b/w Happy Landing
(Written by Smokey Robinson)
b/w Happy Landing
(Released in the UK under license through Oriole Records)
So, yeah, this was originally the B-side of a largely-forgotten record, the upbeat Happy Landing. Both songs were taken from the forthcoming Miracles LP The Fabulous Miracles, and despite one being an uptempo rocker and the other a ballad deep enough to drown an elephant, the two share plenty of similarities. They were both recorded on the same day, during the same session. They were both heavily inspired by Sam Cooke records: the A-side by Having A Party, and this B-side by Bring It On Home To Me. They’re both based around the same musical gimmick, Marv Tarplin providing two unforgettable, but almost interchangeable, twangy guitar riffs.
Of course, it’s now known that Motown had backed the wrong horse. Upon release, Happy Landing went nowhere, but once DJs started flipping the record over, You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me pushed this single to rack up sales of more than a million copies and sailed effortlessly to the top of the R&B charts, the Miracles’ second such R&B #1 hit. So it goes in the music business; you never can tell.
Well, alright, sometimes you can, obviously. But despite this song’s subsequent success, it’s still easy to understand why Happy Landing, a fine uptempo rocker of a record, was the more promising of the two sides, and thus a wholly understandable choice of single. Many accounts written after the fact make it out to be almost unfathomable that You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me wasn’t originally thought of that way, but it makes sense enough without the benefit of hindsight.
You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me – “You’ve” is correct, incidentally, rather than “You”; it seems to have been the Beatles who retitled the song after the line Smokey actually sings on the record – was famously written by a bored and frustrated Smokey Robinson in his hotel room while on a business trip to New York in his capacity as Motown vice-president, and seems to have started out as little more than a freely-admitted attempt to write a ballad in the style of the aforementioned Sam Cooke record. In interviews, it almost comes across as though this were an experiment, a diverting little project that wasn’t meant to come to anything. Instead, it’s become a monument, one of Smokey’s most famous songs.
A lot of that, of course, has to do with the Beatles, but their very famous cover version, done only a few months after the original was released – an earnest, well-meaning tribute to a great record they’d discovered, no mean feat when this record was never a hit in the UK – is clumsy and stumbling by comparison. (Of course, even the Miracles’ version is a little clumsy and stumbling in places, probably reflecting its relatively rushed recording and its original lack of priority in Motown’s future plans for the group.)
Anyway. This is both better than, and a step back from, Sam Cooke’s hit. It’s a step back, in that it draws far more heavily on the standard traditions of doo-wop than Bring It On Home To Me, which had consciously been trying to move away from that kind of ballad. You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me, with its gently pounded Fifties piano backing and 6/8 tempo, is almost comforting in its familiarity. Even when working in a largely fixed, restrictive format, though, Smokey is still clever enough to add a few tricks and touches to keep the listener’s attention; right at the beginning, he starts the record out of time, opening with two bars of piano to mark out the tempo before bringing in Marv and the rest of the band to lay down a groove so all-consuming you have to stop whatever it is you’re doing and listen.
It’s also better than Cooke’s record, because it’s simply a stronger song. Built over a very simple framework, the basic building blocks of the song are off-the-rack doo-wop tropes; what elevates this above those raw ingredients are a veritable basket full of hooks, and a clever lyric.
The purported single, Happy Landing, had a fairly trite and bland lyrical theme (she’s going to drop you, pal!) and no clever wordplay beyond the title, while this, ostensibly the throwaway B-side, turns out to be – perhaps unintentionally – one of Smokey’s deepest, most searching examinations of what it means to really love someone. He’d already given us one side of that coin in I’ll Try Something New, of course, a song in which his narrator pledged his love by promising a series of increasingly grand gestures; now, we get something else, namely obsession beyond reason.
I don’t like you – but I love you, he declares, right at the very start; but that’s because, or maybe despite, the fact that in the next line he’s laying his soul bare (Seems that I’m always thinking of you… is that guilt, frustration, an attempt at an apology?) The depth of his disgust – either with the person he’s singing to, or with himself – is made palpably clear throughout the song. I wanna leave you, don’t wanna stay here, don’t want to spend another day here… – his every rational instinct is telling him to head for the hills.
But love isn’t rational. Though you treat me badly, I love you madly – “madly” here given many meanings, readable as an expression of depth, sanity, whatever. Just in case the audience wasn’t getting it from all the contradictory emotions his lyric is serving up, Smokey seals the depths of his feeling with his most impassioned lead vocal to date, infusing the title with wholly believable angst – You really got a hold on me – with all the emphasis on that word, “hold”, such that the listener has to sit up and think about what they just heard.
There are endless questions to be asked here; what’s the nature of the “hold” the object of Smokey’s affections really has on him? Does he resent it, or is he grateful his deeper emotions stop him from storming out over surface arguments? Is he even in a relationship with this person, or just attracted to them despite himself? You can read the song either way, and more besides, and it’s that which makes this a great lyric – not the fun wordplay, or the unusual idea of putting intentional contradictions throughout the song in the first place.
Hooks! I almost forgot. This song also has plenty of hooks. There’s the great call-and-response bit at 2:30, where the Miracles sing “hold me!” and Smokey shouts “Please!”; the group sings “hold me!” and Smokey shouts “Squeeze!”, which will stick in your head for days afterwards (and which is itself a fun callback to an earlier bit (at 1:26) where Smokey just sang “hold me! hold me!” on his own, something that sets the scene for the later section). There’s the superb break at 1:37, complete with horns, rattling drum fills, and Smokey’s implored request, which sounds like it has a full stop rather than an exclamation mark: “Tighter.” And, of course, there’s that Marv Tarplin guitar riff, so perfectly judged, marking this out from a thousand other early-Sixties pseudo-doo-wop contenders.
There’s stuff wrong with the record, too, of course, stuff which – for me, anyway – stops this ever being quite as good as it could be (indeed, and this has only just occurred to me, stuff which means that the record, while it’s playing, is never quite as perfect as I remember it being). For starters, the vocals are handled by both Smokey and Bobby Rogers together through most of the verses, an early approach to double-tracking that never quite works. In the parts where Smokey sings alone (the chorus and the last line of each verse), he sounds great, but the harmonies between Smokey and Bobby aren’t perfect, with quite a few faintly jarring moments – most noticeably in the very first line (“I don’t like you, but I love you”). The Beatles, faithfully copying the Miracles original, make the same error in their version, and any number of other Sixties covers do the same thing – but the song’s always worked better with a solo lead, for my money anyway.
Also, as I said before, Marv Tarplin aside, it’s hard to put my finger on it, but there’s something ever so very slightly out about the whole thing, as if everyone involved might have liked just one more take to really get things spot on, so that the record never quite “gels” in the way its creators seem to want, never quite becomes the lush, all-enveloping ballad the song calls for.
It’s still a remarkable piece of work, a good record and a genuinely great song; this, more than any other, would become remembered as the sound of the early Miracles. How much of that was the Beatles’ doing is open to debate, but the fact remains that even if this isn’t quite as good as it could have been, it’s still very good indeed. You can certainly see how the lads from Liverpool were so entranced that they had to cut their own version, at any rate; a beautiful song, not quite done justice, and with enough room for improvement to encourage further attempts.
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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