After ‘love’, might ‘heart’ be the most overused word in the pop lexicon? Elvis’s was wooden. Ray Charles’s had chains around it. Billy Ray Cyrus’s was achy breaky, and Celine Dion’s went on. And on. And on. It’s one of those pop ubiquities that are strangely absent in everyday usage. I don’t really talk about what my heart wants to know, or what its lone desire is. I’ve never followed Dionne Warwick’s example (or indeed that of Will.I.Am) and dubbed anyone a heartbreaker, except in the most pop-referential of ways. I’ve never found an angel playing in my ventricles (if I’d been Annie Lennox I would have nipped that celestial intervention in the bud). Nor have I encountered a heart like a wheel, even with the Human League’s guidance (and I’ve taken Phil Oakey’s advice to keep feeling fascination on a regular basis). Pop hearts are the rhymesters’ shorthand, and they often threaten to teeter on the brink of cliché. Nevertheless, the tempo of the human heart is also the beat of the dance; you can’t get away from it. The Pet Shop Boys, ever the arch pop pundits, even had a hit with the plainly titled ‘Heart’; ‘this is pop’, they were saying, ‘nor are we out of it’.
But then, isn’t it one of music’s miracles when a song literally stops your heart? When it seizes you in the chest, and surfs a wave of ripples up over the breastbone and down through the vertebrae? There are clarions, moments of shock and thrill when the pop police clamp on the cuffs, saying ‘I arrest you in the key of A minor’. For me, sixties Motown is the chief source of this civil arrest (and not a little bit of civil unrest too, though it danced, rather than rioted, in the streets). The cascades of percussion, the over-affirmed quadruple time signatures, all grab your collar and turn you round to look them in the face: like the infamous copper in Withnail and I, they scream ‘get in the back of the tourbus’. I’ve been in that bus many a time. I’ve given all my details, surrendered my credit, even my identity, and let the Funk Brothers drive me halfway round Detroit, blindfolded and battered. It’s one of the greatest pleasures in pop.
Here’s the swell of organ, the sound of the police vehicle pulling up before braking. And then, ‘STOP!’ Diana, Florence and Mary get out of the car, flashing their warrants. Was there ever a more thrillingly contradictory beginning to a song? Diana Ross’s man silenced by the law, the law as laid down by Holland-Dozier-Holland at the height of their powers, followed by just under three minutes of special pleading – I know you’ve cheated on me, she says, and I know you may well do it again, but I want you to look inside yourself: you’ve broken my heart, do you have one of your own to break?
There’s an infinite melancholy in this bittersweet teen-pop jewel. It’s not so much a pearl as a little tear, perfectly formed: bell-shaped, dropped carefully at the beginning of the song like a sad stylus nudged onto the groove. Immediately, you sense there might be some hope. The opening minor chord is quickly overwritten by that ‘name of love’ in the major, and the bass note rises by a tone – the tiniest degree of optimism shading out the despair. It then goes full-out major for the verse, but the chords form a descending pattern. I usually associate these downward chordal runs with a kind of nostalgia, but here they are the sound of what little control Diana has ebbing away. She has to keep urging her man to stop in the choruses; his figure is getting smaller and smaller as he recedes into the distance. She tries other wiles too. She may be yearning and pleading but she’s fully cognisant of what’s been going on. ‘Baby, I’m aware of where you go each time you leave my door’, she sings, with the accent fully on ‘aware’. I’m no fool, she’s saying, even if I am a fool for you. The second verse is even sadder: ‘I’ve known about your secluded nights / I’ve even seen her, maybe once or twice’. I don’t think this is one of those songs with a stalking subtext, though Diana’s clearly been doing her detective work. Then, in the third verse, ‘I’ve tried hard, hard to be patient / Hoping you’ll stop this infatuation’; you think she might finally be gaining the upper hand, the Smokey Robinson-esque rhyme pitching the maturity of the woman against the adolescent whims of the man. But in the end, all she can do is urge him to ‘think it over’ again.
As if anyone could think when Diana Ross is at her sweet, cooing peak. Her surprisingly slight, girlish voice has been toyed and flirted with, used and misused over the years since The Supremes. She’s walked a tightrope between cipher and prima donna. Disco Diana (of which I heartily approve) was the perfect, glassy-eyed persona for Nile Rodgers’ post-Chic funkworks. As she asserts almost edgily that she’s coming out, you wonder what form she might take when she emerges; polyrhythms propel her from the brink. On the other hand, she put her name to a fair number of saccharine 1990s ballads, which should have been kept in reserve for Mariah or Whitney. Hearing Diana Ross attempting to belt out cruise-ship doggerel like ‘When you tell me that you love me’ is one of the sadder prospects in pop history, like Stevie Wonder playing harmonica on Julio Iglesias records, or David Bowie dancing in the street with Mick Jagger. And there are times when she’s attempted too much personality, too much diva eccentricity: did anyone seriously think she could play Billie Holiday in a biopic to any great effect?
But in the 1960s, Diana reigned, well, supreme. The greatest hits of the greatest girl group of all time can be sequenced into an astonishing narrative of innocence and experience. There’s the crush, the first flush, which gives way to a kind of kittenish heartbreak when it inevitably runs out of steam (‘Baby Love’, ‘Where did our love go?’). From this grows a new resolution, to try and keep impatience at bay and let desire take its course (‘You can’t hurry love’). However, when the new, adult love comes, it brings with it adult twists and ambiguities. ‘Stop in the name of love’ effectively forms a diptych with ‘You keep me hanging on’, which many would claim is the absolute pinnacle of the Supremes’ canon. In the later record, the morse-code guitar mimics the palpitations of panic attack, and Ross’s voice is thickened with double-tracking, sounding both tougher and more distant, somehow. It’s a woman simultaneously in meltdown and triumph, and this duality is heady stuff; I’ll no doubt return to this territory anon (Dusty Springfield’s ‘I just don’t know what to with myself’ occupies a similar space).
The sequence I trace above is a bit of wishful thinking. I’ve tampered with the chronology. Nevertheless, it’s well-known that The Supremes got more and more bittersweet as their career progressed. Theirs is the story of Motown itself (that journey from ‘How sweet it is’ to What’s Going On), or indeed the sixties if you choose it to be: youthful idealism caught up in its own mythology, giving way to fire in Detroit, shots in Memphis, the deaths of rock stars, dreamers and geniuses. But really, their most beloved tracks are just the sound of a young heart trying to develop, trying to make sense of the forces in the outside world that threaten it – the sound of a girl becoming a woman. If you hear it this way, ‘Stop in the name of love’ is the heartbreaking cry of an ingénue who knows she’s about to enter a world in which people don’t always say what they mean or do what they say. She’ll do her damnedest to arrest this development, but it’s inevitable – already lost. She asks her man to stop before he breaks her heart, but we know that in reality it broke the moment she realised he’d been philandering. Yet disaster seldom sounded so sweet; in the end, it’s the song that wins. In pop, the heart is often battered into cliché, reduced to figures of speech, mouthed to the mike while the eyes look elsewhere. But in the best songs, the broken heart is pieced together through the alchemy of a harmony or the sleight of a hand on the fret. In ‘Stop in the name of love’, the heart isn’t ultimately broken at all; strengthened with tambourine and triangle, it beats and beats, in all its messy beauty.