(Written by Smokey Robinson)
B-side of You Lost The Sweetest Boy
(Released in the UK under license through Stateside Records)
Mary Wells’ only double-sided hit, which seems strangely appropriate on this occasion; this is one of those instances where the two sides of a single complement each other to form a whole that’s somehow greater than the sum of its parts. If this review starts to read as though I’m winning some kind of bet every time I use the phrase “like the A-side”, or some variation thereof, well, please forgive me.
What’s Easy For Two Is So Hard For One isn’t usually cited as a stepping stone between her earlier Smokey Robinson-penned calypso-inflected hits and her million-selling Motown swansong My Guy, but that’s all I can ever hear when I’m listening to it.
Perhaps it’s just that near-identical rhythm pattern and horn riff, complete with a drum fill leading up to (and down from) a heavy dead-stop caesura – bom ba bom ba bom / ba bom ba-bom ba-bom / ba BOM BOM (BOM BOM!)… – which always prompts me, in Pavlovian reaction style, to start singing along with the wrong lyrics – Nothing you can say / can tear me away / from my guy (my guy!). Whatever it is, even though this lacks the beautiful chord progression of its successor, I can’t stop myself trying to sing the main line of the later mega-hit over the main line of this earlier, much smaller hit.
My Guy, apart from being a brilliant song on almost every level, always seemed to me to be a distillation of many of the musical ideas tried out here in kernel form by Smokey, along with many of those tried out by the Holland-Dozier-Holland team on the A-side, You Lost The Sweetest Boy; neither side here is completely successful, but Smokey Robinson was the most astute polisher of ideas in all of pop history, repeatedly finding new songs by going back to fix his own previous efforts with new ideas he’d had on subsequent listens. As You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me is to A Love She Can Count On, so You Lost The Sweetest Boy and What’s Easy For Two are to My Guy – combined, distilled, filtered and polished to within an inch of their lives.
But that’s quite enough about My Guy. What of this record’s own merits?
The title always struck me as misleading, like it belongs to a more ponderous ballad. It doesn’t – this is a breezy, uptempo, handclap-heavy R&B-pop jaunt, and while it’s not as frantic or entertaining as the A-side, nor is it anything like Mary’s previous Smokey-penned calypso-style midtempo hits; here, they’re definitely trying something new.
(It’s actually a bad choice of title – the lyrics feature a different phrase, What two can easily do, repeated twice back-to-back in the chorus, which would have made a much better title.) It’s interesting, because this is the one that’s always described as being more conventional than the rollicking, invigorating ideas-gumbo of the A-side, when really it’s just as experimental (of which more later); it just somehow “feels” more straightforward, and I can’t pin down why that is, but the title – which sounds like a Jo Stafford pop hit from 1952 or something – is certainly a part of it.
In my mind, whenever I sing the chorus of this to myself in my head – not the energetic verses, mind you, just the chorus (featuring Mary and the backing vocals taking back control of the tempo from the band, Mary letting the backing singers do the heavy lifting as she smoulders over the top with a smooth-as-silk delivery, breaking into her breathy, almost spoken-word style with a staccato, near-acapella section at the end: What two can easily do / What two can easily do / Is so hard / To be done / By one) – it somehow always comes out at about half speed, again as though this were a ballad. For some reason, the chorus has always sounded to me as though it should appear in a much slower, more stately song. Not sure why. I’m digressing. Let me cut to the chase.
This is a record full of ideas for the future career of Mary Wells, none of them fully-realised yet, most of them being tried out once and then discarded, to the extent that it sounds like four or five different songs all smooshed together with no great care – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself. The lyrics, an early precursor to Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston’s It Takes Two, are throwaway fluff, but Mary – showing more nuances of character than on the belting A-side – has a ball with them, throwing in pretty much her entire bag of vocal tricks, running the gamut from breathy to sultry to idiosyncratic to full-voiced to smirkingly well-acted to heartbreakingly sincere. If there were such a thing as a showreel for aspiring singers, this would be what Mary Wells sent out when auditioning for parts, containing as it does a couple of seconds of just about everything she could do.
Still, What’s Easy For Two shares a couple of less welcome features with the A-side, too. The pounding instrumental intro is the best thing about the entire record – organ riff, handclaps and stomps aplenty, starting out right on the beat with no warning, just straight in, BANG BANG BANG BANG in a four-to-the-floor dancefloor assault that’s over too soon, very quickly paring the drums back and moving to a breezier bass-driven rhythm with handclaps on the second beat – but it sets a tone that again threatens to sideline Mary on her own single. As this is a record of putative ideas, that avenue gets explored too. Just as Mary’s given plenty of opportunities to shine vocally, so is she also occasionally pushed right back into the mix, in favour of either the band or the gospel-style backing vocals as featured on You Lost The Sweetest Boy.
Most importantly, perhaps, the fact that I can’t help but compare it to a string of other records, including its singer’s most famous record, seems to bear out my theory that the song doesn’t have much an identity of its own. Perhaps confused by the various different approaches taken throughout, or perhaps just lost in Smokey’s overwhelming efforts to construct a coherent song out of all these ideas and thus ironically coming across more conservative than the record really is, it all seems somehow inessential, both in tune and concept; like the A-side, it’s just not quite right.
Still -and again, just like the A-side – that’s not to say it’s not fun on its own terms. The American public thought so, sending it into the R&B Top Ten and pop Top 30 in its own right (probably at the expense of You Lost The Sweetest Boy), and deservedly so, even if the A-side didn’t deserve to be pulled back by its own flip, and even if this is one of the few Mary Wells records that doesn’t sound as though it should have charted any higher than that.
Like the A-side*, this is fun without ever sounding in danger of becoming a classic; if it’s not quite as strong as You Lost The Sweetest Boy (and it isn’t), it’s nonetheless a good, enjoyable Mary Wells record, which is praise enough in its own right.
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!)
* (Ten times, if anyone was keeping score.)
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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