Tuesday 1 June 2010

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Motown Chartbusters Volume 5

(#90: 17 April 1971, 3 weeks)

Track listing: The Tears Of A Clown (Smokey Robinson & The Miracles)/War (Edwin Starr)/The Love You Save (Jackson 5)/Ball Of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today) (The Temptations)/It’s All In The Game (Four Tops)/Heaven Help Us All (Stevie Wonder)/It’s Wonderful (To Be Loved By You) (Jimmy Ruffin)/Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (Diana Ross)/Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours (Stevie Wonder)/Stoned Love (The Supremes)/Abraham, Martin And John (Marvin Gaye)/Still Water (Love) (Four Tops)/Forget Me Not (Martha Reeves & The Vandellas)/It’s A Shame (Detroit Spinners)/I’ll Say Forever My Love (Jimmy Ruffin)

Scanning the histories of these sixteen songs, it is astonishing how many of them Berry Gordy absolutely hated. He couldn’t abide “Stoned Love,” was baffled by “Ball Of Confusion,” released “War” only under sufferance, even detested the extensive spoken word elements of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”…and these are only for starters. One might wonder exactly what Gordy wanted in 1971; his “children” were displaying the vexing habit of growing up, and therefore growing away from him; he wanted absolute entryism, a flawlessly smooth showbiz empire to show the stuck-up whites that he and his could better them at any game. He didn’t want uppity grumbles about politics and emotional ambiguity, but by now it was really too late for him to change any of the new movements; this was the last of the Chartbusters series to reach number one, and subsequent volumes, with their increasing quantity of filler, increasing reliance on Northern Soul-revived obscurities and increasing gaps in time between their release, demonstrated that Motown had slowly slipped from its peak, at least as far as Britain was concerned – even if arguably greater artistic peaks were to come from at least a few of the aforementioned uppity grumblers.

Given that Motown’s presence in the British singles chart still maintained a balance between old and new, it is fitting that Volume 5 should begin with “The Tears Of A Clown,” a remixed 1967 album track sent to number one in Britain – and, in Britain’s wake, the USA – largely through the efforts of Tony Blackburn. Based on a melodic idea by Stevie Wonder (with the aid of Hank Cosby), Smokey was taken by the fairground carousing of the melody and thought about Pagliacci in reverse, and its great contrasts between heady stomps and mocking flute/bassoon unisons reinforce a theme which keeps resurfacing throughout the album, namely, do these singers really mean what they are singing, and are they telling us the truth? Certainly Smokey’s ebullient vocal does a sufficiently convincing job to make us think that in fact he really is happy being free and footloose; his protestations towards sadness do not venture much beyond his self-imposed notion of “camouflage” – as opposed to the heartfelt duping behind “Tears Of A Clown” – and despite the return of that erstwhile Then Play Long thematic mainstay, The Lonely Room, he sounds as though he’s straining to make her believe that really he’s sad.

There is, however, no ambiguity, emotional or otherwise, about “War.” Originally conceived by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong as a Temptations album track, the original performance stirred enough radio interest to warrant demands for 45 release. However, both Gordy and the Temptations themselves were worried about the impact on the Copacabana demographic of their audience, and after much protestation Gordy offered a compromise to Whitfield; yes, it can go out as a single, but you need to re-record it with another artist. And so the storefront preacher Edwin Starr unleashed a veritable vocal hell on the song; the Temptations’ original is lithe, relatively minimalist in its arrangement, and although Paul Williams and Dennis Edwards do the song good service, they don’t get anywhere near the brimstone barks of Starr, and his presence also served to raise Whitfield’s game. Starr’s “War” is a tumescent thunderbolt of a pop record, thrashing out at the listener, its rhythms always in the forefront but never that obvious, multiple percussions as dislocating as any of Sanders’ or Shepp’s work of the period, wailing guitars, tight-arsed bass, and a parade ground sandpit of a rhythmic backdrop over which Starr roars for peace, love and understanding, although his snarling of words like “die” and “undertaker” suggest – as Frankie Goes To Hollywood would pick up later in their version – a strange joy at the approaching apocalypse.

Meanwhile the bubblegum soul of the Jackson 5 was looking ever curiouser. In “The Love You Save,” although the dynamic cut and thrust of their first two hits remains snappingly in place, and despite Jermaine’s would-be reassuring “adult” vocal, we really are faced with a strange song for a twelve-year-old boy to be singing; indeed, despite the opening references to schooldays, it transpires that Michael has graduated, but his Other is playing around, and he’s warning her about transgressing the line in love’s sand. Michael and Jermaine hurl grenades of would-be ominosity (“They’ll label you a FLIRT!,” “They’ll turn your name to DIRT, OHHHH!!”) in the pre-empting manner of the O’Jays’ “Backstabbers,” even though her other would-be lovers – there are references to Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Graham Bell and Christopher Columbus in the second verse - seem only to exist in Michael’s mind. The multiple “STOP!”s, and indeed the underlying rhythm footsteps, are direct descendents of “Stop! In The Name Of Love,” but here there is something that might, if untreated, become terrifying.

For truly terrifying, however, this six-year-old writer found it hard to top “Ball Of Confusion” worming its way out of the transistor radio in late 1970. Possessing the same snake-coil reflexes as “War,” although far more subtly expressed (hell, Whitfield thinks, we’re gonna put out a hardcore political record whether you like it or not; suck on THAT, Gordy!), “Ball” is as confused as its wan sense of determination. Nothing is allowed to settle, not the drums (which fade in and out of the picture, crashing through the choruses’ climaxes, patting and tutting in and out of Wah-Wah Watson’s pure tones and Bob Babbitt’s implacable bassline) and certainly not the vocals (a round robin for Edwards, Williams, Eddie Kendricks and Melvin Franklin) which slam from channel to channel. Perhaps inspired more by Dylan than the Last Poets – the grainy harmonica, the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” sense of a random shopping list of woes – the song nevertheless points the way towards hip hop with its internal rhymes, its unstoppable momentum; burning cities and Mod clothes, youth suicides and the Beatles’ new record, they are all thrown in as signifiers of no one knows what, an accumulation of indeterminate particles which might recreate or destroy us – and all the way through, the frightening, impassive tick-tock bass voice of Melvin Franklin responds to all these darts of signal, like the Man, or even a machine, with a mechanical “And the band played on.” On this record, the Temptations sound as though they are setting the clock and the fuses to countdown towards final demolition.

Respite had to follow, and so did the Four Tops, with an easy, shuffling treatment of a song they must have tackled innumerable times in their early doowop/supper club days; perhaps everyone’s future is looking dim, but don’t worry, the four singers – and this is a rare occurrence of all four Tops taking turns at lead vocal – reassure us that this is all a pattern, that it will make some sort of sense; just be patient.

But then Stevie, approaching twenty-one and no longer “Little,” enters with another prayer for life that in its quiet, despairing way is maybe scarier than “Ball Of Confusion”; in “Heaven Help Us All,” he sees the world falling into hell, and what can he do to stop it but to keep praying? The gospel choir falls into fulsome place as Wonder, with serene fatality, numbers the horrible shapes which the seventies are taking; “I pray the Lord to keep,” he sings, nearly finally, possibly only to himself, “Keep hatred from the mighty, and the mighty from the small.” This was not what the architect of the Sound of Young America cared to hear, but Wonder had come of age, was determined to seize full power. Jimmy Ruffin offers comparative simplicity with “It’s Wonderful,” with its indeed wonderful reflections on angels and pride, walking and talking, the end of his brokenhearted lonely life, but you can still hear that pained yearning through the descending minor key bridge – straight out of the 1966-7 Four Tops – before Ruffin manfully grasps for the branch above the swirling river (the lovely piercing string figure which answers his “suddenly”) and learns to live again.

Side one closes with the only appearance on this album by Diana Ross. Although she had previously recorded “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” with the Supremes and the Temptations – see entry #52 – writers Ashford and Simpson were keen to rework the song for her, and emotionally it is one of the most overwhelming experiences on the record, even in its 45 edit. To appreciate the full effect of what can only be called a heartfelt tribute to souls lost, it is necessary to hear all six minutes and four seconds of the full album track; Ross hardly begins to sing until the song is almost over – instead she is thinking aloud, conversing with spirits, rounding up and intensifying her emotions, because she is trying to reach somebody, and I don’t necessarily think it’s just (or at all) her former Supremes comrades; remember the gleeful but tough optimism of the Marvin and Tammi original, then think of it recast in a world where all of a sudden there was no longer a Tammi – hers is the ghost which stalks this record – and Marvin was, albeit temporarily, completely lost. Ross is arguing, virtually crying, for wrecked souls to live, be reborn, not to give up, and everything builds up towards that shattering climax – we are waiting for that cathartic “OWWW!!” all the way through – as castles of pink sand build up, and an angels’ chorus bids the widowed spirit to continue with life. It isn’t something that can be approached without understanding what 1967 meant, and still means, to so many people.

Side two begins with Wonder’s resolute howl of optimism: “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” – it was a catchphrase of his mother’s, who duly got a co-writing credit on the song – with its sitar-like rainstorms of guitar and its hard-won funkiness, sets the path clear for the remarkable adventures that the musician would undertake throughout the rest of this decade; it is Stevie, more so than the Jacksons, who offers the most embraceable and realistic future for Motown in this collection.

“Stoned Love” was supposed to be entitled “Stone Love” but the misprint was left in (much to the chagrin of Gordy, who complained about drug subtexts) and it’s one of the post-Ross Supremes’ greatest triumphs; co-written and produced by that great unsung Motown backroom hero, Frank Wilson, its deliberate echoes of “Where Did Our Love Go?” (those footsteps), saunter up to a staggering hit of soul-pop revolution; with words like “Rise up and take your stand,” one can even imagine an unlikely forebear of Muse’s “Uprising,” although the frenetic joy of the record has to be tempered by the fact that the woman who’s singing about life being too short is Jean Terrell – Tammi’s sister.

And then the delayed entry of Marvin himself – hear his definitive version of McCartney’s “Yesterday” from the same album, That’s The Way Love Is – on a version of Dion’s 1968 hit which didn’t even gain a full release in Gaye’s home country. When he recorded his reading, Tammi hadn’t quite gone yet, but Gaye knew she hadn’t long to live, and every drop of pregnant grief he lets slip throughout his “Abraham, Martin And John,” is nearly unbearable. David van der Pitte’s arrangement is empathetic – the final eerie cascade downwards after Gaye’s trembling “die” in his final “the good, they die young,” the subtle paraphrase of “Battle Hymn Of The Republic” in the instrumental break – but Gaye seems to be singing in lamentation of himself as well as the sixties and hope; this of course helped propel him towards “What’s Going On?,” the song and, eventually, the historic album, an album which is more about a dazed semi-survivor trying to recognise his position in the world as that world seems to collapse in on his centre – how many times does he invoke his brother? – a record which perhaps represented Motown’s highest peak, despite Gordy’s continued grumbles.

In fact, in light of Gaye singing in hurt and grief for lost masters, the transition from “Abraham” to “Still Water” is heartstopping – the opening, booming “WALK WITH ME” is almost akin to the spirit of King responding (for a comparable heart-skipping experience, hear the moment on Norman Jay’s Giant 45 compilation when Tom Clay’s pioneering sound collage of “Abraham” and “What The World Needs Now Is Love” goes, after the final “I think it’s when somebody is sick,” straight into Aretha’s “I Say A Little Prayer”). Co-written by Smokey and Frank Wilson, “Still Water” came out ahead of the Beach Boys’ “Surf’s Up” but one can’t help but wonder whether there was some influence at work here; in the floating harmonies, the flashes of French horn and flute, the general air of a meditation about love rather than a discrete song; unlike, say, Jimmy Ruffin, Levi Stubbs doesn’t overplay the happiness/contentment card; he knows that what he’s got is deep and lasting, doesn’t need to brag or boast (“Click my glass or say a toast” – we really are getting very close to “Surf’s Up” territory here); nothing needs to be underlined, we just KNOW, and it’s peacefully profound, as well as being one of the most avant-garde singles Motown ever released (see the balancing B-side “Still Water (Peace),” or, better still, the full Still Waters Run Deep album).

“Forget Me Not” was a long-forgotten 1968 US B-side, long-forgotten that is except in the clubs of Northern England, and it’s a bizarre track; bookended by a Scottish pibroch riff – I kid you not – we are presented with a mirror image of Jimmy Ruffin, departing on his train in full kit, in “Farewell Is A Lonely Sound”; here Martha Reeves is the girl watching her beloved sail away to the war, and despite the tune’s general brightness, there is something of a dread in her voice, as though she knows she may never see him again except to bury him – “Remember Old Joe’s, our favourite song, our table for two?” Still, her inherent optimism wins out (“Back to each other’s arms our love’s gonna guide us”) and the song works as, effectively, the prequel to “Home Lovin’ Man” – those wives and lovers who never gave up hope, eagerly grasping the rope.

The Spinners – the original UK 45 of “It’s A Shame” credited “The Motown Spinners” and they subsequently became known here as “The Detroit Spinners” to avoid confusion with the popular Liverpool folk group of the same name – were on Motown virtually from the beginning before they finally scored a hit, and it is indeed a real shame that they didn’t do better; GC Cameron’s lead vocal is little short of miraculous, although the probing spirit of co-writer Stevie Wonder continues to shine and develop; the references to “the love we tried to make” may be a sideways nod at Freda Payne’s contemporaneous smash “Band Of Gold,” written and produced by a pseudonymous (for legal reasons) Holland-Dozier-Holland, but Cameron’s singing is the main event; he begins cool and gathered, but gradually begins to lose control – you marvel at how seldom in pop songs that the man gets to complain about the way he’s being treated – until he finally sounds like a woman, howling, inchoate, barking exasperated grunts, betrayal beyond articulation. When the Spinners moved on to Atlantic and Philadelphia, however, Cameron preferred to stay in Detroit and recommended as a replacement his cousin, PhilippĂ© Wynne.

Then the Jackson 5 return for their biggest hit – and, barring “Grapevine” and “Endless Love,” Motown’s biggest worldwide selling single. “I’ll Be There” did the desired job of showing their audience that they were capable of more than bubblegum – as if these first three disturbed singles could be so simply dismissed – but the 1967 harpsichord and Michael’s fluffed (but retained) Levi Stubbs/”Reach Out I’ll Be There” tribute (“Just look over your shoulders!”) set the song as another farewell to the sixties. Nor is the song actually that reassuring; note the veiled threat in its final verse – “If you should ever find someone new, I know he’d better be good to you/’Cause if he doesn’t…I’LL BE THERE.” They have parted but he is clearly keen to re-establish, or never break, the relationship; in essence Michael may already be crying to save himself.

Finally, and taking our leave of Motown for far too long a time, Ruffin, the unlikely British-only Motown hero, sings again of renewed love and devotion; the teenage Kevin Rowland certainly took note of “I’ll Say Forever” since fourteen years later he would use the song as the centrepiece of his “Reminisce Part 2” on Don’t Stand Me Down. But he’s uncertain; she’s been talking to her friends (about whom Ruffin sings as though they were the deadliest of cancers – “YOUR FRIENDS!”) and he serially rebuffs all the tropes which the rest of the album has been building up – “I don’t care!,” “I wasn’t there!” – as well as providing the record’s most curious and singular image: “The look of love is planted in my eye” (Martin Fry was approaching thirteen). The vertiginous descending strings in the first half of each bridge suggests a wish to jump off the bridge, but Ruffin doesn’t give up – “Forever is a long time!” he badgers his Other. “Oh PLEASE don’t ask YOUR FRIENDS!” You finally wonder, as with Smokey at the beginning, exactly what he is hiding. Nothing about these songs is to be taken for granted, and that irresolute confusion would finally prove too strong for this tale; Volume 6 includes the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination,” on its surface a return to the smoochy close harmony ballads of old, before we realise that the girl Kendricks is mad about doesn’t even know he exists, even as he watches her pass by his window. It would take some while before Motown got around to finding its own way home.