Mo’Town

Posted on September 11, 2010

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After the release of his latest record (Signed, Sealed, Delivered), a selection of Motown songs that most inspired him, Craig David apparently revealed to The Mirror that he’d never actually realised Motown was a record label: “I didn’t actually know that Motown was a label, I thought it was an era or genre […] or something.” Genre alright, but an era?

The record includes ‘Standing in the Shadows of Love’, ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ and ‘Papa was a Rollin’ Stone’. Along with other Motown (and Stax) staples, David performed with an all-female band (“Because it’s sexy”), adding hip-hop beats and vinyl scratches – not the paternal crackle of an original pressing – but the wicky-wicky chicken scratching of, presumably, a very sexy band member. All this when David reputedly claimed he would “sing the songs exactly as the original”. This isn’t lofty purism talking – Diplo’s remix of Marlena Shaw’s ‘California Soul’, DJ Format and Pilooski are all examples of imaginative re-workings of soul originals. But for someone who claims to be a diehard and lifelong Motown (well, soul) fan, this would be worthy fodder – and for the fact the album is such awful plastic soul – if only people didn’t make the same mistake all the time.

Looks good this

While the ongoing prevalence of Motown on television, radio and throughout popular culture means its name is immediately familiar to most ears, and as such we might forgive the mistaken nominalism, calling soul Motown is the same as calling indie Factory or ska Stiff.  (Plenty of bad jokes to be made here, but what’s making a point without making it reductively?) I’m not sure whether this is a testament to Motown, despite the fact songs like ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ or ‘My Girl’ are so widely known and loved. Can the name of Motown really be synonymous with the entire genre it was instrumental in developing and popularising, or is this just generic laziness? Soul can be a complicated business after all.

Motown comes from Motor Town, Detroit, the Motor City. Soul is a vibrant culture and was then predominantly based on production of 45s. Motown was soul designed especially for musical mass consumption – the charts – each single churned out from the Hitsville factory as beautifully constructed as the next, all uniformly presented on grooved black vinyl. Not so different from the production lines down the road then. (I know nothing about cars, but people talk about Detroit like they do Rover in this country.)

But does any of this matter? The last person I heard calling soul Motown has also been overheard arguing for nuking Palestine and the need to gas the “lower-classes”. He supposedly wears Jack Wills because other people can’t afford it. Some people are better left alone in their hole.

However, unfortunately I’ve also heard it from the mouths of people that consider themselves discerning music-lovers, and along with musicians and critics. And this is where generic boorishness becomes a little more pressing.

Mercy, mercy, mercy me

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Posted in: Music