Listen while you read:
Album: Cosmic Truth
Label: Gordy (G6-970S1) / Tamla Motown (STMA 8023)
Chart Position(s): US Pop #186, US R&B #42 h
So we’re told.
Alternatively, Norman Whitfield put The Undisputed Truth together as an “opportunity to create completely mental songs by fusing together all the genres of music known to mankind”.
WE’VE GOT THIS NEW DANCE
Whether or not he knew it (he probably did), Norman Whitfield was pioneering a new genre of funky, psychedelic soul completely at odds with the classic ’60s Motown Sound. He had been doing so for a while – since the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine“, in fact. But, in 1975, Norman completely reinvented his group, The Undisputed Truth, such that they underwent some serious space-themed Afro-heavy changes.
(I should mention, the group at this point consisted of: the excellent rich-voiced Joe “Pep” Harris, the equally-excellent Virginia “Vee” McDonald (a brilliant singer; imagine Diana Ross, Jean Terrell and Martha Reeves all rolled up into one big lovely ball), Calvin “Dhaak” Stephenson, Tyrone “Big Ty” Douglas and Tyrone “Lil Ty” Barkeley.)
The Undisputed Truth had always been a bit, well, weird, but their 1975 Cosmic Truth album reached a new level of strange!
This one, a song called “Earthquake Shake”, was – I think – supposed to be released as a single from that album (this never happened, not in the US or UK, anyway). It was both written and produced by Norman – so he effectively had complete creative control over the whole thing. Interestingly, it was co-written by Joe Harris (it seems to be one of very few songs he has ever written) who was the main and only consistent lead singer in The Undisputed Truth.
Oh – yes – the song.
It’s completely mental.
And completely brilliant.
I’M TALKING TO EVERY SOUL, YOUNG AND OLD, GET UP
The song is about a new dance that The Truth have come up with – a dance that is so good, a dance that everyone is doing – it is causing earthquake-like destruction across America. I mean, what else could it possibly be about?
The track opens with a bit of rock-style guitar, backed by some drumming – the likes of which make the whole song feel as though it were rumbling (like in an earthquake!). At the very start the song seems like it could turn into some awful hard rock guitar-smuthered nonsense, but then the trumpet players jump in and do a delightful bit of, uh, trumpeting, and Joe Harris delivers the opening line: a simple “HUH!”
He sets the scene: “we’ve got this new dance we started on the West Coast” / “and it’s spreading across the country like wildfire”. I’m already impressed – I can’t dance, let alone create a dance. But – even if you think you are psychically incapable of getting down – Joe is here to teach you how to dance. Oh, yes, the song has by now established itself as some sort of funky, disco-tinged and rather danceable number.
By 1975, of course, disco was well underway, and Motown were keen to jump onto the disco bandwagon and stay in keeping with what was popular at the time. Motown’s Norman Whitfield, pioneer of psychedelic soul (which became funk, which eventually developed into disco) had a massive, massive disco hit with Rose Royce’s “Car Wash” when he left the label. Even The Undisputed Truth would later score a (brilliant) disco hit for Whitfield Records entitled “You + Me = Love” in 1976.
Funk was still massive in 1975 too. Songs like Patti LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade” and Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Shining Star” are delightful funk-filled proto-disco numbers from ’75 (and both reached #1 in the US).
“Earthquake Shake” is some sort of weird mash-up of funk, disco, psychedelia, soul, dance – I mean – there’s even some jazzy bits and Oriental-sounding parts. It is likely that Norman Whitfield was experimenting, and probably having a blast doing so. The end result is both brilliant and completely insane!
So, if you want to know how to do the Earthquake Shake, you’ll have to: “circle and pass your feet from beyond the ground” / “hand in hand, you wait until you hear that rumbling sound”. (A brilliant rhyme!) Then, “get ready to swing and shake from side to side” while Joe sits on (!) and beats his drum. Then he commands you: “let’s take a ride”! Everybody then shouts: “EARTHQUAKE SHAKE!” while the trumpets join in and the drums bang away. The song reaches an almighty climax before settling back down into some laidback funk.
I’m not going to lie: I have no idea who sings the next verse – it’s either Tyrone “Big Ty” Douglas, Tyrone “Lil Ty” Barkeley or Calvin “Dhaak” Stephenson – take your pick. I would really love to know, because it’s really rather good. He (!) now explains how popular this new dance has become (it’s on both Soul Train and American Bandstand) while the others repeat “doing the earthquake shake” throughout. I LOVE the part where he (!) just effortlessly sings “da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da” and some extremely funky-jazzy horns suddenly jump in! Soon all The Truth shout “EARTHQUAKE SHAKE” again, and the song makes way for another excellent line: “I’m talking to every living soul, young and old, get up and hop on it, y’all”. I mean, could he be any clearer? – just get up and dance!
Now things get (even more) interesting. A bluesy falsetto voice suddenly appears out of nowhere, and blanketed in some seriously funky (and loud) instrumentation, can barely be heard. It sounds like Eddie Kendricks making a random cameo (for his former producer Norman Whitfield) but I really don’t know. The group now go on to describe the apparent “destruction” their new dance has caused across America. Eddie (!?) explains that “New York’s streets are in pieces”, and then another random voice (?!) details the dancing in “Baltimore, Detroit and down in Mississippi”. Virginia “V” McDonald, The Truth’s new (excellent) female singer, hasn’t even had a solo line yet, and she starts to sing “a-na-na-na-na…” before Eddie (!?) steals the line away and starts talking about New York again. It’s completely odd, doesn’t completely work, but Vee then gets a whole (excellent) line to herself: “…in San Francisco and Ohio”. She then starts to explain “they’ll even be doing it…” and, an out-of-nowhere-Melvin Franklin-like-bass voice comes in and finishes the line off for her: “…down on the bayou”. This time the whole half-woman half-man thing COMPLETELY works and it’s absolutely brilliant!!
(I can now confirm – thanks to Vee McDonald herself – that the lead and background vocals are ALL supplied by members of The Undisputed Truth themselves; it is actually Calvin Stephenson who is singing the really high bits – they were such a talented group!!
(Oh, yes, throughout the whole verse the rest of The Truth have been relentlessly repeating “doing the earthquake shake”. That works nicely too.)
Then Joe comes back and explains the damage in “Kansas, Atlanta, Georgia” and – in a brilliant Norman Whitfield-style rhyme – predicts “they’ll soon be doing it across the water”. He’s soon urging everyone to do it with him and “get down, down, down, down, down, down, down” (I counted seven times) The ending I can’t really explain; everybody seems to have a short line that is put together and repeated on a loop – there’s a weird “chika-bow” sound and a “boom-boom” from Vee (hopefully you’ll know what I mean when you listen to the end). It’s rather quirky but undeniably enjoyable.
The song fades out after about three minutes. That is what I think is the single version, as there is also a six-minute long album version, which is, quite frankly, awful. Instead of fading out, it quietens down, then just the “chika-bow” bit comes back – then that stops and some weird funk-rock-style instrumental starts. Then at about 4:15 that stops, and in its place comes – well, I’m not even sure – a good one-and-a-half-minutes of utter nonsense. I wouldn’t even call it a song at this point. Take the music from The Clangers and the bird tweets from Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You” and you’ll have something close.
Let us remember that this is all the work of a certain Norman Whitfield. A man, who, when introduced to psychedelic soul music in 1968, said – and I quote – “I don’t want to get into all that crazy shit, it ain’t nothing but a little passing fancy”. Really, Norman?
“Earthquake Shake” is a song that is both brilliant and mental in equal measure. A psychedelic-disco-funk mash-up with delightfully crazy lyrics, it’s a wonderful insight into the mind of Norman Whitfield. It never even saw single release in the US or UK and never got the recognition it deserves!
8 out of 10
Listen and sing along:
Huh We’ve got this new dance we started on the West Coast
And its spreading across the country like wildfire
People, let me tell you, there ain’t nothing to it
Now, listen real close, and I’ll tell you how to do it
First you’re going to circle and pass your feet from beyond the ground
Hand in hand, you wait until you hear that rumbling sound
Now, get ready to sway and shake from side to side
I’ll sit on top of my drum and beat it, let’s take a ride
Get on down, get on down, now
Ow, look at the kids on American Bandstand (Doing the earthquake shake)
Now, I say, let’s give the kids on Soul Train some help (Doing the earthquake shake)
Uhh, people, let me tell you how good you look (Doing the earthquake shake)
Ow, I bet you’ll find a dollar bill right above your brow (Doing the earthquake shake)
C’mon and do it, da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da (Doing the earthquake shake)
C’mon and do it, da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da (Doing the earthquake shake)
Everybody get ready as the dance gets nearer (Do it, do it)
Hey, fellas, hold on tight, you know the girls wanna play
Now, I’m talking to every living soul, young and old, get up and hop on it, y’all
New York’s streets are in pieces (Doing the earthquake shake)
Uh-huh, Baltimore, Detroit, and down in Mississippi (Doing the earthquake shake)
Ah, na-na-na-na, New York’s streets are in pieces (Doing the earthquake shake)
Baltimore, Detroit, and down in Mississippi (Doing the earthquake shake)
Ah, na-na-na-na, in San Fransisco and Ohio (Doing the earthquake shake)
Wooh You know, they’ll even be doing it down on the bayou (Doing the earthquake shake)
Well, well, well, well, Kansas, Atlanta, Georgia (Doing the earthquake shake)
Ow, you know, they’ll soon be doing it across the water (Doing the earthquake shake)
Ohhh, c’mon and do it with me (Doing the earthquake shake)
Get down, down, down, down, down, down, down (Doing the earthquake shake)
I know you can do it, now, da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da (Doing the earthquake shake)
Ahh (Doing the earthquake shake) (Doing the earthquake shake)
BEST LINE: “you know, they’ll even be doing it down on the bayou”