b/w Dancing Slow
b/w Dancing Slow
(Released in the UK under license through Stateside Records)
Martha and the Vandellas’ long-awaited follow-up to Dancing In The Street is a strange affair; it’s less of a song, and more of an attempt to ride the coattails of various different pop-cultural phenomena, not necessarily on time and not always successfully. But it ends up a fine single all the same, just so long as you don’t concentrate too hard on what came before, or what’s still to come.
Wild One is a kind of intermission between the brash, Brill Building-tinged pop-rock of the early Vandellas and the more soulful R&B-pop sophistication of the group’s later years, but it’s not really a bridge between the two phases. The only real indication of what’s around the corner are the drums, which are absolutely huge, even more so than on Dancing In The Street; whatever else it might be, this is dance music first and foremost.
Motown weren’t really expecting the Supremes to suddenly change gear and rack up three mega-selling Number One hits in a row in 1964, and so when they did, the girls’ overnight rise to fame not only made them top dogs in the Motown pecking order (“what?” – confused zoologist, Tidmouth), it also left Motown in a pickle as to what to do with its previous top girl group.
The Vandellas had already cut a 4/4 Holland-Dozier-Holland pop gem in the vein of Where Did Our Love Go, the sassy, stomping Jimmy Mack, only to see Motown’s Quality Control gatekeepers reject it. (One theory was that it sounded too much like the Supremes, but that seems unlikely given that the label was actively trying to cultivate acceptance of the rapidly-hardening musical template that would become known as the Motown Sound). Whatever the reason, it remains one of Motown’s oddest decisions, and there’s a distinct smack of “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us” about it. This was perhaps the last straw for original Vandella Annette Beard, who left the group shortly after Jimmy Mack was recorded; she was replaced in the line-up by Betty Kelley, formerly of the Velvelettes.
The “new” Vandellas then spent the whole summer of 1964 recording a bunch of MOR, pop and Broadway standards and pseudo-standards, Berry Gordy envisioning – completely incorrectly, which is unusual for him – that instead of competing with the Supremes, the girls could become Motown’s new crossover stars for an older audience, finally conferring the kind of showbiz respect he so desperately wanted. The sessions were a disaster, Martha, Rosalind and Betty slogging their way through mountains of material – the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 4 list covers of “Only the Lonely”, “Blue Moon”, “It’s All In The Game”, “Oh Lonesome Me”, and Gordy’s own Jackie Wilson composition “Lonely Teardrops”, and there was a lot more of it besides – for a proposed crossover LP which never saw the light of day. (I don’t even think many of those tracks have been released even now, as it happens.)
An artistic and commercial miscalculation, these abortive sessions cost the Vandellas precious time, and meant that while Dancing In The Street was all over the radio and selling out in stores across the nation – finally cementing a place in America’s hearts for the Vandellas as a Motown R&B girl group with a very different sound to the Supremes – the girls had no readily-recorded follow-up for the best part of five months, the opportunity to strike while the iron was hot now gone forever.
After all that, Gordy decided to send the Vandellas back to the same blueprint as Dancing In The Street, with the same writers and producers providing a song similar in feel and tone, intended to become the centrepiece title track of a whole new LP of dance numbers, as noted on the labels (the album eventually saw release in 1965, under the title Dance Party, pictured right.)
But this isn’t as good as Dancing In The Street no matter which way you slice it. The tune’s not as good, for a start. The intro’s captivating, but it can’t compare with the iconic riff that opens the famous hit. The pop culture references are oddly dated – not only the riffing on the Shangri-Las’ recent nostalgia-laced hit Leader of the Pack, itself a period piece, but all the “Wild One” stuff, which just seems really strangely shoehorned in.
I mean, when did The Wild One even come out? Like, ten years before this was recorded or something? Okay, Wikipedia says 1953. Well, the world had moved on from the early Fifties, suburban America finding new rebels to fear or fantasise, rebels with a cause, perhaps more dangerous than a courteous outcast from a young white biker gang who tries to do the right thing. Marlon Brando will always be cool, but it’s not Motown cool. Or to put it another way, Martha Reeves is cooler than Marlon Brando, and it seems incongruous to hear her swooning over him. The lyrics paint her into an unflattering corner, a silly schoolgirl sticking up for her shiftless bad boy crush, like the Marvelettes’ Little Girl Blue but played absolutely straight – a cackhanded attempt to be “down with the kids” and hoover dollars out of real schoolgirls’ lovestruck pockets.
Why do I like it, then? Firstly, the Vandellas themselves sound great, Annette or no, as if they’re running free after the constricting excesses of the standards album project, getting back to what they do best.
Secondly, the percussion on this is just brutal. A great dancer it may be, but Dancing In The Street always seemed a tiny bit underproduced to me, the drum track mixed so low as to become a little weedy and muffled, only really rescued by the inspired addition of Ivy Jo Hunter’s smashing of snow chains. Wild One, though, kicks off with the drums mixed right up front, and it presages a new kind of Motown sound, in many ways the defining sound of the winter of ’64/’65 if you weren’t the Supremes, a brasher, noisier kind of groove that would take the Vandellas (and for that matter the Marvelettes, not to mention Betty’s former bandmates the Velvelettes) to new realms.
That’s all in the future. For now, this is a kind of half step in a new direction, while driving twenty miles down the same road as before. Sure, it’s inescapably very similar to (and rather less good than) Dancing In The Street. That can’t stop it being fun.
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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