(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
(Released in the UK under license through Stateside Records)
How do you follow up a massive hit single? If you worked for Motown, you’d answer without hesitation: “Why, with a record that sounds almost exactly the same, of course!” And so Quicksand has gone down in history as an exercise in the art of the commercial retread; the Motown house band, the Funk Brothers, were so amused they referred to this song as “Son of Heat Wave“.
Indeed, when discussing Quicksand, that’s pretty much all anyone ever talks about. Ooh, it sounds like Heat Wave, only not as good. Well, yes, it does, but not as much as people have made out. Also, nobody ever seems to mention the Supremes’ barrelling Spector pastiche When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes, to which this is also rather similar, and which holds the true key to explaining what’s going on here.
The Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team – who’d crafted Heat Wave back in the spring of ’63 – had moved on to a new thing, where aping Phil Spector and his writing partners was the name of the game. The result was a glut of Motown “Wall of Soundalikes” in the fall and winter of 1963, as HDH first tried out their Spector impersonations, then perfected them, then improved upon them, and finally left them behind in search of new ideas. Meanwhile, the time for a follow-up to Heat Wave was fast approaching. HDH, tasked – as per Motown policy – with following up their own hit, combined a bit of what they’d previously done for Martha and the Vandellas with a bit of what they were currently doing for the Supremes, the Darnells etc., and this was the result.
It’s easy to forget that for all their meteoric rise and imperious success during 1963, this was only Martha and the Vandellas’ fourth single. That it’s the first Vandellas record not to be better than its predecessor is just an unfortunate quirk of history; anyone would have struggled to follow Heat Wave. In fact, despite its cribbing from earlier and better records, Quicksand is still a very fine pop/R&B stomper in its own right, and its relentless pounding – emphasised by some brilliant thudding drum breaks and a growling, ominous bass loop running throughout the song, both new to the mix – gives it a different feel to Heat Wave, the differences between the two songs becoming more and more pronounced with each subsequent listen.
I’m not suggesting it doesn’t still sound an awful lot like Heat Wave, just that this is a subtly different record to its predecessor. And it’s a good one, too; it’s just not as good as Heat Wave, but that’s hardly a crime.
People don’t seem to love it, though, perhaps because it’s still too close to an obviously better record everyone had already bought. It’s almost identical in structure to the earlier hit, opening with the best part of a verse and chorus before Martha even appears (though this time the other Vandellas are there at the start, cooing attractively), whilst riding the band’s creativity through the whole record, most noticeably the freewheeling sax riffs lifted almost verbatim from Heat Wave. At first blush, the lyrics, too, smack of a hasty rewrite: instead of love being like a heat wave, it’s now like quicksand; instead of blowing you away, it’s sucking you in.
Now, on closer examination, that’s an important change of metaphors, a passive, sapping force of attraction in place of an explosive, violent rush. Perhaps that change pervades the song, too; certainly Martha isn’t as good here as she usually is, flatter and less impassioned than on previous outings, apparently resigned to her fate rather than fighting or celebrating it. (When she actually sings The more I fight it, the deeper in love I get, the song’s opening line, it doesn’t sound as though she’s fighting particularly hard.)
The rest of the lyrics are an oddly depressing experience, too, a thousand miles away from the joyous rush of Heat Wave (Each time you hold me, I feel nothing but emptiness… It’s not safe loving you this way… My heart is a prisoner of your warm embrace… You’re like quicksand, sinking me deeper, deeper in love with you…) Martha’s delivery isn’t yet coming from the same heartbreaking lovelorn place that she’ll show later in the Sixties on some of the Vandellas’ masterpieces of love gone wrong, and so it comes as something of a surprise to note that this is a song of resigned melancholy rather than euphoric celebration, and thus not really the same thing as Heat Wave at all. Certainly it’s a far more specific, far less universal sentiment being expressed, although it didn’t seem to harm it in the charts (number 8 on both the pop and R&B lists).
The music, though, is full of energy, and can’t help but grab your attention (especially when, in a most unexpected move, everything suddenly drops away leaving just the drums to pound away for four bars), and the rollicking horns imported from When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes keep everything moving along in intoxicating fashion. If dancefloors were looking for another Heat Wave, this would have fit the bill perfectly.
Ultimately, I’m put in mind of Mary Wells’ Two Lovers, wondering what I’d make of this if I hadn’t heard its more famous predecessor. Would I have been as intoxicated by this as I was when Martha struck up by singing Whenever I’m with him, something inside / Starts to burning, and I’m filled with desire / Could it be / A devil in me / or is this the way love’s supposed to be?
In this case, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t. This just isn’t as good a record as Heat Wave; different enough to justify its own existence, it’s both a perfectly adequate sequel and a fun little Vandellas single in its own right, but they’d come down from a whole other plane in order to make it.
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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