b/w Ask Any Girl
(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
b/w Ask Any Girl
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Stateside Records)
Pop music is fickle. The magnificent big break can happen to anyone if the cards fall right – it’s following up that’s the real trick. History is littered with one-hit wonders, destined to forever be remembered for that one shining moment.
There’s an excellent running joke on Soulful Detroit, which involves pretending this song is a seldom-heard Northern Soul rarity, a clandestine treasure shared secretly by collectors in the know. A new Supremes compilation CD coming out? “Ooh, I hope they include obscure and hard-to-find tracks like Baby Love!” What’s your favourite Supremes song? “You might not know it, but I really like Baby Love – it’s a shame you never hear it on the radio!” And so on.
The joke works, of course, because this, the Supremes’ follow-up, is the most overplayed of all Motown records. I mean, that lost tribe they found deep in the Amazon rainforest a few years ago have probably heard Baby Love by now. As I said when we were discussing the Supremes’ aforementioned big breakthrough hit, Where Did Our Love Go, Baby Love has become a kind of default Motown record. It’s a go-to choice, not just for DJs, but for many listeners too, a musical synecdoche standing for all of the Supremes’ sixteen years of recorded output – and for every other Motown act as well, popping up whenever the label’s name is mentioned. For better or worse, in the minds of many fans, Baby Love IS Motown.
In the midst of all this, the average listener having gone through their lives already exposed to something approaching saturation coverage, it’s easy to forget the most important thing about Baby Love: it’s a great record. A killer pop song that ladles out its emotional punches in precisely-weighed parcels, it takes its predecessor’s blank canvas and turns it out in two directions: the icing-sugar bounce of the music, and the dark masochism of the lyrics. The combination of billowy pink light and jagged satin darkness is something to behold, but in the end it all boils down to this being Where Did Our Love Go taken to new heights, with a better tune. It couldn’t miss.
The song was originally cut in July 1964, during the album sessions which accompanied the slow rise of Where Did Our Love Go up the charts, the Holland-Dozier-Holland writer/producer team coming up with what is pretty much a straight remake with a couple of new ideas mixed in. Once again, and this is astonishing, the Supremes didn’t want to do it. The feeling seems to have been that they’d indulged HDH in one 4/4 nursery rhyme, amid much sulking and tears, and they weren’t in the mood to do another one. Listening to that original recording, clearly intended as nothing more than a soundalike sequel to the big hit, there’s certainly a lack of enthusiasm, but then maybe they had a point. The original version of Baby Love was cut after another 4/4 stomper was already in the can, both more adventurous in its outlook and more conventional in its structure. Come See About Me was probably never intended to be a single; I’ve no idea whether the same was ever true of Baby Love, or whether this was meant to be the follow-up single all along.
That original version, finally released on the 40th Anniversary CD edition of the Where Did Our Love Go album (left), is a revelation, and not because it’s particularly good or anything (it isn’t); rather, it throws the achievements of the 7″ version we’ve all heard so many hundreds of times into sharp relief. The original is softer than the cut we know, relying on the familiar, delicately plinky sugar plum piano chimes instead of Where Did Our Love Go‘s pounding foot stomps to keep time – and it’s slower, too, almost imperceptibly, but enough to suck the energy out of the song when combined with the softer approach. The sax struggles to make an impact, as though it’s being careful not to disturb anyone. Diana Ross sounds disinterested, too artfully poised and posed to really be feeling this pain. Flo and Mary somehow end up with even less to do than on Where Did Our Love Go, hidden right back in the mix where they should be carrying the song. Most noticeably, the riveting four-bar (BEAT!)-Ooooo-ooooo-ooooh! bit, the bit which anchors the whole song and buys the audience’s attention for the intricate chorusverse that follows, is completely missing.
After listening to the acetate, Berry Gordy promptly expressed his dissatisfaction, berating the HDH trio for “burying their hook”. The end result was that Brian, Lamont and the girls were recalled to the studio three weeks later to do the whole thing over again, and this time to do it right.
But three weeks is a long time in pop music. By this time, Where Did Our Love Go was all over the airwaves and well on its way to becoming the Number One record in America, and the Supremes had gone from the bottom of the Dick Clark package tour bill to the top in remarkably short order. Now, when the group and producers reconvened after their short break, there was an extra ingredient in the Supremes’ mix that hadn’t been there before: a confidence, bordering on arrogance, that comes with being the best group in the world. It was as if Diana Ross had known it all along, and everyone else was only finally catching on. Took you long enough, she seems to be saying, what kept you?
…AND HERE’S THE PITCH
The “new” version, the single version everyone would soon come to know, is much less of a retread of the earlier hit, and much more its own creature. Whoever decided to bring Mike Valvano back to stomp on those two-by-fours and bring back the muscular, driving thump of Where Did Our Love Go to run underneath the high, twinkling piano and James Jamerson’s deliciously rich, sonorous upright bass (some of his most beautiful, clever work to date), they are a genius.
Despite the parent LP already being in stores, Baby Love was a massive, massive hit, outselling its predecessor within weeks of release, sailing to the top of the Hot 100, the Cash Box R&B chart and the UK Top 40 (Motown’s first British Number One), landing the group on the front cover of Billboard and forever ending their days of low-budget package tour drudgery. It’s easy to see why – because it grabs you straight away, sounding both exactly like Where Did Our Love Go and simultaneously no other record had ever sounded. It’s not just that there are hooks everywhere, it’s that the record is pretty much nothing but hooks; the circular, hypnotising backbeat of Where Did Our Love Go now augmented with a whole bunch of other things which deserve attention.
STRIKE ONE – BATTER WASN’T READY
It’s got a sound all of its own, this record. I don’t mean it’s different from other records, or uniquely styled, or whatever, I mean it literally has a sound on it I haven’t heard anywhere else: that piano, that bass, the guitars, all chiming in together in a crotchet pulse on the beat, sounds new. Whether this is something the Funk Brothers cooked up themselves, or whether Holland-Dozier-Holland dreamed it up one night, Baby Love has the good sense to recognise its riveting new sound and open with it right away, four bars of beautiful foreboding – some of the prettiest tunesmithery we’ve yet seen, let’s not undersell it, it’s a lovely little melody – leaving the listener already off their guard. It never shows up again on its own throughout the song, perhaps because its work in wordlessly piquing your interest and breaking your heart is already done; to repeat it would maybe be to dilute it.
But then it all drops away, leaving just Diana Ross and the stomping, for a long, exposed four-bar stretch which Diana has to cross with nothing but three beats of ooooohs, stretching and reaching for the drum fill that starts the song proper. Any of the critics who’ve ever denigrated Miss Ross’s singing voice – and there are lots of them, including me – must concede that nobody could have possibly done that bit any better than Diana Ross manages it here. It’s magnificent. The listener’s rocked back on their heels here, dazed and highly suggestible; time for the song to make its move.
STRIKE TWO, CAUGHT SWINGING
Over the course of doing this site, I’ve found it’s easier to get people to agree with you when you’re (essentially) agreeing with them, pandering to pre-existing notions of what’s good and what’s not so good. This one’s a Beloved Motown ClassicTM, and giving it a good review is the easy way out; it also feels somehow superfluous, as if I were writing something for a fanzine, as if I’d be better off indulging in a bit of iconoclasm and pointing out all the reasons this isn’t so great. But I find Baby Love captures the spirit of Motown in 1964 better than any other record, and I feel a need to just remind everyone who might have become jaded with hearing this over and over and over again, might have become somehow desensitized, immune to its charms, remind you what a great pop single this really is.
When it starts up in earnest after that remarkable intro, it’s just a rolling barrage of hooks, a thundercloud complete with its own silver lining, all feeling so precisely arranged and neatly-clipped that it’s an actual shock to realise it’s actually so densely woven, so many different parts and themes and emotions dovetailing in and out of each other as to make it almost impossible to follow just one thread through the record, so that those Oooooooooh breaks come as a welcome respite, a clear-the-decks priming for another impossibly rich sugar rush. Something like that.
Plus, a really, really anguished lyric, once more given full vent by Diana Ross and her severely underrated ability to convey such things, except that a goodly proportion of listeners don’t seem to notice, taking it as a simple love song. Baby Love is a love song alright, but it’s a song of complete, self-destructive, all-consuming passion, not a devoted cuddle for Valentine’s Day. Despite the facade of her managing to keep it together, the narrator’s pride is already gone, if it comes down to it, and this is a last-ditch attempt to rekindle the fires of passion in the mind of some idle tossrag we never get to meet; they don’t even get a description, the song only reflecting their image in the trauma of Diana’s pleading.
It’s a mixture of measured, pretend cool and barely tethered heartbreak. Right from the start, she’s in pieces – I need ya, oh, how I need ya, she coos, romantically, seductively, before immediately pulling the rug out from under the listener: …But all you do is treat me bad / Break my heart and leave me sad / Tell me, what did I do wrong?
It’s already all her fault, whether it actually is or not. She throws herself completely at the mercy of her “baby, love”, and there’s no telling how far she’s prepared to go in knowingly sacrificing her happiness for the chance to be with The One. When she half-sings, half-cries ‘Til it’s hurting me / ‘Til it’s hurting me at the end, it can be taken in two ways: she’ll plead until it hurts, or (since it feels we’re already past that point), she’ll put up with her Baby Love’s foul behaviour until it hurts. A feminist statement it certainly isn’t; what it is is decidedly powerful stuff, and it sets a pattern for a few other future moments of Supremes greatness, the marriage of a dark, heart-wrenching lyric to an irrepressibly bouncy, lovely tune.
STRIKE THREE, YOU’RE OUT OF HERE
It’s not as simple as just “disguising” some downbeat lyrics in a happy-sounding tune – that would be a neat trick, sure, but nothing for the ages. This, though, is songcraft on another level. This is about what happens when you do connect with the lyric, when you realise this is a woman on the edge, and how the same driving energy that made this sound like a summer radio hit coming out of your car on a sunny day can also convey the propelling emotional force of Diana’s impending breakdown. It’s not inappropriate; rather, it’s as though the apparent contradiction in such a weird juxtaposition makes everything all the more powerful. Anguish is powerful, driving pop music is powerful, so let’s not shy away from either out of modesty. There’s no modesty here, the narrator’s already left that far behind; why not illustrate her mood with an unstoppable pop masterpiece, rather than a maudlin pity ballad? Motown did this better than most, and the Supremes – when paired up with HDH – did it best of all.
All that being said, I’d be interested to know if this was a big hit in non-English-speaking territories – it certainly sounds as though it could have been. It’s a winner whether you ignore the words, or whether you listen to them intently and try to get to the heart of this character line by line. There’s not a wasted moment here, even the pauses for you to catch your breath (you, the listener, that is; the Supremes don’t need anything as prosaic as oxygen) are laid in place with the precision of a master watchmaker. There’s even less of a real chorus here than in Where Did Our Love Go – or maybe the song is nothing but chorus. Whatever, it’s a similarly never-ending rush, but the emphasis has changed; this time it’s got a really strong tune to go with the body blows.
The rest of it is just hook after hook after hook after hook, like the demented skip in Diana’s voice giving rise to a bunch of pretend key changes that only last a couple of instrumental bars, or the sax solo that somehow follows three different lines – the piano, Diana, and Flo and Mary’s backing vocals – for a few notes at a time, filling in so seamlessly, or…
Well, let’s just stop and enjoy those backing vocals for a moment, Flo and Mary relishing the elevation of the Baby baby / Baby baby chant from Where Did Our Love Go into something more like a work of art, not just a backdrop for Diana to do her thing but a kind of ramp for her to support herself and pick up speed. Unlike that abortive first go, here they’re mixed right to the front, and when they sing their lovely countermelody – Don’t throw our love away / Don’t throw our love away / Baby baby baby baby / Baby love, my baby love…, going from opposition to unison, playing off Diana and then joining in with her pleading, it’s not only riveting, it’s irresistible. Play it and see if you, or anyone else in the room, can stop themselves swaying and humming along. I bet you’re probably singing it now.
By my reckoning, looking at it as objectively as I can manage, the Sixties Supremes made several records better than this one. They aren’t my favourite Motown group, even though they made several of my favourite Motown singles; when the touch of greatness has left the building, most often after 1967, I often find them annoying. The good things about a great Supremes track can often, with very little extra effort, become the bad things about a dismal Supremes track. And, on paper, this record underscores everything that’s irksome about the quintessential Motown group. It’s cute, it’s precious, it’s so restrained that it essentially divorces its music from its lyrical subject matter, meaning many in the audience don’t realise what it’s about. And, of course, it’s everywhere, and has remained so for nearly fifty years – and unlike Where Did Our Love Go, it never yields up anything new any more, I feel like I know this back to front and inside out.
None of those things can stop this from being great, one of the very best Motown singles. Not only are they not enough to stop it being great – no, all of those things actively work in its favour. I couldn’t tell you why – I get the sense that there is songwriting alchemy at work here far beyond anything I’m able to comprehend – but this has somehow been made perfect, taking everything good about the Supremes to the absolute limits of tolerance and not a millimetre further, so that instead everything is just… It’s just wonderful, isn’t it?
It’s cute and precious because its narrator wants to come across that way, but she’s fraying at the edges trying to keep a smile on her face even as she’s in physical pain. It’s restrained because there’s no fight in Diana here – oh, she’s desperate alright, but when it comes down to it, she’s going nowhere no matter what this guy does to her; she’s his for as long as he’ll have her, and she’s already lamenting because she knows how stupid and irrational this is; the way she articulates her words, both high and soft and vulnerable and determined all at once, when she sings Loneliness has got the best of me, my love, it sounds like her heart really is broken, and yet she’s only a hair’s breadth away from a completely emotionless reading. It’s amazing.
And so what if it’s been heard a million times? When a tune is this strong, when the performances are this good, the record was obviously designed to be heard a million times. Everyone involved knew they were making something superb, Ross and Jamerson in particular are almost nonchalant in their brilliance. You can’t help but admire it. Plus, while it’s easy enough to play out in your head, reducing it to a deceptively simple singalong like Where Did Our Love Go, well, when it’s actually on the radio, you’ve always got a free-buffet choice of whatever different elements you want to follow this time, this play, this verse, this line, which keeps it magical.
Terrifying to think that the Supremes haven’t even reached their peak – really, in terms of their all-conquering imperial phase as the greatest pop group in America, they’ve only just got started – and their best work is still to come. And yet there’s literally nothing wrong with this, not a single thing; instead, everything in its right place, everyone on top form, magic elevating an interesting song into a truly great one.
This is one of Motown’s most famous singles simply because it’s one of Motown’s best singles. I don’t care how many times it gets played, it’s as much of a thrill the first time as the 350th, and that’s pretty much the definition of magical.
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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“Ask Any Girl”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
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