Of course, Motown is unarguably history’s single most influential record label thanks to the stream of pop hits produced in the mid ’60s. But it is sometimes overlooked that it evolved in the latter half of the decade to be at the centre of black counterculture, releasing records that both trampled down the barriers of pop music and socked it to the man with fervent civil rights anthems (even releasing recordings of Martin Luther King’s speeches) and, like their white psychedelic contemporaries, protests songs against the war in Vietnam.
The change largely came about due to the hit-making (and money making) songwriting partnership of Holland/Dozier/Holland, acrimoniously leaving the Motown fold. They were replaced by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, who concocted a dirty, innovative and funky formula with which to reinvigorate the label’s roster.
The sound of the new Motown is spectacularly in evidence on tracks by The Undisputed Truth. This bunch of afros-on-legs purveyed a brand of psych/rock/soul that acted as a diluted, more marketable version of George Clinton’s P-Funk, over on Westbound Records. Their Ball Of Confusion is an explosive ten-minute black power anthem, all driving bass lines, shrieking female vocals and snarling politicism. Also included is their most successful single, Smiling Faces Sometimes.
Who knew that Diana Ross And The Supremes had a conscience? Both they and Martha Reeves And The Vandellas give passionate protest songs their pop coating. The former’s I’m Living In Shame is probably the most commercial offering on this collection, and rings with the glorious tone of the Holland/Dozier/Holland heyday, their legacy inescapable.
Of the other big names, songs from Marvin Gaye‘s What’s Goin’ On are alternative, earlier takes than the final mixes, that are raw and satisfying, with Marvin stretching his vocals more than the disciplined final versions. Stevie Wonder‘s irrevocable shunt to popular music is embodied here by Do Yourself A Favour, while Wonder’s then wife contributes possibly the finest moment of this entire assortment.
Syreeta Wright‘s Black Maybe charts the painful history of African-Americans (yep, all of it in just over four minutes) with her sultry vocals and a psych-funk production that could only have come from the hand of her husband.
If any one artist defines the spirit of this album, surely released to coincide with the 200th anniversary of slavery’s abolition, it’s The Temptations. In the early 70s, they recorded many of Motown’s most politically charged songs, including the distinctly un-subtle Slave, and the clearly Clinton-inspired Message From A Black Man which contains the line ‘Yes you’re skin is white/Does that make you right?’ and the refrain ‘No matter how hard you try you can’t stop me now’.
While the sentiment of all these songs is heartfelt and deeply moving, it is not this that is the appeal of Power To The Motown People. If you want your message to really hit home, then accompany it with music without imagination or innovation – nothing to distract us. The truth is that the quality of songwriting, ever-evolving studio techniques, and most probably quite a lot of drugs, meant that Motown could never release a record that didn’t break new ground in some way or another. How much these tracks have influenced all rock, soul and hip-hop since cannot be underestimated. Their message is not swamped by sonic genius, but complemented. The music is the waving fist accompanying the lyrical exhorting.
One final mention must go to Smokey Robinson, whose Just My Soul Responding harks back to Otis Redding – a gentleness and pacifism amid the confrontational attitudes elsewhere on this album. That both sit easily next to the other, illustrates the dichotomy of the intensely difficult times these songs were recorded in, if you were black.