Saturday, April 29, 2017

motown 70s: I want you back




purchase Jackson 5 [I Want You Back]

A last minute post for the Motown 70s theme. Actually several days in gestation - paragraphs written and deleted (talk about Berry Gordy? Yes. No.)

And so, before the theme expires, at least to share some of the music that cropped up.

I loved the evolution of the Jackson five as seen in this collection of clips. First off,-  above -  we've got Jermaine as the definite front man of the group) Jermaine's name is all over the backdrop. The full clip has the MC talking to Jermaine about "his" group.

Fast forward a few years - same band/different front man (no surprise!)

 

And then a couple of covers to round it out. Starting with Cheryl Crowe at the White House
 
Janelle Monae at the Nobel Peace Prize 2011

 

And in case you need one more (but do not miss this one!) The Piano Guys.




Friday, April 28, 2017

70s MOTOWN: Machine Gun


Just a couple more days in this unravelling relay of revolt, and should I be looking for some Stax in the 60s or some Atlantic in the 80s? And why be restrained by genre; a country ballad or a folky dirge might be just what this thread is searching for?
Nah, can't do it.
Time to play nicely and, in order so to do, I have to take myself back to 1975 and the School House 6th Form Disco. 6th form in the UK is the last grade at school, ahead of university. I was newly 18 and this was a supervised, inevitably, dance for the seniors of my all boys house and the girls of the all-girls house. I had managed to wangle the role of DJ for the evening, the physics teacher astonishingly having the kit, a twin deck and microphone, to fade in between discs of the day. And we are talking discs of black plastic. However I had to share this role with a classmate, the exotically named George Panda. My selections were all current and recent chart hits, with the odd left field choice thrown in for luck. (Kevin Ayers?) All lapped up in the frenzied novelty of the evening. George tempered this, as his african heritage expected of him, with oodles of soul and reggae. And of course we fought to inflict our tastes on our victims, sorry, audience, each ahead of the other, belittling shamelessly each others choices, champing at the bit for our turn. His selection, clearly and obviously was rubbish, it being only with considerable hindsight that I have come to realise he actually had some corkers on show. And this was one of them:


Machine Gun, the single, title and best known track from the Commodore's debut of only a year earlier, 1974. On Motown records. I remember George had the eponymous album, and had insisted on playing it during the set-up period before the shindig. It was a revelation. I was not used to all that funky music (white boy) and it captured both my interest and my feet, however hopelessly arrhythmically they failed to meet the beat. At that stage of the career the Commodores were a very different beast to their later incarnation. Not a sappy ballad in sight, Lionel Richie was mainly occupied with a saxophone rather than at the microphone: horn not foghorn, although, to be fair, he does sing a bit. Fabulous LP and recommended still, although the lyrics are often, shall we say, of their day. Next album and it was all downhill, Easy on the bank balance, his and theirs anyway, less so on my jaundiced ears.

Get it here.

And, George, if you are reading, thanks!

70s Motown: Tears of a Clown

The English Beat: Tears of a Clown

[purchase]

This is the first song I thought of when I saw our new theme, but then I saw that “70s” sitting there. I considered sneaking it in anyway. I could have told you that the original and classic Tears of a Clown wasn’t released in England until 1970. That’s true, but pretty feeble since I am American. But when even your moderator has broken decade, it’s time to acknowledge that our theme has, unofficially at least, become just Motown. So I had a couple of ideas for more 70s material, but this is better. If others put up at least two or more posts before then, I may do a 70s mop-up post on Saturday, but right now, I’m going to get this out of my system.

The English Beat were part of the Two Tone explosion of British ska in the late 70s. This song established a tradition of new ska bands establishing their credentials with a cover of a classic soul or R&B tune. At the time, The English Beat were otherwise doing original material, and other Two Tone bands were doing a mix of originals and covers of 60s ska from Jamaica. But the term ska reflects the fact that the Jamaicans who pioneered the style saw the music as a mix of soul and calypso. That mix done differently would also later give the Soca style its name. Many of the Jamaican pioneers of ska did covers of the R&B hits of the day, with varying results. At any rate, I could probably find a ska version of any Motown hit by this time with a bit of work, but this was one of the first of the new wave of ska, and still one of the best. This song and the original Mirror in the Bathroom immediately put the English Beat at the top of the Two Tone ska world. And no wonder. Tears of a Clown is what a cover should be. If you know their style, this song is instantly recognizable as the English Beat. They truly made the song their own.

There may be some doubters out there, who don’t believe you could find a ska version of any Motown hit. For them, I offer this to close. It may not be the best ska, but I think goes a ways to prove my point:

Thursday, April 27, 2017

70S MOTOWN: CAN'T HURRY LOVE



purchase [Phil Collins]
purchase [The Supremes]

Like more than one of my fellow bloggers, I am going to stretch the bounds of the theme - with an original from the 60s and its cover from the 80s - in essence, spanning the 70s.

While the end of the 60s brought us some major transformative musical trends -  consider the move away from the accepted AM radio 3-minute format, various musical styles that tore apart the standard I-IV-V chord structure that rock and blues were built on, musical instruments that expanded the choice of sounds that could be produced and recording studio improvements that changed the sound envelope that was possible before 1970 -  Motown headed into the 70s doing more or less  what they did in the 60s. Whether this can be called decline or just stasis in the face of all the changes happening around them is a point for debate. 


Apparently, Motown was aware that they couldn't go on peddling "Little" Stevie Wonder much longer - in 1970, he was 20 years old. I recently read an obit for Slyvia Moy, who is credited with "taking on" the project of (successfully) revamping Wonder's output. 


I refer to Stevie Wonder partly because he was the subject of my last post, so I was still stuck back there, but also because his situation was somewhat indicative of the Motown predicament at the time.


Can't Hurry love - originally by the Supremes (renamed Diana Ross and the Supremes the year after releasing the song - and then back to just The Supremes a few years later) - made it to the top of the charts in 1966. It hit the top of the charts again in 82/83 when Phil Collins re-made it.



Collins explains that one of his goals in the 80s version was to try to recreate a similar sound with studio equipment that had gone through 15 years of updates - he terms it a "remake".


One more cover, from the Dixie Chicks:


Monday, April 24, 2017

70s MOTOWN: (I HEARD IT THROUGH) THE GRAPEVINE

OK, I admit it. I last posted a track in this series that was released on Epic records, and now, in further blatant disregard, here I am posting a song from 60s Motown. My excuse? Hell, it was a long time ago and no-one will really remember, except those annoying pedants who always delight in the elementary nature of my errors. So, screw you, cos this is the ultimate Motown, and my bete noir of the label, keeping my teenage tastes in music off the number 1 slot for nearly as long as the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Lord, Mr Marvin Gaye, did I hate you when I was, um, 10, many years of (sexual?) healing having to occur before I could take you to my, um, bosom. But, time, as ever, is the wiser, and 1967's I Heard it through the Grapevine is really an absolute corker, one of a playlist I will always include one or other version of within.

So Gaye's version is pretty unbeatable? (You've heard it, right?) Hmm, maybe so. But there are a whole lot more inventions around that theme. So here's a trio that each dismantle, each reconfigure and each extrapolate way beyond the vision of Norman Whitfield, the producer. But did you know that it wasn't even the first choice Motown recording, with both Smokey Robinson's Miracles and Gladys Knight and the Pips having first dibs on the song?

Creedence Clearwater Revival always had a thing about soul, or was it that soul always had a thing about CCR. Fairly hot on the heels of "their" Proud Mary, covered so memorably by Ike and Tina Turner, 1970 saw their mammoth take on Grapevine.


In truth it adds little, beyond Fogerty's extraordinary diction, "hoyaid" it thru' the grapevine etc. A more extensive demolition/remolition had to wait until 1979 for the Slits. It is true that the vocals need a little tolerance on behalf of the listener to accept their dystonality, but, that apart, the arrangement is stunning, a spiky and skanky guitar, some frantic drums and a dub baseline, itself courtesy producer, UK reggae giant Dennis Bovell. I loved it so much I made the mistake of buying the album.


A completely different approach was taken by the UK folk club darlings of the mid 80s, Clive Gregson and Christine Collister, whose ballsy live take, on single acoustic guitar and voice was beefier than many a full blown orchestrated and/or electric version. A high point of their then shows, Gregson's masterclass guitar could double or triple the length of the song, spinning subtle excerpts of other songs mid picking. I still find this version astonishing. (There is talk of his reprising much of this much missed duo's work, with singer Liz Simcock, during this summer. Meanwhile Collister is back on the boards with Richard Thompson, for a special at this years Cropredy festival.)


So, dare you really say this wa s song unworthy of inclusion, if only for reason of accuracy? Shame on you.

Gaye, CCR, Slits or Gregson & Collister? Take your pick!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

70s Motown: Smiling Faces Sometimes

Rare Earth: Smiling Faces Sometimes

[purchase]

70s Motown strikes me as a curious choice for our theme, although there are great riches to share. We have heard some of that already, and there is much more to come. But the 1970s were a period of decline for Motown. Starting in the 1950’s, and lasting all through the 1960s, Motown was a music industry leader. The label perfected a distinctive sound, and other labels scrambled to catch up. By the end of the 70s, however, Motown had become a follower. They caught on first to funk and later to disco after their rivals had begun to move into the same space. Motown’s 70’s efforts to innovate largely failed to catch on with the masses. Oh, sure, there were still individual artists making vital new music on Motown, but the label overall would never again be the trend setter it had been in its heyday.

The song I am featuring here, Smiling Faces Sometimes, shows how Motown tried to stay relevant in the 70s. The song was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong in 1971. The two were Motown in-house writers, and it was standard practice at the label to record versions of the same song with different artists. So Smiling Faces Sometimes was first given to the Temptations, and then, later in 1971, was a hit for The Undisputed Truth. Both versions were produced by Whitfield. By 1973, Motown was trying to adapt to a changing musical marketplace, so they launched a rock label. Their first signing to this new imprint was a band whom they asked for a suggestion of what to call the new label. As a joke, the band suggested that Motown name it after them, and they were quite surprised when Berry Gordy said yes. Both the band and the new imprint were Rare Earth. For Rare Earth’s 1973 take on Smiling Faces Sometimes, Norman Whitfield once again produced. This version was never a hit, but I like the sparseness of the production compared to the earlier versions. What you hear is just the instruments played by the band itself, without the lush arrangements of the older takes. But whoever heard this version at the time did not see it that way. Motown did not become a power in rock music, and the Rare Earth imprint was eventually shut down.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

70s Motown: Doctor My Eyes



Jackson Brown’s “Doctor My Eyes” is a staple: it’s his sound, one of his biggest hits, part of every live set he’s released. It’s a strange song, in a way: it’s about a world-weary, tired out soul, but the music is so upbeat—with that coursing piano line and the overdrive-tinged guitar—one can easily miss the point. Though, it’s more about accepting a certain numbness from seeing too much, the song evokes almost the exact opposite sensation.

Now, put little MJ—Michael Jackson—in front of the Jackson Five, and you’ve got an even stranger dichotomy: nothing the Jackson’s did in the ‘70s could ever sound downbeat. And their cover of Jackson Brown’s classic is one of my favorite cuts from their catalog.  Off their 1972 Looking Through the Windows, their take on the song is classic Motown to me.

Starting off with a chirping bird choir of doowoops, their take on the song churns through a great Motown styled strings and bashing drums soundtrack, while MJ trades off vocal duties with Jermaine, but providing his inimitable vocal harmony as a backing track
. This is Motown in the best way that Motown sound was its own unique entity, so self-evident of its perfection, vibrant and church choir worthy. I’ve always thought of that sound as something akin to the spiritual, rendered so perfectly and a part of nothing other than its own mythos and origins. A good cover, done on the Motown label, seems to do what a good cover should: reinvent and create anew from what we thought we knew.




Friday, April 21, 2017

70s MOTOWN: Harvest for the World

This could be a harder assignment than it might initially appear, so spoilt for choice is the vast legacy of this iconic label, the yin to Stax's yang in the history of black popular music. And whilst, yes, my personal taste errs now more to the southern grit(s) of Stax, my childhood was festooned and imprinted with all those hits from the Motor City. It seemed that for every guitar band in the charts, there were twice that number of sharp dressed dudes and shiny frocked floozies, singing and dancing their socks off, so ubiquitous were the Temptations, the Supremes, the Miracles, the (4) Tops etc etc etc. Indeed I came to resent their permanence: when Marvin Gaye was number 1 with (I heard it on the) Grapevine for the whole of one summer, I hated the ease with which all usurpers were kept at bay. Love it now, less so then. I acquired a dislike and distrust of the so-called the Soul that curdled mine.



So what changed it? Actually these guys, around long before and around long since, a seemingly inexhaustible supply of brothers, who suddenly, in mid 70s, discovered the alchemists stone, turning white rock boys onto black r'n'b with the simple trick of if you can't beat 'em. Namely the guitar, the electric guitar. Based around brothers, Ronald, Rudolph and O'Kelly Isley, the Isley Brothers were a potent force in the 60s with songs such as Shout, Twist and Shout and This Old Heart of Mine, but had found their star perhaps waning a little. (Innocently, I had always assumed that better known-to-me versions by Lulu and the Beatles were the originals, these being poor copies, rather than vice-versa. Forgive me, I was just a wee boy!) Perhaps picking a trick from their erstwhile supporting and session man, James Marshall Hendrix, younger siblings Ernie and Marvin were conscripted, along with bro-in-law, Chris Jasper, beefing up the sound with guitar, bass and keyboards, electric rock guitar, bass and keyboards. I found the 3+3 album of 1973, referring to the trio plus trio as outlined above, astonishing, my gateway drug to an appreciation of black music hitherto denied by a prejudice, not of colour but of image. But these were way cooler than the bands namechecked above: no more suits, replaced instead with bandannas and tie-dye all the way, arguably standing the scrutiny of time less well, but hey...... Scales dropped, Damascus seen and I was on the bus, with all the previous suspects  reciprocating my conversion, Stevie Wonder and the Temptations, for two, swiftly becoming suitable rock visionaries, whether by virtue of their music or lifestyle, irony not unintended.

This is my salute to the Isleys, who persevere, still with Ron and Ernie enrolled in the cause. This, their finest moment, Harvest for the World, an apt pointer for those, and there are many, who might see now as a time right to make a Harvest OF the World.


Disclaimer: 3+3 was on Epic records. That may be the truth, but that's not what most will think, so, spiritually, at least, I rest my case.

Entry level? (Recommended, a fabulous selection.)
Specific.

70s Motown: Living for the City



purchase [Innervisions]

When I first saw him live, he was billed as Little Stevie Wonder. I'm pretty sure he played the harmonica. And I probably had one of his albums and a few 45s at that point in time. That would have been late 60s. I recall being affected by My Cherie Amour - on AM radio - a decent piece filled with emotion over the medium that was "par for the course" back then.

Recently, there was an obituary in the NYT for Sylvia Moy. Moy was working as a songwriter for Motown at about the time when Motown sensed that  there was a serious limitations to the "Little" Stevie Wonder process. She asked to take on the project. One of the results of the collaboration was My Cherie Amour.


Talking Book, then Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life spread out over the 70 along with a couple of other albums that don't quite make the grade for me - these are classic Wonder. Around 1972/3, there is a major style switch - away from the slightly tinny 60s soul style to a much richer production primarily fueled by a new keyboard style. And at about this time, Wonder takes more control of his music (switching labels, new contracts ..) and the quality of his work leaps forward.
We have here what is not really a cover - except that it is: Ray Charles works together with Stevie Wonder in this version of Living for the City.



Ray Charles was not a "Motown artist"- he had signed with Atlantic (back once again indirectly  to Turkey & Ahmet Ertegun). But Atlantic was poaching Motown at this point in time: Aretha, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding .. they were all Atlantic artists. And ... collaboration often makes things better.

70s Motown: Ball of Confusion

The Temptations: Ball of Confusion

[purchase]

This one barely fits our theme, having been released in 1970. For the Temptations at least, the classic Motown sound of the 1960s was already a thing of the past. Musically, this one presented a powerful mix of funk and rock, a combination that would prove to be a fruitful mix later for George Clinton with his groups Parliament and Funkadelic, and even later for Prince. But here we see that Motown was there first. During the decade of the 70s, Motown would gradually lose their musical leadership role, becoming followers into the land of disco by the end of the decade. But, in 1970, the Temptations got Ball of Confusion onto transistor radios throughout the land. That is how I first heard this one when it became a hit. Probably its lyric of social relevance would never have made it onto AM radio had it not been the Temptations. They were already AM radio staples for their work to that point, so pop chart fans wanted to hear their new one. The new song was part of a trend of socially relevant songs of the period, but most were by white artists, and very few explicitly addressed the issue of racism.

As it was, a stream of songs that were bland and worse, by such luminaries as the Archies, was suddenly and almost violently interrupted one day by Ball of Confusion. The transistor radio I referred to earlier was not mine, and I hated most of the songs I heard on it. But I listened, because the radio itself was a novelty. I knew of only one transistor radio in all of the small town I grew up in, and it belonged to a friend. So I listened because he actually liked this stuff, and I wanted to hang out with him. Ball of Confusion then became an important song to me not for its social awareness, but as a musical lifeline in a sea of dreck. I am happy to say that, listening to the song today, the quality of the music still stands up.