(Written by Isabelle Freeman and Harvey Fuqua)
It’s tempting to track the story of Motown via the story of the Supremes; by now firmly esconced as the company’s flagship act, the biggest-selling artist on the biggest-selling label in America, in 1965/66 the ladies were pushed far beyond normal limits of productivity, becoming the company’s most prolific act too. That productivity isn’t merely confined to them pumping out album after album (though there’s certainly a lot of that), it extended to 45s as well: this is one of an astonishing 22 – TWENTY-TWO – Supremes sides for us to consider here on Motown Junkies for the 12 months between February 1965 and February 1966. It’s a wonder they ever got any sleep.
Some of the material they cut was pop manna for the ages; some of it was crudely-shaped filler designed to bulk out side-project albums of covers; and some of it was shameless square peg/round hole opportunism, Motown simply press-ganging the Supremes into fronting whatever random profile-raising thing they’d signed up for, needing famous faces for an employment rights PSA or a cheapie film soundtrack theme. Or a Christmas tie-in novelty single, perhaps.
I’m not really sure how to take this. Motown didn’t have much of a Christmas tradition as 1965 drew to a close (an abortive attempt at pushing a Miracles LP of holiday-themed tunes back in ’63 had fizzled out in unspectacular fashion, and the less said about Ray Oddis’ execrable Randy The Newspaper Boy the better), and it seems 50/50 as to whether Motown’s motivation was in going back to the Yuletide market was benign or cynical; a little treat, a gift for Supremes fans, a glorified fan club record à la Beatles, Merry Christmas from your new favourite group? Or an attempt by Motown to wedge the door open and get back into a crowded (and hitherto largely untapped) source of extra dollars with a particularly shoddy offering?
LOGS ON THE FIRE, GIFTS BY THE TREE, YOU KNOW THE DRILL
As shoddy offerings go, this has to be among the shoddiest. Some of the problem is conceptual; it’s an attempt to write a modern carol, and modern carols are a complete crap-shoot at the best of times. In the US, I’d imagine it’s a problem particularly bound up with the vagaries of contemporary Christian music, getting in just the right amount of Jesus so as not to scare off either the devout or the disenchanted. In the UK, where the cultural influence of modern Christian music of any kind is negligible at best, we nonetheless have a rich tradition of pop/rock Christmas singles which have become standards in their own right, almost all of them defiantly secular – think Slade, Wizzard, Paul McCartney and Shakin’ Stevens, with Shane and Kirsty’s sozzled chantey now becoming a belated addition to the canon (slowly nudging out the once-ubiquitous and obviously-religious contribution by Cliff Richard).
I don’t know what the situation is in the USA, but here in Britain, these songs are inescapable throughout December, played on every TV music channel and commercial radio station on heavy rotation (and I do mean heavy, as in up to twice an hour apiece on some backwater video channels!), and the commercial rewards for writing a new Christmas standard somehow getting into that pantheon of, um, greats – even for just a couple of years – are rich pickings indeed. As a result, each Christmas we’re inundated with attempts of varying lameness from all quarters. Which brings me back to Children’s Christmas Song.
So, part of the trouble with this is conceptual, as I said – writing a modern carol, pitching it right, is difficult, and Children’s Christmas Song is a failure on that score by pretty much any measure. It’s the sort of tune which might, had it been written twenty-five or fifty or a hundred years earlier, have stood a shot at making it into the grade-school caroler’s canon, but only as a result of lack of competition. Even then, it’s doubtful it would have stuck around; it’s clunky and cloying, musically undeveloped, its rhymes jarring and forced, its chorus a bland and seemingly-endless series of droning, hokey platitudes. Certainly it’s aptly-titled, as this is most certainly a song for children to sing – you absolutely can’t picture a crowd of adult carol-singers on your doorstep pelting out the central refrain:
Ding-dong, ding-dong, hear the bell
Ringing out the first Noël…
But even a bad carol might still have made for a nice Supremes Christmas single. Instead, the shaky concept and autopilot writing is only part of the problem; the record is also marred by a bad, bad idea in its execution, an idea which would have killed any choice of song for this festive Supremes 45, no matter how bulletproof the original carol might have been. Like so many of the bad Motown ideas we’ve seen during the eight years we’ve covered in the course of this blog, it’s an idea which probably sounded really good on paper, but which should have been stopped and rejected as soon as it was tried out for real.
I’M BAD, I’M BAD (REALLY, REALLY BAD)
And so it comes to pass that Diana Ross (in a virtual solo turn – indeed, without checking, I’m not playing this again, but I think she’s the only Supreme actually on this “Supremes” 45), already in her element playing mother hen, showing a lot of the natural care and love she’d later bring to her underrated role in The Wiz, gives us the basic idea of the tune – “basic” is right, as sophisticated tunes go this one’s right up there with The Wheels On The Bus – and then patiently gathers a choir of young children around her to open up their books and sing along to “a story about the first Christmas”.
I say “a choir of young children” – actually, it’s Motown founder Berry Gordy’s children (who are individually namechecked on the record). And I say “sing along”, but actually none of them can sing one whit.
It’s a sweet idea, and one which – like the aforementioned Randy The Newspaper Boy – gives me brief pause before sticking the boot in, simply because it’s seemingly trying to do something nice, even if it’s a complete failure. But it’s such a complete failure, done so very badly, that I can’t bring myself to go easy on it. These kids CANNOT SING, and the resulting noise terror is genuinely horrible, a rodeo of too-sticky sugar and distorted bum notes from a gang of bellowing toddlers that challenges the listener to cling on as long as they can before giving up.
(It was a challenge I resolutely failed; even if I’d managed to stick to the schedule, which would have seen me writing this at Christmastime, I suspect I’d have found it a chore to give this the normal 40-odd plays for a review here on Motown Junkies. As things stand, here in the grey Welsh light of a drizzly February rainstorm, I think I’ve managed to play this right the way through three times. I doubt even the most hardened Supremes fan has ever willingly put this on repeat. If this review seems a bit sketchier on the musical analysis than normal, I hope you’ll forgive me.)
Yes, I know, they’re just kids. But I never ease up on criticism just because the record’s been made by a child (as I’ve often said, they’re not my kids, I’m under no obligation to coo and applaud because aww, and they’re only six, and I’m certainly not going to willingly pay money for the privilege); nowhere is that adage ever going to be more appropriate than here.
Maybe that’s the record’s whole raison d’être, getting the boss’ kids in on the act for a bit of festive fun. Maybe it was a family favour, a snapshot of a Gordy family Christmas party, an inner-circle in-joke that somehow got out of hand, never really meant for widespread release. Maybe it’s unfair to give it a mark at all, never mind to consider it as part of the Supremes’ “real” recorded output in this most glorious of years for Motown’s top group. But here it is – and it’s so cacophonous, so ear-splittingly unlistenable, that no matter how good its intentions and how kind its heart, it ends up one of the worst Motown singles of all time.
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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