b/w Sad Boy
(Written by Dorsey Burnette and Gerald Nelson)
The A-side was depressing because it seemed to indicate a stagnation in Stevie Wonder’s career that Motown were happy to endorse. This B-side is also depressing, but in a rather different way – it’s a morose little song about heartbreak, self-doubt and suicide, backed with all sorts of movie trappings (flurries of horns and Debussy strings and twanging bass and stately drums) even though it’s not actually from a movie.
A cover of an earlier Dorsey Burnette number (not available on Youtube at the time of writing, sorry!) that Dorsey brought with him to Motown and sold to Jobete, this is yet another Stevie side lifted from his LP Stevie At The Beach. You’d say that the choice of material here shows some real ambition, that it redeems the conservatism of the Fingertips-soundalike A-side by allowing Stevie a chance to showcase his newfound maturity and leave that “Little Stevie” tag behind, except that it only appears to have been chosen because the lyrics talk about sandcastles and the seaside and stuff.
It’s a beautiful little melody, but it’s almost hysterically melodramatic, Stevie playing the role of the titular sad boy, pining for some girl, watching his sandcastle get swept out to sea and seeing it as a metaphor, and ending the song in terribly downbeat fashion:-
The tide came rushing in
Took my poor castle out to the sea
If the ocean be that strong
Well then, that’s where I wanna be
When she reads in the paper
That this sad, sad boy has drowned
Will she laugh with him and say
“That funny clown?”
Happy good-time surf party music, there, marvellous. He’s clearly got some serious mental problems, this narrator, but somehow with Stevie singing it, it sounds like a puffed-up empty threat from a passive-aggressive moping teen who’s just slammed his bedroom door. Not that youngsters can’t feel pain, just that Stevie’s voice – noticeably more mature than on earlier efforts, but still painfully uneven in its mid-break wavering – doesn’t carry it over.
The worst bits of this aren’t to do with the gloopy self-pity of the song, but rather Stevie’s technical (in)ability to hit and hold a high note. Some of it’s really awful, verging on painful – when he tries to vamp his way out of the song at the very end, stretching the word clown into an anguished cry that extends over several lines, it ends up sounding exactly like the theme music from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (you know the bit I mean – AIEEE-YA-YA-YA-YA! Which hadn’t actually been written yet, so for all I know this is where Ennio Morricone got the idea…)
Again, though, as with the A-side, it’s not completely terrible. The attempt, however inadvertent, for Stevie to tackle a more “mature” record is fascinating, and for all the rest of its faults, there’s not a hint of novelty packaging here – this one is definitely meant to sound grown up. That it doesn’t, and that his vocals compare poorly with other young teenage Motown singers (like Carolyn Crawford, for instance, or Cal Gill of the Velvelettes), is something Stevie can’t really do anything about just yet.
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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