which Baker ends by telling him, good-naturedly, to “mind how you go,” only to be answered by an unexpectedly eager Michael. “Thank you,” he says. “I will mind how I go.” Shiny, yellow sunshine – do we have, will he have, the strength to welcome it?