30 YEARS AGO!
Friday, March 25, 1983: At the Pasadena Civic Center, Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever is being taped for a May broadcast. Smokey Robinson’s voice - a sound that’s familiar but for its degree of shrill excitement - echoes within the auditorium, washes over the studio audience of three thousand: The Four Tops! And the tempting Temptations! Here to battle it out, just like in the old days!
The Tops take the stage in gold lame; the Tempts are in black tuxedos. The contest consists mostly of the groups alternating choruses of their biggest hits, in leaden arrangements that incorporate the pit orchestra’s best idea of contemporary jangle-funk. “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” cedes to “Get Ready,” “It’s the Same Old Song” to “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” An awkward faux-cockiness emerges, with exaggerated arm-folding, eye-rolling, and back-turning yielding to it’s-all-good smiles. The Temptations trot out their famous dance steps, while the Tops make do with a lot of clapping and snapping. “Baby, I Need Your Loving,” “My Girl,” and “I Can’t Get Next To You” follow, before the Tops really heat things up with…”I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)”? What kind of fool brings a song about a honey bunch to a knife fight? The Temptations respond with “I Know I’m Losing You,” and the house band - not the legendary Funk Brothers, though James Jamerson watches from the cheap seats - signs off, everybody hugs, and the camera crane swoops over the audience.
Like the lyric says, it’s the same old song, but with a different meaning now: It’s all show biz. The songs that make up this murderer’s row of classics have been clinically excerpted, delivered in key, and forgotten. The performers leave the stage, never having inhabited the songs tonight in the way they did decades ago (how can you inhabit a medley?) and gather across the street for a party at the Plaza Pasadena. When the special finally airs, the sing-off will be fondly received, and the two groups will tour together for the next few years, recreating the playful tussle for the oldies circuit. But the television audience will pay most of its attention to former child star Michael Jackson and his funny new backsliding dance step.
(Excerpt from my entry in Rock and Roll Cage Match, 2008)