B-side of My Guy
B-side of My Guy
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Stateside Records)
If the A-side, the eternal My Guy, was Mary Wells’ crowning achievement, then this demented, wide-eyed, and utterly, utterly brilliant record – which turns out to be the unexpected equal of the big hit – is the lasting glory of the career of Andre Williams.
I almost don’t have the words to describe how great Oh Little Boy is, especially if you’ve not heard it before. (Note I said “almost”. You don’t get off the hook that easily. Though I’ll try and keep under the 2,000 word mark this time.)
This is the past and the future of all pop music, stirred in a great big pot by a certified loon, thrown at Mary Wells to interpret, and all in less than three minutes. The very first couple of seconds give the listener some kind of fair warning as to what’s about to happen: the Andantes, augmented on this occasion by Liz Lands, no less, strike up an offbeat, out-of-key chant of “Sh-bop sh-bop!”, a direct lift from the Flamingos’ equally otherworldly I Only Have Eyes For You (and just as out of place on this record as on that one), calling up a world now already disappearing: sock hops, soda fountains, class rings, the golden age of doo-wop. But where the Flamingos’ record uses the weirdness to create a surreal, dreamlike, floating atmosphere, here it’s just deliberately jarring, reflecting the fractured mental state of the narrator.
Oh, the narrator. Mary Wells, already one of the finest actresses in pop music, plays a woman who’s been unceremoniously dumped and is having trouble staying on the right side of crazy. (The aforementioned Andre Williams, who co-wrote and produced this, was and is proudly on the wrong side of crazy, making him an inspired choice to chair this one.) Williams coaxes a brilliant performance out of Mary, dramatically and vocally; her voice is just out of this world on this one, by turns throaty, menacing, off the beat, flat, semi-spoken, semi-spat, alternately self-reliant and helplessly pleading, playing off the backing vocals to invent her own vocal line that has nothing to do with the rest of the tune… it’s not only presaging stuff like Aretha’s Respect but also the likes of Kelis or even Missy Elliott:
A carton of cigarettes
And a tear every now and then
Gives me some relief…
It’s never less than totally captivating. Totally believable, too; Mary’s acting talent I’ve already referenced, but there’s also the music to consider, which completely reflects the subject matter in hand, always veering somewhere between defiant spite and complete mental collapse, Williams keeping the tone just right for whatever emotion the song happens to call for at that precise moment, in the most advanced and natural synthesis of form and function Motown had ever seen.
The chorus is just outstanding, Mary half a beat behind the operatically-enhanced Andantes, letting them carry the woozy, swooning tune while she just toasts over the top of it all, spitting out her words one syllable at a time in something almost approximating rap. “You’re gonna want me back and it’s gonna be too late now here’s what I’m gonna tell you I’m gonna say no no no”, she barks, as we sit and listen, mouths agape.
Most great pop hits would be satisfied there with a job well done, but not this one – so when we’ve already had that chorus twice, Williams and Wells have one more trick up their sleeve for us to really set the tone once and for all. The narrator’s finally lost the plot, the lead vocal disappears, the drums ramp up, mariachi horns kick in; now, for the last time, enter Liz Lands, battering high C for a full six seconds (from 1:50 to 1:56), her single greatest contribution to any Motown record, a miniature aria that sums up the narrator’s mental breakdown and, somehow, fits the song like a glove. “Explosive” doesn’t cover it – the visual image it conjures up is something more akin to that stock footage of the house being destroyed by a nuclear blast.
(And while searching for said stock footage on Youtube, I found this impossibly messed-up Fifties public safety film, which starts out trying to give sensible advice but ends up just showing things being blown up for no reason, and which is pretty much exactly what this record is like. But I digress. (Gee, you think? – The Readers)).
There’s so much to love here. The drums on the heavy beat as if the world’s about to end, the jangling, detuned guitars that sound as if there’s something broken somewhere in the mix, the blurry rhythm that feels somehow intoxicated, the two almost but not quite totally separate vocal lines dovetailing with almost surgical precision yet giving the chaotic impression of a jumbled, off-the-cuff screed of passion… this is a record you can listen to a hundred times and still get something new out of it on the 101st play.
Motown’s best ever B-side, and – even in light of the perfect pop precision of My Guy – quite possibly Mary Wells’ best ever record. A genuine masterpiece, and a fitting end to a bunch of brilliant careers.
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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