There were two anniversaries this week according to Johnny Walker on BBC Radio 2. It is sixty years since the foundation of the Motown record label, and forty-nine years since Diana Ross left The Supremes to embark upon a solo career.
A onetime friend of sorts would have probably dismissed any Motown track in less than complimentary terms. “Pretentious rubbish”, he would say about music he didn’t like. His comment was chiefly reserved for a rock group called “Yes”, but was used about other bands as well. Only years later did the thought occur that the vocabulary he employed to comment on music might not have extended much beyond those two words. However, when you were like me, when you had no words at all, having two words was sufficient to make someone an expert. It was hard to know what “pretentious” meant, what did he think the music was pretending to be? Can rock music pretend to be something it’s not?
Going to university in London, there were people whose critical vocabulary extended far beyond two words. I would buy New Musical Express sometimes in the hope of finding the language to understand those who used the opportunity of being at the LSE, a college just off the Strand to go to concerts in all the nearby venues. It never worked. Reading Private Eye’s “Pseuds’ Corner” column, I would wonder if the NME reviews bordered on the point of being “pretentious”, but would never have dared to say so. What would someone from the sticks know about such things?
There was music I loved, music that made me happy, but I would never have admitted such affection. Tamla Motown tunes could lighten grimy London streets, brighten up drab days, but what undergraduate in a left-wing college in 1980 was going to admit to being fond of Diana Ross and the Supremes? It was bad enough to have been seen buying a Blondie album in the Virgin Megastore in Oxford Street.
My liking for the upbeat tunes that came out of Detroit never diminished. Once I reached the age of forty, I no longer cared what people thought about my taste in music. In 2004, I went to see Diana Ross perform in Dublin. There was such a reluctance on the part of anyone I knew to attend the concert that I had to twist the arm of the local primary school principal to go with me.
There is in Motown music an irrepressible enthusiasm for life, a buoyant and positive mood imbues the tunes. It is entirely different from me, which is probably why I enjoy it so much.