(Written by Howard Hausey)
With the release of The Complete Motown Singles box sets, not only do all the weird outlying Motown side projects, apocrypha and ephemera finally get reunited in one place, all jumbled together under their eclectic, money-chasing umbrella, but some of them get rehabilitated too.
This can only happen with dedication, by breaking the massive box sets into manageable chunks and finding the time to enjoy them on a smaller scale. Listening to any given volume of TCMS from start to finish is a strangely consistent experience. For the first disc or so, the effect is incredible. The hits shine brighter than ever before. The previously overlooked, now given equal air time and a platform on a par with the stuff that’s been reissued 15 times, gets a chance to make its case for further investigation. Hidden gems come to the surface. If the right mood catches you, you can fall in love with something you’ve never even heard before.
But the human brain can’t absorb all this new information all at once. The TCMS sets are arranged chronologically, and so by the time we get to around June each year, you’re no longer paying attention as closely as you were. Your attention might wander, piqued by the familiar (or the loud, or the awful), but it’s not quite the same. August, and tracks start passing by unnoticed because you were checking your e-mails, or making a coffee.
When winter starts to loom, when we get to the final disc, it’s all too easy to start looking forward to the end; you know you’re not listening properly any more, you know there are good things coming out of the speakers, but it’s like a rich dessert coming straight after a delicious, extremely filling meal. You might have been in the mood for it two courses ago, now it’s just sort of there. Confronted with the raft of annoying novelty turns Motown chased listeners’ dollars with in those uncertain early years, or the sheer volume of material from the mid-Sixties Golden Age, or the truckloads of alternate mixes and stereo versions that litter the later Seventies instalments, it can be mighty tempting to start skipping tracks. Which brings us, in a very roundabout way, to The Big Wheel.
I was absolutely expecting this to snap the very high standard of releases we’ve had over the last few entries. As Motown got its act together, commercially and artistically, in the second half of 1963 and the first half of 1964, the number of outright duffers drops dramatically. The few real clunkers tend to come from the side project ventures – most notably Mel-o-dy Records, now firmly established as Motown’s country & western subsidiary, run by Al Klein out of Dallas. This was the first record Mel-o-dy had released in over six months, and copies are unbelievably rare, leading it to be listed in many discographies as unreleased.
I’ve previously referred to Howard Crockett – the stage name of one Howard Hausey, a great songwriter in his own right on the Fifties country and rockabilly scenes who also dabbled as a performer – as a supermarket own-brand Johnny Cash, and I stick by that assessment. Neither as cold, nor as sincere, nor as sympathetic as Cash, and certainly not as cool, Crockett’s solo material tends to fall into what I’d call the tackier side of country music: cheesy posturing, cheesy chords, cheesy lyrical platitudes, cheesy vocal tricks, cheesy heavy-handed religious imagery, cheesy emotional blackmail, cheesy everything.
The intro here, plinky-plonky banjo and parping horns giving way to tinkly xylophone and irritatingly jaunty guitar, is deeply unimpressive, and that was enough for me; it’s actually track 102 on The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 3, meaning that until today, I’d never once managed to get past the first few bars of this record before my survival instinct kicked in. SKIP!
More fool me. This turns out to be, actually, somewhat unbelievably, pretty good.
Yeah, I know, I was surprised too. But hear me out.
Crockett’s Johnny Cash impression is the very first thing to spring to mind here: he gives a lower, grizzlier, less melodic delivery than usual, and it suits the material down to the ground. The song is a jaunty bout of schadenfreude, a massive “I tried to warn you, you didn’t listen, and now you’re screwed” set to a toe-tapping beat; if Crockett had tried to sing along with this, it would have been ghastly. Instead, he adopts the same detached semi-snarling sneer as the best of Cash’s late-Fifties and early-Sixties recordings, and immediately raises the bar.
Well you were born a poor man, then you got to be a rich man – but you wound up a poor man again / They caught you layin’ the green (among other things!), and when you lay that green, you gotta make that scene, big wheel…
I’m speechless, but he’s actually engaging. The little smirk in his aside – “among other things!” – is genuinely likeable. I was completely unprepared for this.
The chorus, with its maddeningly jaunty rhythm, mariachi horns, high, soft female backing vocals and repetitive singalong lyrics – Yeah, the lights / Are gonna shine / Across that track tonight / Yeah the lights / Are gonna shine / Across that track tonight – should be enough to knock this back down to where I was expecting it to be, but somehow even that can’t damage the record; instead, it turns out to be excellent, a direct lift from the sea chantey A Drop of Nelson’s Blood, and the hint of malice in Crockett’s monotone drawl suits it perfectly.
Crockett’s normally avuncular, even cuddly personality is entirely absent from this, which wins big plaudits from me. His lack of chirpiness takes the whole record by the scruff of the neck, sanding the edges off what would otherwise come across as, well, cheesy. A good example of how Crockett’s attack raises everybody’s game comes during the instrumental break, with its bouncy brass and bashed tambourine, which now seems to just say “Told you so!” rather than “Please skip me!”.
No, this is unexpectedly entertaining – for the right reasons, rather than any kind of ironic value, and all the more pleasant since I’d never actually sat down and listened to the thing before. Yes, it’s cheesy and jaunty and silly, but it’s also undeniably good, a possibility I was completely unprepared for going in. I was gearing up for a proper hatchet job on this, but it’ll have to wait for some other poor unsuspecting record instead; this one’s fine by me.
Man, I hope all the other Mel-o-dy country sides are this much fun.
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.
(Or maybe you’re only interested in Howard Crockett? Click for more.)
“Come On Home”
“That Silver Haired Daddy Of Mine”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
Listen to all past episodes here.