A Diana Ross & the Supremes B-side in 1969 was called "The Beginning of the End," and it's hard not to think that the title applies to Motown in 1969, especially as depicted in the six-disc, 148-track box set The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 9: 1969. Berry Gordy uprooted Motown to Los Angeles at the end of 1968, a move that couldn't help but be seen as symbolic no matter what good business reasons there might have been behind it. It seemed that Gordy was abandoning Detroit in the wake of the 1967 Riots, leaving behind tumult in the Motor City and also severing ties with the label's roots, if not its history. It was ten years since the label's inception, and in that decade Motown rose from a scrappy independent to a label with so much success it was almost an institution, and what better way to cement its mainstream institutional success than by relocating to the heart of show biz? It made sense on paper even if it nevertheless had the byproduct of removing some of the label's soul, as it seemed as if its heart belonged in Detroit. But most cultural change is slow, not sudden, so it's not like 1969 saw the debut of a brand-new Motown: instead, it was the beginning of the label's third act, one that saw it broadening its borders and eventually leading to the artistic triumphs of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye in the early '70s -- in other words, it was "the beginning of the end."
Within that fledgling ending were remnants of the very beginning, of course, sometimes remnants that appeared to be just a shade too self-conscious, as when Gordy had Detroit TV legend Soupy Sales cut a single, almost as a way to illustrate how Motown still had ties to its hometown even if the 45 itself was an ultra-bizarre "Macarthur Park" parody non-too subtly titled "Muck-Arty Park." And, of course, the label's leading lights remained the superstars from the '60s -- Diana Ross & the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder. But even if the names are familiar, the sounds reflected the time, as the productions are studded with wah wah guitars, fuzztones, and elastic funk beats. The feeling of the era is reflected most glaringly in the very title of "Psychedelic Shack," but also in how Smokey Robinson & the Miracles sang Dion's "Abraham Martin & John," the elegiac undertones of the Supremes' "Someday We'll Be Together," and the smooth, lush tones of Wonder's "My Cherie Amour." These lush, soft tones are improbably echoed in, of all places, Jr. Walker's recordings; once the toughest, hardest of the Motown stable, he is also held under the sway of the softer sophistication of the new era Motown (quite fetchingly so on "What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)") unlike Marvin Gaye, whose "Too Busy Thinking About My Baby" has a bounciness to it that is the closest thing to a throwback to classic Motown among the hits in 1969. Even if the sound recalled earlier days, there's a sophistication within his writing and the production, just as there is in Stevie Wonder's "Yester Me, Yester You, Yesterday," which is one of his best moments.
Nevertheless, these kind of mammoth hits -- hits that turned into pop classics -- didn't dominate Motown's year; they were the exception, not the rule, as the label had its most uneven year since 1963. From 1964 through 1968, almost every single the label released turned into a hit of some magnitude, and their bench was so deep the records that didn't appear on the charts were nevertheless by and large terrific. In 1969, Motown had hits that weren't memorable, singles that were exercises in fashionable styles and sounds, singles that suggested that the label was chasing trends instead of setting the pace. Part of this was due to cultural shifts, part was due to shifts within Motown, as Gordy decided to attack the times head-on by opening up a rock label with Rare Earth and started distributing Chisa, the label of world music pioneer Hugh Masekela and his partner Stewart Levine. Such digressions do dilute the consistency of the listening experience on The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 9, making it compare unfavorably to the almost all-killer sets from 1966, 1967 and 1968. But even if there is more pop culture archaeology here than there has been on one of these sets since 1963, most of these records sound good as artifacts of 1969; on these also-rans the production is appealing, all that is lacking is good material. But amidst this middling material are some very good, even excellent, singles thanks to Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Norman Whitfield and Ashford & Simpson, who helped give this year many great moments. But what really defined the year for Motown is the debut of the Jackson 5, whose debut "I Want You Back"/"Who's Lovin' You" arrived at the end of the year. On this set, it appears toward the end of the set, following several discs of music that vacillate between the good to the pleasingly mediocre, so it sounds every bit as bracing and exciting as it did upon its original release. It's a hit that closed the door on Motown's period of doldrums and opened the doors to a new decade, while giving the label its biggest new stars in years. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine