“Lord have mercy!” The epiphany of love at 2:14 in ‘You Left The Water Running’ by Maurice and Mac
Everyone I know has complained for years about how cultural criticism is being degraded until it’s turned into nothing but a sheaf of lists. It’s tempting to blame the Millennium or weekend broadsheet newspapers or Stuart Maconie for this, but the roots of my pop sensibility probably go back to finding a copy of Dave Marsh’s Book of Rock Lists in a shop in downtown Toronto in about 1985. And you can’t hate Uncle Dave, even if he remains disturbingly over-fond of Springsteen.

Anyway, I don’t know if this project simply adds to the miserable plethora of Top 10s, 100 Greatests and 73 Things You Never Knew Abouts that clog up my media pipes like asbestosis of the brain; or if it will help to subvert the phenomenon, albeit in a pretty innocuous manner.

So this isn’t an attempt to find the 100 Greatest Records since the first Gregorian chanted; after all, everyone knows the answer’s either ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or ‘Angels’. Instead, it’s about stripping away the detritus and pinpointing the moments, the teaspoonsful of noisy sugar that make the listener get down. The plosives in Pop, the apostrophes in Rock ‘n’ Roll.

To kick off, a record by a couple of guys who probably wouldn’t think of themselves as Pop or Rock. But since they were soul singers signed to Chess, a label that, despite its attempts to broaden its brand identity, will always be perceived as a haven for bluesmen, maybe they weren’t into the boring category thing.

I don’t know much about Maurice and Mac, beyond the fact that they were formerly members of The Radiants, a Chicago group whose biggest hit was ‘Voice Your Choice’ in 1964. (It’s a slightly tacky appeal to a woman to decide between a selection of deserving studs ­ a sort of precursor to the dreadful ‘Float On’.) The Radiants, like so many secular soul groups, had their roots in the Baptist church; and this collision between the two big love stories of the genre, love of God and earthly love, irradiates the duo’s second single, a Dan Penn-Spooner Oldham composition that was recorded, not in Chicago, but at Muscle Shoals.

There’s a clear tint of Sam and Dave to it, as the two singers try to out-emote each other in their protestations of hurt at being dumped by the most ubiquitous woman in pop history, the enigmatic ‘you’. It’s dense, gritty, it’s a bit swampy; damn, it’s Southern soul. There’s a spoken-word interlude at about 1:46, and then a return to the chorus, at which point Maurice (or is it Mac?) interjects “Oh, baby!” It’s not that noticeable in among the churning organ and swaggering horns and, in any case, “Oh, baby!” is just one of those things that happens in pop music, like payola and cocaine and disappointing comebacks. But then the other one, Mac (or possibly Maurice) comes in with a rasping “Lord have mercy!”

It’s like the moment near the end Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when the teenage hero is dragged out of his puritanical self-loathing by the sight of a pretty girl’s petticoat. Only when you hear “Lord have mercy!” does “Oh, baby!” make complete sense. You suddenly realise that these two phrases, the yin and the yang of the soul dialectic, God and sex, sex and God, the bedroom and the church, the two banks of a river that Marvin Gaye and Al Green and Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin and Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis and Bill Clinton all straddled with varying degrees of success; they’re essentially the same thing.

© 2006 Tim Footman