B-side of Two Lovers
(Written by Smokey Robinson)
B-side of Two Lovers
(Released in the UK under license through Oriole Records)
It struck me, whilst listening to this song a little while ago, that one day in the not-too-distant future, the same fate will befall the Marvelettes’ Please Mr Postman as has happened to this one – a song centred on the vagaries of communication and romance in the Twentieth Century will have simply ceased to make sense, because technology will have made the terminology obsolete. What’s a “postman”, Grandma? What’s an “operator”?
I’m too young to remember a time when there was such a thing as a telephone operator – not in the sense that Mary’s singing about here anyway. I mean, I’m not dense, so I can work out what’s happening by the context: Mary first expresses gratitude to the telephone operator who’s trying to place a call between her and her absent boyfriend, and then complains to the operator because the call isn’t going smoothly (she can’t make out what he’s saying – Did he say that his love was true? Did he say that his love was mine? Did he say he was coming home? Did he say where he has been? – and doesn’t like to be interrupted; she then gets cut off, and asks to be reconnected). But it’s no longer an experience I can relate to, or at least not in the same way as Mary’s listeners may have done in 1962.
Now, there’s potential there – the song lets us learn about Mary’s relationship purely from her anxious one-sided conversation with the unheard operator, and we never hear a single word exchanged between Mary and the boy himself, which is quite a clever trick. Instead, Smokey’s monologue leaves it to Mary to reveal what’s happening by having her express her insecurities as the call gets beset with technical problems: It shouldn’t take this much time… It’s unfair to make me wait any longer… What is the hold-up, please? Doesn’t he have change?. The lines aren’t fantastic, but it is a neat enough device – except that try as I might, I just can’t get into the sort of headspace where it would be acceptable for someone at a telephone company to be listening in on, and interjecting during, my own private romantic conversation, and so the whole thing feels somewhat artificial.
Maybe if I could empathise a bit better with Mary’s predicament, this might strike more of a chord. As it is, this really doesn’t do anything for me – the lyrics aren’t particularly well-written (as with the A-side, Smokey seems to have been having an off day crafting believably-flowing conversational dialogue), the tune doesn’t serve the lyrics well (though there is a pretty good bit towards the end when they both come together promisingly – Put him on the line, put him on the line, I want him on the line – just before it all fades out), and it doesn’t sound particularly good either.
Mary spends most of her time stuck in an uncharacteristically high register that doesn’t really do her voice many favours; you can tell it’s her, but alongside some of her recent amazing lead performances (not least the A-side, Two Lovers, where her vocal is far better than the rather routine song has any right to demand of her) this one is a real disappointment. There are moments in The One Who Really Loves You where the anguish in Mary’s voice is palpable, where you’re on the edge of your seat, left in no doubt just how much is at stake as Mary fights to keep her relationship alive. Her acting here doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath; she might as well be ringing up to complain about a billing error.
The band don’t help matters, either, seemingly bored by yet another Smokey Robinson midtempo calypso number, but with none of the clever timing tricks and changes that had kept things interesting on previous Robinson/Wells records. They react by turning in a performance-by-numbers; the guitarist is the only person who seems to really be enjoying himself, since the whole thing is only enlivened by some inadvertent comedy guitar slide “BOINGG!” noises at the end of a few verses – think the Marvelettes’ My Baby Must Be A Magician, except with nothing in the lyrics to justify such tomfoolery). The Love-Tones, who’d provided some splendid backing vocals on You Beat Me To The Punch, are flat and uninspiring here, with some nasty clashes between lead vocal, backing vocals and band at 1:46 and 2:20 that really should have necessitated another take. Musically – and I’m talking both performances and the underlying song structure – the whole thing seems rushed, even unfinished, more like a glorified demo.
The thought occurs that it’s perhaps just taken at too fast a lick – the almost jaunty, insubstantial feel to the music detracts from any emotional power the song might have had slowed down to half, even quarter speed. Brenda Holloway covered the song in 1965, this time as an A-side, in a slower, slinkier arrangement that was closer to the mark – but although it’s a bit better, even that one’s too fast and thin for me, so maybe the performances and the arrangement aren’t the real problem here. I’m perhaps being spoiled by thinking of Scott Walker’s Time Operator (a slow-as-molasses monologue featuring as its narrator a man crushed by loneliness turning to the Speaking Clock for human company), which this song could have rivalled if there’d been some real feeling in there, but it’s all just too superficial, and it doesn’t make any impact at all. Not on me, anyway.
Probably the weakest record Mary Wells had yet made for Motown, and not one to dwell upon. Of course, she’d already made enough truly spectacular records that fans could overlook this unsatisfying blip.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
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Motown Junkies has reviewed other Motown versions of this song:
- Brenda Holloway (May 1965)
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