(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
There have been lots of relationship songs written and recorded over the years; indeed, there had already been lots of them recorded by 1965. If it’s funny to think – from our almost wholly uncensored 21st Century bubble, where eye-wateringly explicit lyrical content has been readily available for thirty years to any music fan undaunted by a parental advisory sticker – that there was ever a time when some lyrical concepts were taboo in pop music, it’s also fascinating to realise how brutal the breaking of each of those taboos could be.
Stop! doesn’t feature any swearing, nothing sexually explicit, but it still retains its power to shock here in 2012. Not because it’s about infidelity, not even because it features a female narrator begging for mercy even when she’s the innocent party in all of this. It’s shocking because – wrapped in what’s plainly the Supremes’ best tune to date, an unstoppable earworm of a hook that was only ever destined for the top of the charts – it’s so pragmatic.
With Holland-Dozier-Holland in control, the Supremes had already begun building an entire career out of bouncy, irresistible pop melodies paired with bleak, despairing lyrics. Stop! In The Name Of Love, the Supremes’ first new material in six months, is the magnificent result of pushing both of those things all the way to the very edge.
Pop music is full of love songs about infidelity, songs where people do the right thing, or where people are implored to do the right thing, or where people regret not having done the right thing. The exact nature of “the right thing” is usually laid out pretty clearly. Cheating is bad. Guys who cheat are no good. If your guy’s cheating on you, stand up for yourself and kick him out. Do you give him another chance? Maybe, if he’s contrite enough, if he’s truly sorry, seen the error of his ways, all that stuff.
Stop! is different. The Supremes’ three previous Holland-Dozier-Holland-penned majestic Number One pop smashes – Where Did Our Love Go, Baby Love, Come See About Me – are all sung from the perspective of broken women asking their partners what’s gone wrong, asking them to reconsider – but they’re only scratching the surface compared to Stop!, which is a masterpiece of storytelling, such that we understand these people completely by the time its three minutes are up. The basic message of Stop! isn’t that this narrator’s been badly done to – we know that, it’s taken as read. Rather, the basic message is what happens after it’s all blown up, out in the open, and the love remains, because you’re a woman in a society that doesn’t respect you, because you don’t know what will happen if you end it, because despite it all you still need them to hold you close at night. Not want, need.
It’s a sentiment more common in country music than R&B (Dolly Parton’s Jolene, written ten years later, shares almost the exact same plot); if those other songs are about the politics of relationships, Stop! is the sound of realpolitik, airy high-handed morality cast aside because it’s got nothing to do with the real world, with what’s happening to me, here, now.
As a result, it’s more impressive than any number of teenage love songs – and indeed there’s nothing teenage about this. Even though Diana Ross was barely twenty when Stop! was recorded, I’ve never once taken this as anything other than a grown woman making a last desperate throw of the dice. She’s desperate because she still has needs, both practical and emotional – she knows this guy is still the same guy she fell in love with, and my mind always assumes they’re married, rather than having exchanged class rings at the sock hop or something. If she’d thrown in a line about the kids needing their father, or the bills needing to be paid, it wouldn’t have sounded out of place.
The song’s genesis is well-known, Lamont Dozier blurting out the fateful catchphrase in an attempt to stop his girlfriend walking out after discovering his philandering. It’s not an edifying picture, and yet there’s something about the sheer brass neck of Dozier turning his own plea for another chance – his guilty plea, a glib, jokey reaction to having been caught with his pants down – into the heartfelt pleading of a woman on her knees which strikes me as an act of despicable genius. Consider how easily Dozier’s story could have been turned into a song, from the female perspective, simply recounting those events. “He told me, stop in the name of love / I told him no way, told him we were through…”
Instead, this is far more than a simple transposition; Dozier’s plea for his woman to give him another chance becomes Diana’s plea to her man – Dozier’s character – to think of the consequences and stop screwing around. Stop. It’s all built around that word, stop, that one, heavy, thudding syllable. It starts off as a demand, a tough-hearted ultimatum (forever intertwined with that traffic-cop hand gesture dance, taught to them by the Temptations for British television: choreography on a grand level); we’re introduced to the chorus first, out of context, starting with that one shouted word blasting out of the speakers after an ominous, rumbling organ roll getting louder and louder and louder and then blam, STOP! When the first verse essentially consists of Diana’s narrator telling her guy the game’s up – the backing singers (the Andantes either augmenting or outright replacing Flo and Mary, depending on who you believe) stopping just short of chanting Ha ha, busted!, you could almost take this as a feminist anthem, a wash-that-man-right-outta-my-hair screed. (Tempting to wonder how many listeners over the years have interpreted the song in precisely that way.) And he’d deserve it, too, the bastard.
But this isn’t a song of confidence. Everything about this is sorrow and saving face, such that Diana’s ultimatum quickly falls apart, and the second time we get to the chorus, the emphasis has changed from defiant fury to tearful pleading. The best weapon she’s got up her sleeve is that he’s throwing away a good thing here – can he really be so callous as to be so cavalier with her heart, she who’s given him everything, who’s tied up everything in this relationship, both physically and emotionally?
I’ve often wondered if there’s any difference in the way male and female listeners predict the guy’s response to all this. Me, I’ve never been in any doubt they’re doomed; she’s pouring her entire soul out for a guy who’s probably not even listening.
It just makes it all the more heartbreaking for us, listening to it all unfold, as uncomfortably as hearing the neighbours having a shouting match and turning up the TV to drown them out. Except you’d never turn up the TV to drown this out, because it sounds absolutely sensational.
ON POSTERITY VERSUS ICONOCLASM (OR YOUR OWN PRETENTIOUS HEADING HERE)
Okay. Time for a break, and a quick digression.
Some of you will be rolling your eyes at this point, I’m guessing. I can almost hear regular reader Rhine Ruder (that’s hard to say) groaning as he or she reads this, so I feel I should explain a little more. I love Stop! In The Name Of Love because it’s just a phenomenal piece of work – as so often with really good Motown, everyone involved is at the top of their game – and yet because this is so very famous (more than one source calls this the Supremes’ signature song, not to mention it being the very first record released on the UK Tamla Motown label), there’s a kind of wheels-within-wheels situation going on here.
“This is great and if you like Motown you must like it”, goes the general drift of critical opinion, leading to an instinctive reaction against that notion of pre-approved, predetermined greatness, to show you’re still an individual, that you won’t be dictated to. It’s only natural; I don’t like being told what to do. When I write three thousand words and stick a big coloured number at the end, it’s not an attempt to have the definitive last word, it’s just my own opinion. I’m every bit as keen to hear yours.
What it boils down to is that this site, these reviews – almost 550 of them now, taking me more than three years to write – are personal to me, based out of my own individual reaction to these sides. I didn’t really discover Motown until I was well into my twenties, hadn’t ever heard a good sixty per cent of the material on The Complete Motown Singles box sets before buying them, and until I started digging deeper and doing the research which led to this site, I didn’t really have any preconceived ideas as to which of these songs were the Beloved Timeless ClassicsTM and which of them were widely loathed or long-forgotten.
Which means that sometimes, I’ll seem to be almost deliberately contrary – giving out big marks to I Want A Guy, Dream Come True, Strange I Know or Oh Little Boy, just because they moved me that way, ranking them ahead of apparent favourites like Come See About Me, The Way You Do The Things You Do or Dancing In The Street. But other times, I’ll appear to be following that historical narrative, some kind of twisted Motown version of manifest destiny that implores us to consider each sacred cow as an undisputed cultural touchstone. And out come the top marks, a parade of hits you’ll find on any Motown oldies compilation: Please Mr Postman, My Guy, Where Did Our Love Go, Baby Love, My Girl… Stop! In The Name Of Love.
But know this, readers. If I give something a ten, it’s because I really, really like it. The tens are my personal 50-track Motown mixtape, my solid gold Motown playlist, and nothing gets on that list without winning my heart first. Disagree all you like (I mean that, I really enjoy hearing other viewpoints), but I’m never going to be swayed by what others tell me I should love – and I’m never going to knowingly indulge in pointless iconoclasm for its own sake, like giving Stop! anything less than top marks just to say I’d been able to thumb my nose at the dread forces of consensus.
Oh, this is getting a ten, by the way, if you’d not already worked that out.
Anyway. Enough about me, let’s get back to the Supremes.
It’s a great tune, though, isn’t it? I mean, the STOP! bit is the hook to end all hooks, but even leaving that aside, the whole record is just a beautiful melody, a masterclass in organ and bass, great waves of music crashing down like a thousand gallon drum of tears at Diana’s feet.
It’s an obvious continuation of the template begun on Where Did Our Love Go and the accompanying album, but an evolution rather than a simple retread: the first glimpse the public got of the new material featured on the follow-up LP, the modestly (but entirely accurately) titled More Hits by the Supremes, pictured right, and everyone involved – the band, the producers, and the girls themselves – ups the ante for the new year.
Melding the recognisable verse/chorus song structure from Come See About Me with the driving power and heartache of Baby Love, but somehow twisting them around that astounding lyric to create an even better song, this is genius writ large. There aren’t many songs that work equally well as a bellowed, drunken hen-party karaoke staple and a contemplative, melancholy, sitting on the windowsill at 4am with your headphones on kind of reflection, but this has everything.
It’s lucky this has such a strong tune, because it serves as a distraction from having to consider the kind of otherwordly magical skill it takes to transition from the tear-stained verses, Diana again nailing the emotional connection of her character to the audience:
I’ve known of your
Your secluded nights
I’ve even seen her, maybe once or twice
(honestly, you’d need a heart of stone not to be moved by it)
…and going straight into the most anthemic chorus Holland-Dozier-Holland had yet put together, and I say this coming straight off the back of reviewing Nowhere To Run? I mean, just imagine being another writer-producer at Motown in February 1965, doing your absolute best, creating some great records, and then watching helplessly as HDH put out these two singles, back to back… it doesn’t bear thinking about.
I do worry that, as we make our way through Motown’s mid-Sixties Golden Age, readers might begin to find the liberal sprinkling of top marks and the long reviews made up of gushing praise starting to feel a bit repetitive. For that, I can’t apologise; Motown made some of my favourite records during these years, and – this being one of them – I don’t hope to make you feel the same way, only to make you see how I feel about them. And, quite honestly, I feel this is a masterpiece.
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!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
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|Martha & the Vandellas
“I’m In Love Again”