Oct 06


FT + Popular51 comments • 8,375 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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  1. 31
    wwolfe on 18 Oct 2006 #

    I forgot to say…

    Carolyn Crawford sang the Pagliaccia line in “My Smile Is Just a Frown (Turned Upside Down),” also written by Smokey, around 1965.

  2. 32
    jeff w on 20 Oct 2006 #

    I like this song but much prefer “Tracks…” and The Isleys’ “Behind A Painted Smile”. Indeed “Tears of a Clown” sounds to me very atypical of the Motown sound BOTH in 1970 and when it was recorded. The strident orchestration has tended to grate over the years, although I do love the prominent bassoon.

    The main reason I’m posting at all actually is to note that not only is fear of clowns very common, there’s even a word for it: coulrophobia.

  3. 33
    Chris Brown on 24 Oct 2006 #

    Actually, the Isleys record is such a personal favourite of mine I almost have to mark this down in comparison.

  4. 34

    i’m not afraid of clowns i just HATE THEM

  5. 35
    Marcello Carlin on 25 Oct 2006 #

    Examples of other clowns in early ’70s pop:

    a) Leo Sayer in full make-up for “The Show Must Go On”;
    b) Jobriath passim;
    c) One of Pan’s People weeping in front of a mirror dressed as a clown to accompany “Fool” by Elvis on TOTP;
    d) “I Am A Clown” by David Cassidy;
    e) “Don’t Be Afraid, The Clown’s Afraid Too” by Mingus (off Let My Children Hear Music – well, I call it pop);
    f) er…

  6. 36
    Dadaismus on 27 Oct 2006 #

    f) Zal Cleminson, guitarist with the Sensational Alex Harvey Band!

  7. 37
    Marcello Carlin on 27 Oct 2006 #

    That’s the fella! The Shakespeare-reciting tap-dancing (on a tea tray) guitar god himself!

  8. 38
    Dadaismus on 27 Oct 2006 #

    g) Eurovision song contest flops, Coco (as in … the Clown)

  9. 39
    Marcello Carlin on 27 Oct 2006 #

    Also as in pre-Bucks Fizz Cheryl Baker

  10. 40
    Rodney on 28 Nov 2006 #

    I find it interesting that to everyone except Tom and I, including Smokey himself, the opening sounds like circus music. To me, the bassoon squiggles signal as (forgive me if I’m using this term in a wildly inaccurate fashion) baroque.

  11. 41
    lee on 5 Apr 2007 #

    does any one know if smokey has a song with him and the miricles,take me to the countryside,if so please list it,thanks or him by his self.

  12. 43
    thefatgit on 4 Mar 2013 #

    Sad news: Bobby Rogers takes his final bow.


  13. 44
    Cumbrian on 5 Mar 2013 #

    It has been a bad couple of weeks for Motown. Damon Harris and Richard Street from The Temptations died within 7 days or so of each at the back end of February – both were in the early 70s line up and sang on Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone.

  14. 45
    swanstep on 5 Mar 2013 #

    And Shadow Morton, discoverer of and writer and producer for The Shangri-Las (among other things) died mid-February, so the wider ’60s are taking some hits.

  15. 46
    mapman132 on 23 Feb 2014 #

    Already mentioned above, but I never realized this probably wouldn’t have been a hit in the US if it hadn’t hit in the UK first as a plucked from relative obscurity album track. That explains the three month lag before topping the Hot 100. Thanks Britain, as this is one of my favorite Motown hits. 9/10.

  16. 47
    hectorthebat on 13 Jun 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 40 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 13
    Life (USA) – 40 Years of Rock & Roll, 5 Songs for Each Year 1952-91 (Updated 1995)
    Pause & Play (USA) – 10 Songs of the 70’s (2003)
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    The Recording Academy Grammy Hall of Fame Albums and Songs (USA)
    New Musical Express (UK) – The Top 150 Singles of All Time (1987) 23
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    Sounds (UK) – The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1986) 66
    Spex (Germany) – The Best Singles of the Century (1999)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  17. 48
    Ed on 22 Nov 2016 #

    Thinking about the unreliable narrator of ‘Shop Around’ brought me here…

    I have always thought one possible reading of this lyric is that he is actually perfectly happy that they’ve split up. He’s just spinning a line to his ex – maybe to take the moral high ground, maybe for a sympathy shag for old times’ sake, whatever – and making up the big sob story about how sensitive and broken-up he is.

    That subtext is even stronger in ‘Tracks of my Tears’, I think: If she sees him walking with some other girl, looking like he’s having fun, maybe that’s because he is actually, you know, having fun.

    Or is that just me?

  18. 49
    wichitalineman on 22 Nov 2016 #

    Given Mary Wilson’s stories about Smokey in Dream Girls, I think you may be absolutely right.

  19. 50
    lonepilgrim on 17 Feb 2018 #

    the opening notes of the song emulate a calliope (or fairground organ) and a similar motif can be heard on ‘Life’ by Sly & The Family Stone released the following year. Tape snippets of the instrument were also used on ‘For the benefit of Mr Kite’.
    I like this just as much as ‘Tracks of my Tears’ which sounds more soulful compared to this song – but I like the tension here between the brittle cheerfulness of the tune and the barely suppressed angst of the lyrics

  20. 51
    Gareth Parker on 1 Jun 2021 #

    10/10 for me. I would say it is my favourite Motown UK #1.

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