Saturday, March 21, 2020

Going to a Go-Go (1965)

From the goofy dated title, or simply contemplating the breezy mid-'60s sailboat style of the cover photo and design, it might be easy to assume this is a typical album for its times, with the old one-hit-plus-11-covers strategy of long-players (LPs) for record clubs—a blast of nostalgia at best (put this cover on the wall!) and hope the hit at least is good. If those are your expectations you're in for a treat. There are 12 songs, but first—well, first, it's Motown, and then second, it's Smokey Robinson, with a hand in writing 11 of the songs. There are no fewer than four hits on this one (a third of the album ... compare Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual). All four were top 20 (though none top 10), and at least a couple of them have gone on to become standards, covered by others into their own hits. Perhaps most notably that's "Tracks of My Tears," which Johnny Rivers and Linda Ronstadt had later hits with. "Ooo Baby Baby" is like that too, another hit for Linda Ronstadt and also taking its place in one of Todd Rundgren's best moments, the soul medley from A Wizard, a True Star. You might be surprised, as I was, to learn the biggest hit the album produced was the title song, which reached #11. I don't remember hearing it on the radio but the song, with a churning under-beat that drives it like a tank on rough terrain, was actually one of my favorites when I caught up with the album in the early '80s, in thrall to Jim Miller's Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll (my introduction to The Velvet Underground and Nico, Pet Sounds, and a bunch of others I badly needed catching up on). "Going to a Go-Go" made going to a go-go sound even cooler than Chic was making going to a disco sound.

For hits, that only leaves "My Girl Has Gone," which I barely know by title but remember when I hear it as part of the rich stew of Motown offerings on the radio then. That one I did hear on the radio. "Choosey Beggar" is a classic example of Smokey Robinson head play, riffing on the old "beggars can't be choosers" chestnut. It misspells the word in the title and, even more strikingly, Robinson mispronounces it in the vocal (as, approximately, "choizy"). It somehow works like a minor irritant that flushes out a lot of seductive pleasure when you sing with it. That's one of those things Smokey Robinson does so well. He's stiff and corny like a dad joke but there's a release there too. Sometimes his puns are so strained they are the irritants themselves ("I Second That Emotion," for example, which turns a plaintive declaration into Robert's Rules of Order). But the main point is that's exactly where Robinson can draw the pleasure from somehow, putting his stamp on it. And I'm just talking about his songwriting at the moment—the gorgeous vocal style is another matter entirely. Another nice one here is "From Head to Toe," which Elvis Costello & the Attractions covered in 1982 as part of Costello's apology campaign after the dustup with Delaney & Bonnie in Columbus, Ohio. I'm not missing that all these artists covering Smokey Robinson's songs are white, and in fact while I don't have that much use for the Ronstadt versions, I actually prefer the ones by Elvis Costello and Todd Rundgren to the originals here. But these are great songs—all of them—and anyone who can carry a melody is going to make a credible job of putting them over. And Smokey Robinson can do much more than merely carry a melody. Is this the greatest album by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles? Is it the greatest Motown album? I wouldn't go that far. But I bet it's a whole lot better than you would think. That's the thing about Smokey Robinson, and Motown. Even the workaday stuff tends to be noticeably a cut above.