[28 January 2009]
In the 1960s, Motown Records supported musicians, songwriters, and producers whose talents sold millions of records and changed black popular music and American popular culture forever. In the 1970s, the label’s influence was less sprawling, but Motown continued to back not only big-selling artists like the Commodores but also the best work of two great minds of popular music: Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.
In the 1980s, Motown was no longer a game-changer. More than two decades after the label was founded, Motown was done moving mountains. Gaye left the label in 1981 and died three years later. Wonder released the great Hotter Than July in 1980, but subsequently his greatness was reduced to a few hit singles. Aside from the brash funk of Rick James, nothing young and new was coming out of Motown (which, incidentally, was now based in Los Angeles, not the Motor City).
The music of Motown’s third decade does not quite deserve the close attention that the label’s first two decades warrant, but even a cursory look at the label in these years reveals that things weren’t all bad. In fact, often the things that came out of Motown in the 1980s were very, very good. The following five songs will never make it onto a Best Motown Singles list, but they are all examples of ‘80s pop at its best, and all deserve a fresh listen.
Stevie Wonder, “Overjoyed” (1985)
Wonder’s pace slowed considerably in the 1980s. Over the course of the decade, he released only four studio albums. Singles like “I Just Called to Say I Love You”, Burt Bacharach’s “That’s What Friends Are For”, and the Paul McCartney duet “Ebony and Ivory” delivered delightful, sunny pop reflecting Wonder’s personality but barely hinting at the depth of his talent.
The single “Overjoyed” might have as accurately been titled “Overproduced”, but the song’s rhythmic bird chirps and water-drop sound effects ultimately fail to overshadow its beauty. In the lyrics, Wonder confesses his love to his cherie amour. His words are tender and vulnerable, scared but ultimately hopeful. As with all of Wonder’s great love songs, his music superbly reflects the emotions of the lyrics. The melody is bright but subdued, leaping from loud, proud highs to quiet, bashful lows. The string accompaniment to Wonder’s keys is rich and detailed, responding carefully to the emotional shifts of the song. Though overshadowed by the hit “Part-Time Lover” from the same album (In Square Circle), “Overjoyed” does much greater justice to Wonder’s legacy. In fact, “Overjoyed” is every bit as good as Wonder’s best love ballads of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Lionel Richie, “Hello” (1984)
The Commodores, “Nightshift” (1985)
The Commodores were one of Motown’s heaviest-hitting teams in the latter half of the 1970s. But with the turn of the decade, one of their most valuable players was achieving his own level of fame that was greater than the band’s notoriety. Tensions mounted, and Lionel Richie split in the early ‘80s to begin a solo career. With Can’t Slow Down (1983), his second solo album, Richie became a chart-topping megastar. The Grammy-winning album offers nothing revelatory, but it does feature Richie’s best post-Commodores number and arguably his strongest single overall: the gorgeous ballad “Hello”.
Richie sings the ballad from the perspective of a man desperately in love with a woman he barely knows and does not know how to approach. Richie delivers the plaintive melody in an impassioned but vulnerable voice. Likewise, the accompanying instruments occasionally peak in volume and drama, but generally simmer with subdued, desperate tension. The song features a melodic guitar solo that flows with the vocal melody so well the guitar itself seems to sing. Richie may have scored Motown’s biggest hit ever with “Endless Love”, but “Hello” is his real crowning achievement.
While Richie was flying high on his own, the Commodores were surviving without him. It wouldn’t be long before they fell from the charts, but they held strong through the middle of the decade and managed to record their biggest hit during this period. That hit, “Nightshift”, is one of the group’s best singles and a well-deserved Grammy-winner. The tune pays tribute to Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye, both recently deceased. Memorial songs are difficult terrain for a band to navigate—it is too easy to conceive something maudlin or overwrought—but the Commodores handle the task with restraint and finesse. Like many pop singles of the era, “Nightshift” employs synthetic keyboard voices, but it does so tastefully (no small feat in the mid-‘80s). The keyboards blend with the funky, echoing guitar line to create a vastness occupied only by a sparse vocal melody praising two late legends as they perform their big shows in the sky.
Rick James, “Love Gun” (1979)
Rick James, “Ghetto Life” (1981)
It’s no coincidence that the first three singles on this list are all ballads. In the 1980s, Motown followed R&B trends by focusing on the slick and smooth stuff. The results were sometimes brilliant but rarely unpredictable. Surrounded by this quiet storm, Rick James’ hard funk kept Motown fresh through the middle of the decade. His music had its roots in ‘70s funk and soul, but his hard persona, all about sex and the streets, lent the music an edge sharp enough to cut a path for the raunchy funk-pop of Prince and the street songs of gangsta rap.
“Love Gun” (1979) is one of several singles James released in the late ‘70s as he prepared for his early ‘80s mainstream breakthrough. With its rhythmic guitar line, big beats, and faux-female backing vocals, the song is more dirty dance workout than pop single. James saved the pop hits for his best and most enduring album, Street Songs (1981). This album features the Rick James singles that everyone knows even if they don’t know James’ name: “Super Freak” and “Give It to Me Baby”. Equally as grabbing as these raunchy hits is the somewhat lesser-known album single “Ghetto Life”. James doesn’t reveal anything too shocking about ghetto life here, but he does tell his story of sex and dangerous living with his compellingly unique, booming bravado. The accompanying funk is funkier than ever, with a guitar line so hot James could have sung a stock market report over it without doing damage to the song’s dance-ability.
James might often be overlooked as one of Motown’s great figures, but that doesn’t mean he was less important or deserves fewer accolades than, say, the Temptations (some of whose latter-day material James produced). Likewise, it’s easy to crack a joke about ‘80s pop balladry, but it is just as easy to get lost in a good Richie single. Motown was certainly a quieter force in the 1980s, but if a song like “Nightshift” can teach us anything, it is that quiet can be as compelling as bombast.