Music: God is in the Details

The Independent's Guide to Pop's fiddly bits
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The Temptations

Papa was a Rolling Stone (1972)

YOU KNOW it from those opening bass notes: "da-DUM". Beethoven's Symphony No 5 can be recognised from its first four notes, and Rodrigo's Concerto d'Aranjuez can be clocked from just three, but Whitfield and Strong's narrative soul/funk classic draws you straight into a unique soundworld with the first two notes of a glorious six-note riff that continues throughout their epic production.

At first, the bass riff is accompanied solely by pulsing hi-hat; then tremolo strings (beautifully scored by Paul Riser) that hover over the sparse groove; followed by wah-wah guitar, harp, Fender Rhodes piano and more. A lonely trumpet - enhanced by a timed tape delay - plays a rhythmic, fragmented melody: someone had been listening to Miles Davis's In a Silent Way or Bitches Brew. They may have also known Charles Ives's The Unanswered Question (1906), in which a solo trumpet, isolated in space from timeless, Druidic strings and pesky woodwind, asks the "Perennial Question of Existence".

"Papa" asks "Father, why has thou forsaken me?", a similarly heavy question that lies as deep in the blues as it does in the heart of Western culture. A son begs his sorrowing mother to tell the truth about Pop: "Hey, Mama, is it true what they say/ That Papa never worked a day in his life?" Far from the celebration of Dad's free-and-easy lifestyle which the title might imply to some, "Papa" has a point of view that eschews moral relativism. The absent father was a religious hypocrite, he got into debt, screwed around, fathered "outside" children - "and that ain't right!" sing .

In the Was (Not Was) version of the song from 1990, a turbocharged rap by G Love E stokes up the son's anger: "People would say I looked just like you/ But rest assured I don't act like you/ I'm more than that/ My mama reared me better..." Here, the malign effect of absent fathers - from inner-city projects to the upper reaches of a supposedly "meritocratic" society - is a cancer eating at the soul of Western life.

Don and David Was's production is OK, but it lacks the grace, precision and cool prescience of ' original, released in the year that the Pruitt-Igoo high-rise flats were demolished in Chicago - an event that signalled the beginning of the postmodern era (if geographer David Harvey is to be believed).

The complex, theatrical layering of vocal phrases tells it like it is, rich with nuance and vocal virtuosity, but the story is underscored and ultimately transcended by the arrangement, the jigsawing together of sparse, disparate elements that manage to imply a possible triumph - through music, art or something - of the battered human spirit.

The Motown team - , Strong, Whitfield, Riser and their assembly-line of pop workers - made "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" into a track that is funky, musical and full of content - richly fulfilling the promise contained in those sublime two opening notes.

John L Walters