What’s the best album on Motown? Well, it must be Marvin Gaye’s hugely successful and revolutionary What’s Going On right? That’s often voted as THE greatest album of all time, so it must be. Right? Well, to some maybe, but by the time the hugely successful What’s Going On was released in 1971, Motown had not only already dominated the singles charts for years, but they had lost some of the best songwriters, producers and artists that had helped the label on their way. Holland Dozier Holland had left and the original Temptations has disintegrated, their new incarnation’s recordings, like those of Undisputed Truth’s, being extended into drawn-out epics at the hands of experimenting producer Norman Whitfield. The song cycle format of What’s Going On may have been new to Motown, but the longer tracks certainly weren’t anything new.
Similarly the socio-political lyrics of What’s Going On were nothing new to soul music, Curtis Mayfield having made bolder strides in that direction with The Impressions almost a full decade earlier. Don’t get me wrong, What’s Going On is a neat piece of work, sung sublimely, but the best album of all time? Maudlin, unvaried and lacking in much musical energy, it’s not even the best album on Motown.
Each to their own, but for my money the best album on Motown is 1967’s Soul On The Rocks by The Isley Brothers. In the main it is fast and furious, its heartfelt songs simply rocket from the speakers providing a near relentless journey through the superb writing and playing of the snappy songs that epitomise the classic, early Motown sound. It goes without saying that the vocals are exemplary.
In the UK this material, perhaps more so than from any Motown artist of the period, was embraced by frantic soul dancers, influencing the Northern soul scene for many years to come. An almost unparalleled number of its songs – ‘Got To Have You Back’, ‘That’s The Way Love Is’, ‘Tell Me It’s Just A Rumour Baby’, ‘It’s Out Of The Question’, ‘Why When Love Is Gone’ and their fantastic version of ‘Whispers (Gettin’ Louder)’ – remain anthems to this day for Northern soul fanatics and Motown connoisseurs alike.
The original UK mono vinyl version I own is one of my prized possessions and for years I have played it cautiously, sparingly, in the knowledge that it would be so difficult to replace. The more common stereo version of the album, which has been reissued several times on both vinyl and CD is, frankly, terrible. Instruments are assigned to either the left or right speaker, providing a disjointed listen that annoys on headphones and is simply a nightmare for DJs operating on systems set to stereo.
The arrival of this UK Motown anthology is an opportunity for everyone to share in the true glory of Soul On The Rocks and much more besides. In a move that has made connoisseurs punch the air in triumph, those responsible for this anthology have done as perfect as a service as could have been wished for, including not only all of the album’s original mono mixes, but mono mixes of all of The Isley Brothers’ releases for Motown (plus some stereo mixes as bonus tracks). The result is glorious, a benchmark by which the reissue of all vintage Motown should be judged. If you only ever buy one Isley Brothers cd, it should be this, a more essential purchase I could not recommend.