b/w I’m Going Home
(Written by George Fowler)
And now, after the heaven of Fingertips, to bring us crashing back down to earth with a hefty bump, here’s the worst of Motown’s various early forays into the world of gospel music.
Things had gone rather quiet for Divinity Records, Motown’s dedicated gospel subsidiary label; only one single had appeared so far, the Wright Specials’ That’s What He Is To Me, and even that had been ten months ago. Motown’s priorities had changed; in the light of the increasing number of chart hits they were racking up in this, their fifth year of business, they no longer needed the steady if unspectacular trickle of income gospel sides would bring in, and the Divinity project was already more or less dead in the water.
Still, some new recordings were greenlit before the plug was finally pulled. The Burnadettes, a little-known all-female gospel group, had apparently recorded an entire album’s worth of material back in August of 1962, but none of it had seen the light of day. Now, with Divinity A&R boss George Fowler having written a new song – his first in quite a while, surprising for the once-prolific secular writer – the group were recalled to the studio to cut it for him.
This is a flat and dirgey number, and features a horrible drop in sound quality at 2:05 when everything suddenly goes all muffled (or maybe this is just my copy), but that’s not the whole of why I don’t like it.
Back in March 1961, exactly two years before First, You’ve Got To Recognize God was recorded, Motown had issued the Gospel Stars’ He Lifted Me; when discussing that record, I opined that there are only three basic flavours of gospel records, under which all gospel music can be very broadly classified: 1, heavy-handed Biblical allegory; 2, it’s not too late, God can still help you; 3, personal story of salvation. This record belongs to a particular subset of type (2), and it’s the subset which very few of my favourites are drawn: “God can still help you, if you stop your evil ways“.
It’s essentially a robust defence of the First and Second Commandments (First and Third if you’re not Catholic) – God is the one true God, you’re not to have any other gods than Him, don’t take His name in vain. It takes the form of the Burnadettes telling a variety of professional people to know their place and not to get too uppity with their book-learnin’, based around the gruff lead singer calling out a profession and the rest of the choir doing a call-and-response echo, before the central refrain, which is the song’s most (indeed, only) memorable lyrical and musical feature: “Out of all of the knowledge that you learned in college, first you’ve got to recognise God”.
There’s almost nothing else to it, lyrically or musically, other than a few platitudes not really elaborating on the central theme (“Now it’s true that you may be smart… (but) without Him, you would be nothing… It was God who gave you birth… What good is a title when you have lost your soul? It was God who gave you wisdom… so how can you take God’s credit?”), adding up to a generally intimidating atmosphere that’s more snarling threat than uplifting encouragement.
Beyond that… not a lot happening, really. There’s almost no tune to speak of, other than that central refrain; the lead singer’s delivery is so deep and grizzled that I didn’t actually realise she was a woman until the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 3 confirmed it; it’s absurdly poorly-recorded for 1963, the instruments muffled and inaudibly murky even before the horrible 2:05 sound drop, which sounds like someone put a sock over the mic or something, and which made me think one of my speakers had somehow become unplugged. The whole thing is just an amateurish-sounding mess; the old “hang a mic and get them to sing” gospel recording techniques might have passed muster in the Fifties, but by the standards of Motown in the middle of 1963, it’s simply not good enough any more.
All of that, though, is as nothing compared to the discomfort I feel listening to the lyrics. The laundry list of those who must bow down before the Burnadettes’ home(schooled) truths doesn’t seem to have been chosen just for scansion: Biologist, neurologist, psychologist, geologist, physician, musician, teacher, and even you, preacher, listen to me, you BETTER hear me… Maybe it’s just me that has a problem with this, I don’t know. I’m not going to elaborate, but it makes me uncomfortable.
This would be a difficult listen if it was in Portuguese*, but the self-important sneer in the lyrics, so at odds with the ostensible theme of humility before God (and the underlying, possibly imaginary threat I keep inferring from it, which may be my issue alone, I don’t know) make it tougher still. Creepy and disheartening.
* (This joke probably only makes sense if you know I don’t speak Portuguese)
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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“I’m Going Home”
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