Social Distancing Spins – Days 22-24

By Joel Francis

Saturdays and Sundays are for family time. I think the trend of fewer weekend spins and a combined entry spanning Friday through Sunday will continue going forward.

The Dirtbombs – Ultraglide in Black (2001) Musically speaking, the Motor City is best known for two groundbreaking styles of music: Motown, of course, and the raw rock and roll that would become punk, pioneered by the MC5 and Stooges. The Dirtbombs combine both of these genres masterfully on this tribute to their hometown. Hearing Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye get a layer of scuzzy guitars and blown-out drums not only casts the songs in a new light but is a pure delight. If you like Detroit music, heck if you’ve ever driven a Ford, you’ll find something to like here.

I saw the Dirtbombs touring in support of another album, several years after Ultraglide came out. The show started after midnight and there were about a dozen people in the audience. It was fantastic.

The Temptations – All Directions (1972) Before taking the compass to All Directions, let’s pause for a moment and marvel at the industriousness of the Motown machine. All Directions was the first of two Temptations releases in 1972. Overall, it was their 16th studio album (counting two full-length collaborations with the Supremes) in only eight years. Think about that for a moment. In less than a decade, they went from “The Way You Do the Things You Do” to “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” Wow!

“Papa” is the standout track here, a No. 1 hit on the U.S pop charts, but the rest of the album isn’t a bunch of cast-offs. “Funky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me On” starts the album with a faux-concert intro before the five Tempts trade lead vocals a la “Ball of Confusion.” Album closer “Do Your Thing” is a rare example of Motown covering Stax. The version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” won’t make anyone forget Roberta Flack, but newcomer Richard Street handles it well. After this album, the Temptations took a whole seven months off (during which they were no doubt touring) before releasing their next album.

Tom Petty – Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) (1987)

Tom Petty – The Last DJ (2002) Last autumn, I was on a business trip with the better part of a day to burn in Gainesville, Fla. Knowing that was Tom Petty’s home town, I did some online sleuthing and found several Petty-related points of interest to visit. The night I got in, I was walking around a nice little square of shops near my hotel when a sign caught my eye: Lillian’s Music Store. I had to go in. As I ordered my drink the bartender who gave me the scoop: Lillian’s hadn’t been a music store for some time (it claims to be the oldest bar in Gainesville) but kept the former occupant’s business name. Which is why on the song “Dreamville,” the third track on The Last DJ, Petty sings “Goin’ down to Lillian’s music store/To buy a black diamond string/Gonna wind it up on my guitar/Gonna make that silver sing.”

Now, the larger question is this: If I am going to buy a drink at Lillian’s Music Store chiefly because it appears in a Tom Petty lyric, as a Clash fan am I likewise obliged to get inked at the Death Or Glory tattoo parlor? The answer of course, is yes. And yet it didn’t happen. My apologies, Mick and Joe.

One more quick note about Lillian’s. They had these weird heavy, glass dishes that I hadn’t seen for several years scattered around inside. Ashtrays. Because indoor smoking is still cool in Florida, I guess. All my clothes smelled afterward and I had to double-bag them so they wouldn’t reek into the rest of my luggage.

A couple quick thoughts about the music on these albums before moving on, because this is already running long. Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) contains one of my favorite Petty deep tracks, “Runaway Trains.” It has very ‘80s production and feels almost more like an adult contemporary tune closer to something Sting or Steve Winwood would come up with than anything in the Heartbreakers catalog. I love it because it is so unusual and has those great Petty lyrics and singing. This album also has “It Will All Work Out,” one of my all-time favorite Petty songs. The Last DJ is excellent, except for the song “Joe,” which is my least favorite Petty song. It sounds like a demo that should have been scrapped in the studio. You should still own both albums.

David Bowie – Station to Station (1976) One of many favorite moments from catching David Bowie’s concert on the Reality tour during its stop in Kansas City, Mo. was watching him hang out on the side of the stage, arms holding on to the scaffolding, grooving along to as his band churned through the long instrumental introduction to “Station to Station.” It was the first song in the encore set and for those minutes, Bowie was just another music fan, like all of us in the crowd.

Bowie claimed to have no memories of making this album, but Station to Station’s detached, synthesized paranoia paved a direct path to Joy Division.  Single “TVC15” was durable enough to find a spot in Bowie’s Live Aid set nearly a decade later and his cover of “Wild is the Wind” is an touching showcase of Bowie’s vocal talent. An essential addition to any rock fan’s music collection.

Elvis Costello – Imperial Bedroom (1982) Elvis Costello’s seventh album concludes an incredible opening run with the country tribute Almost Blue as the only misstep. (Almost Blue doesn’t miss because of the genre – the songs and performances just aren’t as strong as on the surrounding albums.) Former Beatles engineer pulls several tricks out of George Martin’s playbook with his gorgeous production arrangements. I love the orchestral countermelody on “And in Every Home” and what sounds like a sitar on “Human Hands.” Not every song is dressed up. “Tears Before Bedtime” and “Man Out of Town” have a pared-down Attractions sound that could have come from Trust, Costello’s previous album. It’s not hard to imagine bands like the Decemberists obsessing over Imperial Bedroom and coming away with dozens of ideas. Costello wouldn’t stay in this baroque mood for long, however. By the next album (and year) he had moved on to a more modern sheen and added the TKO Horns for Punch the Clock.

Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell (2019) Lana Del Rey got a lot of buzz when her album Born to Die came out nearly a decade ago. I watched her on Saturday Night Live, eager to hear what the fuss was about and sampled her debut album before dismissing her as a joke trying too hard to be ironic (and iconic). NFR is the album that finally won me over. Del Rey has built her catalog almost exclusively on torch songs, but here she does them really, really well. Early in the album, the sweeping guitars at the end of “Mariners Apartment Complex” lead right into “Venice Bitch,” which slowly builds into a psychedelic meltdown. Later, Del Rey delivers one of the sexiest music nerd songs ever on “The Next Best American Record.” Don’t ever say she doesn’t know her demographic. The super-profane opening couplet that opens the album belongs in the poetry hall of fame as a stand-alone lyric. I don’t know how long LDR will be able to hold me, but she definitely got me with NFR.

Slobberbone – Bees and Seas: The Best of Slobberbone (compilation) Alt-country fans lamenting the end of Uncle Tupelo need look no further than Slobberbone. The questionably named quartet from Texas perform with the same reckless abandoned that fueled UT classics “Screen Door” and “Gun.” This two record set devotes roughly one side to each of the band’s four albums. The band remains remarkably consistent in sound a quality throughout. There are no detours into horn sections or bagpipes and Brent Best’s songwriting via scenes of everyday life never fail to suck me in. Sadly, like Uncle Tupelo, Slobberbone is no longer releasing new material. Unlike their forebearers, though, Best and company frequently reunite and tour.

The Kinks – Face to Face (1966) As the Fab Four started to migrate toward more intricate, artistic material, the Kinks stepped right into the void, albeit with a more garage-y sound. Straightforward rockers “Party Line” and “Rosie Won’t You Please Come Home” set the album off strong, but Ray Davies takes a couple surprising turns with the Indian instruments on “Fancy” and faux-Hawaiian guitars on “Holiday in Waikiki,” a charming tale about winning a holiday in the Pacific. “Dandy” is the type of music hall number only an Englishman could write (and probably stomach – it’s much to cloying for me). Several years ago, I was fortunate to hear Ray Davies perform “Sunny Afternoon,” my favorite song from Face to Face, in concert. It remains an enduring memory of a fantastic night.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 19

By Joel Francis

Remember, the best way to stay safe from the coronavirus is to stay home. And while you’re there, you may as well play some records. Here are some of mine.

The Temptations – Wish It Would Rain (1968) The seventh album by Motown’s soul stalwarts is groundbreaking in several ways. It was their final album with David Ruffin on vocals and Smokey Robinson producing. It’s also their last album to contain the classic Motown sound before producer Norman Whitfield (who is behind the boards for several tracks here) starting taking the Tempts down a more psychedelic path. The heartbreaking ballads “I Wish It Would Rain” and “I Could Never Love Another” were based on a real-life relationship that cut so deeply Robert Penzabene, who helped write both numbers, killed himself. The rest of the album stays along these themes of heartache and loss, but the Funk Brothers keep punching away, keeping the album from getting too somber. With Wish it Would Rain, the Temptations ended their classic lineup era on a high note and carried that momentum into the next psychedelic chapter.

Priests – The Seduction of Kansas (2019) The Washington D.C.-based punk trio named their second album after Thomas Frank’s book of the same name, an examination of why people – mainly conservatives in his thesis – vote against their own interests. The songs are more empathetic than angry, written as an attempt to bridge and understand the divide that has split America. Texturally, the album moves from a spacey, early Cure vibe on the paranoid “Not Percieved,” to the post-punk thump of revenge on “I’m Clean.” The final song, “Texas Instruments,” is my favorite cut. It discusses the whitewashing of history by looking at the story of the Lone Star state. Sample lyrics: “The hubris of propriety/Macy’s Day Parade history/Puff your chest up so we can see/Who brought the books you read?” Heady stuff to be sure, but the music keeps the feet entertained while the brain is engaged. Sadly, Priests went on an indefinite hiatus shortly after their tour behind this album wrapped. I hope this isn’t the last we hear from them.

Hearts of Darkness – self-titled (2010) Man, you could hardly go anywhere around Kansas City without bumping into either a member of Hearts of Darkness, someone talking about Hearts of Darkness or seeing a flier for an upcoming Hearts of Darkness. They won a spot at Farm Aid in 2011 and blew Snoop Dogg off the stage as an opening act that same year. Watching the 15-piece Afrobeat group perform was like standing on the launch pad as a rocket takes off. The band’s energy was matched only by the amount of smiles generated. Hearts of Darkness released another album in 2012 and then gradually tapered off. According to their ReverbNation site the group’s most recent show was in 2017. High time for a comeback.

White Stripes – Icky Thump (2007) After expanding their sound on Get Behind Me Satan, the White Stripes’ previous album, Icky Thump was the sound of the duo getting back to a straightforward rock sound. This isn’t the garage rock they perfected on early albums, however, but a more spacious arena-ready sound reflecting the larger venues they were now commanding. A cover of Patti Page’s “Conquest” remains a divisive song among fans, but other singles like the title track and the stomp of “Rag and Bone” make up for this misstep. It would have been interesting to see where Jack and Meg White would have taken their sound after this album. Icky Thump sounds like pair were getting back to basics and regrouping before deciding where to go next. Unfortunately, Meg White called it quits after the tour wrapped. We’ll never know what the next chapter may have held.

Jackson Browne – Running on Empty (1977) Put the iconic title track that opens this album and the magnificent medley of “The Load Out/Stay” that closes the record. There’s some pretty weird stuff happening in the other 30 minutes of this album. Cocaine shows up in nearly a third of the songs. “Rosie” is a tribute to a groupie. (Sample lyric: “She was sniffing all around/like a half-grown female pup.” Classy, Jackson.) There are a couple songs about the loneliness and desolation on the road, one of which was actually recorded on Browne’s tour bus as it hummed toward the next gig. Its like Browne decided to turn Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” into a concept album. I won’t say it doesn’t work, but take away the first and last cut and there’s not much to make Running on Empty into more than a one-night stand.

Radiohead – The Bends (1995) If this is your first time encountering The Bends, you are in store for a tremendous experience. If it is not, feel free to use this as an excuse to play it again. So much has been written about Radiohead and The Bends, I don’t know that I have much to add. I will say that The Bends was gripping the first time I heard it and continues to reveal new layers a generation later.

Death Cab for Cutie – Plans (2005) One of the best moments at a Death Cab for Cutie concert is when the band exits the stage, leading singer Ben Gibbard alone to sing “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” with his acoustic guitar. This heartfelt, darkly romantic ballad has been a staple on mixes and playlists by the angst-filled and lovelorn from the day Plans was released. There are several other great songs to be found here as well. “Soul Meets Body” and “Crooked Teeth” are perfect slices of indie rock and the rest isn’t far behind. Plans isn’t Death Cab’s best album, but it has definitely earned a place on the medal platform.

The New Pornographers – Together (2010) Together was the first New Pornographers album that didn’t excite me when it was released. It felt like the band was having to work too hard to develop the delightful power pop that made the group’s first three albums so wonderful. That their sound was becoming a crutch. In retrospect, I think I was too hard on the album. Granted, the band isn’t breaking any new ground but there are several genuinely great songs here, such as the delicate “Valkyrie in the Roller Disco,” (How’s that for title?) “Crash Years” and Dan Bejar’s always-skewed songwriting on “Jenny Silver Dollar.” Together may be a holding pattern, but if this is what it took to get to Brill Bruisers, their next release, a classic on par with the Pornographer’s early material, then it was worth the stop.

Dinosaur Jr. – I Bet on Sky (2012) The third album after Dinosaur Jr.’s reunion is cut from the same cloth as their previous release, Farm. More of the same isn’t a bad thing, though. Not when you’ve got J. Mascis’s guitar ripping through the speaker with bass player Lou Barlow and drummer Murph right behind him, chasing Mascis like he owes them money.  You’ll know within the first 30 seconds if you like this album. If you do, the full listen won’t be enough. Fortunately, the Boston-based trio has left us several more platters, just like this one.

Review: Kanrocksas (Day 1)

(Above: Friday’s Kanrocksas headliner Eminem performs “Lighters” sans Bruno Mars.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record 

Note: For my coverage of the Kanrocksas music festival, I decided not to cover any band’s previously reviewed by The Daily Record. Visit the archives to read about the Arctic Monkeys, Black Keys, Flaming Lips, Flogging Molly and Girl Talk. Stay tuned for Kanrocksas Day 2 early next week.

The Joy Formidable

The crowd assembled for this Welsh-trio likely would have been much larger if they weren’t going head-to-head with Fitz and the Tantrums. As it was, the crowd wasn’t much bigger than what would pack the Granada Theater in Lawrence, but judging by facial expressions as the audience dispersed most people left impressed.

Much of the band’s 40-minute set drew from “The Big Roar,” the critically praised album released earlier this year. Songs performed included “Cradle,” “The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade” and the non-album single “Greyhounds in the Slips.”

Lead singer/guitarist Ritzy Bryan threw herself into the set-closing “Whirring,” hurling herself at the mic as she sang enthusiastically. Bryan later conjured images of Jimi Hendrix at Monteray when she threw her guitar on the ground and knelt over it to coax out some otherworldly sounds. Drummer Matt Thomas punctuated the noise with double-pedal rolls on the bass drum.

D12

Eminem’s Detroit cronies took the stage 20 minutes late – not bad by rap standards, but kind of a big deal when your allotted time is barely over half an hour.

Rapping over what sounded like their own commercial CDs – Eminem’s backing vocals were clearly audible despite his absence – the quartet employed what I like to call the “gang of yelling.” Technique: one rapper delivers most of the verse with the rest chiming in on the four count or the end of a phrase. The name is derived from the end result: an indiscernible cacophony of yelling.

Wearing a purple shower cap and red Angry Birds t-shirt, Bizarre led the group in rhymes about murder, family (“Loyalty”), women (“She Devil”) and weed, lots of weed. At one point the group parodied the Temptations attempting a synchronized dance routine and faux crooning about “my weed” over a sample of “My Girl.” Like the rest of their performance it was obvious, uninspired and unnecessary.

Kid Cudi

Kid Cudi writes pop/rock songs delivered as soul numbers draped in hip hop attitude. As his four-piece band vamped over a heavy prog-rock riff, Cudi skipped onstage wearing a Joan Jett t-shirt. Cudi’s hour-long set veered from rap (“Soundtrack to My Life”), ‘80s pop (“Mr. Rager”) to indie pop (“Pursuit of Happiness”). Several times he transformed the large lawn into a huge dance club.

The music tipped heavily toward Cudi’s sophomore album released this year, “Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager,” but included the singles from Cudi’s 2009 debut and an a capella medley of favorites from the 2008 mixtape “A Kid Named Cudi.” Regardless of the source, fans enthusiastically sang along to Cudi’s songs about isolation and escapism through marijuana.

Cudi’s previous stop at the Midland Theater last spring was by all accounts a disaster. The difference this time the presence of live instruments, which emphatically translating Cudi’s charismatic  energy throughout the massive crowd. The triumph represented both the largest crowd and biggest response of the day, aside from headliner Eminem.

Major Lazer

The DJ duo of Dilpo and Switch – best known for their work with MIA and Beyonce’s “Girls (Who Run the World)” – were unfortunately slotted against California dj Bassnectar. With Bassnectar monopolizing the main stage, Major Lazer were unfortunately relegated to the Critical Mass Tent, an oversized carport with horrible air circulation stranded in the middle of port-a-potty land.

None of this stopped the dedicated from dancing as the pair blended standard techno tracks with touches of dancehall, Harry Belafonte, Lynryd Skynryd and their own “Keep It Goin’ Louder” from 2009’s full-length “Guns Don’t Kill People, Lazers Do.”

Surrounded by four frantic LED screens, the pair got an assist from an over-the-top hype-man with a deep Jamaican patois and a dancer whose primary job was to perform headstands on every accommodating surface onstage, including on top of both stacks of speakers.

Keep reading:

Review: Kanrocksas (Day 2)

10 Must-see bands at Kanrocksas (part 1 – Friday)

Wakarusa Music Festival: A Look Back

A Christmas conversation

(Above: Jimmy Smith’s “Christmas Cooking,” released in 1964, is a classic, overlooked holiday album.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The other day I was in a retail bookstore when I noticed the wonderful sounds of the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack coming from the overhead speakers. As I enjoyed the music, two thoughts hit me. First, I wondered if the store would be playing Vince Guaraldi’s jazz interpretations of Christmas carols if they weren’t connected to an iconic cartoon. Then I started thinking about my other favorite jazz Christmas recordings. Joining me in this Yuletide journey is my friend Bill Brownlee, the award-winning blogger behind There Stands the Glass and Plastic Sax.

The Daily Record: I don’t pull out the Christmas music until after Thanksgiving, but inevitably the first song I gravitate to is John Coltrane’s reading of “Greensleeves.” He cut this song many times. It can be found on his “Live at the Village Vanguard” collection and his “Ballads” album. My favorite version, though, may be found on Coltrane’s 1961 Impulse debut “Africa/Brass.” Not only does the performance run over 10 minutes – more than enough time to get lost in the playing – but classic Coltrane sidemen McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones are augmented by a large brass section. The extra players beef up the sound and provide a larger-than-usual context.

Bill, what are some Christmas albums or performances that you turn to year after year?

Bill Brownlee: Along with most Americans, I’m inundated with Christmas music well before Thanksgiving. And as much as I love Donny Hathaway, Nat “King” Cole and Brenda Lee, involuntarily hearing their holiday hits saps my spirit.  Even Charlie Brown Christmas is played out for me.  And speaking of Vince Guaraldi, how often do you hear “Cast Your Fate To the Wind” played at a box store or on the radio?  There’s your answer.

That’s why I embrace the odd and the overlooked material.   Asked to supply music for my compound’s tree trimming festivities on Saturday, I immediately turned to Dan Hicks’ new Crazy For Christmas album.  The hillbilly jazz selection was so unpopular that I had to turn to (predictably boring) Motown Christmas to quell the insurrection.

TDR: The Motown Christmas may not be the most inventive holiday collection out there, but it’s certainly a lot of fun. It seems only a few new Christmas songs are allowed to escape each year. At this pitiful pace, it will be several years before today’s songwriters gift the public with something as great as Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas.” His “Ava Maria” is also sublime. It’s also difficult to complain with the blending of the Temptations vocals (even if the arrangements are overly familiar) or the joy in Diana Ross and Michael Jackson’s delivery.
If it’s a classic R&B Christmas you want, though, I’d suggest “Christmas in Soulsville” aka “It’s Christmas Time Again.” The tracklisting more inventive – where else are you going to hear “Back Door Santa” and not one, but two versions of “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'”? And the lineup is impeccable: Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, Booker T and the MGs, Albert King and more. Stuff that in your stocking.

BB: I remember being so disappointed after I purchased a small stack of Motown Christmas LPs- the Temptations, the Miracles, the Jackson Five and so on. The arrangements and performances were totally uninspired.  Maybe that bad experience enhances my appreciation of stuff like Clarence Carter’s “Back
Door Santa.”

TDR: It sounds like we’re in agreement on the Stax recordings. What are some of your other Yuletide favorites? What’s been tickling your ears this season?

BB: The two new recordings I love are the aforementioned Dan Hicks and Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O. It’s playful in a Lester Bowie/Rahsaan Roland Kirk sense. Fun.How about you?  What are you listening to?

TDR: There are several Christmas albums I reach for every year. Jimmy Smith’s “Christmas Cooking” is incredible. If you can get past the drum machines, Fats Domino’s “Christmas Gumbo” is a lot of fun. My wife insists we listen to Emmylou Harris’ “By the Light of the Stable” every year as we put up the tree. And if you’re stuck in a family situation where no one can agree on anything and you don’t want to be saddled with a commercial Christmas radio station, any of the eight EPs in Sufjan Stevens’ holiday series will do the trick.
Another treat of the season is watching bands incorporate holiday music into their stage act. Do you have any favorite Christmas concert memories?

BB: What kind of postmodern indie rock utopia do you live in?  Your suggestion that everyone can agree on Sufjan seems bizarre.
Oh, Emmylou!  Perfect.  There are certain voices that are ideal matches for the Christian holiday.  And no, Sufjan’s isn’t one of them.  I’m thinking of Emmylou, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Lou Rawls, Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson.
And I seem to remember that both of us attended a Charles Brown gig on a cold winter night shortly before he passed.  “Merry Christmas, Baby”!

TDR: First off, I should clarify that these Sufjan EPs all pre-date “The Age of Adz,” so he’s still very much in folky banjo troubadour mode. I don’t know why these recordings seem to pacify everyone, but it works for some reason. Granted, it’s a small focus group – six people. My sister and I (and our spouses) are Sufjan fans in general. He has some hymns and traditional material that pleases my parents and his arrangements low-key and accessible for them. Plus, after having to endure James Brown’s “Funky Soulful Christmas” and the Buck Owens Christmas album, I’m sure anything sounds good to them.

I’m not sure I can get behind a Dolly Parton Christmas, but I definitely agree with the rest of the singers on your list. Your mention of Mahalia Jackson reminded me to recommend Odetta’s “Christmas Spirituals,” if you haven’t heard it before.

That Charles Brown show was special to me in many ways. Not only was it his last performance in Kansas City, but it was my first experience at the Grand Emporium. I was 18 at the time, so I needed my dad to go with me so I could get in, not that I had to twist his arm to go. Even though it was February, everyone still enjoyed hearing him play his legendary Christmas songs, tell stories and sing the blues. Thanks for mentioning this amazing experience we shared.

More importantly, thank you for taking time to talk about Christmas music with me. Do you have any parting comments before signing off?

BB: I’ll close with a list:

TEN OF MY FAVORITE ODD AND OVERLOOKED CHRISTMAS ALBUMS:
Sam Billen- A Word of Encouragement (2010 release available as a free download)
Brave Combo- It’s Christmas, Man
Charles Brown- Cool Christmas Blues
John Fahey- Christmas Guitar
Dan Hicks- Crazy For Christmas (2010 release)
Tish Hinojosa- Memorabilia Navidena
Manzanera and MacKay Present: The Players- Christmas
Max Roach- It’s Christmas Again
Allen Toussaint & Friends- A New Orleans Christmas
Matt Wilson- Christmas Tree-O (2010 release)

Merry Christmas!

TDR: That’s a great list, Bill. You mention several of my favorites (Allen Toussaint, John Fahey) some I need to hear (Brave Combo, Sam Billen) and some I’ve been unable to find (Manzanera/MacKay, Max Roach). It’s certainly enough to keep me busy until Christmas next year. Thanks for sharing, and thanks for stopping by.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Four Tops – “Still Water (Love)”

Four Tops – “Still Water (Love),” Pop # 11, R&B #4

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Four Tops needed this.

The departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland was a devastating blow to all of Motown, but the Tops felt it especially hard. “Bernadette” made them the top Motown act in U.K., second only to the Temptations at home. But just when they made it to the top, their songwriters and producers left.

After the HDH exodus, the Tops dabbled on the fringes of psychedelic soul (“It’s All in the Game”), the folk revival (“If I Were A Carpenter”) and covered the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” to solid, but not spectacular results.

Finally, after being passed around to Ashford and Simpson, Ivy Jo Hunter and Norman Whitfield, the tops were paired with Smokey Robinson, who, with Frank Wilson, wrote and produced “Still Water (Love).”

Singer Levi Stubbs opens the track drenched in echo, inviting the listener “Walk with me/Take my hand.” The arrangement has a distinctive Motown touch, filled with a great guitar hook, clavinet and an ornate percussion figure pushed to the front of the mix. As always, the Tops’ vocals are great, and while Stubbs isn’t given much room to cut loose, he still belts a couple notes before the chorus.

“Still Water (Love)” opened the Tops’ 1970 concept album “Still Waters Run Deep,” which inspired Marvin Gaye to compose “What’s Going On.” “Still Water (Love)” was covered by the Jean Terrell lineup of the Supremes in the early ‘70s, and soul singer O’Bryan.

Four Tops – “Still Water (Love),” Pop # 11, R&B #4.

The Four Tops needed this.

The departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland was a devastating blow to all of Motown, but the Tops felt it especially hard. “Bernadette” made them the top Motown act in U.K., second only to the Temptations at home. But just when they made it to the top, their songwriters and producers left.

After the HDH exodus, the Tops dabbled on the fringes of psychedelic soul (“It’s All in the Game”), the folk revival (“If I Were A Carpenter”) and covered the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” to solid, but not spectacular results.

Finally, after being passed around to Ashford and Simpson, Ivy Jo Hunter and Norman Whitfield, the tops were paired with Smokey Robinson, who, with Frank Wilson, wrote and produced “Still Water (Love).”

Singer Levi Stubbs opens the track drenched in echo, inviting the listener “Walk with me/Take my hand.” The arrangement has a distinctive Motown touch, filled with a great guitar hook, clavinet and an ornate percussion figure pushed to the front of the mix. As always, the Tops’ vocals are great, and while Stubbs isn’t given much room to cut loose, he still belts a couple notes before the chorus.

“Still Water (Love)” opened the Tops’ 1970 concept album “Still Waters Run Deep,” which inspired Marvin Gaye to compose “What’s Going On.” “Still Water (Love)” was covered by the Jean Terrell lineup of the Supremes in the early ‘70s, and soul singer O’Bryan.

Edwin Starr – “War”

Edwin Starr – “War,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Temptations had cut other political songs, such as “Message for a Black Man,” before they recorded the original version of “War” in 1969. Although the songs were generally well-received, they were closer to Norman Whitfield songs featuring the Temptations’ vocals than true Tempts cuts and rarely performed them in concert. Although Motown received several requests to release “War” as a single after it appeared on “Psychedelic Shack,” Berry Gordy feared ruining his group’s image with such a political number and resisted. Instead, he handed the number to another artist in Whitfield’s stable: Edwin Starr.

Prior to cutting “War,” Starr had been kept out of the studio for six months. His last big hit “25 Miles,” which reached No. 6, was 18 months old and long forgotten. Consequently, Starr was hungry when he was finally able to reach the mic. His pent-up energy added more charge to Whitfield’s already incendiary lyrics. Starr’s impassioned singing put Dennis Edwards and Paul Williams to shame on the now-placid Temptations reading.

Bolstering Starr’s vocals was a powerful horn riff, funky organ line and a smorgasboard of wah-wah guitars, fuzz bass, tambourines and nearly every other trick in Whitfield’s psychedelic bag of tricks. The production was Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound reimagined for the trippy, proto-metal flower child age.

Just over 15 years after its initial release, Bruce Springsteen took the song back into the Top 10 with his cover. Although no major U.S. conflict was brewing at the time, the song still packed a powerful punch. A little more than 15 year’s after the Boss’s version, “War” illustrated how far society had regressed when the song was placed on a list of “lyrically questionable songs” banned by the Clear Channel Communications corporation in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The list also included “Imagine” by John Lennon and Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World.” Sadly, it is hard to picture as political statement as powerful as “War” penetrating the airwaves again.

The Temptations – “Ball Of Confusion”

The Temptations – “Ball Of Confusion,” Pop # 3, R&B # 2

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Clocking in at over four minutes, “Ball of Confusion” was an epic by Motown standards. The arrangement and themes, however, were very much in line with the top-shelf, psychedelic social commentary songwriter and producer Norman Whitfield had been consistently turning out.

Sonically and thematically, “Ball of Confusion” doesn’t stray from the formula Whitfield developed for the Temptation in 1968 with “Cloud Nine.”

If Sly Stone were Martin Luther, this is how he would have delivered his 95 Theses. In a cadence cribbed in Bob Dylan’s delivery from “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Dennis Edwards lists his grievances: “segregation, determination, demonstration, integration, aggravation, humiliation, obligation.”

The arrangement is just as claustrophobic and frustrated as the lyrics, with nearly every instrument – electric organ, wah guitar, drums and vocals – threatening to strangle each other in the mix. Brief bursts of harmonica or horns provide the only moments of relief. Edwards handles the lion’s share of the singing, but once again the other four members tag-team lead duties. Bass singer Melvin Franklin memorably punctuates each verse with the adage of complacency – “and the band played on.”

“Ball of Confusion” isn’t exactly a fun song, but it is a lot of fun to listen to. The song was the Tempts’ second strong single of the 1970s, landing in the Top 5 on both the pop and R&B charts. It also marked their third straight solo Top 10 hit.

The complex number isn’t easy to replicate, but that hasn’t stopped others from trying. Shortly after the Tempts’ number had dropped in the charts, Berry Gordy handed the tune to another Motown group, the Undisputed Truth, to try their hand. A generation later, pop band Duran Duran and metal outfit Anthrax both released covers in the 1990s. The 21st century also saw a resurgence of interest in the song, with the Neville Brothers, Widespread Panic and Tesla all releasing covers.

The song also appeared as a centerpiece in the film “Sister Act Two: Back in the Habit” (featuring a young and then-unknown Lauryn Hill). It’s biggest distinction outside of Motown, however, is in kick-starting Tina Turner’s solo career in the early ‘80s. Turner’s reading appeared on a 1982 tribute album, it wasn’t a big hit in the United States or United Kingdom, but it did hook her up with the songwriters and producers who helmed Turner’s multi-platinum comeback effort, “Private Dancer.”

The Originals – “Baby I’m For Real”

The Originals – “Baby I’m For Real,” Pop # 14, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

The Originals had appeared on nearly a dozen Motown hits before they finally landed one with their name on the label. As backing vocalists, the Detroit quartet saw their performances on “Function at the Junction,” “Twenty-Five Miles,” “For Once In My Life” and “My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)” – to name but a few – rise to the top of the chart.

When Marvin Gaye had the group sing on his singles “You” and “Chained” he felt an immediate rapport and took it upon himself to give them the breakout single they deserved. Working with his wife Anna (label boss Berry Gordy’s sister), Gaye penned the lyrics for “Baby I’m For Real.”

With its soft arrangement and doo-wop influences, the song was an about-face from the psychedelic soul singles Motown was sending to the top of the charts. Gordy balked, insisting Gaye release the other song he wrote and produced for the Originals, “You’re the One.” When it flopped, Gaye convinced his brother-in-law to release “Real.”

With its quivering strings, silky saxophone and smooth vocals, the song fit more into the Philly soul mold than the Motown model. Even the drums on the track are gentle and the performance floats by like a cloud across a lazy summer afternoon sky.

Gaye’s intentions were not entirely altruistic. He wanted to spread his wings and used the song’s success to convince Gordy that he was capable of producing hit material. The triumph of “Baby I’m For Real” was quickly parlayed into the Originals’ follow-up hit, “The Bells” and helped paved the way for Gaye’s groundbreaking “What’s Going On” album.

Nearly a generation after its original release, After 7 refurbished this classic and, blending it with Bloodstone’s “Natural High,” took it to No. 5 on the R&B chart. In 1972, soul singer Esther Phillps put her spin on the number. Faux-soulster Michael McDonald included his take on the more recent “Motown Two” album.

The Temptations – “I Can’t Get Next To You”

The Temptations – “I Can’t Get Next To You,” Pop # 1, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

Surprisingly, “I Can’t Get Next To You” was the first Temptations single to top both the pop and R&B charts since “My Girl,” five long years before. Although these Temptations featured 80 percent of that lineup – David Ruffin had been replaced by Dennis Edwards – the group had been handed off from Smokey Robinson’s smooth, straightforward approach to Norman Whitfield’s groundbreaking psychedelic arrangements.

In other words, just because they had the same name and most of the same members, the Temptations of “My Girl” were long gone by the time “I Can’t Get Next To You” reigned at No. 1.

The song opens with canned applause and a barrelhouse piano roll that sets the song in an old parlor or juke joint before the chicken-scratch and wah guitars thrust the song into the future. Just as they did on the previous year’s “Cloud Nine,” the five Tempts trade lines, adding kinetic energy to the track. The guitars, electric piano and insistent drums and percussion make the song feel like a cousin to something Sly and the Family Stone would have cooked up. When Edwards finally erupts with the line “girl, you’re blowing my mind,” the song carries the same intensity and sexuality of James Brown’s hard funkin’ “Sex Machine.”

There was very little happening on Motown like this at the time. Ironically, the next act to incorporate this much funk was a group aimed at a younger audience, the Jackson 5. They Indiana quintet re-appropriated the bridge from “I Can’t Get Next To You” for their 1970 hit “ABC.”

One year after it’s mid-1969 release, Al Green transformed the song into a smoldering cry for love. Green eliminated the kaleidoscopic vocals and swirling arrangement, building the song around his voice and a slinky guitar line. The only element these versions hold in common is the lyrics. Green rode his arrangement to No. 11 on the R&B charts.

An unexpectedly versatile song penned by Whitfield and Barrett Strong, “I Can’t Get Next To You” was transformed into a jazz number by Woody Herman, converted to reggae by the Jay Boys and given the pop treatment by the Osmonds and Edwin McCain. Most recently, it was covered by Anne Lennox on her 1995 album “Medusa.”

Marvin Gaye – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”

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Marvin Gaye – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Pop # 1, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

Producer and songwriter Norman Whitfield had finally triumphed. His fourth attempt at recording “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” had finally made it past Berry Gordy’s Quality Control meetings and triumphed at the top of the charts. Now, just over a year later, he wanted to release an earlier version of the song recorded by Marvin Gaye. Label honcho Berry Gordy had denied Whitfield’s request to release Gaye’s “Grapevine” before Gladys Knight had a hit with the song. His stance would not change. Whitfield was successful, however, in getting the song inserted on Gaye’s “In the Groove” album. Just as he had hoped, listeners started requesting “Grapevine” and DJs clamored for Motown to release the song as a single. Finally released in late October, 1968, “Grapevine” shot to the top of both the pop and R&B charts, outselling Knight’s version and becoming the biggest-selling Motown single to date. The song was so popular, Gaye’s album “In the Groove” was renamed “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

The path to getting the song recorded wasn’t much smoother. Whitfield spent a month recording the backing track with the Funk Brothers, Detroit Symphony and backing vocal group the Andantes. During these sessions, Gaye and Whitfield started to argue over the vocal arrangement. Whitfield, who worked primarily with the Temptations, wanted Gaye to sing above his natural ranges, as David Ruffin did on the Tempt’s hit “Ain’t To Proud To Beg.” Gaye initially resisted, but finally gave in. The combination of Gaye’s rasp and the Andantes convinced Whitfield he had a hit. Now he had to persuade Gordy.

Gaye’s version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” bears little resemblance to the song Knight took to No. 1. The defining organ line in Gaye’s arrangement barely appears in Knight’s version. Her reading was all about funk and atmosphere; Gaye’s speaks directly to the lyrics. His strained voice is haunting and filled with pain. And while the emphasis is placed on the strings, check out the great interaction between the bass and drums and the great drum sound. It almost sounds tribal.

This reading of “Grapevine” has become the definitive version, but that hasn’t stopped dozens of other artists from trying their hand. Hoping to strike lightning thrice, Whitfield gave the song to the Temptations, who included it on their 1969 album “Puzzle People.” In 1970, Creedence Clearwater Revival released a blistering 11 minute version that featured lots of fretwork and jamming from the usually concise quartet. Talk-box titan and funkmaster Roger Troutman took the song back to No. 1 on the R&B charts with his 1982 cover. The song was also famously co-opted by the California Raisins (and sung by former Jimi Hendrix drummer Buddy Miles) in 1986.