(Written by Smokey Robinson)
(Released in the UK under license through Stateside Records)
A stark illustration of how fast things were moving at Motown during the glorious spring of 1964, I’ll Be In Trouble is also a cautionary tale about what happens if you sit still while everyone around you keeps moving forward.
Only three months had passed since the Temptations’ big breakthrough single, The Way You Do The Things You Do, had been released, and yet where that one had been a giant step for both Motown and the group in terms of quality and pop craft, this likeable but slight follow-up has a whiff of stagnation about it.
It’s not the exact same song as The Way You Do The Things You Do – it’s just very similar, and definitely not as good.
The public saw through it, the record stalling outside the pop Top 30 and the R&B Top 20. Strangely, you get the feeling everyone involved knew it, too. Smokey Robinson, who wrote and produced both singles, had come to specialise in penning tunes and lyrics that suited his vocalists’ voices, and he’d also become a dab hand at doing vocal charts for the Tempts that unlocked the group’s amazing harmonies, something which had eluded most of the group’s producers over two long, lean, hitless years. Yet this one sounds like a step backwards; everything about this record is slightly off in some way, right from the start. The opening lines, taken by the whole group at the start of each line and leaving Eddie Kendricks to finish solo –
ALL: If you decide to make me blue…
EDDIE: …I’ll be in trouble!
ALL: If you decide to be untrue…
EDDIE: …I’ll be in trouble!
– are an uncomfortable callback to the slightly raw, slightly awkward harmonies of earlier, pre-stardom Temptations cuts like Slow Down Heart or The Further You Look, The Less You See – which is to say they’re good, but not as good as we’ve now heard this group sound.
Matters aren’t helped by Eddie’s very audible difficulties with the tune. Kendricks’ high falsetto was both an asset and a burden for any canny producer; he was able to hit notes no other male Motown vocalist could manage, but he also needed careful stage-management lest he go swooping off above the stave in an uncontrolled shriek. A potent force, if you could only control it. Smokey seemed to have mastered The Eddie Question on The Way You Do The Things You Do, but here he seems to be struggling to get the right performance out of the Thin Man, and so (according to Otis Williams in the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 4) he resorts to the old Motown trick of deliberately pitching a track outside a vocalist’s natural range.
But Smokey should have known the one vocalist you never try that shit with is Eddie Kendricks, considering Robinson was all too aware what might happen. The gamble didn’t blow up in Smokey’s face, but nor did it pay off; Otis describes the resulting performance as “sounding a little squeaky”, which is about right – it’s not terrible, Eddie has matured as a vocalist over these last few months, but it’s a lead vocal that sails really close to the wind in terms of keeping it together.
That’s the main feeling I get from listening to this, actually – how it all sounds so close to collapsing in on itself, how you half-expect to hear Smokey’s voice at any point saying “Okay, cut, cut, let’s try another one, guys”. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – there’s a kind of nervous energy about this that suffuses the record, but it’s the adrenaline of not quite balancing properly on a tightrope, rather than the orgasmic sugar rush of the best Motown hits. The slightly shambolic aura that surrounds the track – the sound of a lack of preparation masked by sheer force of will – extends even to the band, the guitar in the opening bars sounding slightly detuned, almost intoxicated.
To the great credit of both Smokey and the Temptations, they contrive to carve something out of the shambles. The tune is a thinly-veiled rewrite of The Way You Do The Things You Do, reprising most of the best bits from that record but in the wrong order and with much less charm, but there’s no denying it’s still catchy. The middle eight, a vocal duel which sounds like it came from a white rock/pop song from two years later, is an extraordinary new ingredient and the second best bit of the record:
(bom bom bom!)
I’ll do everything I can to make you stay
Keep you by my side
(By my side, baby!)
‘Cos I love you in such a way
(That… [IMPOSSIBLY DEEP MELVIN FRANKLIN BASS GROWL])
(if anyone knows what Blue is actually singing there, do let me know)
That bit always raises a smile, but the best bit of the record comes just short of the two-minute mark, with a rousing horn break and a riveting sax solo, where the band suddenly tighten everything up and lock into their groove. It doesn’t last, but it’s all kinds of fun while it’s there.
So, all in all, despite some rough edges there’s plenty to like and enjoy here – it just doesn’t feel like the next step for this group, or indeed like any kind of step from The Way You Do The Things You Do at all. And this was a bad time to be resting on your laurels; Martha and the Vandellas had already found that repeating the same trick brought diminishing returns, but doing it while the rest of the Tempts’ labelmates were progressing at such incredible speed was the height of folly. They couldn’t do this trick a third time.
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 The Temptations? Click for more.)
“Just Ain’t Enough Love”
“The Girl’s Alright With Me”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
Listen to all past episodes here.