(Released in the UK under license via EMI / Tamla Motown)
“It’s hard not to get carried away,” I said last time we met the Temptations, “…to fall into a routine of rhapsody greeting each and every new side.”
But these are the Temptations, and when they’re serving up a fourth straight magnificent single – one of the most astonishing runs any Motown act has yet strung together – well, what else is a boy to do?
Smokey Robinson, by now firmly in charge of the Temptations’ musical development despite increasingly loud competition from within the compnay, was Motown’s most adept recycler. It wasn’t uncommon for Smokey to revise his old songs – refine concepts that didn’t quite work, spin and twist them into new and improved shapes, show everyone what he now realised he should have done the first time, and what he’d have done differently, given a chance at a do-over.
His work with the Temptations – or at least, as we meet them here – is different. Rather than trying to improve on the last record, Smokey had set the bar so impossibly high with My Girl – one of the most perfectly-crafted of all Motown singles – that the challenge with the Temptations was to recapture some of that same magic, while simultaneously being seen to break new ground.
He’d managed it well enough with It’s Growing alright – but as attempts to re-bottle lightning go, Since I Lost My Baby is on a whole different level. Here, Smokey takes on so many of the familiar tropes from My Girl, both musical and lyrical, and turns them on their head, turns them against each other. Not for the first time, we’re left with what I’ve previously called a “mirror sequel”; this, effectively, is My Girl: The Sad Version.
Let’s start with the negatives, as the record itself does: the intro to Since I Lost My Baby is a clunker, its heavy, stabbing scraped strings crashing, gracelessly, into the track and threatening to bowl over another beautifully understated Robert White guitar part. Throughout the track, the strings are out of control, fighting both with the Tempts and with the tune itself for supremacy, to the point where I’d love to hear a mix of this with the strings stripped off altogether. So many excellent Motown singles rely on a well-judged contribution from string section as the icing on the cake, the thing which pushes them over the top to greatness, but – other than a couple of brief moments at the very end when they play a very pretty ascending flourish, complementing the vocals rather than competing with them – the strings are the absolute worst thing about this one.
But that’s literally the only thing where I can find fault with this record; everything else about it is gold. Turning the base ingredients of My Girl into a melancholy, moping breakup song is a bold move, but Smokey knew what he was doing, his complex recipe as sound as ever. Perhaps taking a cue from the Holland-Dozier-Holland team’s recent work with the Supremes (where the dichotomy between the upbeat pop paradise of the music and the plunging despair of the lyrics was played up to great effect), here Smokey marries one of the most gorgeous, lounging, sun-kissed tunes he’s ever written with what must surely be one of the most depressing mainstream Motown lyrics of all time.
Like My Girl, this song is full of weather; just as in My Girl, the narrator is impervious to the forces of nature, the outside world unable to break the spell his girl has cast. But here, the theme is no longer the walking-on-air superconfidence of My Girl, but rather an impenetrable, all-consuming dolour that renders him unable to enjoy anything that’s going on around him, almost verging on the suicidal. On daytime radio.
That’s some achievement, right there.
What stops it becoming unbelievably miserable is the constant reminders that things really aren’t as bad as they seem, which is done in such a way that… Well, it’s just very clever indeed.
Some of it is lyrical. David Ruffin, in another wonderful lead vocal performance, begins the song playing a man who’s almost determined not to take this well; drowning in self-pity, moping and mooching, he nonetheless spends much of the song listing all the great things that are going on around him (the very first line is Sun is shining, there’s plenty of light), in an attempt to underline just how depressed he is. But you can’t keep insisting “the world is a beautiful place, but it can’t cheer me up!” forever, and by the middle of the song, the exercise has helped him (briefly) put his romantic problems in perspective, resulting in him rousing himself, talking about how he’s going to fix this mess, getting up from his bed to sing from the balcony. Even after he climbs back under the duvet to insist that “Determination is fading fast / Inspiration is a thing of the past”, we know he hasn’t really given up. You can’t sing “Can’t see how my hope’s gonna last” if you’ve already lost all hope; and where there’s hope, the light at the end of the tunnel beckons.
Some of it is musical, a stunning multi-part harmony to rival the one from My Girl giving this an air of magnificence. No matter how depressed you might be, when all five Temptations chime in unison on the chorus, with absolutely breathtaking timing, well, your heart couldn’t fail to be warmed by it. But the super-tight harmonies play another role here, too.
Strangely, if this was a solo record, things might get too heavy, but the Temptations – still, at this point, a tight-knit gang of surrogate brothers – harmonise so beautifully that Ruffin’s narrator never comes across as completely alone; we know he’s got his mates to look after him (Melvin Franklin chimes in within a few bars of the start, providing another impossibly resonant bass vocal – Oh, yeah – in call-and-response style), and so when he explicitly calls for help in the middle eight, well, we’re not as worried for him as we might have been; we know that help is on its way.
Oh, the middle eight. Zounds. A(nother) reminder that we’re dealing with a Smokey Robinson lyric, four Temptations trading lines with David, as a chant builds like a towering wave before finally crashing down into a gorgeous harmony bed for David to freestyle his exclamation.
Next time I’ll be kinder…
Won’t you please help me find her?
Someone just remind her
Of this love she left behind her
Til I find her, I’ll be trying her
Every day I’m more inclined to
Inclined to find my baby!
(Been lookin’ everywhere!)
(Baby! I really, really care!)
By this point, Motown must have seemed intimidating to their competitors; to have unearthed so many great acts, written so many great songs, and now to pull off something like this, perhaps the most ambitious thing the label had yet turned its hand to, it’s positively unfair. You almost get the feeling they threw in that ghastly string part, the only thing that stops this one joining the ranks of the 10/10 club, just to make everyone else feel better.
But final credit has to go to the Temptations themselves, who cover themselves in glory here. This is the sound of a group absolutely on top of their game; the true follow-up to My Girl, and – unexpectedly – very nearly as good.
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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