(Released in the UK under license through Stateside Records)
Since the Contours had broken through with Do You Love Me back in June of 1962, their careers had hit an unmistakeable downward slope. Things are bad enough at first glance, when you realise this was their first single since Can You Do It nine months earlier, and that that in turn had been their first single for eight months, meaning they’d managed to put out just one 45 in a time span of a year and a half. Not good, when you consider the Contours were once one of the label’s headline acts.
But behind the scenes, it was even worse. Dwindling sales, arguments over live appearance fees and problems with tour scheduling had led to bickering and feuding, both between the group and Motown, and between members of the group themselves. The Contours eventually put their differences aside and presented Motown with a united front, demanding changes be made or they would walk – only for lead singer Billy Gordon to change his mind and accept an individual deal, meaning the rest of the line-up were toast.
Of course, Berry Gordy wasn’t about to let a bankable name like the Contours just wither on the vine. He encouraged Gordon to put together a new line-up of “Contours”, reasoning that so long as Gordon was still there – the lead singer from Do You Love Me – then the audiences wouldn’t notice much of a difference. By the time the new group reconvened in the studio in October, Sylvester Potts had been convinced to come back, providing a sense of continuity amidst all the upheaval.
Another thing providing a sense of continuity is that this song is almost exactly the same as several other Contours singles they’d already released. It’s a riff on the exact same loud shouty dance number they’d been peddling since Do You Love Me, with a couple of notes changed.
If you fed “average early Contours record” into a giant music-making computer, it would probably spit out Can You Jerk Like Me. In fact, it already had, on at least three previous occasions; this is essentially a retread of You Better Get In Line, Don’t Let Her Be Your Baby and Can You Do It, all mashed together in a big bowl. Nothing about this suggests the record should be any good.
Not for the first time, Motown were jumping on a bandwagon; this time, it was weird stand-still wave-your-arms dance craze the Jerk. Berry Gordy had already been beaten to the punch by the Larks, whose sweet, syncopated Do The Jerk – although not the actual source of the dance, as it’s often so called – was released before Motown could finish cutting their own Jerk record. Not to be outdone, Gordy commissioned not one but two different Jerk singles, both louder and harder than the Larks’ gentle, clipped outing. This is one of them.
What’s it like? Well, now you’re asking.
In the time I’ve been doing this blog, I’ve covered some 511 tracks to date (yes, 511 – Wade Jones‘ two sides of Motown apocrypha were numbered 0 and 00), and with the possible exception of the Monitors’ Hello Love, almost none of them have had me changing my mind so wildly as this one. Every time I sit down to write about it, I form a different opinion.
Some days, I love it. The synthesis of the Contours’ earlier dance hits leads to a kind of refinement of the formula, and this is bracing, pelting out of the speakers with a mighty wallop; I can’t imagine the Contours standing still to do the Jerk itself, but in my mind’s eye I can easily picture the splits and backflips on stage while they belted this one out. (Of course, it was the “old” Contours who were famous for their athletic on-stage acrobatics – whether the “new” Contours still did all that stuff, I don’t know.) It had legs, too – it hit the R&B charts on release, albeit not scoring a huge hit, but it was cool enough for the basic track to resurface – with barely any changes – two years later as the Capitals’ iconic “Cool Jerk”, the music again played by the moonlighting Funk Brothers. And the horn breaks here are superb, coruscating stuff. (7)
Other days, I can’t abide it. It’s almost wilfully stupid, but it doesn’t take any kind of joy in its pure lunkheadedness; the tune’s insipid, and rather than the demented glee of its almost exact soundalike Jealousy (Is Creeping Up On Me), this one’s a slog, a chore, the crowd pressganged into a session of holiday camp forced fun, less atmospheric than an airless Tupperware box. (3)
So, I’m going to split the difference, even if it means I end up marking this down as average, which is rather unfair as this record is never average; it either strikes me as great fun or tedious workout, but since I can never predict how it’s going to affect me today, well, it’s not fair to recommend it or to pan it. All I can say is that I’ve given it many, many listens and I still don’t know what to make of it, or where it fits into the Contours’ story. Your mileage may vary. Mine certainly does.
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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