Cloud Nine - the Temptations
The World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) International Cloud Atlas classifies all types of clouds and other meteorological phenomena (see https://cloudatlas.wmo.int/en/home.html ). The WMO puts clouds into 10 categories dependent on type and height. Cloud 9 is Cumulonimbus. While the other cloud types are listed in order of height, Cumulonimbus, generally a low cloud, comes ninth just below the highest cloud category which is 10. This is because, although it is low, being a violent storm cloud, it can swiftly expand or rise to great heights as follows:
"If enough atmospheric instability, moisture, and lift are present, then strong updrafts can develop in the cumulus cloud leading to a mature, deep cumulonimbus cloud, i.e., a thunderstorm producing heavy rain. In addition, cloud electrification occurs within cumulonimbus clouds due to many collisions between charged water droplet, graupel (ice-water mix), and ice crystal particles, resulting in lightning and thunder." *The Science Corner, National Weather Service by Ted Funk
So while the general use of the phrase "Cloud 9" refers to a state of bliss, probably deriving from the ninth level of being in Buddhism (also scored out of ten), meaning someone who is ready to enter the heavenly state of Nirvana, the Temptations' lyric writer Barrett Strong is a little more knowing in his interpretation of the phrase, the metaphor of getting high fitting perfectly with sixties' drug culture, even down to the electrification, lightning and thunder.
In the sixties Motown was very good at appropriating the ingredients of other people's success into its own music. One of the most revolutionary happenings (in musical terms) of 1967 was the psychedelic funk of Sly and the Family Stone as exemplified by their hit "Dance to the Music" which broke with the post doo-wop soul mantra of featuring a tenor lead (or sometimes a falsetto lead) backed by a bass, tenor, alto and falsetto quartet. Sly Stone changed all that, compiling songs where all the group sang solo lines in turn. Stone also fused rock fuzz guitar and surging Hammond organ with Stax style brass and a James Brown beat.
"Cloud 9" was Motown's response, five different vocal lines, funky percussion, wah wah guitar, and double entendre lyrics to top it all off. Ostensibly it's a song about escapism, but the metaphor is no longer one of Buddhsim and peace, it's all about getting high, with fire and bells, just like Cumulonimbus. With its theme of escape through drugs from the gruelling poverty and deprivation of "the slums of the city", "Cloud Nine", along with the Supremes' "Love Child", ushers in a period of social angst as much as awareness. Make no mistake, this was still a strictly commercial exercise: if gritty urban reality sold, then that was where Motown went.
In previous blogs I have referred to one Jeremy (see https://www.unclestylus.com/single-post/2018/11/22/johnnys-garden-manassas ) who was at boarding school in Scotland with me. My presence at the school was very much a post imperial affair, my father having worked for an oil company in Bahrain in the Arabian Gulf, whereby all employee children were sent off to boarding school around the age of 11 or 12. It would have been better had we learned Arabic and continued to study out there, but this didn't fit in with the separatist existence of the "ex-pat". At least children like me, whose parents worked abroad, knew there was a rational reason for being sent away. The pain of abandonment was bad, separated from your parents and left at the mercy of other children, as well as the by-and-large inadequate ministries of the pseudo-parents that were the teachers. But the parents of well over half the children at my school didn't live abroad, and still sent their kids away, often as young as 6 or 7. Why bother having them if you just pay someone else to bring them up?
Jeremy came to our school having boarded at another public school which he had to leave because of the intensity of the bullying to which he was subjected. At my school he was also bullied, so much so that he ran away. In such instances, the absence of the escapee would be reported at the next roll call, which took place each mealtime, and the police would be alerted, so that if he was spotted anywhere he could be brought back. Sound familiar? Jeremy made it, travelling the 100 plus miles to his home undetected, only to be returned to the school two days later. Imagine, if James Coburn in the film "The Great Escape", having made it all the way across France into Spain, had been driven straight back to Stalag Luft III in Silesia, how he'd have felt. For me Jeremy was James Coburn fallen, a hero betrayed. But, as Jeremy says of his parents, "those were different times."
If you were bullied at boarding school, one of the problems was you could never find respite, you were never safe. At night, in the dormitory, you could be attacked at any time, so even sleep was no escape. Jeremy was moved to another house, my house, one that was unique in that it had one miniature dormitory come study which house two beds and two desks and was situated well away from the other dorms. Jeremy was assigned this along with me. The Housemaster had a chat with me outlining Jeremy's circumstances and, as I was pleased to escape the dormitories, and had not long before put paid to my own set of bullies, I was supposedly a sympathetic room sharer. Entering into the spirit of things and being mad keen on Tamla Motown, I got permission to change the name of the room to "Cloud Nine", to symbolise our happy state and Jeremy's escape.
I treated him pretty well, with only occasional pranks at his expense, such as hiding a hedgehog down his bed, or on one memorable occasion - Jeremy was a heavy sleeper - carrying his bed deep into the woods and leaving him there fast asleep. He slept for half an hour quite happily, till we became bored, hiding behind our various trees watching, and woke him up carrying him back. I couldn't have been too bad, because we're still good friends 52 years later, and he's the only person I'm still in contact with from that sad place. Goodness knows what the other guys did to him!
And that, it seems to me, is one of the things that is very wrong with this country. For the past 300 years the great majority of the UK's royalty, prime ministers, landowners, top business men and upper classes generally have been boarders at public schools, a bunch of people within each of whose hearts there resides a sliver of ice, tiny but unmeltable, left there the day they were sent away from their mothers. How can we expect such people, people who had to become hard and selfish to survive, who learnt to hide their hurt, their resentment, their rejection, how can we expect them to be empathetic, to be able to understand the post Brexit, post COVID, recessional suffering of others?
"The childhood part of my life wasn't very pretty - see, I was born and raised in the slums of the city - it was a one-room shack that slept ten other children beside me - we hardly had enough food or room to sleep;
it was hard times, needed something to ease my troubled mind..... ....my father didn't know the meaning of work - he disrespected mama and treated us like dirt.
I left home seeking a job that I never did find, depressed and down-hearted, I took to cloud nine."
"Cloud Nine" is sounding very modern again.
* photo of Cumulonimbus courtesy the World Meteorological Association.