Motown’s biggest acts are typically defined by their sense of fun, pop craftsmanship, and irresistible catchiness. Berry Gordy’s dogged pursuit of hits meant that the kind of material churned out by the label was always, above all else, radio-ready. While competitor Stax found its footing with artists who sold songs based on a wild, impassioned delivery (Carla Thomas, Otis Redding), Motown, in its pursuit of crossover appeal, tended towards refinement above all else. There are a lot of reasons for this. Motown, of course, was more actively courting a white audience, so the emotional delivery of early R&B or classic blues, as a racially-coded signifier, was something they shied away from. Further, Stax’s sound is always defined by the singer. As good as the Bar-Kays were, they were never able to achieve the complexity of Motown’s orchestral blend of strings, percussion, and horns. Listening to a Motown song now, The Funk Brothers or the songwriters (especially Holland-Dozier-Holland) are as present in the fundamental feeling of the song as the performer.
Consider The Supremes and The Temptations, two of the defining Motown acts. The Temptations simply cannot help but add some infectiousness to the proceedings - “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” is, as the title suggests, a song about desperate love, but you’d never know it from the bounciness of the song. Diana Ross was an icon, but had a notoriously thin voice that prevented her from really belting on any of The Supreme’s many number one hits. This isn’t a strike against either band - the songs are still fantastic, and those performers are still rightfully legends. But it’s still notable that Motown tended to shy away from dark or serious subject matter. Marvin Gaye, of course, had “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” a tortured story on top of a murky groove, but he had to fight to get that song released as a single, so far was it from the norm of what Berry Gordy expected out of his hit factory.
But have you listened to Four Tops lately? Their defining songs resonate with all of the darkest, saddest, lowest impulses associated with love - jealousy and obsession. Four Tops songs are these bizarre little psychodramas full of desperation. They’re stories about tormented people trying to find some respite in someone else’s love, but with an lingering uncertainty whether that can ever succeed.
Don’t believe me? Listen closely to “It’s The Same Old Song,” one of their most dance-friendly, lasting hits. It’s all about the combination of pain and happiness associated with this unknown woman. “But like a honeybee stings, you’ve gone and left my heart in pain,” sings Levi Stubbs, and we believe him. Without paying attention to the lyrics, the song is a fun, catchy tune, but it’s really about how those kinds of melodies, that “same old song” can be transformed into something more complicated. It’s a reversal of Motown’s typical pop escapism, a song about the way the pure pleasure of the song can become what makes it so heartbreaking once love is gone. No wonder the Coen Brothers chose the song for their dark noir breakthrough, Blood Simple.
“Reach Out, I’ll Be There” is probably their best song. Stubbs pleads a convincing case that when everything in the girl’s life is falling apart, and her life seems chaotic and meaningless, he’ll save her. But the implied relationship behind that idea is one of uncomfortable intimate dependence, one in which the relationship, for better or for worse, is the only source of happiness available to these characters. The haunting, minor key melody, especially that flute riff, lends this song an eerie, even creepy slant. It’s in the same wheelhouse as “Every Breath You Take” - songs where the line between romance and borderline stalker behavior is blurred. What sells it, again, is the delivery. Four Tops have none of that restraint of other groups like The Supremes. Their songs leave everything on the table, and Levi Stubbs always sings like he’s shouting himself hoarse out of pure desperation. There’s a rawness there, though of course that rawness can only go so far given the restraints of Berry Gordy’s vision for Motown. The combination of the company’s pop sensibility and the group’s much grittier sound actually works in favor of the music. The songs are craftsmanlike and polished, with the occasional moment where the singers seem to break through all that. The best of these moments is in “Reach Out” - the powerful yelp the backup singers drop at the beginning of the second verse, a sound of frustration, desire, and passion without words to adequately explain those feelings.
There are plenty more examples: the angry, threatening drum breakdown in “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” the ebb and flow of “I’ll Turn To Stone,” or their outstanding cover of an already sad song, “Walk Away Renee.” But to really hear the way this band accesses the dark side of romantic love, you need look no further than their 1967 hit “Bernadette,” a paranoid fantasy where every other man is little better than a false friend hoping to steal away the singer’s love. As the song goes on, and that man’s obsession with his woman becomes increasingly passionate, it’s clear, to my ear at least, that his fears of another man stealing her away are groundless, based instead on his inability to cope with the idea of life with out her. “The only joy in life is to be loved,” they sing, as if nothing else in the world matters. The song reaches a stunning climax when, just as the song appears to fade into nothingness, Stubbs screams “Bernadette!” one last time and that propulsive beat kicks back in. It’s breathtaking.
The problem with Four Tops is that the demands of being a performer (particularly a black performer, particularly a soul performer, particularly a Motown performer) were at odds with what they did best. The group put together these remarkably sophisticated songs that, while catchy, explore some of man’s darker impulses. It’s a testament to how solid the songs are that Motown released them anyway, and the group became starts despite dabbling in territory the label would typically shy away from. But getting those songs out wasn’t enough - a Motown artist had to tour, and had to tour according to the program. What you end up with are these bizarre performances where the emotionalism of the song is put into stark contrast with an onstage persona wherein the group is required to be charming, stylist, and fleet-footed. This performance of “I Can’t Help Myself” is fairly typical. The group appears in matching outfits (like The Temptations) and performs highly practiced, fairly silly dance moves (like The Temptations), simply because that’s what’s expected of them, not because it fits the music particularly well.
I’m not suggesting they were necessarily forced into this kind of performance explicitly - it’s more that the culture of the time demanded the performers to act the part of charming heartthrobs when they appeared on TV. The dramatic climax of “Bernadette” is nearly ruined live, when accompanied by broad, trained smiles and dancing. In that performance, you can see Stubbs trying to sell the song, and actually portraying the desperation of the words, but his face alone can’t undo the stagy cheesiness around him. Four Tops were a group that always reached for near-operatic emotions in an era where they needed to fit into the teen idol mode. Their TV version of “It’s the Same Old Song” comes closest to presenting them more accurately. They’re dressed, fittingly for the song, just like four guys out for a night on the town, surrounded by dancing shadows. Despite the ludicrous dance break, Stubbs shows us that he understands the song, feels the heartbreak at the center of it. This was a group that told adult stories of unrequited desire, dangerous, obsessive love, and outright paranoia. The problem was, they had to try to market that to teenagers.