b/w Strange I Know
Expecting this to match the impossible standards of the A-side, Strange I Know, would be an unfair task – but this is a bit of a disappointment nonetheless.
Despite being written by the same songwriters, produced by the same producer (Brian Holland), and recorded at the same time as the topside (during the sessions for the Playboy LP), this is a brief, forgettable, skimpy little sketch, an off-the-rack girl group number with no chorus and no hooks that feels far shorter than its two and a half minutes’ duration.
None of which is to say it’s bad, or anything – music and performances are perfectly adequate, nothing’s glaringly wrong with it, but then nothing’s really outstanding either; everything is OK. Remarkably average, if you will.
Lyrically, it’s a bit more interesting, but not necessarily in a good way. Gladys Horton, on far from her best form vocally but still pretty good, narrates a story about how, essentially, she thinks her friends are idiots, falling for guys with no substance who are just using them – she then complains that she’s been openly voicing these opinions to said friends, telling them to dump those jerks, which will sort their lives out, and emphasises that there’s no way she would fall for that sort of trick.
Now, if the lyrics to this had been written by Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier’s later lyrical partner, Brian’s big brother Eddie – or, for that matter, if they’d been written by, say, Smokey Robinson, or Norman Whitfield, or later Frank Wilson, or Ashford and Simpson – by some of Motown’s “character” songwriters, anyway – there might have been a neat twist in the tale, where we perhaps discovered that the narrator was herself being strung along in exactly the same way but too blind to see it, or something. It might have ended up as a neat character piece, along the lines of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team’s lovely He Won’t Be True (Little Girl Blue), as recorded by the Marvelettes less than a year later – there, the narrator goes against her friends’ advice, carries on in her delusional state, convincing herself her errant boy is still The One, even as the backing vocals and the title of the song are telling her quite explicitly that he’s not. It’s a sweet little vignette that both rings true and makes the character extremely sympathetic.
Contrast to this, where Gladys’ character comes across as the most irritating kind of “friend” there is, smug and bossy, unsympathetic to her friends’ “talking about their heartache / and crying oceans of tears” because they’re “weak” – if it was her, “she’d make those silly boys see”. She gets cross because she doesn’t understand why her friends have been so pathetic as to shack up with these characters in the first place, especially when she warned them what would happen.
(Like, I don’t know, maybe they didn’t want to be single? Maybe they looked at you and didn’t fancy that as a lifestyle choice? I mean, if all you can do when your best mate is in floods of tears is retort with a smug “I told you so” (actually, it’s an “I told you so” with bells on, since it’s actually more of an “I told you so – and I’d never be so stupid”), it’s not presenting you in a very good light, you know?… And various other thoughts. Now, perhaps that’s the subtext the writers were going for, but I doubt it – I think we’re meant to fall firmly on the narrator’s side here, though she gives us precious little reason to do so. Pity poor Gladys Horton for having such unsympathetic words put in her mouth.)
But our heroine then goes a step further: there’s a bit in the middle where the narrator refers to Marvelette Juanita (Wyanetta) Cowart by name, a clunky trick device which I hated in the Supremes’ Back In My Arms Again and which I don’t like here. Listening to the Supremes’ record – you know the one? How can Mary tell me what to do, when she lost her love so true? And Flo, she don’t know, ‘cos the boy she loves is a Romeo, that one? Anyway, I used to always think “Diana, shush! They’re right there, standing two feet away – how can you talk about them like this?!” It instantly casts not just the narrator but also the singer in a bad light, bulldozing the fourth wall for no benefit at all. And it’s the same here.
It made me so mad when I saw Juanita taking in that playboy’s jive / I told her once and I told her twice he’d take her love and leave her cold as ice… A hint to the wise should be sufficient enough… it boils my blood to see a girl so weak…
With friends like these, eh?
I’m going over the top, I know – it doesn’t really bother me that much. It’s just to illustrate how easy a lyrical mis-step – a bad central idea, poor casting, or sloppy choices of phrasing (or all three, as we have here) – can derail a perfectly good, serviceable song.
Freddie Gorman, the “singing mailman” and future Original, was the original lyricist with Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier’s budding tunesmith partnership. If the A-side marked the high point of his work in that capacity – a masterpiece of minimalist expression, telling a novel’s worth of story on the back of a postage stamp by giving exactly enough information to the listener for them to fill in the rest with their imagination – then this B-side is a corresponding low. It was one of the last things Freddie wrote with Holland and Dozier, his day job with the US Postal Service already making it difficult for him to keep hours with the duo’s notorious all-night writing sessions; he eventually found himself squeezed out. Both sides of this single featured on the Marvelettes’ fourth album, The Marvelous Marvelettes, released the following February; by that time, Gorman had already effectively been replaced as a member of the songwriting trio.
But that’s another story. This is a totally average-sounding early-Sixties girl group record with poorly-conceived, unsympathetic lyrics. Despite all that, the Marvelettes and the band still carry out their tasks with professional aplomb, meaning it’s hard to mark this too harshly; still, compared to the A-side, this can’t help but be a major disappointment.
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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“Strange I Know”
“You’ll Never Cherish A Love So True (Until You Lose It)”