B-side of (If) Cleopatra Took A Chance
Taking both sides into consideration, Eddie Holland’s fourth Motown single was his weakest to date. (A shame that the first record I come to review after an extended absence isn’t something, well, better, but there we are.) This – yet another selection (the eighth in total) drawn from Eddie’s one and only album, Eddie Holland, for use on a Motown 45 – is actually a likeable-enough, reasonably well-sung bit of midtempo R&B/pop fluff, but it’s almost maddeningly inconsequential.
On balance, dissected dispassionately, a flat analysis of What About Me would probably return the verdict that this was a slightly stronger song than the A-side, the wildly-inconsistent, strangely-punctuated (If) Cleopatra Took A Chance, certainly more “even”, albeit never coming close to that song’s amazing Scott 2-esque middle eight. But I’d sooner have a rambling, chaotic mess of lows with one dazzling high (like the A-side) than something that just doesn’t make any lasting impression at all (like this).
I’m bored of describing early Motown records as “forgettable”, but this is, well, forgettable. I mean, it’s nice enough when it’s actually playing and everything – Eddie is again on captivating vocal form, his Jackie Wilson-lite mannerisms and trademark precise diction are engaging, and his voice blends appealingly with the band (featuring some great, well-judged horns) and the Andantes on backing vocals (especially when the end of each chorus winds up for another of little brother Brian’s sublime chord changes) – but yet again, as with the A-side, it’s a performance let down by a complete lack of direction, Eddie repeatedly losing his grip on both the tune and his own voice, mirroring the directionless song in a neat but surely coincidental way.
Because the song is directionless, musically and lyrically. (I defy anyone to tell me what it’s meant to be about after a first listen. Almost nothing, as it happens; Eddie’s narrator is trying to persuade a girl to dump her boyfriend in his favour, but his arguments are far from convincing. Eddie Holland would later put words in the mouths of Diana Ross and Levi Stubbs that had listeners hanging on their every syllable, but here it’s a real challenge not to involuntarily tune him out and listen to the music instead.)
It’s as if Eddie and the writers believed a clever, charming chord change and a nice but inconsistent vocal delivery were all that were needed to make a great song all by themselves. As it turns out, no, they aren’t. You need to be going somewhere with it. Otherwise, the longer it goes on, the more disappointed the listener gets; it becomes wallpaper, and then it becomes forgottable.
As always on this blog, I’m not using “forgettable” as a synonym for “rubbish”, or any other critical adjective; I mean it in a completely, clunkingly literal sense. If a song fails to make an impression on me, to the point that even after playing it ten or fifteen times in a row, I still can’t remember it the next day, then I call it “forgettable” because it is by definition forgettable, as in capable of being forgotten, because, look, I have forgotten it. But I digress.
Anyway. This is, for want of a better word, unsatisfying. There’s a recurring sense with some of these early Motown singles – not just Eddie’s, but those from a number of artists who’d go on to become mid-Sixties superstars – that they could be so much better than they actually are. It’s not simply that we know what happened to these people further down the line, that they’d be capable of better; it’s because the songs themselves so often contain enough raw ingredients to be great, if only they’d been put together with a bit more care.
Both this and the A-side contain the ingredients of Motown greatness, but in kernel form; back in 1962, you could have sensed something was going to grow out of this single and its stablemates, you just couldn’t have predicted what it would look like when it did. You can almost feel the frustration of its creators, being so close to greatness and yet so far away. All in good time, Eddie Holland, all in good 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!)
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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“(If) Cleopatra Took A Chance”