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  • Tony Harris

OPEN SKY


Oh no... there's another one of those critics' lists - a new Rolling Stone Magazine "Top 500 Albums Of All Time". That's guaranteed to send me off on one.


I really don't know why I keep looking at them but one man's meat is another man's poison.


What is clear in the latest list is the influence of RnB, rap and Hip Hop as the more popular genres of the last twenty years and the obvious victim seems to have been anything classified as Classic Rock. It really isn't that surprising and I am not critical of that.


However, 2003's #1 album was the Beatles "Sgt Pepper" and now languishes at #24. Now, in truth I cannot remember the last time I listened to that album, I have probably played all of the others at some stage at least once since then but there is no doubting that it has a historical importance as the first record to really open up the possibilities of what a long player could do.


This response seems to cement either the breakdown in cross-generational appreciation or perhaps acts just as a symbol of twenty first century churlishness.


The world spins and haircuts change... just not mine.


What is interesting is that the new #1 on the list was the previous #6 the wonderful "What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye which is another album of incredible historic importance. Certainly it was the first Motown record to be conceived very much as an album and has a relevance still today with its musical social commentary that covers inequality, division and the environment. It is also beautifully produced and was the very pinnacle of Marvin's unparalleled power of performance, driven by the earliest stages of his battle with some very personal demons.


It is always viewed as a breakthrough because of its adoption of social themes which the Motown Corporation had always endeavoured to avoid in order to maintain their crossover appeal. Almost simultaneously, Steve Wonder began his incredible series of albums too, beginning with "Music Of My Mind" which likewise took on many more downbeat themes (admittedly set to upbeat rhythms). This seemed to be the tenor of Motown in the seventies as they began to turn out more "important" music with Marvin and Stevie at the forefront.


But they weren't the first on the label to tread this path.


At the end of 1968, probably Motown's most consistent performers (just edging out the Supremes) were the Temptations who had been knocking out hit after hit but had come across something of a bump in the road when they had been forced to fire one of their members, the charismatic David Ruffin, who had been the lead vocal on hits such as "My Girl", "I Wish It Would Rain" and (one of my jukebox picks) "I Know I'm Losing You".


I am careful about referring to him as the lead singer because there was never supposed to be any single lead in the Temptations and this led to their unique vocal dexterity. However, as their success grew the magnetic charisma of Ruffin drew more attention and this turned his head. Furthermore, it turned him against his bandmates as his erratic behaviour and addictions meant that he could not be relied upon - especially important in a band that depended on the tightest of blends.


He was replaced in 1968 by Dennis Edwards, who had sung with one of Motown's B-list bands, The Contours. It wasn't a straight swap as Edwards' voice was probably a little grittier than his predecessor's but the band were very much determined that they were going to be seen as a unit rather than a backing band in any case.


The other change was the change in soul music which had seen The Temptations and their slick - but a bit cabaret - act start to look a little out of touch in a world that had really taken to bands such as Sly & The Family Stone with their "deeper" messages and more rhythmic productions. Indeed, this inspired Otis Williams, the second tenor of the group, to tell their writer Norman Whitfield to produce something for them more like Stone's work.


"Dance To The Music" had been an incredible hit earlier that year and its multi-lead vocals had brought real energy to the record and while Strong thought it was just a passing fashion, Williams felt certain that something more powerful along these lines was possible for The Temptations.


With all of that in mind, Whitfield got together with his writing partner, Barrett Strong and produced the powerhouse that was "Cloud Nine". It is a tremendous vocal performance with all members trading vocals as seamlessly as they did dance steps (and watch the video for one of the slickest performances you will ever see) but also the first time they began to deal with any kind of social issue in their lyrics.


It has often been cited as a song with drug references but instead it was intended to talk about the means of escape for the poor and oppressed in late 60s America (and there were plenty at the time who associated with the sentiment). It is an incredibly strong record that really transformed The Temptations as recording artists, delivering them theirs and the label's first Grammy.


Although the band had proved they could be soulful in their previous incarnation, with "Cloud Nine" they appeared far more in touch with the tinderbox world of early 1969.

Whilst the title track was a tremendous opener for the album, that was followed by their version of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" recorded just as Marvin Gaye's version was hitting #1 all over the world. Interestingly, Whitfield had been trying to turn this record into a hit since 1966 when Smokey Robinson and the Miracles were the first to record it. In late 1967, Gladys Knight and the Pips managed a hit version with a more uptempo almost gospel-like version before Berry Gordy reluctantly allowed Marvin to release his version and the rest was history.


Sadly, it overlooks the Temptations version which is closer to Gladys Knight's quicker version but removes the piano part almost entirely which creates a very different mood - not sinister like Marvin's (or Creedence's for that matter) but certainly aggressive with the guitar more to the front of the instrumentation. They are all worth a listen out of historical interest alone - certainly Norman Whitfield always felt it was one of his strongest songs and hence it kept returning to Berry Gordy's review table.


However, the first side of the "Cloud Nine" album is finished with another socially driven song from The Temptations - the epic "Runaway Child Running Wild". Again, there was a lot of sharp vocal interplay between all five members - again almost to reinforce the leaderless group ethic. The full album version is over nine minutes long and ended in a funky instrumental jam that was to become something of a hallmark for their later records, with Earl Van Dyke's organ and Dennis Coffey's guitar laying down a seamless bed long after the vocals have faded away.

The subject matter again is far removed from many of the topics you would normally find in Motown lyrics and seems almost to act as an outlier for classic Stevie Wonder tracks such as "Living For The City" or "Higher Ground". Even in its single version it still remained hugely powerful.


There is no doubt that this change of direction was a huge gamble for the band, their normally cautious label and its risk-averse head and so the second side of the album is undoubtedly back into more familiar Temptations territory. Beautifully produced and immaculately performed but more of what you knew and with far less multi-vocal interplay.


The highlight is actually a real Northern soul stomper which seemed to recycle (Motown did this a lot) the arrangement from an old Tammi Terrell recording "I Gotta Find A Way (To Get You Back)" which was a real showcase for new boy Dennis Edwards. There's a clever mix of the two versions when you descend down the YouTube rabbit hole should you be interested - it's a razor sharp duet with classic Funk Brothers backing.

So whilst The Temptations "Cloud Nine" album is literally and figuratively a record of two distinct halves, there is much to enjoy and whilst the uneven-ness of the record denies it classic status, it would seem that their shift to a harder edge for their sound and material was definitely the way for future success.


Critics - and we know what I am starting to think about them - had started to call this genre Psychedelic Soul which does not seem an accurate depiction at all - you need more than a swirly cover. If anything it is closer to a smoother brand of funk - especially when allied to the more meaningful stories they had decided to tell.


The Temptations were still leading the way in this respect when around a year later they produced another social epic with the magnificent "Ball Of Confusion" and there is likewise another astonishing extended mix of this with some powerful jams.

"What's Going On" is an incredibly important album and so is "Innervisions"; they both set the tone for Motown's presence in the 70s where the eagerness to please crossover audiences was not always so keenly sought - although they regularly did. But the first of the acts to really make a shift in this direction were the often overlooked Temptations and these records were a good two years before their more feted successors.


Do not be fooled by their slickness, their collaborations with the Supremes or their appearances at The Copa and The Talk of The Town, their impact was immense at this particular moment in time. The risk was all the more exacerbated by their recent line-up change and the potential to lose their existing audience and incredible run of success.


That they did not is a testament to their change in attitude to the material they produced and the return to their team ethic. "Cloud Nine" may not have the plaudits of the albums that followed but Side 1 is a pioneering piece of recording history and deserves to be recognised as such.


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