Thursday, April 29, 2010

Beg, Scream & Shout!: The Flirtations' Nothing But a Heartache

When I was a kid, I treasured my transistor radio. Tuning into the local rock stations, I always found myself eagerly waiting to hear some song I fell in love with days earlier. Unlike today's Mp3 and IPad generation, where you can pick your tunes from a vast library you program on your player, there was an element of surprise to radio listening. You never knew when that favourite song would turn up. Sometimes you left your transistor on - with the ear-plug close by - just in case the DJ slipped in the tune, a track that changed the way you walked that day.

In 1969, one song that barely got any airplay (but certainly changed the way I walked) was The Flirtations' pop masterpiece "Nothing But a Heartache." The Flirtations were a black American all-female R&B band from South Carolina, but they actually made it big in England. They did it with a sound, too, that echoed the exuberance of the very best of Motown. "Nothing But a Heartache" was an indelible part of what was termed England's Northern Soul genre. In the late sixties, Northern Soul had emerged out of the British Mod scene. The music consisted of a particular style of black American soul based on a heavy backbeat combined with the quick tempo of Detroit's pop sound. But one of the key ingredients of Northern Soul was the manner in which the singers would convey heartbreak. It wasn't by expressing despair, but instead, by providing leaps of pure exhilaration.

"Nothing But a Heartache" kicks off with a dynamic horn riff as the singer boldly comes in announcing that she has nothing but heartaches everyday. But who knew heartaches could sound so thrilling? While the backing group backs up her claim, she soars above their shouts propelled by the horns and strings. With some of the verve of The Supremes' "You Keep Me Hangin' On," "Nothing But a Heartache" also has some of the emotional weight of Martha Reeves' performance on the Vandellas' "Nowhere to Run," where Reeves expresses both the terror of being hounded and the excitement of being on the loose. What often characterized Northern Soul was that incongruity of joyful despair, a paradoxical sound that had first attracted The Beatles to Motown. They, too, would often write and sing optimistic songs of heartache (i.e. "All My Loving").

Although The Flirtations, with numerous line-up changes, continued to make singles for the next three decades, "Nothing But a Heartache" was their most potent track. Yet it never cracked the Top Ten. Years later, due to its obscurity, I couldn't remember who recorded it. It took me many moons to find out who they were and what the title of the song was because DJs never back-announced the track. Believe it or not, I didn't end up finding out until the mid-nineties when film director Ron Mann's documentary Dreamtower (about the Toronto hippie enclave Rochdale) featured the tune. Even then, Mann didn't list it in the credits. I had to find out from Marc Glassman, who was the music supervisor on the project. But I was even happier in 2000 when I finally acquired the song on the substantial and invaluable 6-CD Rhino R&B box set, Beg, Scream & Shout!: The Big Ol' Box of '60s Soul.

There was a promotional film made of the group performing the tune (in the days before rock videos became the standard norm). Here it is on YouTube so you can hear for yourself a great song that unfortunately never got to be a golden oldie:

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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