Even though the superb Playboy LP had only been in the shops for three months, and even though that album was far from “mined out” in terms of promising could-be singles, Motown instead opted to issue this as the Marvelettes’ next single instead of picking a track from the album.
I think that context is pretty important here. Motown had already all but thrown away one of the loveliest tracks on Playboy, Someday, Someway, as a B-side; they would do the same with an even better one, Forever, the following year; they would leave a few other excellent songs on the LP, never to see the seven-inch light of day (stuff like I’m Hooked and Mix It Up, both of which I feel would have done well on the charts as A-sides).
Motown didn’t choose any of those as singles. Nor did they go for a brand-new recording; although Strange I Know would end up as the opening track on the Marvelettes’ fourth album, The Marvelous Marvelettes, released in February 1963, this song had actually been recorded during the marathon sessions for Playboy and inexplicably left off that album.
I say “inexplicably”, because this is one of my favourite records of all time.
Really, it is. Which leaves me in a bit of a bind. I’ve known this one was coming up for months. A few weeks ago, I decided to start awarding marks out of ten, partly to make it easier to indicate when I liked something, partly to provoke debate, but mainly as a bit of fun.
That was a bit strange in itself; I love Motown, especially stuff from the mid-Sixties Golden Age, and so the marks I give out are going to end up being higher, on average, than if I was just talking about a random selection of records – but I don’t want to give out so many top marks that it becomes meaningless.
There have been four occasions so far where I’ve felt compelled to break out the maximum ten out of ten for a record (the Supremes’ I Want A Guy, the Marvelettes’ own Please Mr Postman, the Temptations’ (You’re My) Dream Come True and the Miracles’ I’ll Try Something New); I mean, I’m trying not to hand them out like confetti, but there are some songs that I just adore, and I’m not going to hold back from giving big marks to great records just for the sake of maintaining a curve; at the same time, I still think it devalues it if you’re just giving out 10s willy-nilly. It’s hard work, this reviewing lark.
But this has to get full marks. (Sorry to ruin the suspense, if you were waiting to see what mark I gave it at the end.) This is my absolute favourite out of all of the Marvelettes’ records. Yes, even that one.
I like to think that someone at Motown felt the same way; having overlooked this for Playboy, I suspect A&R were going through Marvelettes offcuts to find filler for The Marvelous Marvelettes, recording of new material for which had all but finished the previous month; I believe they dug this out to refresh their memories, fell in love and decided it had to be released as a single, straight away. I like to think that, though I don’t know for sure.
Why do I love it so much? I love it because apart from its music –
– though that’s a really big “apart from”, isn’t it? This sounds fantastic. The Holland-Dozier-Gorman songwriting team, who would end up (once Brian Holland’s brother Eddie replaced Freddie Gorman less than a year later) conquering the world, turn in a beautiful, haunting tune, based around a lolloping bass riff, pretty guitar figure, rich, chiming background piano and almost military drum fills; it’s a majestic mix that just grabs your attention right away. With its riveting, chills-down-the-spine intro (which, dissected, turns out to be something akin to stop-time blues, packing its punch both through a pretty tune and unusual timing, bursting into the main song after three bars rather than the expected four) and its almost perfect chorus (It’s strange, I know – but that’s the way it goes, repeated throughout the song, including the opening and closing lines) there’s a strong argument to be made for this to be considered the best tune of any Motown record so far, and that’s before we get to Gladys Horton’s never-bettered lead vocal performance, which confirms the Marvelettes as Motown’s top act of 1962 in almost every respect. But I digress –
– apart from its music, I love it because it’s just so different from every other love song I’ve ever heard.
Indeed, it takes a while to even realise it’s a love song at all – and a love song it is – because it’s sung, in a stroke of absolute genius, from a unique perspective. First- and third-person love songs about how much the narrator loves some girl or guy are ten a penny. Mostly-second-person love songs which have the narrator dumping some other person for you, the listener, cast in the role of placeholder for the new object of their affections, listing their faults and/or your virtues, aren’t unheard of. But in this one, the whole song is the narrator telling her bloke she’s chucking him – you, the listener – because she’s found the true love of her life, and you’re not it.
Now, there are wheels within wheels here – the story, bluntly told, is that the narrator’s boyfriend has been away for a long time (we’re not informed as to why – military service? Extended holiday? Working in another town? – but the writers deftly avoid clunky exposition by not having Gladys relate information that “our” character, and therefore the listener, would already know in such a situation), and in his absence, and due to him not having bothered to write or phone, her loneliness turned to affection for another (shades of Martha and the Vandellas’ Jimmy Mack, recorded two years later):
Oh how I tried to resist him / But my heart told me to keep him
(I’ve always thought that the most obvious line there was “kiss him”, not “keep him” – perhaps there was some censorship involved?)
…and their relationship has blossomed to the point where she’s about to marry her new guy. The song, then, is Gladys’ explanation to her ex as to what’s occurred in his absence, insofar as such things can be explained – it all boils down to “you can’t fight true love”. She doesn’t even really apologise – I’m sorry to say that my love has faded, faded away is the closest she gets – because she clearly doesn’t feel the need to.
Most great love songs hinge on the idea that some sort of Platonic ideal of perfect love exists, that when you find it you just know, that there’s nothing you can do, it’s a force of nature that can’t be fought, and that it can happen to anyone at any time. For me, this song is about just such a story, in all its beautiful, perfect glory – and it is beautiful and perfect, Gladys Horton surrendering to fate in a performance that deserves as much acclaim for her acting as for her vocal ability, so much that it still brings me out in goosebumps even now, after I’ve heard it literally hundreds of times – but it forces the listener to play an unfamiliar part: the role of the jilted guy who now has to go on and find his perfect love.
Sorry, I’ve got to interrupt all this literary analysis and play the record some more, before we lose sight of the fact that it’s a wonderful pop single. Hang on.
Right, that’s better. Anyway. This song is unusual because although it’s about a perfect relationship, that perfect relationship isn’t the story between the protagonists, it’s between the narrator and someone else, and the narrator is relaying it back to us, an outsider.
As both an observer and a casualty of the narrator’s blissful romance, we don’t get the full story, as we’re told that’s contained in a letter (the writers, the then-hot Holland-Dozier-Gorman trio, cannily spare us the real breakup note, devising a structure whereby they can leave most of the nuts and bolts detail out, trusting us to take it as read that it’s a heartfelt mixture of apology and kiss-off), giving rise to some of the most emotive lines in any Motown song:
When you get home
I’ll be gone
Ask my mother for your letter
That I put aside
When you finish the letter
I’ll be Eddie’s bride
God, I love this record. A song about the inexplicable joy of falling in love and knowing it, with the music and Gladys Horton’s lead vocal all helping carry the point home; you can almost hear the shrug in her voice, knowing that simply saying it’s strange, I know, but that’s the way it goes is at once both completely insufficient and also the only thing that can be said.
And that’s why, for my money, it’s one of the greatest of all Motown love songs, if not one of the outright best Motown singles, ever, full stop. I’d put it in my top twenty, at the absolute minimum.
(Lest that sound like damning with faint praise – I can’t pick a favourite, physically can’t do it, and even if I could it would change the very next day as soon as I heard one of the other contenders. Out of more than three thousand Motown songs, top twenty is as high as I’m willing to put anything, and with great difficulty; even compiling a top fifty involves too many arbitrary choices, sacrificing too many records that on their day could be number one. There won’t be very many more 10s awarded than that here. “But hold on”, alert readers may be saying round about now, “does that mean you’re saying this, this record most people – even people who consider themselves casual Motown fans – have never even heard of, could potentially be the best Motown single ever?” Yes, is the answer. Yes, it could. In my world, anyway.)
Obviously, then, this astonishing, wonderful, beautiful, perfect single was the one which arrested the Marvelettes’ hitherto-unstoppable progress up the charts; it brushed the R&B Top Ten, but only just dented the Pop Top 50, a relative failure and all but the end of the girls’ time as Motown’s top female group. It goes without saying that this record deserved better than that.
But sales aren’t everything. This is the best record the Marvelettes ever made, and – like the Supremes’ aforementioned I Want A Guy – I don’t care if I’m the only person who thinks so. Magnificent, and beautiful, and forever.
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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|Little Stevie Wonder
“La La La La La”
“Too Strong To Be Strung Along”