(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
Over and over again on this blog – and especially here in 1965 – I’ve been congratulating Smokey Robinson, the most overworked man at Motown, for consistently coming up with the goods. As the company’s go-to writer, producer, A&R man and overall mentor for every struggling act on the books (not to mention the lead singer, songwriter and producer of one of the label’s most successful groups), Smokey was the guy Motown called whenever they needed help with something, and it’s to his great credit that he seems to have been willing to do it properly. No matter how busy he might be, Robinson seems to have made the time, putting aside whatever he was actually doing in order to devote himself to the task at hand. On Motown Junkies, I’ve applauded him many times now for resisting the (surely very strong!) temptation to simply phone it in: whether Motown needed a record to break a new act, a record to continue a hit streak, a record to get a big name back on track, or even just some filler, time and again Robinson came up with something good, or at least something interesting.
It’s a bit of a shock, then, to meet My Girl Has Gone, a Miracles single which I’ll freely admit I never knew about. Here, right in the middle of Robinson’s golden run of songs in ’65, both for himself and for other people, here’s one that passed me by altogether; I’d heard this in the context of the Miracles’ magnificent sixth studio LP, Going To A Go-Go, but even though it’s written on the front cover in huge type (first in the list, in fact!)… if you’d put a gun to my head and forced me to pick out which songs from the album were singles, I’d never have correctly guessed this one.
There’s a reason it made so little impression (as a potential single) on me, too – it’s very pretty and it’s beautifully sung, but if you were to build a musical songwriting computer and feed it the phrase “Smokey by numbers”, the result would surely sound a lot like My Girl Has Gone.
Once again, I’m going to be outnumbered here, I know, but when you look at what Smokey and the Miracles have already given us in 1965 – and they weren’t even finished making masterpieces this year, minor and major – well, for me, this one just isn’t in the same league. There are strong echoes of the anthemic The Tracks Of My Tears, there are obvious influences from the gorgeous heartbreak of Ooo Baby Baby and A Fork In The Road, there are a lot of the building blocks we’ll later see deployed to splendid effect in Choosey Beggar, but somehow it just ends up not being as good as any of those.
I know I’ll come across as ungrateful or nitpicking here – this is still a nice pop record, it’s great to hear the Miracles in flight in their prime like this, and I’m aware I sound like someone who’s been given a free gourmet meal at a five star restaurant and then complains because the cheese board is out of Brie. So, I suppose once again it’s a case of me holding Smokey to an unfairly high standard – having seen what he can do when he puts his mind to it, perhaps I’m just more sensitive to when he’s not bringing his “A” game. But bringing it he most surely is not.
I think the main problem I’ve got with it, as so often happens here on Motown Junkies, is lyrical; the chorus starts out as another crowd-pleasing chant full of catchy moments and phrases, very reminiscent of The Tracks Of My Tears, as Smokey wails “My girl has gone, and said goodbye” – and he’s committed to it, bringing the same audible tears and heartache he brings to his best vocals. But the rest of the song is a mish-mash of tropes and slogans, and the overall feeling I get from it is that Smokey (or one of the other Miracles who cop songwriting credits here) came up with the title or the melody first and then clumsily cobbled together a song around it.
I’ll be honest again, I don’t understand what this song is really meant to be. The title and the verses have Smokey bemoaning his romantic fate in the wake of an ostensibly traumatic breakup, but instead of the wonderful personal vignettes we heard in I Gotta Dance To Keep From Crying or A Love She Can Count On or All That’s Good or I’ll Try Something New, where – both through the words (not always Smokey’s) and the way he sang them (most definitely always Smokey’s) – Robinson’s narrators conjured up images of those relationships so real that you felt you knew these people intimately after just three minutes, there’s none of that here. The rhymes are obvious and leaden (“When you were mine, I loved you so much / I got a thrill from your every touch”… really, Smokey? Really?), the phrasing is messy, and the specifics are missing altogether. He’s singing about a generic stand-in, a sand sculpture at the centre of the song, and his airy, non-specific lament lacks gravity as a result.
Even stranger, a lot of the song is taken up with generic second-person advice; it’s a device Smokey has used in the past on songs like the excellent Everybody’s Gotta Pay Some Dues and the rather less excellent Such Is Love, Such Is Life and You Can’t Let The Boy Overpower The Man In You, but here the advice comes in the form of banal platitudes (“don’t you cry, hold your head up high! / Don’t give up, give love one more try!” – and surely I can’t be the only person in the world who can’t listen to that part and expect Smokey and the Miracles to break into the great call-and-response “I need you!” bit from The Tracks Of My Tears?). Faced with trying to decide whether to make this a breakup song or an advice song, the Miracles opt for an uneasy compromise, via the clunky method of having Smokey sing consoling advice to himself (“now all I can say to comfort myself, is…”), a device which just never quite works. If anything, it makes the narrator sound even less sympathetic; maybe it’s meant to be an ultra-realistic portrait of a guy who’s so broken-hearted that he’s annoying his friends by laying it on thick and basking in the resulting attention, but I’m more inclined to think there were conceptual problems with this song from day one and they just couldn’t be satisfyingly fixed. I know (now) that this song is much loved by many Miracles fans – as always, I’m very willing to hear why, because for the moment it just doesn’t do it for me.
For all of that, it’s not bad, I’d like to emphatically underline that point – it fits perfectly with the rest of the Going To A Go-Go album, beautifully sung and recorded and arranged, and like I said earlier I’ll never turn down the chance to hear the golden-era Miracles doing what they do best. It’s just that after all the riches they’ve given us recently, and with all the riches they’re going to be giving us just around the corner, this feels like a stopgap, and therefore something of a let-down.
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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“She’s Got To Be Real”
“Since You Won My Heart”