The Spinners, It’s A Shame (1970)

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Artist: The Spinners
Title: It’s A Shame
Description: single; track, 2nd Time Around
Label: V.I.P.
Release date: 1970
First heard: circa 1970s

It’s a sha-a-ay-ame

Five young, handsome African-American men, one with a polite moustache, all with a side parting product-assisted into regimentation, good teeth, wearing identical busboy jackets and standing in order of shortest to tallest, left to right. It could be any soul five-piece in America in the Eisenhower era. But it was the Spinners.

Call them the Detroit Spinners, or The Motown Spinners or, as per the title of their debut LP when it appeared in the UK, the Original Spinners, but they were, at the end of the day, the Spinners. It’s a shame that despite forming in the northern suburbs of Detroit in 1954, they didn’t call themselves the Spinners until 1961 when they made their first record (they’d begun life as the unpromising Domingoes). By this time their folkie Liverpool namesakes were already established as the Spinners, with their own folk club and everything. Interestingly, Liverpool’s Spinners started out as an American-influenced skiffle group and were advised to “go folk”, a genius move which separated them from the R&B-inclined Merseybeat herd, plugged them into sea shanties and made them a fortune in their Liverpool homes.

Back in Motor City, five fresh fellows Billy Henderson, Henry Fambrough, Pervis Jackson, C.P. Spencer (subsequently replaced by Edgar “Chico” Edwards) and lead singer James Edwards (replaced by Bobby Smith) were making some sweet vocal soul music in the projects. Signing to Tri-Phi and scoring a modest hit with their debut single That’s What Girls Are Made For in 1961 (listen out for Marvin Gaye on the drums), label boss Harvey Fuqua sold the boys as part of a job-lot (along with everything that wasn’t nailed down) to his new brother-in-law, whose name was Berry Gordy. So, the Spinners’ belated first album finally came out on Motown, a six-years-in-the-making patchwork of singles and other tracks, but didn’t chart, which was a shame. But perseverance paid off for all concerned when, in 1970, their first studio album 2nd Time Around was released on Motown’s V.I.P. imprint. Happily, it would make them very important players.

Mississippi-raised Vietnam vet George Curtis “G.C.” Cameron had swapped the ooh-ra of the Marines for the ooh-ooh-ooh of Motown and joined as lead vocalist (displacing “Chico” Edwards), and it’s his meaningful, salty, full-ranged voice that makes It’s A Shame. That and the songwriting nous of Stevie Wonder (who also played the drums) and collaborators Syreeta Wright, a future hitmaker in her own right, and Lee Garrett. There’s little questioning the in-sync glory of that week’s original Spinners – nor the clean brass, funkily fingered bass and nifty, tambourine-softened beat supplied by the Funk Brothers, produced by the increasingly accurately named Wonder – but it’s Cameron’s lead that takes it from run-of-the-mill to top-of-the-heap.

Oh, that resonantly pretty, pastoral two-guitar line, played thrice before a key change and a kick drum, then those doo-dup-doo-doos from the boys. Then the drama starts. As the brass announces itself, Cameron sings both parts, the low, and the high, and between himself and himself he cooks up quite the bellowing chamber piece. It’s hard to believe this is a man “sitting all alone, on the telephone,” not when, soaring and searing, he buries that deceptively friendly first act as he roars his hurt at the heavens. Everything cuts out except the drums and the guitar, then take cover. Just listen to the way our man builds up a head of steam about the woman whose actions have displeased him; this is not verse-chorus, it’s closer to opera. He testifies to this scarlet lady, “It’s a shame the way you’re messin’ round with your men” – the plural adding further intrigue and opprobrium from pop.

She messes the men around like “a child at play on a sunny day” (nice work, Stevie), and even as It’s A Shame is fading at three minutes, G.C. is rasping and fluting at the good Lord above. The background stays fetchingly upbeat, declamatory and harmonious. It’s like an M.C. Esher lithograph that spins round and round in fractal patterns. Slap it on repeat and the juncture from whirling climax to palate-cleansing intro acts as a breath.

It’s a shame that within two years, the Spinners were off to Atlantic in an Aretha-influenced flounce, but minus the mighty Mr Cameron, who’d fallen in love with Berry’s sister Gwen and decided to stay at Motown to play solo and see what occurred. The one-album Spinner, he went on to be a one-hit Motown artist. (He also recorded an LP with Syreeta in 1977.)

The Spinners carried on having hits throughout the 70s (Games People Play, The Rubberband Man, Cupid, and a medley cover of the Four Seasons’ Working My Way Back To You, which topped the UK charts at the end of 1979), and – hold the front page – still play the civic halls with one original member, the alive baritone Henry Fambrough (aged 80), along with four younger men who plug the gaps. G.C. became a Temptation.

Back in Liverpool, the other Spinners had the novel idea of retiring, which they did, after 30 years, in 1988.

 

 

 

 

 

The House Of Love, Christine (1988)

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Artist: The House Of Love
Title: Christine
Description: single; track The House Of Love
Label: Creation
Release date: 1988
First heard: 1988

Somewhere in a large IKEA sewing box, I have a black and white photograph of me holding up my prized copy of the first House Of Love LP, The House Of Love, not yet divested of the cellophane or the Our Price £5.99 sticker. (The photo was taken by my college friend Rob on his single-lens reflex camera and, I feel sure, hand-developed and printed in a dark room, probably at the Royal College of Art. See: Footnotes) This was the summer of 1988, years before mobile phone proliferation and light-years before selfies. It would have seemed dystopian to our single-lens reflexes that we would subsequently enter a century in which everybody records, logs and publishes everything, no matter how mundane or uninteresting, in the sincere belief that its very digitised existence will render it interesting to the rest of the human race. I expect Rob was just using up the end of a film (we still used films, which came in metal tubes) and I was round his flat and had just purchased The House Of Love so I held it up for display, and to mark the time and date (and price). Why? Because this album was bloody interesting.

I’d been living in south west London for some four years and felt like I belonged. My Prufrockian freelance existence was measured out in meals-for-one, blank videocasettes and vinyl records. (Although I had invested in a CD deck, with Rob’s audiophile assistance, I only had a handful of CDs to play on it.) I took the NME as my weekly gospel and accepted every word of it as if hewn into tablets of stone. When this new, rather gangly-looking, south-east-London-formed foursome were hailed as the latest great saviours of indie, and of rock itself, I had no reason on earth to doubt the tidings, off to Our Price to stake my own claim in the inky revolution. It might have but did not let me down. It was a record worth holding up for display, with its lack of lettering, and its democratic arrangement of the band’s heads in queasy near-sepia, all cheekbones and chins.

The House Of Love were a guitar band. They sang harmonies, certainly – second single Real Animal began a capella – but their life-support was the stringed instrument of legend, played in parallel and set to stun. Mean, moody, full of themselves, the House Of Love arrived with a swagger and in winter coats. The album didn’t feature the existing singles; no sign of their skyscraping debut indie smash Shine On. That’s how arrogant they were – as arrogant as not putting the name of the band on the record – and by dint: how arrogant Creation records were – to encourage them not to put the name of the band on the record (knowing that it would be stickered by Our Price anyway). It did contain Christine. Track one. The same name as one of my favourite Banshees singles. And my Mum. How could it fail? It did not fail.

Christine … Christine … Christine

The most melodic of their early shots at glory, it begins as a heat-haze drone, a hedge of sound, and without warning. (This was not a band to count a song in off the back of the drummer’s sticks.) From a standing start, this was the sound of shoegazing before shoegazing was a sound; something quite different from both the jangly pop and the grebo fuzz of the post-C86 pincer movement. Eyes down: things were looking up.

It’s ironic that in the near future, under house arrest at Phonogram and earmarked as a hit machine, the House Of Love would struggle to locate their sound in ever pricier studios and with a revolving carousel of producers. On the first album, under Pat Collier, they nailed it.

Christine leads the record off, its uncanny ESP of guitars haunted by Guy Chadwick’s voice and the backing vocal by Terry Bickers and outgoing fifth member Andrea Heukamp, treated just enough to make them spectral but not enough to suck their personality; Pete Evans’ drums are content to keep the beat and jackhammer the song to its conclusion, while Chris Groothuizen’s bass sounds a rare note of contentment if you listen hard through the “god-like glow”. The constant refrain of “Christine” suggests this is the chorus before the verse, but I think it’s technically neither.

Then, after what sounds like a single tambourine crack, the mood swings, and the whole world drags us down. When Guy warns, ‘You’re in deep,” it has a malevolence that underlines that this is not a love song. It leads us a merry dance in its allotted three minutes and 22 seconds, from the kitchen-sink signifier of a baby crying to the unfathomable existential fate of “chaos and the big sea.” It’s dreamlike and nightmarish at the same time, over the same beat, under the same skies, and we never really get to meet Christine. She’s everyone and no-one, baby, that’s where she’s at.

Does it sound late-80s? Somewhat. It’s pre-rave, although ecstasy would cast its own spell on the band and join the long list of culprits who made a failure of their home. For me, The House Of Love – and its single orphan Christine – is pure House Of Love. The rest is a spirited attempt to reclaim it from success.

I suppose the irony of this heady, post-graduate period of my life is that my embrace of the House Of Love – and The House Of Love – coincided with my graduation to the other side. In the summer of ’88, I got a part-time job at the NME, and started just after the band had their first cover. Within two years, I would be writing the House Of Love cover story, a “made man”. By then, Guy’s age had become an issue (he appeared to be over 30!), Terry had withdrawn, depressed and freaked out, and would be followed by a succession of failed replacements, and the only constant for the next three years would be the major record company that never understood them.

But the adventure was one I’m glad I went on, and I never asked for my £5.99 back.

The Temptations, It’s Growing (1965)

the-temptationsItsGrowing

Artist: The Temptations
Title: It’s Growing
Description: single
Label: Motown
Release date: 1965
First heard: circa 1997

When I say that I first heard It’s Growing, a gem-like exhibition match from the Temptations’ David Ruffin-dominated purple patch between 1964 and 1967, in 1997, it’s entirely plausible that I heard it without identifying it at any stage via the infectious medium of radio between its release in the year I was born and the year I started to really sit down and take stock of the Temptations’ vocal genius. For some reason, I hooked into a fulsome Temptations greatest-hits around that time, when I had literally given up my day job and set about researching and writing my first book, Still Suitable For Miners. (There was something about immersing myself in Billy Bragg that called for a more Catholic listening palette, from classic soul, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel and Phil Ochs, to militant modern folkies Leon Rosselson and Dick Gaughan, and the guvnor, Woody Guthrie.) In the acknowledgements of the book, I give thanks to the Temptations, along with Clipper tea and my asthma medication!

The music of whichever magical combination of Otis Williams, Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, “Al” Bryant, David Ruffin and Dennis Edwards applies has remained a constant restorative balm. The two distinct phases of the Temptations’ career showcase the God-given songwriting and studio skills of Smokey Robinson, Bobby Rodgers and Ronnie White, then Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. It’s Growing – which rises to the top for me because of its audaciously clanky piano intro and a frankly ill-advised but unique production decision involving a pair of claves – comes from the first phase, written by Smokey and fellow Miracle Pete Moore and laid down by Robinson.

There are better known songs, some simply thrilling – Get Ready, The Way You Do The Things You Do, Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, I Know I’m Losing You – others a bit schmaltzy for my tastes – My Girl, Just My Imagination – but this one starts better than any other song that rolled off Berry Gordy’s production line during that golden era, except perhaps Baby Love. That disarmingly simple, high-pitched piano signature, not a riff but a warm-up and picked out, it seems, on a pub upright by the Funk Brothers’ Earl Van Dyke (probably), topped by a rolling drum fill of the type that was sampled forever after from the 80s on, again probably Benny Benjamin or Uriel Jones. It fills my heart with gladness each time it comes on. The plangent brass helps.

The Temps are on fine vocal form, naturally, and if the verses weren’t the greatest they were ever given to wrap their ascendingly variegated tonsils around (“Like a snowball rolling down the side of a snow-covered hill” is a bit lazy with its double use of the word “snow”; “like the size of a fish that a man claims broke his reel” doesn’t even rhyme), the plain-speaking chorus is lovely: “My love for you just grows and grows … and where it’s going to stop, nobody knows.”

As for the ridiculously intrusive “clack” of those claves towards the climax of the song, it must have seemed like a whizzo idea at the time to pitch it so high in the mix. On headphones, it’s like a really precise woodpecker tapping the side of your skull; not the effect imagined by Smokey and Moore, we must assume. I used to love it when my colleague at Q, John Aizlewood, dismissed pretty much all music from the 50s and 60s because “it wasn’t produced properly.” I concede the claves decision in It’s Growing to his case for the prosecution, and yet, I love it so, “clack” and all.

Musically, it’s of a type with Dock Of The Bay (not yet written in 1965) – and Just My Imagination, less surprisingly – and has the same lazy gait as the later Otis classic, but no less soul. The age of the singer-songwriter had yet to take hold and it was no crime against authenticity for a gifted, chemically-balanced vocal group to translate the songs of an industrial writing unit. Any snobbery about artists who don’t write their own songs can be shot down with the word “Motown.” The fleet-footed ingenuity of musicians like Robinson, and later Barrett and Strong, runs through these classic pop songs without subtracting from the deft broadcasting skills of these angelic frontmen and women. The Temps line-up may have mutated (it’s growing) in the ensuing years – indeed, I think I’m right in saying that only Otis Williams survives in the current touring incarnation – but the body of work bespeaks longevity and immortality.

If you had to strip their output down to, say, half a dozen tunes, to the more obvious My Girl, Get Ready, Just My Imagination, Papa Was A Rolling Stone and Ball Of Confusion, I’d say the missing jigsaw piece was It’s Growing.