Feeding an Addiction
SITES AND SOUNDS, WORDS AND MUSIC
How does music make you feel? And can you put it in writing?
Surely Levi Stubbs’ despair on, say, “Ask The Lonely” is beyond description? Who’s to capture in prose how David Ruffin reaches for the sky on “Walk Away From Love”? What words to use about the flame-thrower that is Martha Reeves’ voice on “Heat Wave”?
You’ll have your own favourites, but you get the idea.
Steve Devereux isn’t afraid. “The structure of the record puts Levi’s narrator in a difficult place which I originally took to be self-pity (and I wasn’t entirely wrong), and it’s definitely a song of pain, but pain expressed through fraternal advice bleeding into self-pity,” writes the man who created the Motown Junkies website, about the Four Tops’ “Ask The Lonely.”
“‘Don’t make the same mistakes I did’, Levi advises us, starting off broad and general, trying to help, but quickly it becomes more about him than us. And yet he manages to pull it off, selling grandiose lines in a grandiose setting without coming over as unsympathetic. Of all Motown’s big-ticket acts, it’s literally only the Four Tops who could have made this work – I can imagine some horrific covers of this song. But thanks to Levi, we feel his pain, and the pain of all those wounded souls he’s brought along to underline it.”
Those are just a few of the 2,500 words which Devereux devoted to the Tops’ classic. Not to mention what he’s written – in total, hundreds of thousands of words – about every other Motown single released between 1959 and early 1966. Which is where Motown Junkies currently hovers, suspended in digital space until its author has time to return to his task – or to what, in the minds of many, has become his obligation.
Motown lives and breathes in various forms on the worldwide web. A handful of artists have their own sites, or a presence on social media, and there are miscellaneous fan sites. The Motown Museum offers news of its activities, as well as history (and merchandise). Universal Music operates Classic Motown, including a new Motown Today spinoff, and one for contemporary Motown Records. They’re also on social media.
SHARING NEWS AND OPINION
Motown Junkies is a mandatory destination, as is Don’t Forget The Motor City, documented here in detail last year. The Motown Forum has a long, worthy history, with the enthusiastic participation of knowledgeable fans, constantly sharing news and opinions – as they undoubtedly are doing, right this minute. Equally consistent in knowledge and authority is Sharon Davis’ regular Motown Spotlight on the SoulMusic site. Recently celebrating its 14th year: Motown Treasures, a Yahoo! group of Hitsville aficionados. New to the landscape is Laurent Bendelé’s engaging Go For Your Dreams, focused on the life and music of Diana Ross. (More about that fan site in a forthcoming West Grand Blog.)
Both Sides Now Publishing offers extensive online discographies of record companies of every size, shape and significance, so the Motown group of labels is well-served there with album listings (including tracks and release dates) and more, such as logo variations, reproductions of LP sleeves, and alternative covers. All the data runs from 1961 – the year Motown issued its first long-players – to 1988, when Berry Gordy sold the company.
Of course, there can be no reference to digital discographies without acknowledging the pre-internet era, when tomes such as Reginald J. Bartlette’s Off The Record: Motown By Master Number 1959-1989 were physical bibles for the faithful. Also important was the data in the late Don Waller’s The Motown Story, while Sharon Davis’ Motown The History contained label listings of value, including Britain’s all-important Tamla Motown output.
Lars Nilsson’s Seabear Studios is another essential website for Motown pilgrims, with definitive discographies of singles by label, as well as many other delights. These include illustrations of picture sleeves, a “Secret Vault” of rare and promotional 45s, and “Motown Mistakes.” Searbear, like Motown Junkies, is a labour of love, born out of record collecting in Nilsson’s case. (The site’s name comes from the street where he once lived in Stockholm: Sjöbjörnsvägen.)
“Sometime around 1963,” Lars told me recently, “I found my first American pressing of a Motown record in an oldies record shop.” That led to the realisation that there were U.S. releases which were unavailable in Sweden or the U.K. “Also,” says Nilsson, “the American pressings had more punch and power than the Swedish or English versions. After that, I tried to collect every American Tamla Motown 45 that was released, as well as some lesser-known Detroit labels. To keep track, I started to write down [details of] all the records I bought, and tried to fill all the gaps. When the internet started, I transferred all the information to my site.”
Nilsson’s labour led to friendships with like-minded people worldwide, but particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom. One highpoint was when he received a call from Universal Music’s Harry Weinger in New York, looking to source select Motown label scans for use in the booklets of The Complete Motown Singles series.
SOURCING AND SCANNING
Those assemblies of magic and mystery helped to inspire Steve Devereux, too. “With the continuing appearance of the Hip-O Select box sets of The Complete Motown Singles for digital purchase as mp3 files,” he says, “the buyers had literally nothing to accompany the music, to explain who these people were or what was going on, or even which songs were A or B sides. So I wanted to have a kind of poor man’s substitute for the people who weren’t lucky enough to own the luxury box sets with their great liner notes and research and so on – something to read while they listened to the records.”
The outcome was Motown Junkies. “The other reason – driven, I guess, by my inner narcissist – was that I like sharing my opinions on things. So much of what I read about Motown was subject to a kind of received wisdom as to which of these songs and artists were great, and which ones weren’t. And I found that my own opinions diverged pretty drastically from that in some instances.”
The calibre of writing by Devereux on Motown Junkies, together with its readers’ lively responses, magnetises the blog. But what surprised him was the complete lack of a reader consensus on the good and the bad. “Which, I suppose, reinforces my original point about the spread of opinions. I expected the readers not to be unanimous in their acclaim or disdain for any given side, but I’m still taken by surprise when someone will declare what I consider to be a very average or even poor side as their all-time favourite, or pan something that makes my heart sing as being the one track they always skip.”
And what of the hiatus which has kept Motown Junkies from publishing lately, save for a handful of entries? A succession of personal issues has been to blame, says Devereux, including a demanding job as a lawyer, and being a parent to two young children. “The most gut-wrenching part of me falling behind is when I read that a less-heralded Motown artist, writer, musician or other backroom figure has passed on – something which sadly and unavoidably happens more often now than when I began the blog, and I feel actual physical pain because I wasn’t able to write something nice about them during their lifetime.”
Fortunately, Martha Reeves is among those who can still enjoy Devereux’s verdict on “Heat Wave,” if she hasn’t already. “The way Martha delivers her lead fastball-style, it sounds like every line should have an exclamation mark at the end,” he writes. “It’s particularly appropriate with lyrics like these – the whole song is full of visceral, energetic imagery, a reinterpretation of falling head over heels in love by some people who’ve thought about what “falling head over heels in love” might actually look like, especially if it happens on a flight of steps.”
Evidence, then, that it’s possible to write distinctively and imaginatively about how music makes you feel. For my part, I’m looking forward to reading about “Walk Away From Love” on Motown Junkies – and before too many more years have passed, with luck. Plus, a 10/10 rating, right, Steve?
Web notes: Universal Music Japan has a new round of CD reissues, details of which can be found on this site. Meanwhile, on the subject of The Complete Motown Singles, Genius recently posted the lyrics to all 1,838 songs contained in that 14-volume CD series. “To contribute to transcription efforts like The Motown Singles Project is to put on one’s historian hat and dust off the past,” wrote one of those involved. “These songs paved the way for the future and it’s only fitting to bring their words back on paper to they can be fully appreciated.” Amen. So when it comes time to singalong to your record collection or streaming service, you know where to go…