(Written by Smokey Robinson)
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Stateside Records)
The commercial and artistic fortunes of the Marvelettes, Motown’s first chart-topping group, had been wavering as 1963 went on. As was so often the case, Motown’s response was to call in Smokey Robinson.
Somewhat unbelievably, this was only the second time Smokey had written a song for the Marvelettes (the first, I Think I Can Change You, had appeared on their 1962 LP Playboy and would be dusted off for use as a B-side more than four years later). He’d write and produce some of his best work for the group in the mid- and late-Sixties, but he’s on much shakier ground here, with what must surely be the most amateurish single by a major, big-name Motown act.
Oh, that’s not to say that it’s bad – no, no, not at all. The lyrics are very sweet, the tune – sketched out here in rudimentary form – has “hit single” written all over it, and the whole thing could probably have been a significant chart success given a fuller, more professional treatment.
Instead, it sounds like a demo, a first take; great yawning gaps open up like chasms all over the record, as if to mark out where a string or guitar part would go when everything was finished. It’s sparse, empty-sounding, and – in a very strange development for Smokey, of all people – badly produced. The Marvelettes’ backing vocals, always a hit-and-miss element on their records (when not being replaced wholesale by the Andantes) are left oddly exposed; their call-and-response parts sound awkward and cumbersome, as though the girls are being asked to fulfil parts that are outside their ranges, and the effect isn’t particularly nice.
That isn’t the worst of it. When the Marvelettes aren’t busy singing (sort of) in tune with the main vocal line (of which more later), they’re instead pumping out the nonsensical line Babaloo, babaloo / Babaloo, babaloo in a flat monotone, a recurring vocal tic which is clearly meant to both serve as the song’s killer hook and also to signify good-time girl group sassiness, but instead just comes across forced, embarrassing and lonely (most noticeably at 1:23 when only one of the girls remembers to do their first Babaloo on cue and is inexplicably left out to dry by the rest.) It’s not that it’s a bad idea, it just sounds like something a bunch of schoolfriends might have come up with while rehearsing in the cafeteria. Seriously, the first minute and a half of this record could easily have been a recording from that fabled Inkster high school talent contest when the group, then named the “Casinyets” – because they “couldn’t sing yet” – had originally won their Motown audition. Not because it’s rubbish (it isn’t), but because it sounds like a first draft.
Gladys Horton, so often the saving grace on so many early Marvelettes records, is left similarly isolated by the band for her lead vocals during the early part of the song, performing her verse lines almost acapella and the chorus lines augmented by the whole group in a primitive form of double-tracking that never quite comes off, whilst Wanda Young (who takes over towards the end) is given a more rounded, all-enveloping musical cloak in a failed attempt on Smokey’s part to bolster (or hide!) yet another shrill, grating lead. She’s getting better compared to the piercing falsetto stabs of early attempts like So Long Baby, but that’s only a relative improvement; this is certainly no Forever, and all those amazing late-Sixties Wanda-led records seem a very long way away. The listening public must have entertained similar doubts over the group’s future; although this scraped its way into the Top 50, the spectre of commercial irrelevance continued to loom large on the Marvelettes’ horizon.
It’s a real shame, because underneath it all, As Long As I Know He’s Mine is a good song done poorly, and not really done justice.
It all just sounds so unfinished. The instrumentation is minimal at best (handclaps and drums, upright bass, a slightly out-of-tune piano banging out extremely elementary two-note riffs), which could have been a devastatingly effective device, conveying a feeling of elegance and detached froideur, if this was that sort of song (Where Did Our Love Go being a perfect example). But it isn’t that sort of song at all – it’s very clearly meant to be a big girl group anthem. So instead of stately glamour, the sparseness of the rudimentary backing only conveys a feeling of a cheaply-done rush job; it’s just not ready.
Those astoundingly basic piano riffs (which frankly you, dear reader, could have played with equal proficiency), coming at the end of each chorus and seemingly only used to fill the dead air that otherwise serves as a bridge to the next verse, inadvertently highlight the song’s structure as well as bringing everything to a juddering halt. The worst moment, a terrible, jarring “truck driver’s key change” at 2:03, sucks the listener out of any reverie and right down to earth, its clunkingly mechanical nature calling attention away from the Marvelettes and on to the exposed underlying skeleton of the song. (Or vice versa; maybe the song’s undeveloped nature hangs a bell on that juddering key change which could have otherwise been artfully disguised).
Ach, it sounds like I’m savaging this. It’s not meant to come across that way; it is fundamentally a good song, such that the production and performances can’t ruin it, though not for want of trying. Even then, the musical backing gets better as the record comes towards its conclusion (fuller horns, more complex piano, lusher harmonies), and there’s a glimpse of how much better it could all have sounded. The lyrics – a sort of early riff on Mary Wells’ My Guy, also written by Smokey – see the narrator(s) expressing their undying devotion to their man, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, and it’s both romantic and charming. (He’s broke right now, but I don’t care / I try to make him feel like a millionaire / So what do I care if we don’t have a dime, as long as I know he’s mine? – that’s a lovely sentiment, beautifully expressed.) There’s a subtle subtext of defensiveness, perhaps in the face of her friends’ criticisms, a theme which will be explored in a very different way on the B-side. And there are hints of greatness scattered throughout – in particular, there’s a full-on Beach Boys bridge at 1:08 with all the girls singing in unison:
“Doesn’t matter if the wind don’t blow
Doesn’t matter if the snow don’t snow
As long as I know that he is mine
I ask you, what do I care if the sun don’t shine?”
…which reminds you just how great the Marvelettes could be when they were on their game. The stomping 4-bar repeated riff at the end of the final verse (Babaloo! Babaloo! Babaloo! Babaloo!, spat out like a recurring sample on a tape loop) is another excellent highlight.
The song is good, but the record isn’t. If they’d had another couple of weeks to work on this, it might have been spectacular; instead, it’s a missed opportunity, and showbiz never allows you too many of those.
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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