Motown survived some heavy turbulence in 1969, as the company settled into its new headquarters in Los Angeles while negotiating shifting musical tides, all before righting itself with the surprise success of the Jackson 5. The Jacksons were the engine that drove the label in 1970, helping to push Motown into a new era. This shift is documented in Hip-O Select's tenth volume of The Complete Motown Singles, a six-disc, 145-track set that -- like its nine predecessors -- is packaged as a hardcover book the shape of a 45-rpm single, with a vinyl replica of one of that year's hits embedded in the cover: Smokey Robinson & the Miracles' "The Tears of a Clown." That smash hit doesn't quite hint at larger trends at Motown in 1970, as it echoes the bright, bouncy beat of the mid-'60s, while almost all the other 45s from '70 do belong to a time when funk and bubblegum dominated radio. Of course, there's a good reason why "The Tears of a Clown" feels a bit like a holdover -- it is a holdover, originally released on the Make It Happen LP in 1967 but turned into a U.K. single in 1970, then leaping back across the Atlantic to top the U.S. charts. Such a convoluted story actually suits the ball of confusion that was Motown in 1970, when they were split between a maturing, sometimes rebellious group of older superstars and barreling into the future thanks to the Jackson 5 and Rare Earth, who finally gave the label a rock & roll group with some chart success.
An old Smokey song, the Jackson 5, and funkified hippie rock only scrape the surface of what was going at Motown in 1970. Just a year before, they seemed a bit tentative, making concessions to the middle of the road and dabbling in worldbeat instead of diving headfirst into the thick uncertainty of the end of the '60s. The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 10 shows no signs of hesitation from the label and even if a little incoherence comes with that boldness, this does make for a wildly entertaining and revealing listen. Remnants of Berry Gordy's middle-class supper-club aspirations can still be heard -- Joe Harnell's Muzaky "My Cherie Amour" provides a slick bump in the road early on -- but Motown was getting seriously funky thanks to Edwin Starr and the often unheralded Bobby Taylor, and the label wasn't ignoring black power either, with the Spinners cutting "Message from a Blackman," which may play a little bit like blaxploitation in retrospect but it does explicitly speak to politics in a way Motown never did just a few years earlier. Of course, the Spinners are better-known for gorgeous, lush soul, the kind that is best heard on their big '70 breakthrough, "It's a Shame," a Stevie Wonder production/co-write that manages to highlight two '70 trends at Motown at once: how Wonder was leading the charge for the label's artists to assert themselves on their own terms -- he had a kindred spirit in Marvin Gaye but Marvin spent much of 1970 in contemplation after the death of Tammi Terrell -- and how the label's newer harmony groups were sliding into smooth soul. The latter trend could also be heard on the Originals and their gorgeous single "The Bells" -- a Gaye production that was his only major new contribution that year -- while Stevie had another huge hit with "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," as big a breakthrough as Diana Ross' "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," which established her as a solo success.
As all this was happening, the Temptations continued to get far out with producer Norman Whitfield, who also helmed the recordings of Rare Earth, whose trippy, wah-wah-drenched funky rock & roll captured the garish paisleys of the '60s hangover like nothing else Motown ever recorded, yet they could slide onto AM pop radio in 1970. So could a lot of Motown's singles from 1970, as many of their productions were stamped with a fizzy, compressed sound where all the echoes, strings, and harmonies were cheerfully flattened; this is as true for Junior Walker's increasingly easy listening soul as it is for some early Kiki Dee sides and R. Dean Taylor's "Indiana Wants Me," a melodramatic mini-epic that belongs to the vibe of 1970 as much as his Beatles novelty did in 1964. That AM pop bent is the real surprise about The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 10: amidst that shimmering soft soul and hard-edged funk, there's a lot that is as driven by bubblegum as by a backbeat. And that is all down to the Jackson 5, who had their best year ever in 1970, chalking up the ebullient "ABC" early in the year, following it with "The Love You Save" and then the lovely "I'll Be There," before concluding the year with "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," as exuberant a holiday single as ever was recorded. The Jackson 5 were the catalyst of Motown's success in 1970 and gave the label much of its new character, but this box proves that there was so much more than this group and the rising Diana Ross that year. This is as thrilling a listen as any of its predecessors and yet more surprising, as this documents a year not commonly acknowledged as one of the label's best. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine