From Cloud Nine onwards, Motown were back at the forefront of American popular music.
Chris Jones 2008-03-07
By 1968 Berry Gordy's seemingly insurmountable empire was under attack. Psychedelia, the freeform antithesis of Hitsville's precise tempos and lyrically safe methodology, was now the hip currency of young America. More importantly, it effected all strata of society, even the less radical homeland that bought Motown's singles. In soul circles, only Sly Stone (who had the distinct advantage of being a San Franciscan DJ anyway) had heeded the call of the flower children. In Detroit it must have seemed like another universe to the suited and immaculate pop-by-numbers brigade. Initially the Temptations' producer (and, with Barrett Strong half of the band's song writing team), Norman Whitfield, had poured disdain on the love and peace offered by the Family Stone. Yet in a wise volte face he decided that, with Dennis Edwards replacing David Ruffin as the main voice of the group, he could offer Gordy a new vision of 'psychedelic soul' . What followed were four years of peerless social commentary, groundbreaking arrangements and far out funky soul.
The first foray, and arguably the album that saved Motown's increasingly outmoded ass, was Cloud Nine. In fact it was the band's Otis Williams who first put the seed of the idea into Whitfield's mind. But when he saw the light it was with spectacular results. The first three numbers broke the mold that had kept the band confined as a dance-routined and conformist vocal troupe. For starters the title track began with some of the most warped sounds ever to grace a Motown release up to that point. Their version of I Heard It Through The Grapevine signalled the old label morphing into the new. Then there was Runaway Child, Running Wild; a NINE-minute journey through contemporary issues, ghetto politics and studio mastery. Edwards vocals also had the grit and righteous indignation that was perfectly suited to more gritty, challenging numbers.
It wasn't all wigged-out stuff, though. On the original release's side two the band did return to more familiar, three-minute fare such as I Need You Lovin'. Thus, Cloud Nine was a halfway house in the Temptations' metamorphosis into true psychedelic pioneers. The final transformation was to follow on the next two albums, Psychedelic Shack and All Directions, where Whitfield's productions continued to stretch them in all kinds of new directions. But from Cloud Nine onwards, Motown were back at the forefront of American popular music.