16
Oct 06

SMOKEY ROBINSON AND THE MIRACLES – “Tears Of A Clown”

FT + Popular50 comments • 7,865 views

#290, 12th September 1970

 The opening of “Tears Of A Clown” is fussy, polite, slightly forced in its capering eagerness to please – a great way of introducing a song about putting a false face on to fool the world you’re happy. This theme was a regular one for Smokey Robinson – “Tracks Of My Tears” explores it too, and he’d used the Pagliacci line before word-for-word – but this is its best-realised outing. The track wears its intricacies on the surface, dazzling you – its interlocking arrangement of lead and backing vocals, for example, which is exhilarating and feels like you’re listening to someone juggling. Or the long tightropes of metaphor Robinson wobbles across. We listeners are witnessing the clown perform ourselves, firmly in the position of “the public”, and we want to see the show again and again. It’s only when Robinson’s voice catches angrily before the chorus (“I’m HURT and I want you so BAD”) that we get a glimpse of what’s beneath the make-up.

(It’s just occurred to me that “Tears” might work – unintentionally – as a metaphor for Motown itself. A resurrected mid-60s album track, its brisk clockwork jollity sounds odd against the heavier directions the likes of Norman Whitfield had been moving the label in. The company was changing fast – the old revue/production line model breaking down with the big stars (Robinson, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye) angling for more autonomy or bigger billing. The singer of “Tears Of A Clown” is trapped within a similar roadshow role, forced to entertain and unable to show the public his more soulful side. The huge pop success of “Tears” as a somewhat bitter farewell to the old Motown, perhaps? I’m reluctant to embrace this idea, mostly because it’s post-facto stretching but partly because I’ve never liked the idea that Motown’s version of soul was less ‘authentic’ for being more pop. So I drop it in here only as a stray thought.)

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Comments

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  1. 1
    Daniel_Rf on 16 Oct 2006 #

    Aren’t those first notes of the song quoting some old circus-associated piece of music? I always thought they were, and thus I’d never seen it as “fussy, polite, slightly forced”, but as a sort of cheeky joke, letting the listener be aware from the get-go that the clown facade isn’t all there is to the song (‘cos if it was they wouldn’t have been as OTT about it.)

    Interesting to compare it with “Tracks Of My Tears” – the same complaint, but in “Tracks…” it has to be given quietly, discreetly, while in “Tears Of A Clown” it just bursts out; this, too, could feed into yr Motown theory.

    (I don’t think admiring one way of musical production and sympathizing with those who felt held in by it is mutually exclusive. An artist breaking out from a certain system – Motown, Nashville, whatever – isn’t automatically laudable, but it isn’t automatically a bad move, either.)

  2. 2
    Matos W.K. on 16 Oct 2006 #

    The first notes don’t quote anything, really. The song was actually begun by Stevie Wonder; Smokey heard it and thought it sounded like circus music, inspiring the lyric.

  3. 3
    Tom on 16 Oct 2006 #

    Yeah, my comments on Motown weren’t meant to imply that I thought Robinson, Ross et al were wrong to want to make the decisions they did – if they felt the end of the line had arrived for them, they knew best.

  4. 4
    Marcello Carlin on 17 Oct 2006 #

    It should be noted that the song, as an album track, was resurrected first in the UK (principally via the Northern Soul clubs) and then remixed for 45 release by Dave Godin before it then hit in America; thus it was a by-product of the mingling of old and new Motown prevalent in the charts of this period.

  5. 5
    Erithian on 17 Oct 2006 #

    A consummate piece of songwriting, and one of Motown’s finest moments. Also the subject of one of my all-time favourite cover versions by The Beat (hugely underrated band).

    Speaking of cover versions, there’s a lovely howler that crept into Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh’s “1000 Number Ones” book, which says that Girls Aloud had a hit with a cover of the Miracles’ “Love Machine”. Errr…

  6. 6
    Marcello Carlin on 17 Oct 2006 #

    Not only had Smokey used the Pagliacci line before – in the Isleys’ “Behind A Painted Smile” which is very much a test run for “Tears Of A Clown” – but he even opened the record with a musical quote from “Vesta La Giubba.”

  7. 7

    which is the first million-selling record (perf.= caruso)

    smokey is better

  8. 8
    Marcello Carlin on 17 Oct 2006 #

    You forget the 1955 Top 20 cover version by Harry Secombe!

  9. 9
    intothefireuk on 17 Oct 2006 #

    Surely a 10 deserved here ? This really is the epitome of Motown – smooth soulful vocals over an immaculately arranged orchestrated backing and surging rhythm. How on Earth did Motown leave this as an album track ? Thankfully the UK’s burgeoning Northern Soul scene ressurected many a lost gem hidden on albums or left in the vaults of record companies (as well as helping new releases like the next no.1 achieve success). These include many of my personal fvs like Jackie Wilson, Tammi Lynn & Dean Parrish to name but a few.

  10. 10

    tho i know intellectually and historically that this is a pretty great song, i’ve never really liked it that much — bcz i HATE CLOWNS!!

    nor is this mere caprice — i was ATTACKED by a clown in 1965, during the opening week of the first safeway in the uk (ie in shrewsbury) — he CAME UP BEHIND ME when i WASN’T READY and i CRIED — then later when i had regained my composure and went to get a balloon from him as PROMISED, he CLAIMED HE HAD RUN OUT pah!

    so i have in turn always felt that the tears of a clown are invariably just desserts, which somewhat takes the edge off smokey’s borrowed metaphor

    PUT ON THE MOTLEY AND WEEP SOME MORE FOR ME, YOU BIG-SHOED CRIMINAL

    ahem

  11. 11
    Marcello Carlin on 17 Oct 2006 #

    There is also the terrible promo film used for the record on TOTP to take into consideration, featuring a, er, clown.

  12. 12

    grrr

  13. 13
    Tom on 17 Oct 2006 #

    Intothefire: I vacillated between 9 and 8 repeatedly in writing the review. It’s not even the best Motown No.1 tho!

  14. 14
    Steve Mannion on 17 Oct 2006 #

    I love clowns. There I said it.

  15. 15
    Pete Baran on 17 Oct 2006 #

    That’s cos you are a clown.

    We had a horribly scared crying glass clown which i believe was a popular nick-nack around the country which used to scare the shit out of me so I too believe in Smokey’s just deserts. I also used to get Smokey Robinson mixed up with Smokey and the Bandit and hence always imagine Burt Reynolds when I hear this song.

  16. 16
    Marcello Carlin on 17 Oct 2006 #

    It is better than mixing up Smokey Robinson with popular mid-late ’70s UK chart perennials Smokie.

  17. 17
    Christopher Barbour on 17 Oct 2006 #

    Never liked this, it’s definitely because of the opening “clown/circus music” that seems to be a bit OTT. A foghorn announcing “HERE IS A RECORD WITH CIRCUS-RELATED SUBJECT MATTER – ROLL UP!”

    Much prefer Tracks Of My Tears but, shamefully, had not noticed the similarity in subject matter until reading Tom’s piece today.

    Do others have artists they largely like but with one despised track?
    Love the Beatles but can’t stand Lady Madonna
    Love Bowie but can’t stand Fame
    Love Elton but can’t stand Honky Cat

  18. 18
    Tom on 17 Oct 2006 #

    Smokey Robinson and the Miracles ft Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown – Pagliacci (Who The F*** Is Pagliacci?)

  19. 19
    Steve Mannion on 17 Oct 2006 #

    I am not a clown, Pete, you liar.

  20. 20
    Marcello Carlin on 17 Oct 2006 #

    To Pete I guess he’s just a clown who picks him up each time he’s down.

  21. 21
    intothefireuk on 17 Oct 2006 #

    My Son just had a Circus visit his school and one of his friends refused to go cos he was also scared of the clowns. Apparently it’s quite common. There are those also, that have a similar problem with Father Christmas – now how many records would that put you off ?

  22. 22
    Steve Mannion on 17 Oct 2006 #

    Would Mark S like Clownstep though?

  23. 23
    Marcello Carlin on 17 Oct 2006 #

    “Father Christmas Do Not Touch Me” by the Goodies (#7, 1974) for one (xpost).

  24. 24
    Lena on 17 Oct 2006 #

    The only time I ever phoned a radio station I asked them to play this – when I was 11!

    Clowns are scary, but sad clowns aren’t.

  25. 25
    Brian on 17 Oct 2006 #

    “We listeners are witnessing the clown perform ourselves” is right on the money Tom. The music for this track is totally part of the lyric and not far from somnething like ” The Benefit of Mr. Kite” in its approach to creating a soundscape for the words.

    But I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s Motown at its best. It’s a highly dramatic piece but not , dare I say, particularily soulful when you hold it up to Marvin Gaye or The Temptations. The production value is more show-stopper than soul.

    As a father of three kids, I’ve had a couple of run ins with clowns that scared my children. One of my daughters, who still to this day doesn’t like ’em, and up until 2 years ago wouldn’t give them candy at Halloween if they came to our door!

  26. 26
    Martin Skidmore on 17 Oct 2006 #

    I’ve never liked this a fraction as much as Tracks Of My Tears, though I wouldn’t really argue with the 8. I always thought of it alongside Dave Davies’s Death Of A Clown.

  27. 27
    xyzzzz__ on 17 Oct 2006 #

    doesn’t p^nk s like Butthole surfers? (cover of ‘Locust, Abortion Technician’)

  28. 28
    Doctor Mod on 18 Oct 2006 #

    As to the circus music: I recognized it back then (i.e., 1970) and I was wracking my brains last night to try to remember it. I literally woke up in the middle of the night remembering it as a bit of fluff that was played at the beginning of some kid’s cartoon show hosted by a clown figure on US television in the late 50s or so. I think there were lyrics to the effect of “Step right up / to the greatest show in town.” Even if it was Stevie Wonder who came up with the intro, he was also a child at the same time and might also have remembered it, even if only subconsciously.

    In thinking about the song, it struck me as being much earlier than 1970 in its sound–so I’m not surprised to hear it was actually recorded in 1967. While good, I don’t think it’s necessarily one of the Miracles’ best–but then I started listening to the Miracles around 1962 or so, and I prefer the older stuff (e.g., “Shop Around,” the relatively obscure “I’ll Try Something New,” “You Really Got a Hold on Me”) and this is a bit “lite” by comparison.

    And let us not forget: The orchestral track from this song is what the much-maligned ABC would later quote in “When Smokey Sings.”

  29. 29
    Doctor Mod on 18 Oct 2006 #

    Pagliacci is an opera by Ruggiero Leoncavallo about a tragic clown who responds to being cuckolded by killing his faithless wife and her lover during a commedia dell’arte performance. (Who said opera and rock don’t share a common sensibility?)

    Everyone has heard “Vesti la giubba” (the big tenor aria) and would instantly recognize it even if they don’t know it by name.

    (And “Pagliacci” isn’t a person–the title just means “clowns” in Italian.)

  30. 30
    wwolfe on 18 Oct 2006 #

    This has one of my favorite James Jamerson bass parts. I also enjoy how the drummer varies his re-entry after each quiet part. (For example, before the last, shortened verse, there’s a quick roll that makes us feel we’re rushing to the end; then, after Smokey sings his last “The tears of a clown…”, there’s a startling “bam-bam-bam” on a tom as he sings “…when there’s no one around.” It mirrors perfectly the anger we hear in Smokey’s voice throughout the song.)

    This inspired me to check out “Pagliacci” from my college library, so I’d understand the reference. That’s my deepest involvement in opera.

    I think Berry Gordy had the best ear for a hit in the history of rock and soul. Amazing then that he didn’t hear this one.

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