Brokeback Motown

Part I: The Music

I’ve played hundreds, if not thousands, of weddings, holiday get-togethers, corporate parties and other similar events. And I’ve done these types of “gigs” all over North America–Toronto, London, Windsor, New York, Baltimore, Detroit, Lansing, Grand Rapids, Toledo, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Denver, Boulder, Vail, Aspen, Austin, Dallas, Houston, Calgary, Edmonton, and probably another dozen or so places that I can’t remember. The majority of attendees at these types of gatherings are between (rough guess) 25 and 60 years old, and those numbers haven’t changed over the years. The music has changed of course, but there are some constants in this niche “live cover band” market, which is quite different from the “DJ” market where almost anything and everything is available.

One of those constants that has mystified me for many years is Motown music (whose roster includes Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder). These groups are the source of the majority of Motown music played by cover bands. I understand the popular appeal of Motown tunes. The melodies are simple and sometimes memorable, the harmonies are equally simple and predictable (banal might be another way of saying it), the rhythms and grooves are cute and occasionally a little saucy, and the lyrics are ripped from the pages of every lovelorn teenager’s diary. The blood red flush of romanticism is as sloppy as it is audacious, and as transparent as the hormone-addled adolescence that it celebrates. So what? That’s pretty much the bread and butter of pop music in any era and people certainly love it, but it’s also not what confuses me.

It’s the musical appeal of Motown that I’ve never understood. The tunes are vapid love/breakup songs, with formulaic harmonies and without (for the most part) an individual voice or style. This should come as no surprise because most of them were written by writers assembled for the purpose of conjuring the next “big hit,” so how could these tunes sound like they were written by a unique group creating and recording its own music, like The Beatles or Jimi Hendrix did? (Can one even imagine Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd recording tunes written by a stable of song writers?) When you have song writers composing for a variety of different artists, and an anonymous rhythm section playing most of it, it’s not hard to predict that the resultant music will be stultifyingly homogenous, which most of it certainly is.

Imagine the tune My Girl by The Temptations. Does anyone doubt this could just as easily have been recorded by The Four Tops with similar effect? Or by The Drifters?  Or how about Dancing in the Streets by Martha and the Vandellas?  Could this not have worked just as well if recorded by Diana Ross and the Supremes?  Of course it could. Now imagine Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds being written by team of song writers, and then, instead of The Beatles recording the tune, it is recorded and released by The Rolling Stones. Of course, this is absurd, but I think it illustrates the differences between real groups writing their own music, and a record company that finds marketable, interchangeable conduits to further its mission, rather than nurturing unique musical entities and allowing them to grow. (There are, of course, some exceptions to this, of which Stevie Wonder is most notable. His early music is definitely Motown, but it still has a unique flavor and shows that he is actively involved in the song writing. The music from this “Little Stevie” era is, admittedly, nice, but Stevie Wonder really hits his stride in the 1970s when his music gets really unique and unmistakably “Stevie Wonder.”) To be clear here, I have nothing against a company developing its market in this way, I’m simply drawing attention to the fact that Motown was not some organic, altruistic arts organization helping groups to develop themselves–it was a business with a marketing mission that it successfully and vigorously pursued. There are, of course, some decent tunes from this era. And heaven knows, I would certainly rather listen to I Wish It Would Rain than some [American] Idol worshipper or the latest auto-tune poseur catastrophe. I understand Motown’s appeal, and as pop music for that era, it’s quite good, but if a Motown tune comes on the radio, the time it takes me to switch stations can be measured in microseconds.

Part II: The Dance

For a cover band, a wedding or corporate event of this type is a like a four-hour love affair:

1st set (9:00-10:00) Dating

The band is courting the audience, but the audience is a bit aloof, suspicious even, and needs to be convinced of the worthiness of the group before committing to a long-term relationship for the evening.  Meanwhile, the band is nervously looking around, hoping a few people will start dancing to break the ice. The band’s reputation and “band worthiness” is on the line. You’re only as good as your last gig (or so the saying goes).

2nd set (10:15-11:00) Going Steady

Likely the most blissful segment of the evening, this is where the band has convinced the audience that they are, indeed, worthy of a serious commitment. Both the band and the audience are on their best behavior. The list of “great dance tunes” just keeps on delivering. And, the band sounds “just like the record.” How do they do that?

3rd set (11:15-12:00) Living Together

Familiarity, living in close quarters, and alcohol use start to take their toll. The audience is now emboldened to make requests (often ridiculous) that the band can’t possibly be expected to know. The requester usually shows his/her disappointment in a loud manner so that the rest of the band and the crowd on the dance floor hears it. The band gets a little surly as members tire of being treated like servants. Audience is getting sloppy and sweaty as they lumber around the dance floor from one 100-120 beat per minute tune to the next, and band member’s start making fun of them. Did I really move in with you?  What the hell was I thinking? A quiet antagonism hangs in the air.

4th set (12:15-1:00) Separation

Well, we know the love affair is over at 1AM. All good things must come to an end. So, let’s forget about our 3rd set squabbling and just end this thing with a bang.

And by “a bang” I mean this (from the audience perspective): Play some of your dumbest tunes. We’re drunk and irrational, so you don’t have to bowl us over with anything flashy. Play a slushy blues to show us your earthy side, a few throwaway mindless two-chord vamp jam session tunes that go on for 16 minutes (we’ll even clap for a drum solo at this point), and then end with some gushing hoary warhorse of a rock ballad from the ‘70s (or ’80s) with infantile lyrics that don’t quite make sense–yup, that’ll be perfect. Then, over the final chorus when you’re slowing down to the last, painful chord, deliver the obligatory “end of the night, We’ll Always Have Paris” tag line that goes something like this:

It’s been great to be here celebrating with you! [Paul Anka was right, breaking up is hard to do, and a few lies go a LONG way in getting you out the door unscathed and with cash in hand…]  Good Night, Volkswagen of America Christmas Party Attendees, drive safely on your Fahrvergnügung home!!

Something odd occurs when cover bands play Motown. The tunes are usually played in a medley with clever segues, or at the very least, in one block of pieces usually during the 2nd or 3rd set. But there aren’t other medleys like this from other eras–there’s no “jazz medley” or “rock medley” or “disco medley.” Still, the Motown Medley makes sense. The audience’s overwhelmingly and consistently positive reaction means that Motown is one of the band’s Big Guns–a surefire method of winning over the crowd. If the audience isn’t dancing much by the end of the 1st set, the Magic Motown Medley will get pulled out in the 2nd set, but the preferred launch time is in the 3rd set, during the “living together” stage when it functions like bringing home a box of chocolates and a dozen roses. Regardless of when the Medley is launched, it never fails. The crowds are enraptured from the opening salvo, which is usually the introductory bass line from My Girl, which sends them to the dance floor in a frenzy, vying to be the first one to mouth the lyrics (while pointing at their dance partner/s):

“What can make me feel this way…My Girl/Guy, Talkin’ bout My Girl/Guy, My Girl/Guy My Girl/Guy.” 

The resultant nostalgic orgy of sing along and canned doo-wop refugee hand movements is the band’s self-congratulatory coup de grace. From that moment on, the evening is deemed an unqualified success. The Medley has worked its magic once again, but alas, as quickly as it starts, the trip to Motown is over. Once started, it cannot be stopped and it can certainly not be repeated later in the evening because romantic nostalgia of this type is like a rich dessert full of fat and sugar but utterly lacking in protein. One trip to the Motown buffet is enough; a second round would lead to indigestion and embarrassment (Did I really just move my right arm from above my head to the ground with fingers flapping wildly to signify “rain” while my left arm was held high with hand open to signify “sunshine” because “I got sunshine on a rainy day”?)

The Motown ritual is clearly understood by both audience and band. It’s embarrassing on both sides of the stage, so let’s get it done with as much dignity as we can, but when it’s over, let’s pretend it never happened, ok?  But it’s not an embarrassment on both sides of the stage. Many musicians think that Motown is a sacred era in the history of music, full of really important music. This Motown mythology runs deep, but I’ve never been able to figure out what the attraction is. Of course, I have asked about it, but I learned quickly that there are a few topics that one should never, ever discuss with other musicians (at least until you figure what their opinion is), and this is one of them. “Gentlemen don’t discuss religion or politics in polite company”–let’s add “Motown” to that list because it is a quasi religion for many musicians. Like religion, it’s best not to delve too deeply into the topic unless you’re a member of the church to begin with. (It is ironic that the studio musicians who recorded this music were jazz musicians in the Detroit area. To them, it was a paycheck and not much more. They had little or no respect for the music which they were helping to improve by infusing it with more sophisticated rhythms and instrumental parts.  And yet, a generation or two later, it becomes a venerated shrine?)

The attraction could just be a nostalgic reminder of youthful days, which I understand. There is plenty of music from when I was a teenager that I enjoy hearing occasionally that is lacking in identifiable musical content. There’s no reason to provide any other kind of rationale other than that it is simply fun to hear something from your past that has pleasant (or unpleasant) memories associated with it. It is too easy to fall prey to the egotistical impulse to assume that, since I’m a professional musician, anything that I like must have musical value. I’m a professional after all, so my favorable opinion is itself the evidence that there is something musically valid, interesting, and meaningful to be found.

It’s like a master chef who eats at McDonald’s occasionally, but then tries to make a case for why a Big Mac is a great meal. It doesn’t need to be a great meal, or great music, for people to enjoy it. Is it a “guilty pleasure”? Perhaps, but why should it be a “guilty pleasure” rather than just “a pleasure”? Motown, Mountains, and Molehills–no need to try and make one into the other.


About FraKathustra

2 Responses to “Brokeback Motown”

  1. Because they like it?

    I’m not aware of any means of quantifying the value of music…

    Music – like love – eludes such analysis.

    And boy/girl passions will most always elicit stronger emotional reactions than stories about topographic oceans and the other side of the Moon.

    But, I could be wrong…

    But dig – “taxes, death, and trouble” – top that Schoenberg!

  2. Good points. I guess the Motown thing never really got under my skin like that, but I can definitely see it. The one that always bugged the hell out of me was “the blues”. I had more than my fill of fellow musicians who always seemed to feel like they had to say “I respect the blues.” or they wanted to do a tune that “paid respects to the blues”, or “the great blues artists,” or some such crap. It always seemed like an argument for arrested development to me. I guess I just never understood anybody’s desire to play that stuff. I always thought there were perhaps some artifacts from the blues that were occasionally useful in music (“blue notes” etc.) but as a style of music or any kind of end in itself, I always thought it was a dead end. And it just annoyed me to no end that some of the musicians I worked with felt obliged to pay some sort of homage or tribute to it. I just found it boring and non-productive.
    > With Motown, I think nostalgia is probably the biggest cause of the attraction, as you discuss in the next to last paragraph. But with the blues, it seems to be something else – some kind of obligatory musical altar at which we must all – unless we’re strictly classical musicians of course – bow down.
    – I never bought it.

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