The Songwriters – Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong

Norman Whitfield (left) and Barrett Strong

While Motown had its own very strong musical identity, one thing it couldn’t be accused of is following fashion. Motown was Motown and the rest of the world could do what it liked. The Beatles progressed from She Loves You to Strawberry Fields Forever as the Sixties  moved on, but in Detroit it was still sequined gowns, tight-fitting suits and dance routines. And as the quality remained peerless, who could complain?

One man who did like to move with the times, though, was producer and composer Norman Whitfield, usually working with lyricist Barrett Strong. As the man who directed the career of The Temptations, Whitfield managed to introduce new ideas that reflected the psychedelic sounds that were bathing music in mutating coloured light shapes, with singles such as Cloud Nine, Psychedelic Shack, Ball of Confusion and the masterly Papa Was A Rolling Stone, a tale of a young man’s tough upbringing in a poor family with a feckless father. Strong’s lyrics are delivered over Whitfield’s  loose, rather menacing production, resulting in a unique three minutes 40 seconds that showed the world the label didn’t live in a room full of mirrors after all. (Of the rest of the artists and producers, we should acknowledge Holland-Dozier-Holland for the rather naff The Happening and the utterly cool Reflections.)

Even if you’re not a fan of this strain of Motown, Whitfield is a significant figure in the label’s history. After typical early songs like Ain’t Too Proud to Beg and (I Know) I’m Losing You, later covered by Rod Stewart, he gave us the monumental slow burner I Heard It Through The Grapevine, which, as was the way at the time, had a double life. It was a big hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips in the US, although the UK resisted its charms until the Marvin Gaye version appeared shortly afterwards. It’s hard to imagine The Beatles and The Rolling Stones having hits with the same song within months of each other, but such was the wealth of talent  within Motown – and the appetite of the fans.

Whitfield also wrote Edwin Starr’s War, I Can’t Get Next To You, a hit for The Temptations, Too Busy Thinking About My Baby (Marvin Gaye) and a late bloomer in It Should Have Been Me for Yvonne Fair in 1975. Previously recorded by Gladys Knight and the Pips, this is a murderously intense tale of unrequited love, the singer dangerously close to the emotional edge as she sees her man marrying someone else.

Even later, and on his own Whitfield label, came his composition Car Wash, which launched the career of Rose Royce.

Again, this demonstrates growth on the part of the writer, as we see if we go back to Whitfield’s early 60s days and The Velvelettes’ Really Saying Something and the wonderfully blank-faced Needle In A Haystack.


The wisdom of pop songs – Boats and ships

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

A couple of weeks ago we had a look at air travel through the eyes of the world’s songwriters and now it’s time to take to the water: boats.

Boating is not necessarily about long voyages; it can be about pleasure and relaxation. In 1961 a Scottish folk singer called Josh MacRae had a UK hit with a sleepy piece of whimsy called Messing About On The River, in which he extolled the virtues of taking it easy on the water. Josh wasn’t his real name – he borrowed it from  blues musician he liked. He was really Iain, and if this song is representative of his usual conversation, one can surmise that he loved his mother, went caravanning to the same loch-side location every year and sometimes treated himself to a naughty third glass of shandy. A Jack Daniels-swigging rebel he wasn’t, but what is called in the UK an anorak, as this couplet suggests:

There are tillers and rudders and anchors and cleats,
And ropes that are sometimes referred to as sheets.

Rock on, Iain. Or folk on, perhaps.

New Zealand being a former British territory, that song may well have been crooning through the speaker of the radio in the house of the young Tim Finn before he formed Split Enz and was subsequently eclipsed by his younger brother Neil, with Crowded House. Split Enz had great success with the wonderful Six Months in a Leaky Boat, a rollicking tale of life on the high seas.

The Beach Boys had already brought us Sloop John B, a folk song from the Bahamas that told of problems of drunkenness and ill health aboard the eponymous ship, leaving the narrator wanting to go home.

You don’t get this kind of thing with air travel, because it’s all over too quickly.

Many songs with boat or ship in the title actually have nothing to do with nautical matters: Bebop Deluxe’s Ships in the Night, for instance, is a figure of speech meaning two people who don’t really connect, while the Walker Brothers’ My Ship Is Coming In is another way of saying his fortunes are changing and “things are gonna be different now”.

One of this blog’s favourite songs on any subject is perfect here, though: Procol Harum’s A Salty Dog, a beautifully crafted story of British sailors thousands of miles from home and settling on a remote island. Lyricist Keith Reid put the words in Gary Brooker’s mouth – he also created the psychedelic strangeness of A Whiter Shade of Pale – and perhaps because he wasn’t singing them himself, he had a poetic flair and breadth of vision that is all too rare in pop music.

We fired the gun, and burned the mast, and rowed from ship to shore
The captain cried, we sailors wept: our tears were tears of joy
Now many moons and many Junes have passed since we made land
A salty dog, this seaman’s log: your witness my own hand

Rod Stewart’s massive hit Sailing, a song of love and loneliness, was written by Gavin Sutherland of the Sutherland Brothers, who enjoyed considerable success in their own right but are probably sick to death of the song, if not the royalties.

Christopher Cross’s song of the same name seems to tell of his love for being out on the water himself, forgetting his worldly cares because “the canvas can do miracles”.

Much less well known but equally brilliant are two songs by The Band. Rocking Chair, on their second album, the one with Up on Cripple Creek and Rag Mama Rag, features an ageing  man urging his friend Willie to join him in retiring from their seafaring life because they’re simply too old.

I spent my whole life at sea
And I’m pushing age 73
Now there’s only one place that was meant for me

Later came Evangeline, which sounds like a Canadian folk song but was actually written by guitarist Robbie Robertson just in time to be tacked onto the end of the film The Last Waltz. A tale of a riverboat gambler and his drowning  while his love watches, helpless, from a hilltop, it features the voices of Rick Danko and Levon Helm, with the girl portrayed by Emmylou Harris.

Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Proud Mary evokes a similar era, albeit far less dramatically.

A completely different angle comes from Elvis Costello with Shipbuilding, which was also a hit for Robert Wyatt. Set in the tough economic times of the early 1980s when the Falklands war was generating money for the north of England and Scotland because war ships needed to be built, it’s about as appealing as a politically-motivated song can be.

Is it worth it?
A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday…

Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed in
The result of this shipbuilding

And on that somber note, The Wisdom of Pop Songs will see you next Friday.