Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – “The Tears of a Clown”

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – “The Tears of a Clown,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

One of pop music’s most unique and amazing properties is its ability to wrap the most heartbreaking lyrics in a bubbly, effervescent melody.

Think about it for a moment. While there are shades and degrees to consider, and this is obviously a simplification, because other types of art usually inhabit only one medium, i.e. words or images, a sad poem or a sad painting typically going to be predominately sad. I’m not saying music is the only art form to convey multiple emotions at once; that’s a ludicrous assumption. But it seems pop music does this a lot easier than most.

Few songs handle the light/dark juxtaposition as effortlessly as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ 1970 smash “The Tears of a Clown.” The song started out as an instrumental Stevie Wonder wrote with his producer Hank Crosby. Unsure what to do with what Wonder knew was a great track, he brought it to the Motown Christmas party in 1966 to see if Robinson had any ideas. Robinson said hear head a circus in the melody and wrote the lyrics. The finished track appeared as the final song on the Miracles 1967 release “Make It Happen.”

For three years the song lay hidden as a deep cut, ignored by both the label and the band. In 1969, Robinson announced he was tired of touring and being separated from his family. By leaving the Miracles, Robinson reasoned, he could spend more time in Detroit with his family and focus on his role as Motown’s vice president. From Robinson’s perspective, it was a sound plan. The trouble was, the Miracles were one of Motown’s biggest act in Europe and the band had delivered only one Top 10 hit over the last two years. Desperate for new material, Hitsville UK scoured the vaults and back releases and stumbled upon the long-forgotten “The Tears of a Clown.” After giving the song a new mix it was released as a single in February, 1970. The song shot to No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic.

Fortunately for music fans everywhere, the song’s success made Robinson reconsider his decision to leave the Miracles. Motown re-released “Make It Happen” with a modified tracklisting as “Tears of a Clown” – even the cover art stayed the same – and Robinson stayed in the Miracles until 1973.

Thematically, “The Tears of a Clown” mirrors the Miracles’ 1965 hit “The Tracks of My Tears.” Both songs deal with a heartbroken lover masking his/her pain in public. The subject of both songs craves the estranged, but it too proud to share those feelings in all but the darkest, quietest places. Not happy stuff. But while it was impossible to escape the anguish of “The Tracks of My Tears,” listeners could be possibly forgiven for thinking “The Tears of Clown” was little more than a happy romp on the calliope. Wonder and Cosby’s upbeat melody is a perfect antonym for Robinson’s lyrics. One moment poignantly cuts at the heart of the song, however. The arrangement briefly pauses while Robinson confesses “when there’s no one around.” In those tender seconds, his soul is laid bare.

“The Tears of a Clown” was the Miracles biggest hit while Robinson was in the group. Unsurprisingly, several other bands wanted a taste of this success. “Clown” has been widely covered over the past 40 years. The English Beat delivered one of the best interpretations with their 1979 ska adaptation of the song. At the other end of the spectrum are the version cut by LaToya Jackson for her 1995 Motown covers album, and Enuff Z’Nuff’s hair metal reading. Somewhere in the middle lie Phil Collin’s version, included on his “Testify” album, and Petula Clark’s 2000 reading. Early ‘90s Swedish pop duo Roxette also worked the “Clown” melody into their hit “Spending My Time.”


Review: No Doubt, Paramore

(Above: No Doubt perform “Running” at Starlight Theater on July 6, 2009.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

On its first tour in seven years, No Doubt might be packing large venues like Starlight Theatre on Monday night, but it’s playing them like a hungry band working the crowd for a place to crash afterward.

The few times the band paused during its 95-minute set, singer Gwen Stefani read the crowd’s homemade signs and called fans toting gifts up to the stage.

After tossing a sign spray-painted with a request for “Total Hate 95,” one fan was rewarded with a performance of the rare number. Later, after accepting the cross-stitched logos another fan made, a genuinely touched Stefani hauled her admirer onstage for a quick photo op.

When she wasn’t speaking to the crowd, Stefani and company were giving them exactly what they wanted: a heavy dose of the hits that made the band big in the first place. The setlist resembled the track list of the greatest hits album No Doubt released before going on hiatus, a celebration of the 11 years they’ve shared.

The opening ska bounce of “Spiderwebs” had the crowd eating out of Stefani’s hand, singing, swaying and dancing on cue. That number fell into the electro pop of “Hella Good.” The tempos may have changed throughout the night, but the energy never lagged. Through it all, Stefani was never still, dancing, spinning, jumping and unceasingly working the crowd.

The other five musicians onstage gave no evidence of any time apart. Drummer Adrian Young sat in the middle of the all-white stage, his kit the centerpiece of a six-legged platform that looked like a futuristic insect. He was flanked by multi-instrumentalists Stephen Bradley and Gabrial McNair, who handled horns, keyboards and backing vocals. Stefani, guitarist Tom Dumont and bass player Tony Kanal navigated the rest of the stage.

Behind them all, a large screen played videos during most songs. The best bits were the James Bond parody during “Ex-Girlfriend” and the homemade videos of the band’s early days accompanying the ballad “Running.”

“Don’t Speak” drew the biggest response, but it was nearly matched by “Just a Girl,” which closed the main set. As Dumont played its spidery opening riff, Stefani dropped to the floor and counted out push-ups with the crowd. After reaching 10, she sprung to her feet and launched into the verse. Both feats drew massive cheers.

One got the feeling during Paramore’s 40-minute set that the band brought as many fans as the headliners. The power pop quintet’s set was marked by a constant stream of young fans rushing as close to the stage as their parents would let them to snap a photo.

The setlist tipped heavily toward the 2007 album “Riot,” which delighted the devoted, who hung on singer Hayley Williams’ every word. The two new songs, which blended almost too well with the older material, and set-closing “Decode” from the “Twilight” soundtrack, were extra treats.

Bedouin Soundclash opened the evening with a 30-minute set.

After No Doubt returned for “Rock Steady,” Bedouin Soundclash and Paramore joined the band for “Stand and Deliver.” Nearly all of the dozen musicians onstage pounded the various drums brought out while Stefani and Williams swapped verses. No Doubt drummer Young managed to stand out in the crowd by parading around wearing only a pink-and-white tutu, marching snare drum and calf-high athletic socks.

The night ended with “Sunday Morning,” which, like so many No Doubt triumphs, hit the sweet spot between pop, ska, dance and rock. When the music ended, band members lingered onstage signing autographs, tossing souvenirs and shaking hands.

Just as they did in their native Southern California clubs a lifetime ago.

No Doubt:
Spiderwebs, Hella Good, Underneath It All, Excuse Me Mr., Ex-Girlfriend, End It On This, Total Hate 95, Simple Kind of Life, Bathwater, Guns of Navarone, New, Hey Baby, Running, Different People, Don’t Speak, It’s My Life, Just a Girl//encore: Rock Steady, Stand and Deliver, Sunday Morning

Paramore: Misery Business, For a Pessimist, I’m Pretty Optimistic, Pressure, Ignorance (new song), Crush Crush Crush, When It Rains, Where the Lines Overlap (new song), That’s What You Get, Let the Flames Begin, Decode