On Boxing Day, BBC Radio airs a new documentary about the Detroit label. Which is all the excuse we needed to create a playlist.
The Contours – First I Look at the Purse
The Marvelettes – Too Many Fish in the Sea
Picking a favourite Motown track is like picking a favourite child: impossible, because I have thousands of equally amazing and famous children.
No, that’s not right. I’m skirting around the problem immediately by picking TWO favourite Motown tracks – a boy and a girl. But how do you even begin to dismiss Marvin Gaye in favour of Stevie Wonder or choose Diana Ross over Gladys Knight?
I’m going to cheat further then by picking two groups. That way I have essentially chosen TEN MOTOWN ACTS when asked to pick one. I’m more slippery than George Clooney’s stuntman tied to a bed waiting on Julia Roberts’ stuntwoman.
I’m not going to pick the Vandellas, The Supremes, The Temptations or The Miracles because I’m going to have to trust you.
I’m trusting you’re already are so familiar with Dancing in The Street, Stop! In The Name of Love, Papa Was a Rolling Stone, I Second That Emotion and more that I only need to say those titles and you can hear the whole song in your head and that’s FOUR MORE CHOICES I’ve sneaked in.
What I will settle on is two tracks I can’t not have you knowing. The Contours’ First I Look at the Purse is at once funky as hell, and funny as fuck. They’re telling us they don’t care what their ladies look like: the waistline, needing a wig – all good, cash is better. They’re struggling musicians; have a heart. These aren’t boys after trophy wives; they aren’t threatened by female success or turned off by a large weight or greater intelligence. They bloody love a successful woman. All they need is one that might help look after their sorry arses.
Do You Love Me? was of course the Contours’ huge single, so please play that too (sneaky extra choice) as its shouted vocal is rocky as hell, but it maybe still didn’t sell enough to pay all their bills. (Fun Motown fact: the record is produced by Smokey Robinson and the song is co-written by and has a spoken word intro from Bobby Rogers from Smokey’s backing band The Miracles. If you’ve signed everyone, use everyone I say.)
The second track it’s imperative you hear is by The Marvelettes. The Marvelettes are amazing for many reasons: a group of ladies who met as school friends, they were a group with genuine chemistry and after trailblazers The Miracles, they were the first Motown act to have real success.
Please Mr Postman (which you’ll know, so that’s another one we’ve racked up) was one of the first ever number one singles recorded by an all-female group. I’m choosing their track Too Many Fish in the Sea as a direct companion to First I Look at the Purse as these girls are giving you advice on how you shouldn’t waste your time on any loser man; the world is, quite literally, your oyster. “Short ones, tall ones, fine ones, kind ones / Don’t worry about him, let it go. Do without him.” Listen to The Marvelettes, ladies – in every sense.
The Supremes – You Can’t Hurry Love
Nearly 50 years since it was recorded, everyone still loves this song, right? Even the chirpy Phil Collins cover of 1982 (a special shout out to the video containing THREE dancing Phils) is an absolute belter.
As far as tracks from the divas of Motown go, this isn’t as slick as some, but is all the better for it. The bouncing bass and strong percussive backbone belie the lovelorn frailty of Diana Ross’s vocals and the almost heartbreaking hopefulness of those lyrics. “You can’t hurry love / No, you just have to wait / You got to trust, give it time / No matter how long it takes.”
Yeah, Di love, it’s a bastard, isn’t it? Hope is mostly a prick and patience in love is one of the toughest things to practise. No wonder she sounds like she might start crying.
You Can’t Hurry Love is perfect in its simplicity and a superb example of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s Motown maths: bass and percussion + horns + pretty vocals and catchy lyrics = bloody lovely stuff.
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – Tracks of My Tears
I love Motown. I’m not sure I’d trust anyone who doesn’t. Something has to be wrong with your internal workings if you can’t respond to a little Motown.
Picking my favourite song is no easy task, but it’s gotta be Tracks of My Tears. From the iconic bittersweet guitar licks at the top to the soaring finish, it’s the kind of song that makes you want to raise your (10th) drink and sing along, badly.
“Love’s compared to a freak weather condition, demonic possession and a medical condition. Who else ever crammed high blood pressure into a song?”
Bob Dylan once said that Smokey Robinson was the best songwriter of his era, and he had a point: “Outside I’m masquerading / inside my hope is fading… My smile is my makeup I wear since my breakup with you” sung in a voice which would melt rock into salted caramel.
What lunatic dumped Smokey and left him in these gloriously poetic pieces? A fool, that’s who.
Martha Reeves & The Vandellas – Heatwave
Picking the apogee of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s career is like selecting the All Blacks’ best try or Jim Davidson’s worst joke. But the choice needs making and I’m going for Heatwave, because, well just listen to it.
When I was growing up, it was one of the few Motown tracks my mum didn’t have on record or tape. In fact, the only place to hear it – how I envy children who can just go on Spotify or YouTube – was on a documentary my mum had recorded off the telly about HDH. And man, did I watch that until it was warped.
Like all their tracks, it’s simple but devastatingly effective: “Sometimes I stare in space / Tears all over my face / I can’t explain it / Don’ understand it / I ain’t never felt like this before.” Love’s compared to a freak weather condition, demonic possession and a medical condition (who else ever crammed high blood pressure into a song?) Add in the superlative voice of Reeves and you’ve got something you get excited about listening to again before it’s even ended.
Gladys Knight & The Pips – If I Were Your Woman
Damn. Is there a more gut-wrenching ode to unrequited love? If there is, please don’t ever play it for me as I don’t think I could bear poetry more powerful than If I Were Your Woman.
Written by Pam Sawyer and Gloria Jones, the song was influenced by the growing Women’s Lib movement. The two wanted to express the desires of a woman in love who was absolutely committed to a person while maintaining their own strength. If ever there was a set of pipes to blast that sentiment through, they belong to Gladys Knight.
IIWYW came into my life via one of my favourite television shows, Murphy Brown. The titular character, played by Candice Bergen, was a prize-winning television journalist. She was sharp, tough, and brilliant, but her emotional side was showcased through her love of Motown. The Detroit sound was the program’s aural backdrop. When the show whizzed ahead in the ratings, the production team put out a Murphy Brown soundtrack full of Motor City gems.
I was 13 years old and this song scored the school bus journey for my entire eighth grade year. I’d push play on the cassette in my Walkman, stare out the window, and visualise the drama in my head… dedicating it to whichever girl crush wasn’t crushing me back. I’m so glad I liked good music as a teenager. It makes that memory so much less embarrassing.
Stevie Wonder – Lately
You know when the first few of notes of a song can make your heart shoot right down to your boots? Though Stevie Wonder is the king of the upbeat intro and clearly many of his other songs are far more critically acclaimed – and better – it’s this one I turn to again and again in times of sadness (and happiness and general existenceness).
Poor old Stevie in his wheelchair (he doesn’t actually say he’s in a wheelchair in the song but he totally is), staring in the mirror (wait, what?) picking himself apart and wondering what he’s done wrong to make her stray. It’s heartbreaking.
Released in 1980 on the Hotter Than July album (of Master Blaster fame), it’s not even the best song there but it has such nostalgic power over me. I remember listening to it over and over and over again while babysitting for the folk down the road. Their house was immaculate, they had nice clothes and she wore perfume all the time (probably with “no special place to go“, the bitch). They were therefore regularly cast in my fevered mind as the protagonists. They later divorced, is all I’m saying.
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