b/w Come On Home
(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
First things first, before we get to talking about the elephant in the room that is Phil Spector: These aren’t the Marvelettes under a pseudonym. Not really, anyway. “The Darnells” were a made-up group, yes, featuring Gladys Horton of the Marvelettes on lead, backed up by Louvain Demps, Marlene Barrow and Jackie Hicks – the immortal Andantes. Now, on a lot of Motown records credited to a group (the Supremes being the best-known example), the Andantes would fill in on backing vocals in place of the actual group members. Be it for logistical reasons (the group themselves might be out touring, say), or as an artistic improvement, it was usually a rather effective strategy, if also somewhat morally ambiguous. So to that extent, this is as much a Marvelettes record as some of their official singles. But it’s not, strictly speaking, the Marvelettes; if anything, Motown was being surprisingly honest in noting this was a different group.
Why use the made-up name at all? That comes back to Phil Spector. Anything you ever read about this record has his name in it somewhere. This is a Phil Spector knock-off. It sounds like something Phil Spector would have made. It sounds like a lot of the records co-written and produced by Phil Spector. Phil Spector, Phil Spector, Phil Spector, Phil Spector. Blah blah blah blah blah.
Truth is, yes, this is a Spector pastiche. (A “Wall of Soundalike”, to use the excellent term coined by someone wittier than me.) The Crystals’ superb Then He Kissed Me was riding high in the charts, and Motown – still searching for its musical identity – latched on to a trend. Holland-Dozier-Holland, the company’s hotshot rising stars of songwriting, were given a stack of Philles singles by Berry Gordy together with a simple brief: write me some of those.
Or at least, I’m assuming that’s what happened. Either that, or HDH independently decided to go off on a Spector kick at the end of 1963; they were certainly somewhat obsessed, turning in a number of new songs very much in the Spector/Greenwich/Barry style, of which this is the most blatant but by no means the only example we’ll see. Either way, it’s fascinating.
The really interesting thing about this little phase is not that HDH were aping Spector’s style so closely – Gordy didn’t want to miss out on sales, end of conversation – or even that they did it well. (And they did: Gladys and the Andantes here sound more like the Ronettes than the Crystals, but it’s an extremely well-executed clone all the same.)
No, the remarkable thing is that they were so immediately good at it. Tasked, either by Motown or by themselves, with writing something in the Brill Building mode and producing it in the Wall of Sound style, they proved straight away they were up to the challenge. This is in the first rank of the droves of Spector pastiches that clogged the shelves in 1963, done with an obvious innate understanding of almost all of Spector’s bag of tricks and an inherent respect for a fellow genius producer.
It follows, then, that – having satisfied themselves, over the course of 3 or 4 records, that they could “do” Spector – HDH could now tick that off their to-do list, and move on to finding their own sound. (Ironically, this sound would become so immediately identifiable that Spector himself would have a snide and completely unnecessary dig at Motown’s expense, accusing them of releasing the same record every week with slightly different lyrics. Pot, meet kettle.) Early-Sixties Phil Spector should be a part of anyone’s musical education, not to mention their record collection, but HDH could rip him off pretty much effortlessly, and by the time this was released they would already be thinking about moving on.
Anyway. The record. It’s plenty good; if it’s nowhere near as strong a song as Then He Kissed Me, missing the heart-swelling string parts and replacing joy and anticipation with anguish and weary self-reflection, well, it’s actually quite a bit more dynamic than its obvious “inspiration”, HDH having the advantage of the Funk Brothers in their corner. The galloping rhythm and horns are as engaging as on the Crystals’ record, sounding crystal clear (no pun intended) rather than muddy and echo-drenched, while Gladys Horton – given the sort of uptempo workout she hadn’t had in at least a year – sounds fantastic to boot.
This could easily have been used to kickstart a Marvelettes revival, the group’s career having recently stalled after a string of underwhelming singles, and with hindsight it would have made a fun addition to their catalogue. But Berry Gordy was rightly cautious. Perhaps not wishing to yoke his one time golden geese to what turned out to be a passing fad, a very different kind of sound to what Marvelettes fans had come to expect, or perhaps just wanting to disassociate the Marvelettes’ recent relative flops from a fresh new Brill Building girl group record, he kept this away from the Marvelettes’ legacy, releasing it on Gordy Records rather than Tamla (the home of the Marvelettes since 1961), even though the change of name probably precluded any live promotional appearances taking place. (I’d be interested to know if the Marvelettes ever performed this song live, actually.)
Right in the middle of their annus mirabilis in 1965, the Supremes turned in their own capable cover of the song, although it wasn’t used for anything – presumably Motown felt its time had passed.
Plenty of fun, both a fascinating little diversion from the course of the Motown story and a fleeting glimpse into an alternate universe, but its greatest value is that it allowed HDH to both match themselves against the best, and get it out of their systems. This proved they could have had comfortable careers in the Brill Building; now they were free to get on with altogether more ambitious business.
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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“Another Train Coming”
“Come On Home”
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