(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
Spare a thought for the Marvelettes, Motown’s first great group, their mid-Sixties release schedule now perfectly synchronised with that of the Supremes. Commercial oblivion awaits anyone who shares that fate; Danger Heartbreak Dead Ahead, another fine uptempo single, limped into the charts and failed to trouble the top 60. To not be queens of the castle any more was one thing – first the Vandellas, and then the Supremes, had long since usurped that crown – but to find yourself slipping down the label’s list of priorities, to find yourself in what Gladys Knight self-mockingly called Motown’s “peon crowd”? It can’t have been fun.
Maybe the Marvelettes were sustained by the knowledge that they were still really, really good. They’d been quick to pick up on what Norman Whitfield and the Velvelettes had been doing at the tail end of the previous year. They adapted quickly to the “new” Motown sound that had been spreading through the studio and across the airwaves, a louder, more kicking sound, with a driving, physical beat, more intimidating than what had gone before: dainty piano and vibes sacrificed on the altar of harshly-bashed tambourine; less pop, more R&B.
Always underrated in terms of their ability to use complex, interweaving vocal arrangements, here the Marvelettes show they’re no strangers when it comes to taking cues from the other Motown acts at the arse-kicking end of the spectrum (the Velvelettes, the Vandellas, Kim Weston, all at the forefront of this tougher new sound.) Scheduling it back-to-back with the Supremes’ Nothing But Heartaches, we can add that it suits the Marvelettes better. For the first time, the comparison comes out in favour of Motown’s original dream girls – score one for the ladies from Inkster.
SPIRIT OF MOTOWN ’65
Which isn’t to say that this is an absolute all-time great in itself, or anything. Not for me, anyway.
(People love this, don’t they? So this is going to be another one of those reviews where I annoy everyone. Hear me out.)
One of the fun things about doing this blog has been the discovery, if that’s the right word, of the reason the fabled “Motown Sound” is so hard to pin down in terms of an actual nuts-and-bolts description. It’s not because such a thing doesn’t exist; rather, it’s because the Motown Sound, as a reflection of what was going on in the studio during any given period, kept changing with the times. Between 1959 and 1972, the musicians in the Snakepit were, if not the exact same men, then at least an unbroken succession of the same men, taking inspiration from each other’s latest ideas; the producers were, if not the same men and women, then an unbroken succession of the same men and women, taking inspiration from each other’s latest ideas; the writers were, if not the same etc etc etc. The result of that, obviously enough in hindsight, is a series of “clusters” of what lazier critics might call soundalikes, records sharing the same DNA arriving in clumps in the release schedules. It’s not really right to talk of “the Motown Sound”, but rather of a series of “Motown Sounds”. And in the summer of 1965, the prevailing Motown Sound was, well, this.
The problem – for me writing about it, I mean, rather than any kind of objective ‘problem’ for the genii at Hitsville – is that whenever a given Motown Sound is ascending, the stakes get raised accordingly; if this had been the Marvelettes’ first jaunt into doing something in that Vandelvelettes mould, sassy and moody and full of driving horns and menacing stop-and-listen-to-me tambourine, it might have floored me. Instead, for me, while Danger Heartbreak Dead Ahead is an excellent record, well – again, for me – it’s certainly a less immediate and arresting song than the Marvelettes’ previous effort, I’ll Keep Holding On, to which this is a particularly close relation.
In short, the adoption of the new Motown Sound – an adoption, it must be noted, which suited the Marvelettes far better than many of their labelmates, not least the Supremes, as I’ve said – is no longer enough to guarantee the resulting record will be an absolute killer cut, one of those amazing rare-air classics one can’t live without. Instead, I end up nitpicking even as I’m dancing; I’ve read the truck driver’s key change towards the end hailed as a triumphant move, something that makes the whole track click into place with a glorious climb up the scale, but it ends up disappointing me every time, like a tacit acknowledgement that everyone involved has run out of ideas. Plus, this one’s missing the amazing watching, hoping… vocal duel breakdown from its predecessor, even though when I hum this to myself while shaving I always end up splicing that part in. There’s just – again, for me – an overriding feeling that the song isn’t quite 100%, that it needs a spark of the divine that never quite comes along to ignite us into blast-off.
That sounds really harsh when I come to read it back. This has been a tough one to write, really; there’s so little wrong with this record, and so many good things (of which more in a moment), it feels particularly parsimonious to pick holes in it – but if I’m brutally honest (with myself, not the Marvelettes – and when am I ever not, really, right?) it’s the song itself that doesn’t quite grab me, doesn’t quite make my soul catch flight like their best singles.
Coming on the heels of my less-than-enthusiastic reception for Nothing But Heartaches, I must seem quite contrary. But hey, readers, you know how this works by now; I take away with one hand and give back with the other. Mother Dear, which I love, gets a better mark than than Needle In A Haystack. Or, more pertinently, than Danger Heartbreak Dead Ahead. It’s just the way I’m wired, I guess; I really like this, I do, but it’d never be the record I’d pull out of the stack to show a newcomer how great the Marvelettes were. (Also, it’d never be the record upon which I’d title an entire section of the Marvelettes’ Wikipedia biography, but that seems to have been changed now). Can I be too harsh on a record that both kicks so much arse, and also seems tailor made to be the sort of thing that crops up at track 17 of a Marvelettes best-of CD?
TIME TO GET ON MOVING
Probably. So, enough negativity: there’s so much to like here. The clever central lyrical idea – relationship warning signs rendered as actual warning signs – is much easier to get a handle on, and makes much more sense. Lyrically, this is a better record than its predecessor; not only does it have lots of things I love, such as grandiose quotes (seriously, how can you not warm to “Who knows what evil lurks within the hearts of men?” being worked into a pop song?) and clever rhyming structures (“It’s vanity / Insanity”), but it’s another well-written sisterly advice song dressed up as a snappy kiss-off, and Wanda Young is getting ever better at narrating these things so that she doesn’t come across as smug or condescending.
The best thing about this, though, is the music, now augmented with prominent honky-tonk piano and searing horns; the Marvelettes deserved their chance to follow up on I’ll Keep Holding On, develop the themes introduced there and lay down a marker for the rest of the label’s roster. For sure they might have quietly enjoyed the implied lesson being meted out here, showing the Supremes how their last record should have come out sounding; there might have been some wry smiles at that, even if by this point the two groups’ sales had ceased to be a contest, so far apart had their careers seemingly diverged.
There’s an irony, too, in hearing the Marvelettes refining and redefining the sonic template for their far more successful labelmates to adapt in the coming months; with the Velvelettes now all but out of the Hitsville picture, the Marvelettes might have sensed a vacancy, but they ended up instead acting (commercially) merely as a catalyst for the sustained success and reinvention of their rivals. One of the burning, bitter ironies of the Motown story is that the Marvelettes, or the people credited under that name, didn’t make a duff record between 1965 and the end of the decade, and yet to almost all casual observers their commercial decline has been misread as a critical decline. Their records from 1967-70, albums and 45s, are almost universally better than their Supremes counterparts (just like this one is, to me undeniably, better than Nothing But Heartaches), despite selling about a fifth as many copies on a good day, but the Marvelettes don’t get their due respect. They haven’t gone on to have the last laugh; they may yet still.
But back to the matter in hand. Hard to deny Danger Heartbreak Dead Ahead sounds good; even though almost every Motown record sounds good now we’ve reached the middle of 1965, with standards higher than ever and Quality Control rejecting would-be smash hits on a daily basis, this still pops out of the speakers with surprising force. A fine chorus, too, and the vocal breaks are guaranteed to bring a smile to your face. All hail the Marvelettes; even when they’re on something approaching cruise control, they’re bloody good.
I can’t necessarily imagine anyone picking this out as one of their all-time favourites (though no doubt there’ll be some in the comments section!), but there’s really very little wrong with it; for me it just doesn’t go quite far enough, doesn’t scrape the sky in the way it keeps threatening. Still, on a good day, there’s little to touch it.
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.
(Or maybe you’re only interested in The Marvelettes? Click for more.)
“Nothing But Heartaches”
“Your Cheating Ways”