Tuesday, June 18, 2013
Smokey Robinson & the Miracles: Make It Happen (1967)
Plain-jane guitar music just doesn't seem to be commanding my attention much so far this summer, and no, it's not really summer yet, but when we reach the upper nineties outside and you tell me it's still springtime, that's when I etc etc. A fine time to let go of some of that oppressive heat with the shedding of some old-fashioned conventional wisdom. Let it be warned that what you're seeing here is a theory in progress -- but you know that thing you've read in every rock & roll reference book about how '60s Motown LPs are skippable because they're utterly full of filler, thus excusing the tendency of most scholars to judge the label's seminal output of that seminal decade solely on the basis (admittedly strong) of all those seminal singles and radio hits? Starting to think that maybe there's some element of writerly research laziness that led to such a conclusion.
For now, we're just dealing with one exhibit in our argument here but more will follow. Make It Happen is an interesting and unusual record historically, having been released under two separate names for commercially savvy reasons. This is a lovely, consistent half hour of music, and I have trouble imagining that it alone among the wall of attractive soul records lining the shelves at Gravity here in town is the big holy-grail assembly-line Motown record that's actually Good and Consistent. We've long been at the mercy of compilers over at Universal who seem to think that what we care about is the chance to hear, I dunno, the Marvelettes singing Gershwin. Whatever. No way -- the albums that I've heard so far from this period emphasize the speaker-blowing power of the hits but also operate and elaborate on the idioms established by those hits. There are a lot of obscure songs by the Supremes that are just as well-crafted and instantly appealing as their singles. And do you really think that a savvy if bullish capitalist like Berry Gordy would expect to sustain in the marketplace putting out shit artwork in the decade of the Beatles and Beach Boys? Hell, the Rivieras put out great albums in the '60s, you best believe luminaries like those under Gordy's abusive regime did the same.
This is illustrative of a tendency to more seriously consider white music than black in longform; I think Make It Happen has just as much to offer as Pet Sounds or Revolver and is certainly in the same wheelhouse of song-cycle variance and brooding meditation. One important distinction: the Miracles record sounds a thousand times better in stereo than the two touchstones. In fact, it's such a revelation to hear these songs with such a wide, expansive frame that you fully believe it's a newer recording than it is, so cleanly and lushly and flawlessly produced is it.
But that's all technical shit really, isn't it? What matters is the top-caliber writing and performance, just out of the gate on the prototypical groove of "The Soulful Shack," halfway between psychedelia and quiet storm. You can sense the Motown stylistics adapting to Smokey Robinson's peculiarities, and the Funk Brothers were always masters at adaptation -- "My Love for You" compares favorably to "Just My Imagination," still four years ahead. They never stop working within the so-called "Motown sound," but they can sound like so much more, including a thorny garage band on "Dancing's Alright," a sort of arthouse "Wooly Bully." The cover of Little Anthony's "I'm on the Outside" is done up like a jazz standard, and the Miracles' propensity for pure body music rolls back around on "It's a Good Feeling," nearly as good as (and much looser than) "Going to a Go Go." The point being: leader, singers, writers, producers, band, label are by no means resting on laurels here. There's heart and effort to spare in this.
This is undoubtedly on the upper echelon of Motown LPs, but it explains a basic element of the label's strategy. Go beyond the singles, and Smokey and the group use the keymarks to establish and sink into a mood -- one that you will find intensely complementary if you're a fan of the hits; that's good strategy both commercially and artistically, and there's a sense of hands being held to enter more adventurous, uncertain territory. "More Love" is a more personal and raw and delicately structured tune than ever reached the radio from Robinson's pen, and its bass and piano-saturated bottom-heaviness carries through from the dramatic "Don't Think It's Me," which boasts a compressed intensity and thumping menace that give the midsection of the record a surprisingly unsettling quality, not far from the Impressions' work of this same period -- or Marvin Gaye's more carefully produced records in the early '70s. Freed from the constraints of the 45, constraints which normally lent him his definitive context, Smokey is able to explore the sensuality in his voice and lyrics on a song like the romantically demanding "After You Put Back the Pieces." You may get confused by the songs' titles (which include a tune called "More Love," one called "You Must Be Love," one called "My Love for You," and one called "My Love Is Your Love") but you won't forget any of them.
Still, the singles do burst out the same way they do on, say, a Wilson Pickett or a Cars record, and that's not a bad thing. "The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage" is still, for me, one of the peaks of the Miracles' output, a fascinating inverse of the sinister, controlled fury in a production like Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," wherein the only output is darkest, tormented pain put across by Robinson's stirring, stunning performance. But of course "Tears of a Clown," an accidental-of-sorts collaboration with Stevie Wonder, is the monument here. Correctly placed at the end of the record because (as any DJ knows) virtually nothing can follow it without a radical change of mood and breaking of spell, it features the most powerful playing in the Motown catalog outside of "I Want You Back"... and at the time of the LP's release, it wasn't a single.
Which proves something. It was so unmistakably a classic that AOR stations gradually picked it up, as did a few Northern Soul jockeys in the UK, and Motown felt no choice but to let it into the marketplace, where it became Robinson's biggest-ever hit. How it was missed the first time around is one of those baffling questions we can never answer. With a profound urgency, witty and erudite and desperately sad lyrics, and a tricky, Eastern-inflected yet entirely unique production and melody, it's as perfect an expression of lonely defeat as "Tracks of My Tears" and yet unlike that song, it discovers triumph and transcendence in its sense of loss; no one but Robinson could ever get so much swing out of the way he sings the title at the close of each chorus and then, without taking a breath, slyly add "when there's no one around" and lead us directly into the next drum fill to another part of a song that, much in the vein of the Beatles' "Ticket to Ride," simply never flags. It just keeps building and building on top of itself and it would simply burst if it did not fade out.
But let's reiterate: only a hit three years after the album was released. A gem buried on one of those supposedly filler-squashed Motown LPs. But here we are. So close to a scenario in which it was never discovered and I might only uncover it upon exploring this album for the first time a few years ago, and I could say "this song is incredible, an absolute masterwork," and would you believe me? No. Because it's on a Motown album, man, a '60s soul album, a collection of black music from the '60s. Those guys didn't have Total Artistic Control of their discographies then, y'all, didja know that? Didja know? (Though Smokey probably wielded a fair bit of power -- bottom line, it's irrelevant.)
We've expressed a theory in this space before that all popular music as we know it is a process of reeling and coping with the consequences of what was laid on tape in the '60s; by the end of that decade, nearly every basic idea and concept that could exist as an outgrowth of pop music form had been at least approached if not fully defined. Secondarily, we must remember that conventional wisdom can be very dangerous, and in fact usually is; it wasn't so long ago that we truly believed Alfred Hitchcock storyboarded and immaculately planned every frame of his films and did nothing but rote committing to film on his sets, and barely a decade ago it was still believed that the Beach Boys seldom played on their own '60s records. Quite apart from that -- take others' views, this blog included if you care enough to read it regularly, as a roadmap but still with a healthy grain of salt. Your own exploration will by definition reveal far more to you. Ignore any facet -- any facet -- of Motown in the '60s at your own risk. This record is sumptuous and pleasurable from beginning to end, it shall endure the storms of time, and there's not a chance in hell that it's alone.
Ooo Baby Baby: The Anthology (1961-72)