Saturday, February 20, 2010

The 100 Best Singles In My Head
Nos. 71-75

I realize that most of these are "transition" songs -- singles that crept into my heart during down times when my big music manias (British Invasion, New Wave) had spent themselves. Indianapolis was more of a Motown city than you might expect, so it was inevitable that some soul classics would land here, as much a part of my musical DNA as the British beat stuff is. Jump from there to the 1980s to find an oddball pair of MTV-enhanced songs, among the last singles I ever owned in the Decade That Killed Rock Music.

[Click on the highlighted links to read my earlier posts on those songs]

71. "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone" / Bill Withers (1971)
By 1971, Motown fare already felt too slick -- R&B and rock were moving closer and closer to each other, and they didn't need to be kept in separate boxes anymore. When I hear Bill Withers' debut hit, though, it still feels like a real sea change to me. I was a senior in high school, a founding member of our school's crunchy-granola Human Relations Forum; we thrilled to this song, believing that Sam Cooke's longed-for change was finally gonna come. Withers' voice had a creased and weathered quality so different from the mellifluencies of Marvin Gaye or Smokey Robinson; this song was produced by Stax mainstay Booker T (released on Sussex Records), but the personnel also included rockers like Steven Stills on guitar and Jim Keltner on drums. Even more important, "Ain't No Sunshine" had a restless, provocative bite -- those morose verses, with their glum plodding bassline (Donald "Duck" Dunn?) and repeated melody -- "Ain't no sunshine when she's gone / It's not warm when she's away / Ain't no sunshine when she's gone / And she's always gone too long, anytime she goes away." Who knows why she's away -- a quarrel? infidelity? or is she just a free spirit? He's so down in the dumps (hear the grief-stricken swell of those minor-key strings), he can't even tell us. And of course, the best part: "Well I know I know I know I know I know" repeated 27 times, sung with shifting syncopation on one loooooong breath that finally peters into a croak. We just had to sing along with the "I knows," every time, it was so damn cathartic. Apparently Withers -- who when he recorded this still had a day job in a toilet-seat factory -- sang it this way in the studio as a placekeeper, intending to write a "proper" chorus, Holland-Dozier-Holland-style. Thank god Booker T was there to stop him.

72. "Standing in the Shadows of Love" / The Four Tops (1966)
The Temptations may have been Motown's most reliable hitmakers, but I'm sorry, in a smackdown between the Temptations and the Four Tops, I'd always choose the Four Tops.

73. "Tears Of A Clown" / Smokey Robinson & the Miracles (1970)
(No, not "Death of a Clown" -- sorry, Dave Davies fans.)
So why "Tears of a Clown" and not "Tracks of My Tears" -- Smokey Robinson's 1965 mega-hit, one of the greatest soul recordings ever made? I really struggled with this one.
Frankly, in my mind the two songs always run together -- "Tracks of My Tears" has basically the same theme (that great line "my smile is my make-up I wear since my break-up with you"). In fact this was originally conceived as a follow-up to "Tracks of My Tears," taking that laughing/crying dichotomy one step further -- working that clown imagery, even throwing in some strains of circus calliope and a reference to Pagliacci (for those few Motown fans who also listened to grand opera?). But while "Tracks" may be slower and more earnest, "Tears of a Clown" seems way more poignant to me. I was won over by that winsome melody, courtesy of co-writer Stevie Wonder (the only Motown artist I loved more than Smokey Robinson); it's perfect for Smokey's high breathy voice. "Now if there's a smile on my face / It's only there trying to fool the public / But when it comes down to fooling you / Now honey that's quite a different subject" (that "public/subject" rhyme kills me). Brisk and perky as the song seems, there's just enough creepy desperation in the arrangement -- listen to those shrill piccolos competing with a lagging bassoon -- because, I dunno, what's creepier and more haunting than a sad clown? I can just imagine this guy dancing as fast as he can, juggling all his balls in the air, even as his heart is breaking. I'll admit that "Track of My Tears" has been forever tainted for me by Linda Ronstadt's cover. But ultimately, as with so many songs on this list, it's all a question of timing. When "Tracks of My Tears" came out, I was lost in a British Invasion fog, but by 1970 my ears thirsted for Motown again. And of course, a year later Motown would leave Detroit and the whole soul thing would split wide open...

74. "Come On Eileen" / Dexy's Midnight Runners (1982)
Just listen to all the surprises in this song. That sappy Celtic folk fiddle opening ("Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms"!!), switching in a heartbeat to a chugging rock & roll jig that was yet somehow ska-flavored -- strange and wonderful. "C'mon Eye-leen!" Dexy yelps in the background -- love the Irish pronunciation -- and then he and his mates work their way up a scale singing "Too-ra-loo-rye-ay." It was just this side of a novelty number. But why shouldn't an Irish rock song sound like it came from Ireland? (It's no accident it lasted for 11 weeks as #1 on the Irish charts.) Dexy invokes the spirit of "Poor old Johnny Ray," whose music spoke to an earlier generation -- but how can modern kids relate to those elders, with their "beaten-down eyes / Sunk in smoke-dried faces, they're so resigned to what their fate is." He needs a new untarnished sound, something for his generation, and thank god New Wave music had expanded the available vocabulary. Naturally he's got an ulterior motive -- he wants Eileen to shrug off those old Catholic morals and sleep with him. ("At this moment / You mean everything," he pants; "With you in that dress / My thoughts I confess / Verge on dirty.") He's pulling out every trick he can think of. Keys change, tempos change; the syncopated jig gives way to a march, and then it crashes to a halt for that bridge -- "Come on [beat] / Eileen, too-rah-ay!" begun as a lumbering chant, then accelerating into absolute frenzy. I loved this song even before I saw the video, but the video sealed the deal -- a grainy black-and-white beauty directed by Julian Temple, with Dexy and Eileen wandering around gritty urban streets in sleeveless tanks and loose denim overalls. I guess I wasn't surprised that we never heard of Dexy's Midnight Runners again -- what were the odds they'd catch lightning in a bottle twice?

75. "Wrap It Up" / The Fabulous Thunderbirds (1986)
Kim and Jimmie helped me get through 1987 -- the year we lived through major apartment renovation with a colicky newborn baby. I'm sure our neighbors hated this song, though; we played it often, and loud.


Debs said...

Not much to say today, none of these are outstanding to me..and I love Motown.
Withers is a country boy from southern WV..just never cared for that tune.

Debs said...


Vivalabeat said...

It's nice to see the Four Tops in this list. :) I'm not sure if I can say that I love them more than the Temptations but they're surely among my most favorite Motown bands.

P.S. I feel like I'm spamming today, but I was way too busy to read anything during the week and I would be able to say anything. :) So I was waiting for this weekend to come along to be able to comment.

Holly A Hughes said...

I'm so happy you did it all at once, Viva -- thanks for commenting!

Debs, who were your Motown faves? I was gonna get some Marvin Gaye on here, but the other night I saw an old video of his in his Sexual Healing phase and I realized how much that put me off. And the Supremes, I never did like them (though my girlfriends and I had a mean routine worked out to Stop in Name Of Love.) There's a possibility you may see some Stevie Wonder up farther on the list, though...

Natsthename said...

Come On Eileen is DEFINITELY in my top 10! It's joyful and it gets me on my feet. Smiles.

Holly A Hughes said...

I once read an interview with Dexy where he recounted a conversation he'd had with Van Morrison -- Dexy expressed his fear that all he'd ever have was a cult following, and Van told him a cult following was ultimately much more rewarding than mass appeal. I hope Dexy is somewhere still feeling the love we have for this song!

Bob in CT said...

Tears Of A Clown or Tracks Of My Tears - you can't go wrong with either one. You also mention two of my favorite song elements- the "my smile is my makeup..." line, and the "public/subject" rhyme, both classics.

Dave K. said...

Tears of a Clown is a fabulous choice. I've always loved the song. Ain't No Sunshine is another wonderful choice. I love the Thunderbirds, but never thought of them as a singles band. I guess Tuff Enough was their only hit.

Deborah said...

Holly, some Motown faves...Gladys and her Pips, #1...I want to be on that Midnight Train to Georgia..Four Tops, of course. Couldn't stand the Supremes, Peaches and Herb..'Close your eyes...'.ahhhh.
Al Green, yo, yo..Edwin Starr..all sorts!!!
I really prefer the Spector girl groups over the Motown ones.

Holly A Hughes said...

I'm with you on the Spector girl groups, Debs. And ooh, Gladys, great stuff.

wwolfe said...

I like John Mellencamp's reference to "Standing in the Shadows of Love" in "Lonely ol' Night" - it was just the perfect song for John's protagonist to hear in that moment. I liked "Tears of a Clown" so much, it caused me to look up the script for the opera with Pagliacci and read it, just to understand the reference. Now that's a true fan!

Holly A Hughes said...

Ah, wwolfe, that's too funny. I love your little nuggets of info!