Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The Boy About Motown

Motown is now a ghost town. It curled up and died along with my youth a long time ago when the days I could dance without feeling discomfited came to an end.

Not only was it the sound of my dancing youth, it was also, as Gary Kemp once succinctly put it, the sound of my soul. When the Four Tops descended from heaven in Tottenham Royal or Streatham Locarno or The Lyceum, well sugar pie honey bunch, I couldn’t help myself. I’d steam onto the dance floor fuelled by an ocean of Double Diamond – it really did work wonders – and start to groove in the hope of getting entangled in a web of sticky-sweet stares spun by creamy girls.

When they slowed things down, you were on cloud nine in dream time with your arms around a shapely stranger hoping upon hope she’d let you in… ‘I'm gonna use every trick in the book, I'll try my best to get you hooked. Oh baby…’

And while each slice of three minute Motown vinyl caressed the gleaming threads of my three piece mohair suit, everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

When the dancehalls closed for the night and the only sound was traffic and the second hand emotions of your mates as you walked home, your soul would still be dancing to that Detroit beat. Motown, mohair, magic.

The lyrics were as infectious as the melodies. Through a funky, speeded-up osmosis (with the emphasis on speed – the pills gave you room to move on the dance floor), they infiltrated your mind. I knew the words to I Heard It Through The Grapevine after just two hearings. Baby Love only required one spin on the turntable and I remembered all its cutie pie sentiments, word for word.

We danced to Motown, snogged to Motown, ate, drove, shagged and fell asleep to Motown. Above all we listened to Motown, and heard, really heard, every glorious, impassioned moment.

The melody lingers on in a new exhibition that’s just opened at the fabulous Proud Gallery in Camden – a unique photographic homage that chronicles the rise of Tamla Motown with rare and unseen photographs of the visit to these shores of artists in 1964 and in 1965 when they played their first British concert tour and when Stevie Wonder had a Little prefix.

It charts the UK history of the label throughout the 60s and 70s, the classic years, the Berry Gordy, Holland-Dozier Holland, Norman Whitfield years when artists like Smokey Robinson, Temptations, Martha Reeves, The Supremes and The Jacksons were never out of the UK charts. All the photos on display were taken by EMI photographers at the time.

These were the sweet days, when songs rolled off the production line like the cars once did in Detroit. When Stevie Wonder ditched his cherie amour for dreadlocks and the sublime sophistication of ‘Sunshine Of My Life’ and the Isley Brothers left the label to become hippies.

After Motown finally moved lock, stock and smokin’ barrel from Detroit to Los Angeles, the hot sun slowly dried out that fecund, motor city magic and things were never the same again, Lionel Richie or no Lionel Richie.

The ‘end’ wall of the exhibition is reserved for perhaps the brightest Motown star of them all. Just think of that gorgeous, searching sax intro leading you to the sweetest vocals this side of heaven… ‘Mother mother, there’s too many of you crying…’

Marvin Gaye was always the grown-up in the Motown stable, like a sexier, despairing Smokey Robinson – mad, bad and dangerous to know, the voice of an angel with a dark secret. The photos were taken in London during visits in 1980 and ’81 just a few years before he was shot dead by his father. It’s a fitting finale.

The Gallery did us Proud at the exhibition preview when Martha Reeves and The Vandellas hit the stage for a blistering set that included their three big hits, ‘Heatwave’, ‘Jimmy Mack’ and, of course, ‘Dancing In The Street’ which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary. Scary.

Martha, at 72, ain’t no spring chicken but fuck me, she could’ve danced all night in that tight gold dress that certainly accentuated her positives, and still have begged for more. Rousing springs to mind, not just the performance but for the memories she brought back to life. It felt like this was the only place you could possibly want to be at that moment and that doesn’t happen very often.

When I got home, I dug out my old copy of Motown Chartbusters Volume 3, the one with the shiny silver cover released in November 1969. How’s this for a track listing:

1. I Heard It Through The Grapevine - Marvin Gaye

2. I'm Gonna Make You Love Me - Diana Ross & The Supremes And The Temptations

3. My Cherie Amour - Stevie Wonder

4. This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You) - The Isley Brothers

5. I'll Pick A Rose For My Rose - Marv Johnson

6. No Matter What Sign You Are - Diana Ross & The Supremes

7. I'm in a Different World - The Four Tops

8. Dancing In The Street - Martha Reeves & The Vandellas

9. For Once In My Life - Stevie Wonder

10. You're All I Need To Get By - Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell

11. Get Ready - The Temptations

12. Stop Her On The Sight (S.O.S) - Edwin Starr

13. Love Child - Diana Ross & The Supremes

14. Behind a Painted Smile - The Isley Brothers

Hardly a dud amongst them. Yet there was only one song in that smorgasbord of classics that got to No. 1 in the UK. Any idea? Have to hurry you…’S’right, ‘Grapevine’.

‘Listening to Marvin all night long
This is the sound of my soul…’

Proud Galleries, in collaboration with EMI, Bravado and Universal Music, present Classic Motown – The Invasion Begins
The exhibition runs from 14th May – 13th July 2014, Monday to Sunday: 11am – 5pm. Free entry.
Address: The Horse Hospital, Stables Market, Chalk Farm Road. London NW1 8AH

Check out Barry’s new novel, Wet Dreams Dry Lives http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00H0IM2CY



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