The Songwriters – Smokey Robinson

With his high voice, slight build and innocent smile, Smokey Robinson couldn’t be further from the macho image cultivated by many of his contemporaries in the late 60s and early 70s. No Shaft-style bushy moustache and threatening manner for him. He was a vegetarian before it was fashionable (he gave up meat in 1972) and practices transcendental meditation.

The Smokey persona comes through in his songs, too: light, relatively sophisticated  and they suit female singers  as much as men. He often co-wrote songs, sometimes with other members of the Miracles, but there is never any doubt who is at the helm.

Shop Around was a Motown hit in 1960 and although as the title suggests it is about playing the field rather than settling for the first girl who comes along, we are invited to believe the advice came from the singer’s mother.

Of course, you can’t get a perfect picture of a man through the songs he writes, and Smokey was  no angel – he married fellow Miracle Claudette Rogers and they had two children together, but he had extramarital affairs and a son by another woman. But fidelity in the entertainment industry is a difficult thing to achieve. How many men could go through decades of girls throwing themselves at them without weakening? I would suggest it’s more a case of who gets caught and who remains undetected.

Mary Wells was an early recipient of Robinson songs. One of Motown’s first stars, Wells soon left the label, making the mistake of thinking she could do it on her own after a while. But before she went, she found success with Robinson’s You Beat Me To The Punch and the timeless My Guy, smooth and seductive as a milkshake, even when the seduction was already booked by the object of her affections.

My Girl, a major success for The Temptations, did for men what My Guy had done for women and instantly Smokey was a genuine songwriting star.

For his own group, The Miracles, he came up with Ooh Baby Baby, the divine nature of which probably owes as much to his singing as to the song itself. It wouldn’t have amounted to much in the hands of, say, Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, but with Robinson’s vocals weaving patterns like little white clouds in a blue sky, it was a smash in the US in 1964, although for some reason not in the UK. Not to worry: the digital download age makes it available to us now. And what an addition to a Motown collection it is: he’s treated his girl badly and lost her, but he’s not giving up; he’s not exactly begging, but making it clear that it will never happen again, and for once in pop it sounds genuine. Ella Fitzgerald, Todd Rundgren and Linda Ronstadt are among those who have covered it, and British lovers rock pioneer Janet Kay did a typically cute, bouncy version, but the composer’s original is untouchable. Since I discovered Ooh Baby Baby there have been whole weeks when I couldn’t get it out of my head.

The Miracles, now with Smokey’s name upfront, cemented their place in pop history in 1965 with Tracks of My Tears, and the following year The Temptations grasped with both hands the opportunity to record Get Ready.

Then there was The Hunter Gets Captured By the Game, a sublime recording by The Marvelettes and reworked in 1990 by Grace Jones, with some success but losing the wistful charm of the original. The Marvelettes track is one of Robinson’s masterpieces, that evocative title giving a new twist to the age-old question of who-captures-whom when prospective lovers get together.

Shortly afterwards, Robinson was back on classic territory with I Second That Emotion, The Temptations getting first crack at it and unerringly hitting the spot. The Miracles did it too, it almost goes without saying, and probably the most unlikely cover version was by arty rock group Japan in 1980. Their choosing to do it is testament to the enduring power of the Motown catalogue to inject some magic into an album of almost any genre.

In 1970 Tears Of A Clown emerged like a most welcome throwback to the mid 60s, and again it was adapted by a very different act later on: The Beat gave it the hyperactive TwoTone treatment in 1979/80.

In the early 70s The Supremes were in need of a lift, with Diana Ross well established as a solo performer and Holland Dozier Holland no longer available to supply the raw material. Robinson came to the rescue with Floy Joy and Automatically Sunshine, before the bubble burst.

Smokey himself flew back into the charts in 1981 with Being With You, but, as with the rest of the Motown crew, it’s the immortal 60s stuff we remember.

 

 

 

The wisdom of pop songs – Rain is good

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
rain c
Hey Barry, we’re up here

As we established last week, rain is generally seen as a bad thing in pop songs, but there are notable exceptions.

Walking in the rain might be avoided in the normal course of events, but when you’re in love, suddenly it’s a romantic thing to do.

Just before the dawn of rock’n’roll, in 1952, the classic musical number Singin’ in the Rain left no doubt as to the singer’s mood, while Johnny Ray had a hit with Just Walking in the Rain, in which he’s happy to be getting wet in this way because it takes his mind of his broken heart.

In 1964 the Ronettes brought us an update on that with their own Walking in the Rain, courtesy of the songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil plus producer Phil Spector. Jay and the Americans did a version too, and I am indebted to the erstwhile David Cassidy fan proprietor of the What’s It All About Alfie blog for pointing out that the Partridge Family also recorded it. They featured it in their TV show, playing it out by the pool, all dressed in pale blue shirts and dark blue trousers with matching waistcoats. Very smart. This is the sort of thing that women know, because while the show could be mildly amusing, Mum Partridge (Shirley Jones) didn’t appeal to us boys as much as Cassidy did to the (Eeek, I love you David!!!!!!!!!!) girls.

Not long afterwards, Barry White introduced himself by stealth as the power behind Love Unlimited, as the lovesick girl gets soaked through as she walks home and then, in one of pop’s cheesiest moments, phones Barry and tells him she has something to tell him. Guess what: she loves him. And he loves her too. And it’s still a monsoon outside but she doesn’t care because if he lays his bulk on her, the rain’s not going to be getting anywhere near.

Grace Jones’s Walking in the Rain in 1982 was a pretty straight rehash of the original by Flash and the Pan, and it is hard to tell whether the singer is happy to be out in the deluge or not. He or she just sounds defiant and contemptuous, so we’ll put it in the ‘rain is good’ column.

rain a
Oops, nearly forgot this one, which is all about trying to rescue an unhappy girl. She’s lonely and so is he, so there might be an ulterior motive

Randy Crawford’s version of Tony Joe White’s Rainy Night in Georgia is also ambiguous. He/she is tramping the streets with nowhere to go, but love in the heart makes it all bearable. Interestingly, White wrote this in the Sixties and soul crooner Brook Benton had a hit with it in 1970, but it’s Crawford’s damp sweater and angelic delivery in 1981 that puts the crown on it.

In other news, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen included Walk between Raindrops (he sings the raindrops but it isn’t in the title for some reason) on his solo album The Nightfly. And it’s a happy one. They’re in Florida, where rain is warm, and they’re in love, so let nature do what it will. Sleet and lightning? Who cares? Give us a kiss.

The Move had long since had their flower power hit, Flowers in the Rain, in which the singer is quite happy to be  in the rain because he’s out of his head… and what’s this… “If my pillow’s getting wet, I can’t see that it matters much to me.” Further scrutiny of the lyrics reveals that he has pushed his bed “into the grounds”, so maybe he’s been locked up already. Ultimately, though, as we keep discovering, you can almost never take a pop song at face value.

The Everly Brothers had found a new angle in 1962, or rather songwriters Howard Greenfield and Carole King had, with Crying in the Rain: it disguises tears, so you can walk around blubbing as much as you like if it’s pouring down on your head.

rain b
And take that fag out of your mouth when I’m talking to you

The Lovin Spoonful’s Rain on the Roof was all about being warm and dry with one’s new girlfriend, while Eddie Rabbit’s I Love A Rainy Night is pretty hard to misinterpret. He, apparently, just loves the rain because it cleanses things, including his life. Good for you, Eddie, glad you’re okay. (Strange boy.)

Possible the most joyful rain song of all is the Weather Girls’ It’s Raining Men, but then they’re not talking about real rain, and presumably the guys who are falling from the sky are not drips either.

Garbage’s 1995 hit I’m Only Happy When it Rains sounds to this hawk-eared observer like a title that sounded good, so they fleshed it out, desperately trying to create  a cohesive theme and thereby finding themselves claiming to enjoy misery and depression. God help them if they’re ever cross-examined about their mental state after they’ve just flown their passenger plane into a mountain and unexpectedly survived.

“I put it to you, Mr Garbage, that you were not a fit and proper person to take on this position in the first place.”

“Your honour, it’s only a bleeding pop song…”

A much happier vibe permeates Joni Mitchell’s Rainy Night House, back at the turn of the Seventies when Joni was happy to be seen as (and possibly was) naïve. Rainy night, empty house, young couple – whatever could happen next?

Rihanna’s huge hit Umbrella brings us right (and unusually) up to date, with a song that glorifies the strange contraption that someone must have invented (but we don’t know who). The umbrella of the song is in fact a metaphor: the girl is illustrating the fact that whatever the metaphorical weather in their lives, she will always provide her man with protection and comfort.

Again, she might regret it if it ever comes to a bitter marital breakdown and she’s sued for breach of promise.

“But madam, you stated in front of millions of people, through every TV, radio, laptop and cell phone in the world, that you would stick by him no matter what.”

All together now: “Your honour, it’s only a bleeding pop song.”

 

 

 

The wisdom of pop songs – Sex

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
tina
Rock you, Tina? I hope you mean what I think you mean

Sex. The very essence of rock, pop, soul and r’n’b music. Along with its more reserved sister, Love, it accounts for approximately 99.9% of all song lyrics.

The only problem facing people who want to write and sing about the oldest preoccupation is that to be explicit is to invite trouble, criticism, being banned and so on, which may or may not have an adverse effect on sales.

This, along with the usual need to rhyme, and the equally restrictive need to keep it simple, has resulted in certain innocent words being misused and eventually misconstrued.

Exhibit A: charms. The evidence against this is due entirely to its so often keeping company with the word arms, itself a harmless enough item except for its involvement in romantic clinches leading to intimacy.

Thus in the 1960s tale of a straying husband, 24 Hours from Tulsa, Gene Pitney tell us
All of a sudden I lost control as I held her charms
And I caressed her, kissed her
Told her I’d die before I would let her out of my arms

You held her ‘charms’ did you, Mr Pitney? And where were these ‘charms’ located? On her chest? Or at the top of her legs at the back?

The very term rock’n’roll is itself a reference to the sorts of motions made by those engaged in making love.

And talking of making love, is love really what people are talking about when they say that? It’s a euphemism that has made its way into the spoken word.

When Bad Company sang Feel Like Making Love, they weren’t suggesting merely saying a few romantic words in their lover’s ear, and nor was Roberta Flack in her very different song with the same title.

etta
Put them away, Etta. We get the idea

In the UK, Frankie Goes To Hollywood had their hit single Relax banned when people listened closely to the lyrics, as did Max Romeo with his ska smash Wet Dream.

At the beginning of her career Donna Summer made a fortune as much out of moaning and groaning suggestively as actually singing, while a few years later Olivia Newton John attempted to lose her nice-girl image by recording Let’s Get Physical, although many listeners were not convinced. She persevered by asking ‘will a little more love make you stop defending?’ when what she was really asking was if she would find her way into his heart by letting him have his wicked way with her again.

Notice how the ones sung by girls seem more brazen than the guys’ Neanderthal posturing. 1980s mini-star Charlene gave us I’ve Never Been to Me, in which she confides

I’ve been undressed by kings
And I’ve seen some things
That a woman’s not supposed to see

Oo err, girl, steady on.

Grace Jones, too fearsome a character for most men to make a pass at, took matters into her own hands with Pull Up to the Bumper, which had little to do with squeezing into a parking space. ‘In your long black limousine’, indeed.

grace
Where I come from you have a cigarette afterwards, not during

While so many songs of the past few years, particularly in the hiphop genre, are astonishingly sexist, with the bad muthas singing about ho’s and what they’re going to do to them, the world champion of the dirty lyric has to be the female rapper Khia, who came to prominence/notoriety in 2002 with My Neck My Back. The hit was with a cleaned-up version, but even on the raunchy original, she attempts to throw us off the track by mouthing different words on the video. While one person’s sexual interests are entirely their own business and the practices advocated in this song should not be condemned, you will have to look it up yourself, alone, preferably using headphones to protect the innocent. Or don’t.

So impressed was Miley Cyrus, Newton-John-like in her determination to redefine herself, that the former Hanna Montana recorded her own version of the song.

olivia
Give it a rest, Olivia – you’re just embarrassing yourself

It wasn’t an entirely original thought – is there anything that hasn’t been sung about before? In 1995 a UK indie duo called Scarlet had a hit with Independent Love Song, although its censor-evading urging to ‘go down, go down’ seems positively mild compared to what Khia and Miley are suggesting.

One can’t help wondering if, 20 years later, the Scarlet girls are living quietly in suburban obscurity, taking their own daughters to school and glossing over their brief brush with fame. After all, every generation of teenagers think they have exclusive rights to sex and it’s okay if they do it, but their parents?

God, Mum. You keep quiet about that or I’ll die.