The 70s were a golden age for soul music with giants like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield pushing the frontiers of what soul could sound like and be about. By contrast, the late and very great Bill Withers‘ appeal was more honest and blue-collar. He was the guy from the factory who just happen to be able to write incredible, heartfelt songs about the trials of everyday life with a minimalist, conversational simplicity.
Being able to do simple things brilliantly meant that he was probably a little underrated — especially given his competition at the time — but his catalogue is rich with classics, like this sumptuous ballad from his 1975 album Making Music.
Northern Soul may have been an underground cult in the 1970s but it was still able to get songs in the charts. Tami Lynn originally recorded this in 1965 but it wasn’t a hit until 1971 when it’s popularity in the Northern clubs crossed over into the mainstream and eventually to #4 in the UK charts. This happened again a couple of years later with Robert Knight’s “Love On A Mountain Top”. Can anyone think of any more?
Was there ever a social situation more stressful and ripe for humiliation and embarrassment than asking a girl to slow dance? Walking across that dancefloor to approach some young lady with the question often felt like climbing out of a trench in WWI and crossing No Man’s Land to face the enemy guns and certain death.
The “slowie” was a fixture at every club and disco (or “meat market” if you’d prefer) I went to in my teens and early 20s where the music was secondary to getting off with the opposite sex. They always played a few at the end of the evening so you knew it was coming and had time to scout around for potential candidates and maybe try to impress her in advance with your dancefloor moves to the faster songs. You’d need a few pints of Dutch Courage before you could work up the nerve (but not too many, you didn’t want to fall all over the poor girl) and when the moment came you’d go up to her trying to act all nonchalant and pretend it was no skin off your nose if she did or not — one thing my more sexually-successful friends always told me was that girls hate a bloke who seems too keen. But of course I did care, and if she turned me down I might ask someone else, but more often than not I’d slink back to the bar for a lonely pint where I stood and enviously watched all the jammy bastards who’d managed to score.
But occasionally you got lucky and she’d say “yes” so you’d have the few minutes the record lasted (and maybe another one) to make the most of the opportunity. If things were going well and you were feeling brave (or just drunk) you’d let your hands slowly and gingerly make their way down her back until — if she raised no objection — they rested happily on her bottom. Most of the time it never went any further than that, and when the record ended she’d say “thanks” and go back to her mates never to be seen again, but occasionally you’d get a phone number or even a snog out of it and go home with a satisfied smile on your face. No matter how depressingly unsuccessful you usually were, it was that possibility which kept you coming back weekend after weekend, ready to go through the same painful ritual all over again.
If I had to pick one slow record that was the definitive soundtrack to the British high street disco experience, and that end-of-the-evening feeling when air was thick with the scent of Paco Rabanne, sweat, lager, and Silk Cut, it would be this one.
Just hearing that clipped guitar intro I can see myself standing at the bar in some chrome-and-carpet disco pub, everyone around me is busy coupling up and hitting the dancefloor while I’m still trying to summon up the nerve to make a move on some lucky girl.
But if Spandau aren’t your cup of tea these were always good for a slow dance too. Lots of memories here, mostly frustrating ones.
What is it with the British and soul music? Why did we fall so truly, madly, deeply in love with it, worship even its most obscure artists and form so many cults and lifestyles around its every permutation? I doubt if there’s another country in world with such an obsession.
The most obvious expression of this love affair was the huge popularity of Tamla Motown which seemed to be adored by everyone in England from sharp-dressed Mods to mums and dads. Growing up, Motown songs always seemed to be coming out of a transistor radio somewhere — usually introduced by the chirpy voice of Tony Blackburn — and I don’t think I entered a house that didn’t have a copy of Motown Chartbusters on the shelf, Volume 6 with it’s bizarre Roger Dean cover was especially popular.
So it was only natural that next to her Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett albums my mother should have a copy of the 1968 compilation “The Motown Sound: A Collection Of 16 Original Big Hits Vol.6”. I’ve no idea what was on the other albums in this series (I can’t find any of them online and the American version has a completely different track listing) but the thing I love about it (especially now) is that only about three tracks on it were big hits while the rest is made up of more obscure numbers which gives it the feel of a from-the-vaults rarities collection rather than a package of chart smashes.
Little did I know when I was a little kid jumping around our living room to the fabulous, rousing “I Got A Feeling” by Barbara Randolph that I was enjoying a cult tune that was filling the floors of Northern Soul clubs. It wasn’t until the Mod revival in the late 70s when I “rediscovered” the album, dusty and half-forgotten in our sideboard, that I realized it was probably the hippest record my mother owned.
My other favourite track was the ballad “I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You” by Rita Wright which even as a kid I thought was heartbreaking (I was a softy even then). Though I didn’t know then that “Rita Wright” was later better known by her real name Syreeta (and for a while as Mrs. Stevie Wonder), how this was never a hit either is beyond me as it’s utterly gorgeous.
I’ve broken up with girls for lots of reasons in the past (or given them the Spanish Archer as we used to say), there have even been a few that have broken up with me — the nerve! Most of my relationships have ended with more of a whimper than a bang, slowly fizzling out when the initial spark faded so I don’t have too many dramatic stories to tell, but there was one girl who I caught on the phone having a secret, intimate chat with another bloke in the middle of the night in my own kitchen while she was spending the night at my place. That’s the only time in my life I’ve ever been involved in a get-the-fuck-out! shouting match with a girl and I hope you agree it was perfectly reasonable of me in that situation.
But what about the unreasonable causes? For a while I went out with a girl who told me she voted Conservative (this was when Maggie Thatcher was Prime Minister) and an American who said she thought Ronald Reagan was a great President. Though I didn’t, I hasten add, dump either of these girls on the spot, the thought did cross my mind that this might be grounds for terminating the relationship. Dodgy politics are one thing, but what if — horror of horrors — she had really bad taste in music?
I’ve been lucky in that regard, my long-term relationships (all three of them including the missus) have been with girls who shared roughly the same (impeccable) taste as me, but at college I briefly went out with a girl who liked… Chris De Burgh. This devastating information was given to me by a friend of hers before our first date who passed it on as if she was telling me the girl was a Neo-Nazi or liked to drown kittens — “she’s a nice girl, but…” Sadly she turned out to be a little dull and personality-free so I only went out with her three times, but I wonder if my opinion of her was tarnished by what I knew. Did knowing that she liked Chris De Burgh make her boring to me or did only boring people like Chris De Burgh in the first place? It’s a chicken-and-egg situation! I think I even avoided the “what kind of music do you like?” conversation with her because I’d have to fight the urge to shout HE’S SHIT!!! which would ruin any chance of a second date or getting her into bed (I didn’t), but I suppose if the relationship had lasted I would have had to cross that bridge at some point. I can’t even remember her name now but she has forever gone down in my memory as “the Chris De Burgh fan” I went out with.
Is there any group or singer so bad that they would be grounds for dumping a girl? I think the only answer to that question is “depends how good-looking she is.”
Anderson .Paak is a Californian singer and rapper whose albums are a fabulous mix of sweet 70s soul and modern hip-hop. His latest Ventura is his best yet and features guest stars like Andre 3000, Brandy, and Smokey Robinson (on the above). Sublime, breezy soul that’s just perfect for the coming summer. Dig it.