‘I saw you when you met her’ David Ruffin (Me’n Rock’n Roll are here to stay, Tamla Motown, 1974)

Featuring perhaps the second-worst (albeit funny) justification for infidelity made by a swaggering alpha-male type in the 70s - the winner would have to be Tim Buckley’s Sweet Surrender

'Now you want to know the reason/Why I cheated on you/Well I had to be a hunter again/This little man had to try/To make love feel new again')

Ruffin’s ‘I saw you when you met her’ stands out from his other work because of its contradictory mood of menace and ease. 

Ease as in the effortless ease of Ruffin's delivery most of the time here; unfussed, urbane and direct. Instead of his hallmark desperation mode. 

With its kind of dramatic portent and ‘Riders on the Storm’ rain/mixed with piano effect, it’s a stunning start to the song which only continues to build until Ruffin comes on the scene at around two minutes. One critic characterised this ‘delayed entrance’ as an error, but for me it makes sense as it allows for the creation of an ambiguous mood, with such an intense atmosphere, so that when Ruffin starts with his justification/explanation of why and how etc, the music has set up a kind of counterpoint, or commentary.

Ruffin’s delivery, as you would expect, is direct as if talking, or explaining to his partner why he ‘didn’t go to stay’ (he) only went to play’ – that’s the second-worst justification I mentioned earlier. But there is also an expression of regret in Ruffin's performance, as if he’s shocked that his partner was upset (as it meant nothing to him). 

I can’t think of a better depiction of the psychology of cheating in music, seen as it always is through the prism of one person’s personal needs (it meant nothing to me, ergo it means nothing and should mean nothing to you) alongside the shock and perhaps even frustration the same person feels when confronted by the fact that another person sees it otherwise.

Such psychological complexity is something Ruffin excels at; nearly every one of his better songs carries such nuance, it seems to me. This is where his genius lies in his ability to convey apparently contradictory emotions within the same performance. And then at 4 minutes or 30 everything kicks in, impressing me each time I hear it. It’s so divine.

Norman Whitfield, known as one of the key developers of the 'Motown sound' produced this album, having been behind many of the label's hits: The Temptations’ ‘Ain’t to proud to beg’, ‘Papa was a rollin’ stone’ and Marvin Gaye’s ‘I heard it through the grapevine’ among many others. Of interest was the development of ‘psychedelic soul’, aka ‘black rock’ - see here, The Temptations’ ‘Cloud Nine’ from 1969 …

Here's a description of the record from the Guardian, placing it all in context: 

Motown’s psychedelic experiment began with the bizarre Tardis-like intro to the Supremes’ hit Reflections, but it took Norman Whitfield and his songwriting partner Barrett Strong to really seize the zeitgeist by the throat in 1968. Despite showing little interest in politics and initially dismissing Sly & the Family Stone as “a passing fancy”, Whitfield realised Motown was ripe for change and he could be at the centre of it if he combined protest with psychedelia. To that end, he scooped up fresh talent like local guitarist Dennis Coffey, who introduced him to the wah-wah pedal, and arranged songs on the fly in the studio.

If someone had a good idea, it went in, and Cloud Nine was the first fruit of this approach. Caught between God and the devil, escape and despair, it’s an uplifting song about a dire situation. Whitfield and Strong continued to amaze for the next few years. To hear how far they could go when they weren’t worrying about hit singles, try the Undisputed Truth’s mind-expanding version of Ball of Confusion.

Speaking about the Undisputed Truth, they released a version of ‘I saw you …’ in 1975, which is perhaps better known than the Ruffin track and pretty fantastic in itself.

Listening to Ruffin’s album Me’n Rock’n Roll are here to stay is not an easy experience, aside from this classic opening track and his wonderful version of ‘Smiling faces sometimes’  to say that the record is patchy is being generous. As many others have noticed, the reasoning behind the looping of canned applause over the entirety of certain songs is hard to work out. One critic described it as a ‘hugely dumb decision’. It’s also sad, especially on the track called ‘Superstar (Remember who you are’) as Ruffin was, had been a great star but on this record and his other solo offerings was seriously struggling. Listening to this canned applause for the (lost) superstar strikes me as tragic and even a bit mean.

Ruffin’s war with Motown during these years, his ongoing fight to free himself, which he lost might be the reason why so many of these records were either not released, or not supported (or perhaps even sabotaged, though there’s no way for me to assess this).

To read more on this fight and how it might have affected Ruffin's output at this time, here’s an interesting article from last year, by Jason Elias ‘The Fallen Temptation: the Tragedy of David Ruffin’ that explores this subject in depth. 

Coda: