Monday, 7 March 2016


A Brand New Beat Goes On and On

I’m not sure there was ever a record label like Motown or that there ever will be again. The Detroit recording studio was called Hitsville, U.S.A. for any Number One of Top Ten reasons. Listening to a decent Motown compilation is like Rocky getting into the ring with Apollo Creed, hit after hit after hit and when you can’t take anymore, stunned by the genius, you babble, “C’mon, let’s go, let’s go, hit me again.” The left and right hooks just keep on coming through the stereo speakers.

Ann and I Sunday night attended the Edmonton debut of the Motown revue ‘Dancing in the Streets,’ “Direct from London’s West End!” and “the best party in town” according to the full colour newspaper ads. We decided to buy tickets late last year during the dead of winter with darkness all around. What a fine way to herald the coming spring, we thought, and, anyway, they just don’t write ‘em like that anymore. The good old stuff. Motown, like fellow regional labels Chess and Stax, left music fans with an astounding legacy.

My sister saw a performance of ‘Dancing in the Streets’ in London. Her record collection changed my life. She said she expected more given the cost of a seat. I know London a little bit, what costs a dollar here costs a pound there; tourist budgets are tough to stretch at twice the price. Ann and I have endured tribute shows before and so we knew enough not to expect the second coming of Marvin Gaye or even the California Raisins. By those standards our tickets were a relatively inexpensive lark.

‘Dancing in the Streets’ has no book. There’s no hackneyed story line stitching together the songs as in other nostalgic jukebox musicals like ‘We Will Rock You.’ Nor is there much in the way of information for those inclined to absorb some of the history of Motown from a staged performance. Founder and producer Berry Gordy, songwriters and arrangers Lamont Dozier, Brian and Eddie Holland, and the Hitsville, U.S.A. house band the Funk Brothers do not exist. ‘Dancing in the Streets’ is a well intentioned, well executed and jarringly inconsistent human mix tape.

When the Supremes came out in matching white ball gowns trimmed with white fur early in the first half of the two-part show the illusion was real. But, but, when they sang ‘Stop! In the Name of Love’ they got the halt palm chorus part right, nailed it, but they didn’t pretend to snap pencils, touch their hearts or rotate their index fingers against their temples the way I do at parties. “Stop! In the name of love, before you break my heart, think it o-o-over.”

There’s no time for recrimination. The male cast members took over, performing ‘Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)’ and ‘Uptight’ in succession. In my seat I grinned with glee and wept at the torrent of memories. Inexplicably, most of the second half of ‘Dancing in the Streets’ hinged on costumed, in-character tributes to both the Temptations and Stevie Wonder, so two of my all time favourite songs ever were done as early throwaways while some latecomers to the auditorium still searched for their cushioned chairs. And, well, fuck, if you’ve promised “the best party in town” how do you not rip through Smokey’s ‘Going to a Go-Go’ during the finale or right at the start?

Motown grew up because its teenaged artists and teenaged market did. Those years coincided with the rise of the civil rights movement in the United States and the escalation of the Vietnam War. You won’t hear ‘Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),’ ‘Livin’ for the City, or ‘What’s Going On?’ at ‘Dancing in the Streets.’ They weren't fun house party 45s. The awkward exception was Edwin Starr’s (I believe he starred in the original London cast) ‘War’ envisioned for some reason as an audience participation set piece. “War! Huh! What is it good for?” Good God, it was no friend to a somewhat formal room populated with elderly white folk worried about Monday’s doctor’s appointments, prescription refills and actually meeting the undertaker: “No offense, but we all would’ve been better at this 35 years ago.”

To harp about a show so obviously in love with its source material might seem petty. It’s Motown yes, but it’s not the Temps or Marvin or Martha and the Vandellas. Ann and I knew this going in of course, but the confirmation was mildly depressing. On the drive home we agreed that if we threw a Saturday night shaker and played just the original artists’ recorded hits from the show (barring the sublimely wretched ‘Endless Love’) at volume, we’d dance in the kitchen and the living room, the hall and the dining room, blow out the windows and pop the roof off the joint. Even at our age. The hits never stop.

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