B-side of The Stretch
(Written by Mickey Stevenson and Billy Gordon)
In what must rank as one of the worst creative decisions in the Motown story, this B-side sees the Contours – the affable, self-admitted chancers who were Motown’s most physical live act, performing insane stage routines that bordered on the acrobatic – taken out of their natural habitat, and asked to do a full-on romantic doo-wop ballad.
It’s sort of reminiscent of I Only Have Eyes For You, sort of, but in truth it’s hard to tell quite how the song was meant to sound, because literally everybody on the record is so off-key it actually beggars belief.
It’s impossible to imagine what the other vocal takes must have been like if these were the performances they chose, but the singing is uniformly dreadful. The song begins with the backing vocals taking the first half-verse, and it’s not a promising start, because they’re the worst backing vocals in Motown history. They’re hard work to listen to in and of themselves – a particular low point comes at 0:51-0:55 with a series of ow-ow-ow yelps followed by a squeal, which (after repeated, painful listens) I eventually realised were meant to be an extended “I” in the line “Even as I dream” – but they’re not only out of tune with the music, they also clash horribly with new Contours lead singer Sylvester Potts. Check out the nasty effect at 1:22, when backing and lead vocals trip right over each other and create a dischord so complete you’d swear it was intentional, which is unforgivably shoddy for a label that would come to symbolise meticulously-arranged harmonic perfectionism in Sixties pop.
Potts, though, is the absolute worst thing on this record. You know how some music critics – mostly older white music critics – when describing a record where they don’t like the singer’s voice or lack of discipline, will dismiss something as sounding “like cats fighting in an alley”, or somesuch?
Yeah. Anyway, Sylvester Potts’ singing on this record actually, genuinely sounds like cats fighting in an alley. Check out the ear-splitting yelps at 1:38 (preferably not while listening through headphones, you might do yourself some damage) and again at 2:11 for selected lowlights. Then remind yourself that someone passed that as fit for release. Not just “someone”, but MOTOWN, no less. Reflect on the three volumes of amazing discarded material on the incomparably glorious A Cellarful Of Motown series (some of which discarded material is actually by the Contours themselves), and wonder just how this abomination ever got off the cutting room floor. If I’d been Berry Gordy, I’d not only have not released it, I’d have tied big heavy rocks to the only existing master tape, sneaked out at midnight and thrown it in the Detroit River.
Seriously, it’s unlistenable, to me anyway, and I’m someone who’s paid good money for Throbbing Gristle records. The liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 1 describe this as “a classic vocal harmony ballad… it’s still arresting today”. Well, there is no harmony in these vocals, none whatsoever, and as for “arresting”, that’s only true in the sense that playing this too loud after 11pm could indeed see the police turn up at your house to find out just what the fuck is going on with all that screeching and yelping.
Quite possibly the worst Motown record of all time, vying for the wooden spoon with the inglorious likes of Eugene Remus’ cacophonic Hold Me Tight and Mickey Woods’ borderline-racist “comedy country & western” ditty They Rode Through The Valley. In fact, Funny is so utterly, shockingly, irredeemably poor that the only possible reason for its existence is that greater forces were at work keeping balance in the universe – the brilliance and perfection of the Marvelettes’ Please Mr Postman clearly required Motown to make a record which was the complete opposite of the Marvelettes’ hit in every possible way, or else the world would end. They must have succeeded, because we’re all still here, and this is terrible.
A bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad record.
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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