b/w Mr. Lonely Heart
(Written by Al Capps)
Motown’s West Coast office has been quiet for a while here on Motown Junkies, and so it was with more than a little interest that I came to the first release on VIP Records for six months. The LA studio, under the direction of Hal Davis and Marc Gordon, was building a reputation for turning out quirky records, and so I hoped for more surprises.
I got my wish. Here, Oma Heard, already a veteran of several California groups and labels, later auditioned as a potential duet partner for Marvin Gaye (but unfortunately miscredited as “Oma Page” – a completely different Motown vocalist – when those shelved Marvin and Oma recordings eventually surfaced in the Nineties, according to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 4), turns up at Motown and delivers… a chaotic, stumbling semi-cover of the Beatles’ Please Please Me. Which I honestly wasn’t expecting. VIP Records: never a predictable moment.
There’s an interesting conversation to be had here about perceptions of cultural appropriation, which I’m not going to get into right now; the gist is that the British Invasion had been built largely on white European beat groups taking black American influences, repackaging them and then selling them back to the US public, and so it makes a kind of sense for Motown to be involved in repackaging that and selling it again, positioning this record as part of a potential lengthy dialogue of influences. That never happened, firstly because this record isn’t all that good, and secondly because nobody heard it. It’s marked as unreleased in some discographies; a few sources (including Motown themselves, convincingly) insist that a tiny trickle of copies did supposedly make it to market (though “tiny” is no misnomer – we’re possibly talking a couple of boxes, tops, by some accounts), but if there were copies for sale, they didn’t actually sell.
Certainly it’s more creditable than Motown’s previous attempt at Beatlesque bandwagon-jumping – the Hornets’ abominable take on I Want To Hold Your Hand, Give Me A Kiss – but not by that much. Without looking it up, I don’t even know if Please Please Me, the Fabs’ second UK single, was even released as a 45 in America, and if so whether it was done much later as with Love Me Do, but either way it’s a good year and a half behind the curve.
It’s hugely sloppy too, Oma tripping over a series of difficult vocal cues (words and even syllables broken over successive lines, others stuffed back-to-back where they don’t belong) while choppy guitars and flailing harmonica breaks cut across her lines. The lyrics sound like a Beatles song that’s been translated into Uzbek, then back to English, then back to Uzbek, then back to English again, resulting in a rambling, almost meaningless pastiche of Lennon/McCartney lyrics:
Kiss me again and make the stars-shine-for…
I just wanna hear you say
That you ad-ore…
Try to understand
Take me by the hand…
But if there’s someone elseonyourmind
I’ll hangarounduntil the end of time
For you for you I do I do I do
…and as with the Hornets’ effort, in a bid to avoid a copyright infringement suit, the tune has to be mangled so that it’s just different enough to get away with – but it’s at the cost of sucking most of the life and joy out of the Beatles’ record.
For non-Beatle nuts, Please Please Me was written after their UK label Parlophone threatened to impose an outside song – Mitch Murray’s How Do You Do It?, later taken to Number One by Gerry and the Pacemakers – on the young group for their second single, unless the then-unknown Lennon and McCartney came up with something better of their own. As a result, Please Please Me positively buzzes with desperate energy, killer hooks thrown in left right and centre. Lifetime Man has to mung all of those hooks so as not to fall foul of outright ripping off the Beatles – a couple of extra syllables here, a couple of notes changed there – and each time it takes away from the song’s core of joyful abandon. It simply isn’t anywhere near as good a song as Please Please Me – which is a shame, because on the evidence of this, Oma Heard could have nailed a straight cover.
Oma herself comes out of this with way, way more credit than the material deserves; her delivery, even as she’s being almost deliberately tripped up by the chaotic quickfire scansion and clumsy arrangement, is superb, and it’s no exaggeration to say she does just about as well as anyone could possibly do with this. She sounds like a Beatle fan having a great time, rather than someone being grimly press-ganged into recording a cash-in, and so I’m inclined to look kindly on the whole thing.
It’s not just Oma that seems to “get” what was great about the Beatles’ original, even if they can’t really reproduce it. The harmonica player and the drummer (both unidentified) are also clearly having quite a blast with it, picking up the thread of careless joy that runs through Please Please Me (which is itself a very clumsy, stumbling sort of record, I shouldn’t forget) and conveying some of that atmosphere here to make up for the hammy lyrics and second-rate knockoff tune. The producers (the aforementioned Davis and Gordon) get it too, encouraging everyone to just have some fun; on that note, Oma’s Little Richard Whooooo! is top drawer, and worth an extra mark all by itself.
Don’t take this as a recommendation – despite Oma’s best efforts, at the end of the day it’s still a pointless, half-baked curio – but at least it’s been done with obvious enthusiasm (if not any great skill or care), and that’s almost always enough to melt my heart a little. Not fantastic, but everyone sounds like they had fun making it. As cack-handed stabs at Beatlemania go, this is definitely one of the better ones.
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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“Mr. Lonely Heart”
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