(Same song pressed on both sides)
(Written by Lee Alan and Clarence Paul)
I’ve been having a lot of fun writing all of these little reviews for Motown Junkies, but every now and again something crops up to remind me I’m an outside observer, rather than someone who grew up with these records when they were made. I’m British, and I was born at the end of the Seventies, and while I don’t subscribe to the notion that you need to somehow prove your credentials to qualify as being worthy of talking about pop music (I believe you just need to feel strongly about something), I can’t claim to have been there when it happened.
Case in point: I have no idea who Lee Alan is. Or rather, I know who he is, but nothing beyond dry words in a biography. I never tuned in to his show, I don’t know anything about his style; I’ll have to rely on you to fill in the gaps, readers, because I’ve never heard him beyond the confines of this weird little novelty charity single.
WXYZ Radio, as I understand it, was one of the big movers in the Detroit area media, and Motown had already tried to curry their favour once before, resulting in a wretched pair of sides by Joel Sebastian back in 1961, Angel In Blue and the inexplicable Blue Cinderella, the whole exercise quickly and deservedly forgotten. But by 1964, the label had had plenty of hits and could afford to expend a bit of cash to join in the fun, raise some money for the YMCA Summer Camp Fund and further integrate themselves into the fabric of Detroit’s natural cultural landscape. Thus it came to pass that Alan, one of WXYZ’s top DJs, pitched up at Hitsville to work with hotshot writer/producer Clarence Paul on this “zany” oddity.
So, Lee Alan. From my foreign outsider perspective 50-odd years later, I’m guessing he was a big deal in Detroit radio in the Sixties, and – if I’m understanding the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 4 correctly – his show, titled Lee Alan On The Horn, featured as its gimmick a parping klaxon-like blast of an actual horn tooted between records or to underline some freshly-performed wacky shenanigans.
I’m guessing this had been going on for long enough to become Alan’s personal schtick, his particular “thing”, a joke known widely enough in Detroit circles to carry a charity record. This, then, is the (in-character) backstory of that horn, and how it came to – yes! – “set him free”. Any time he – or you, the listener – feels miserable, a quick blast on the titular horn will make everything right again.
Alan has absolutely no singing ability whatsoever, but – like Joel Sebastian before him – he doesn’t want to stick to a spoken word delivery, ending up with another quirky monologue featuring up-and-down Shatneresque diction. (He could, of course, just be playing this for laughs.)
The aforementioned liner notes have Alan recalling a veritable cadre of Motown superstars appearing on this thing – the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye – and my initial reaction was a quizzically raised eyebrow and a patronising “yes, of course they were”, writing off these recollections as an old man’s memory playing tricks. Except! Those definitely are the Vandellas in the background (identifiable even before you see they’re named on the label, which miscredits them as “the Vendellas”, tsk), so… who knows? Maybe it really is Gaye on piano, Wonder on drums and Robinson parping the titular horn? Perhaps Alan was popular enough that Motown’s top talent were happy to get involved? (Note, though, that the Motown name doesn’t appear anywhere on the record; either WXYZ and the YMCA didn’t want to promote the Motown brand, or Gordy was apparently still hesitant about tainting his main product line with these back-scratching curios.)
It’s all good-natured and self-mockingly silly, and the Vandellas’ backing vocals are lots of fun (mostly Martha & Co. going Ohhh, beep beep beep! a lot, which is entertaining in itself, but check out the bit where they float in with the lines Your honey don’t want you at 1:18, which is a magical passage regardless of what setting it’s ended up in). There’s a demented joy in this record that can’t be suppressed; sax, piano, even Alan himself, they’re all really going for it.
In the debit column, the supposed “fine tone” of the horn (“from Pakistan”, no less) we’re being told about is restricted to a series of jarringly flat one-note raspberries, a silly joke which is not only annoying in its own right but also serves to remind us all we’re listening to a daffy throwaway comedy record, earning cheap short-term sniggers at the expense of any long-term replay value. (I’m assuming Alan plugged this a lot on his own show, but I’m also going to guess it got old fairly quickly after the listeners had heard it the first three or four times.) Plus, Alan can’t sing for toffee, so I’m loath to mark this as high as I might if he wasn’t actually on it.
Confusing and irritating, undeniably, but not as bad as it could have been (or as it’s maybe trying to be); it’s actually sneakily likeable in its own annoying little way.
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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