Gordy G 7019 (A), June 1963
b/w You Get Ugly
What the hell? Stop the presses, this must be a mistake – a new Contours single that doesn’t sound like Do You Love Me!
This isn’t particularly outstanding – a fun, throwaway number, frothy and mildly diverting, little more than a footnote in the Contours’ catalogue – but it positively sparkles compared to most of the group’s recent output. Pa (I Need A Car) (the parentheses seem to have been added later) stands as a brief burst of individuality lost amidst a run of increasingly cynical, increasingly depressing Do You Love Me soundalikes (see Shake Sherrie, You Better Get In Line, Don’t Let Her Be Your Baby, and that’s not including the forthcoming Can You Do It; the Contours were many things, but subtle they were not.)
The irony, as I’m sure I’ve said before, was that both the group and Motown seem to have missed the point. In churning out a barrelful of charmless, desperate attempts to ride the coat-tails of Do You Love Me, they failed to see what they were doing wrong, even if it seems obvious with hindsight. Trying to recapture a moment of spontaneous magic by sitting down on an overcast Tuesday morning and artificially retracing your steps is never going to work, even with the best will in the world; not only was the whole project a dismal commercial failure, but in the process Motown also failed to pay heed to the changing times, ignoring what was going on around them right now in favour of reliving past glories.
Pa (I Need A Car) can be seen as an attempt to break that pattern and freshen things up a bit – either on Motown’s part, or on the part of this record’s soon-to-be illustrious producers. The world didn’t need another Do You Love Me, and that wasn’t the future; the future was the new wave of increasingly slick, radio-friendly, R&B-pop crossover music which was already starting to bankroll the company.
Musically, 1963 marked a year of transition for Motown unlike any other, a turning point, dividing line, call it what you will, and the Contours – always awkward, rough-edged, more interested in dancing on stage than singing in the studio – were being left behind while other Motown groups made great strides in their development. It wasn’t that they lacked the ability to break out of their rut – listen to the horrible Don’t Let Her Be Your Baby and then check out its riveting B-side, It Must Be Love, for proof they could still make superb records – they just weren’t being allowed to spread their wings. The total failure of this, the Contours’ only real concerted effort in that direction in the early Sixties, ended up locking them in their pigeonhole through 1964, and prevented them from riding the commercial wave that took so many of the protagonists in Motown’s just-around-the-corner “Golden Age” to superstar status. By the time the Contours joined in properly, having been through some fairly drastic line-up changes, it would be too late for them to ever compete again as a chart force.
(And there lies the controversy, I suppose: all things being right with the world, the Contours should have been rewarded for breaking out of their stagnant comfort zone. Instead, this missed the charts altogether, and wasn’t picked up for release in Britain at all, where Motown’s UK licensees had lost patience with a string of non-selling records. Motown could point to that and say it proved them right – people apparently did just want Do You Love Me clones from these guys, leaving the smoother pop stuff to the others.)
It’s no surprise, though, to see that their one solitary stab in that new pop-inflected direction was penned by two of the men who’d go on to lead the company’s charge to mainstream adoration. This was one of the last songs written by the Holland-Dozier-Gorman trio (before Freddie Gorman was squeezed out, and the production team of Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier recruited Brian’s older brother Eddie as their lyricist instead), having been cut in the middle of the previous winter. Six months old by the time it was released, Pa (I Need A Car) is therefore both a step forward from what the Contours had been doing up until this point, and a step back from where Motown as a whole was already going.
At the time this was written, Holland and Dozier surely had an idea of where they wanted to go as writers, and so this contains embryonic traces of their upcoming monuments – but they developed so fast during the course of 1963 that compared to something like Martha & the Vandellas’ Come And Get These Memories, from just a couple of months later, Pa (I Need A Car) almost sounds like juvenilia. More than anything, it comes across as a sketchy, unfinished first draft for the Marvelettes’ Locking Up My Heart, the two songs sharing a couple of identical passages and a lot more very similar ones. This one has almost meaningless lyrics – the narrator wants his dad to buy him a car so he can impress girls, The End (a situation with some comic potential, but that goes completely unexplored here – we never get beyond the basic concept, which is somehow stretched out over two and a half minutes) – and pretty much no chorus at all, so it comes across as even more of a mess than the Marvelettes record.
Still, at least they were trying; Billy Gordon’s rasping, sandpapery vocals are little more than a sore-throated croak here, but it sort of works, and there’s some musical interest to be had with the sax break and the horns in the background, the production and arrangement immediately recognisable as another embryonic version of the classic “Motown Sound” falling into place.
It’s very much not fantastic, which is a shame – I’m so grateful that it isn’t another half-arsed remake of Do You Love Me I find I’m willing myself to really get into it, but there’s just not enough going on here to properly enjoy the record as anything more than a novelty with loftier ideals. Still, it’s not terrible either, and I’d be a massive hypocrite if, having berated the Contours for doing the same thing over and over again, I didn’t at least give them credit for trying something new. I just wish it had turned out a bit… better, that’s all.
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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