“I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day” is probably one of the most recognisable first lines out there. As Janice from Mean Girls once said “Everybody in the English speaking language knows that song,” which is just as applicable to My Girl as it is to Jingle Bell Rock. While The Temptations are probably most famous for this track, the band have an incredible back catalogue of Motown, soul, funk and disco tracks in a whopping 22 studio albums. In this week’s column I’m 100% cheating my own rules by picking a compilation album comprising basically of the band’s best songs, but there you go, I’m a rebel.
The history of The Temptations is one of the more interesting out there. The group were subject to frequent changes in lead singers, producers and members, with drugs, alcoholism and violence sometimes being reasons for the disruption. Under the direction of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, producers were sometimes switched according to whose song performed best in the charts. This resulted in different directions for the band, from the classic Motown R&B, to psychedelic records akin to Sly and the Family Stone, to funk more similar to James Brown. The craziness happening backstage led to an eclectic mix of tracks which are compiled on the album My Girl (released in the late 90s). Obviously, the title track is an amazing song, that doesn’t need any more proof. There are other gems that appear on this record that may have passed you by, however.
Cloud 9 is a restless soul/funk track with amazing vocals displaying the different vocal strengths of the different singers, and interesting lyrics. Ball of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today) builds on the themes of Cloud 9 but takes them further. First, a deep, husky bass line comes in before a psychedelic effect and the the simple line: “People moving out, people moving in, all because of the colour of their skin.” This track explores the racism, segregation, political corruption and everything else that made 1970s America a ball of confusion. The instrumentation on this track is something special, from the trumpets to the harmonica to a steady drum all coming together to emulate this confusion that the band sing about.
On the other side of the musical spectrum, Just My Imagination (Running Away From Me) is a gentle and really quite heartbreaking track, focusing on the more typical Motown/ballad topic of unrequited love. The voices of the band are all so soft that you’re pulled into the song without even noticing. From that, this compilation leads us straight on to Standing On Top Of The World, a pure funk track, then to the mild disco of Treat Her Like A Lady. This is an old fashioned song, centred around that very chivalrous notion of cherishing your sweet and delicate lady friend, offering her a cigarette, holding the door open for her and so on. Motown tracks like this are interesting in that on the one hand, they seem very outdated in the modern world of club tracks and house beats. However, the fixation with romance (think of the Motown tracks you know and you’ll see they are usually very similar in themes) hasn’t faded from the charts. Looking to modern ballads, it’s clear to see the Motown influence in tone and sometimes style. For example, Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud credits Marvin Gaye, sampling Let’s Get it On’s chord progression.
Obviously, most bands put their best tracks on a compilation, but with The Temptations more than most, there is a massive separation between their different records in terms of styles, meaning it’s difficult to choose just one record to recommend.Thankfully the record powers that be have given us a little taster of the Psychedelic Temptations, their classic Motown Ballad side, the Funk tracks and even the Jazz/ Americana evident in Young Lovers. It’s a mammoth album at 20 tracks, but it’s worth it to hear samples from the different styles one of the best groups of all time.