B-side of When I’m Gone
(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
According to the paperwork, Motown scheduled this single – catalogue number, B-side, release date, everything – long in advance, setting it up as the follow-up hit to My Guy before Mary Wells dropped the bombshell that she was leaving the label.
When discussing the topside, the impossibly cool When I’m Gone, we covered the reasons for Motown dropping it from the schedules pretty comprehensively. There’s an almost equally pressing question out there still unanswered, though – namely, who thought this was a good idea?
Like When I’m Gone, this was first released to the public on the Christmas 1966 odds-and-sods compilation LP Vintage Stock. That’s as far as the comparison goes between the two sides. When I’m Gone showcases Mary at her best, maturing all the time, laying down a great contralto vocal over the top of a taut and deliciously sparse backing. Guarantee is a throwback in every sense; the recording had been in the can for over a year by the summer of 1964, but it had been started even longer ago than that, several musical lifetimes ago back in September ’62 when the as-yet unproven new Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team were still finding their feet.
It’s not very good.
Nothing about Guarantee comes across as a good idea. In exactly the same way as the Marvelettes’ similarly-disheartening A Little Bit of Sympathy, A Little Bit of Love, it all feels unnaturally forced, as though everyone involved (and this goes for Mary, HDH, the band, the backing singers) knew they were making a bad song into a bad record but ploughed on regardless anyway.
The song features lonely single Mary seeking a boyfriend via a clunky metaphor which has her comparing herself to a market trader whose top product is love. It’s not a promising premise – the sales metaphor is tawdry given even a moment’s consideration, and the song’s big central motif – her proclamation that after too many years alone, she’s now slashing her prices to attract a quick sale (“Listen, hear what I say / It’s bargain day / And I’m giving away true love”) – isn’t any more flattering. Once we’ve gone past one chorus of this, you’re literally begging her to stop it – but the song’s so thin without the costermonger stuff that there’s no option but to grimly press on with an increasingly tired and shaky metaphor.
So, instead, we get the backing vocalists (I don’t know who they are on this one) playing a chorus of barrow girls trying to drum up business in a wonky, hard-to-understand chant (Who’ll take Mary’s love? It’s guaranteed for a lifetime!, the third-person reference to the singer a very early HDH attempt at “personalising” the song that ends up distancing her from the listener, quite the opposite of the desired effect). The whole thing makes Mary’s narrator seem like a pathetic, desperate character, willing to throw herself at the first man who comes along and declare unconditional, undying love. Consider how bad a song has to be to make a direct proposition to the listener from Mary Wells seem somehow unappealing.
It doesn’t even sound good, with no tune to speak of, and exceedingly rudimentary instrumentation in a pale and poorly-executed pastiche of Smokey Robinson’s then-current run of calypso-tinged midtempo Mary Wells hits. The whole thing should have been consigned to the dustbin long before it got near a studio, but the idea that the finished product was somehow passed as fit for release – and on a single Motown might reasonably have expected to go Top Ten, no less – is mind-boggling.
This is utter swill, and it’s only avoiding a (1) purely on the strength of Mary’s voice, which I could listen to all day. Even if the day in question is an off-day like this one.
(Here, it’s mostly a semi-spoken monologue, but there are enough hints of her throaty, passionate deliveries of Smokey’s songs that – even though she clearly knows she’s wasting effort on a poor song – she comes away with some credit, and actually tries hard to save the patently wretched thing. You’d be laughed out of town if you claimed this was anything like her best work, but at least she’s trying to make it work.)
Otherwise, it’s crass and tacky in every possible sense, and Mary comes across as already too dignified for this sort of thing.
Unlike the A-side, there would be no revisiting of Guarantee by any other artists once Mary had left the label. Motown have been proven to hold vaults full of hidden treasures, but amid the excitement that a great new find always brings, it’s always worth remembering that some records remain unreleased for a reason. Quite how or why as rotten an example as this came so close to being rescued from obscurity is still anyone’s guess.
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 Mary Wells? Click for more.)
“When I’m Gone”
|The Four Tops
“Baby I Need Your Loving”