(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Stateside Records)
Gather round me, swingers and friends…
After the unexpected smash hit Mickey’s Monkey, which had stormed into the pop Top Ten, this is a second straight Holland-Dozier-Holland/Miracles collaboration, which means that – once again – the group’s talismanic lead singer, producer and songwriter Smokey Robinson only features here as a performer.
Pulled from the Miracles’ newly-recorded fifth LP, Doin’ Mickey’s Monkey, an underwhelming, covers-heavy set hastily written and recorded in the wake of the title track’s commercial success, this was an obvious follow-up single: concocted to appear like very much more of the same, appearing to be a concerted attempt to do something in the same vein as its predecessor.
Which is understandable enough, if not exactly promising; let’s listen and move on. Except, crucially, just as Smokey himself would do time and time again with his own songs, here the HDH trio sit back, take stock, make a note of what worked last time out and what didn’t work, and then turn in an improved variation for the sequel. This is manifestly better than Mickey’s Monkey on almost every possible level, even though it shares most of the same ingredients.
It’s almost as though I Gotta Dance… had to keep its head down when surrounded by the cheaply knocked-out generic dance fluff that clogged up the Doin’ Mickey’s Monkey LP, lest anyone notice how sensitive and thoughtful this song actually was. It’s not really much like Mickey’s Monkey at all (indeed, musically, it’s much closer to HDH’s recent A-side composition for Mary Wells, You Lost The Sweetest Boy, than anything else on Doin’ Mickey’s Monkey, or indeed anything else the Miracles had yet recorded); it just fools the listener into believing it is, because the intro and the instrumentation sound quite similar.
The intro – straight in this time with the bom-ba-bom-ba-bom, bom bom Bo Diddley drum riff, learning from the momentum-sapping mistakes of Mickey’s Monkey by including another “party” crowd scene (Come on everybody, we’re gonna have a party!, Smokey exhorts his little group) but this time having it come in after the drummer’s already started up, rather than them building energy at the very start and then going suddenly quiet while the rhythm changed – gives the impression that this will be a good-time party record, although the title should really be a giveaway that we’re in for something quite different.
Because instead, after just a few bars of this, the tempo abruptly changes, the drum pattern changes, the whole feel of the song changes, and we’re actually venturing into the territory HDH would explore most thoroughly (and most successfully, in terms of both art and sales) with the Supremes: a lyric filled with torment and anguish delivered over a driving, finger-clicking, foot-tapping beat.
Here, perhaps unsure of their craft at this early stage, HDH hang a bell on that contradictory contrast by making it the central lyrical theme of the song. Smokey, completely heartbroken, is heading out to dance the night away with his friends; not because he particularly wants to, but because he needs to, because there’s nothing else to be done except sit around at home and sinking into a full-on depression.
It’s a genius move which completely justifies the jaunty, upbeat tune – Smokey’s narrator isn’t even close to being “over it”, but he’s going to try and pretend that it doesn’t matter, that he’s not hanging by a thread. The theme of someone wearing a mask of forced jollity would be a rich lyrical vein to be mined for future hits for Smokey Robinson, but the initial idea seems to have been suggested by this. He just plays that part so damned well:
Help me forget my hurt within / About the only girl I ever loved / The only one I’m thinking of / And I’ve got to dance to keep from crying / I’ve got to dance to keep from crying…
A hard-hitting, soul-searching examination of post-breakup trauma and macho posturing, set to a driving dancefloor beat. (Even then, Smokey’s too mannered to really engage with the lunkheaded approach adopted on the rest of the LP, as if he knew he was dealing with something special here, something on a rather different level to Land of a Thousand Dances or Dancin’ Holiday. Case in point: despite the faux-casual phrasing of the title, he doesn’t actually sing I gotta, it’s always I’ve got to…, as though he didn’t want to sully the importance or the seriousness of the message with the trappings of a jokey dance number.)
That’s not to say Smokey is po-faced and considered throughout the record – he’s plenty energetic alright, just without being stupid. Indeed, he pretty much doesn’t pause for breath throughout the song, running sentences together, launching straight from the last line of each verse into the main refrain without even the slightest hesitation.
The effect is one of desperate urgency: Smokey’s falling apart and he needs us to know it; he’s laying it down and he needs us to listen, right now. My memories leave me so broken hearted I’ve got to dance to keep from crying I’ve got to dance to keep from crying…. It’s almost unnerving in its intensity.
It is a party record, though, in one very strict sense: the little crowd of swingers and friends that gathered around Smokey at the start never feel like they’ve gone away, as the Miracles are kept audible in the background throughout the record, both as backing vocalists and in a series of whoops, cheers and hollers of encouragement. Unlike on Mickey’s Monkey, where the crowd noises felt tacked on in the extreme, this really does feel like a communal experience; Smokey gives a rambling, self-centred but still grandstanding performance, somewhere between a 17th Century balladeer and a drunk sat in the corner, keeping the audience hanging on his every word, except that this isn’t a performance for public consumption, and we feel privileged to be included in the audience.
There’s production trickery aplenty to achieve this atmosphere – most notably and audaciously around 1:36, when Smokey exclaims they’re making too much noise and asks for things to be turned down a little bit softer, softer, softer, and the backing track immediately drops right out of the mix for the best part of 40 seconds, barely audible in the background, like someone turning down the stereo at a party – which then meets with the disapproval of the other Miracles, who keep beseeching Smokey to turn it up just a little bit higher, just a little bit higher, until he finally acquiesces – I guess I’ll turn it up… and the music starts to creep back up in the mix, as Smokey gets won over – I guess I’ll turn it up, Higher… Higher baby… ALL THE WAY UP, and then we’re back at full tilt. It’s just beautifully done.
If this is a direct sequel to Mickey’s Monkey, it’s so much more relatable: it’s Mickey’s Monkey if that song had a heart, a soul, reaching out for something it can’t quite grasp. Smokey is at the centre of this record in the same way he wasn’t even present on Mickey’s Monkey: his heart is broken, and so, bereft of options, he’s doing what he does to see him through: he’s going out and carrying on as normal. He wants to dance until he forgets his pain, and he wants us to dance with him. It’s a good enough dance record that we will, too, and when it’s over we’ll have had a good time – but goodness me, it’s been emotional.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
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