b/w Where Did You Go
b/w Where Did You Go
(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
And so in to 1965 we go. But before we get started, I’d like to make a quick announcement: Motown Junkies won the Best Music & Entertainment Blog category at this year’s Wales Blog Awards. Thank you to all the readers (and artists!) who make this place what it is.
WE’VE REALISED THERE’S NO GOING BACK
1965, or Motown Year Seven, was a watershed for the company. No longer the plucky upstart scrabbling for cash, Motown – with seven Number One singles now under its belt, five of them in the last year – had grown into a genuine player in the American entertainment industry, a serious contender already some way into shedding the “black-owned” qualifier. They had money and they had stars; and in part thanks to their status as the most visibly successful black business in the country, they had power, both through their connections to agents, venues and radio outlets the white industry couldn’t touch, and through their ability to pressure other indie labels (black and white – but especially black) out of the picture with distributors and pressing plants.
But all of that brought its own new pressures: for the first time, success was expected at Motown, both from within and without. Before 1964, hits were the exception rather than the rule, and a top act might go for months without charting; a record hitting the Top Ten was cause for the champagne to flow. After 1964, the stakes were higher, Motown now playing at the high roller tables; now, if a record went Top Ten, the natural question was to ask whether it might kick on to Number One. Meanwhile, whoever you were, with a few exceptions, you were expected to pull your weight and shift plenty of units; too many flops and you’d be out.
The “Hitsville USA” sign plastered above the little Detroit townhouse that served as Motown’s studio, HQ and nerve centre had been cause for much amusement, derision and bonding among observers, outsiders and artists while the company was getting its act together. Now that sign’s bold claim was actually coming true, the atmosphere around the place seemed to change. The former photography studio, with its fug of smoke and chilli, and kids running around, and paperwork everywhere, and wires sticking out of walls, and people you knew from high school or prison just hanging out and gossiping on the steps or in the corridors… all of that was disappearing forever, and what was starting to emerge instead, of all things, was a business.
The Four Tops, veterans of the scene, having served a ten-year apprenticeship of endless gigs and no hits before finding their true place at Motown, would have been less thrown by all of this than some of their greener labelmates. This record, the Tops’ third Motown seven-inch, was taken – like the two before it – from sessions for the group’s (excellent) first album, Four Tops, which came out at the end of January ’65. They knew they had plenty of good stuff lined up, and they also had the advantage of having the newly-influential Holland-Dozier-Holland team in their corner.
Even then, the Tops weren’t completely untouched by the upheaval, the upward shifting of recalibrated expectations. This song, very much out of step with everything they’d done to date, was apparently originally intended for Tommy Good, a handsome white boy Motown had tried to astroturf into the big time with a fake grassroots campaign to promote his catchy début single, Baby I Miss You, and launch him as a new hearthrob star. A vast catalogue of new songs was recorded on Tommy (most of the material surfacing on his recent Motown Collection CD), in the expectation of a long and rewarding career. But it wasn’t to be. Baby I Miss You didn’t sell, and Motown no longer had to be patient in such cases; the label were now in a position where they could literally throw away thousands of dollars’ worth of studio time and cancel any future releases, shoving Tommy out of the door and beckoning the next hopeful from the ever-present crowd.
The band track for Ask The Lonely, a massive torch song complete with overdubs from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s string section, was reposessed before Tommy even got a chance to record any vocals over it (the version credited to him on the Motown Sings Motown Treasures compilation sounds nothing like him, and Tommy himself has said it’s not him). It was given to the first artist on the list with an album to record, which happened to be the Four Tops.
Talk about lucky breaks (except for poor Tommy, of course), as there’s nobody more appropriate that could have picked this up. The curious situation where a group who had been virtually the Holland-Dozier-Holland team’s pet project since arriving at Motown ended up releasing a single written and produced by someone else – a situation which HDH were reportedly none too happy to see unfold – only arose because this was simply too good to be left on the LP. It’s something of a departure for the group, but departure or not, this has “single” written all over it right from the first note.
The Tops’ Motown début, Baby I Need Your Loving, is a magnificent record, and deserved to be an even bigger hit. Their follow-up, Without The One You Love, is a mess, a cackhanded attempt to recapture the magic of their big breakthrough that entirely misses the point. So it’s perhaps not surprising that Motown, looking for a third single to boost sales of the forthcoming LP, went in a slightly different direction, especially when Quality Control had something of this, er, quality jumping out at them from the tape.
As with both the Tops’ previous Motown 45s, this one goes straight in swinging for the fences, opening with a massive, would-be anthemic chorus. Is it a success? Does it genuinely rock you back on your heels like Baby I Need Your Loving, or is it an over-ambitious damp squib like Without The One You Love? Predictably, it’s somewhere in between.
BIG ENOUGH TO GO IT ALONE
For the longest time, I didn’t really care for this, because I didn’t like the song. Oh, I can appreciate it as a good record, just as Quality Control must have done, because it’s buzzing with energy and the care that went into its construction is obvious – it sounds great. The massive strings are a cut above anything we’ve heard so far, not just from the Tops but on any Motown single to date – even the Temptations’ My Girl, with its famous string section hook, didn’t make use of this kind of complete orchestral sound. The Four Tops’ harmonies again blend beautifully with the Andantes, the often-uncredited Motown house backing singers, who appear here in full-on choral opera mode. And, oh, Levi Stubbs, I could listen to you barking out lead vocals like this forever.
But the song they’re singing… I don’t know. Hindsight, so often a curse when writing these things, reminds me the Tops would disappear down a sticky MOR rabbit hole at the end of the Sixties. Oh, they’d do good things with hokey, whitebread material, because there’s always the hint of easy listening lurking under the surface in a lot of the Tops’ Golden Age records – being able to access it just enough without slipping down that slope was one of the things that made them special. When covering, say, It’s All In The Game, or a pop hit from the Left Banke, for instance, those records only work at all because they amplified tendencies that were already there to exploit. Exploit well, too, but the move towards daytime white radio territory came at a price; the underground seam of cheese that the Tops had been so carefully, sensitively mining throughout their careers was suddenly exposed in something approaching an open-cast dairy, and from there it’s too easy to work back and find it in their earlier records. Earlier records like this one.
As a result of all of that – which I freely acknowledge is my fault, not the Tops’ – this song, which sails very close to the wind on that particular score, sets off all kinds of triggers which I associate with (for instance) Marvin Gaye’s series of show tune LPs, or Diana Ross and the Supremes sing Funny Girl, or Tony Martin. A bid to be “classy”, grown-up, respectable, establishment, something I instinctively react against whenever I hear it. You could call it a kind of snobbery on my part, I suppose; it’s the one time when my usual broad church approach, my “what’s good is good no matter who made it” philosophy, my dislike for the tyranny of genres, slips a bit.
I thought this merited further investigation, and lo, I investigated. For you, dear reader. For you. And I think I’ve finally understood it.
THE LONELIEST ONE IS ME
After winning the award, a lot of people have asked me a really simple question, and one for which I struggled to find a ready answer. What made me do this blog?
Oh, I could give reasons aplenty, most of them much repeated here already. Nobody else was doing it. Someone had to stand up for the “little people”, give Cornell Blakely and Connie Van Dyke the same platform as the Temptations. There’s nowhere else on the Internet that gathers this stuff together and tries to tell people what these records are actually like. And so on. Which is fair enough, except it doesn’t answer the question: why? Sure, it’s good to have a site like this exist, but why did I start doing it?
And thanks to the Four Tops, well, now I know.
If I bust out a clichéd phrase here – something like “it’s as much fun for me writing this stuff as it is for anyone reading it” – you’ll have to forgive me, because it’s true. I do this because, having all of this great music at my fingertips, I want to get the most out of it for myself. I want to explore each and every side in detail, leave no 45 unturned, give everything a fair chance, listen to everything over and over and over again, make sure I miss nothing. I want to hear what other people think about every last one of these sides. I want to go back to the “monuments” and listen with fresh ears. I want to open my eyes. I want to enjoy the music, and for some reason I enjoy music best when I’m writing about it, or telling people about it, or just talking about it, because once I get to talking about music, I physically can’t shut up.
So that’s why I’m here. And coming back to Ask The Lonely, a song I’d previously dismissed for stylistic reasons, with something approaching a clean sheet of paper, I was reminded of all of that.
YET AGAIN, THE ACTUAL REVIEW IS TO BE FOUND STUFFED DOWN AT THE END OF THE PAGE
Five things I now love about Ask The Lonely which originally washed over me because I couldn’t get over the MOR alarms going off in my head. In no particular order:
- Levi Stubbs approaches this record like a turbocharged Billy Eckstine, which turns out to be the best possible tack he could take (indeed, it’s no surprise to find out Mr B himself cut a version of this, which we’ll be meeting in a few years’ time). He always provides value for money, does Levi, but he’s spectacularly good here, recognising the song’s inherently hokey nature (of which more in a moment) and adapting to it in sublime fashion, an almost exactly 50/50 mix of the crooner’s art and the soulster’s power and emotional pain.
- The song is actually a brilliant marriage of two different songs, spliced together by its writers in the most remarkable fashion – the gritty drive of the verses, underpinned by guitar and drums bubbling over with confidence, a ticking time signature that somehow encourages finger-clicking, and the soaring 50,000 megawatt tea dance of that chorus, the Andantes bouncing right up to the very top of their range to soften out the sound. The chorus doesn’t belong here, and yet it’s been grafted on with such exquisite skill that I didn’t notice until about the 20th run-through.
- Those backing vocals are incredible. I’m not talking about the operatic soprano when the chorus gets to “Lonely!”, which is the song’s most notable feature on first listens, and which could shatter glass, and which therefore naturally draws the listener’s focus. No, I mean the backing vocals in the verses, which have a beautiful, angelic quality to go with the beautiful, unexpected melody; the Tops and the Andantes’ voices alternately blending and then taking harmony lines alone, now just the boys, now just the girls, it’s wonderful. Levi even leaves the girls to get on with it for an entire verse just past halfway (at 1:49), and it’s like a tiny oasis of calm among a raging storm of massive orchestration, quite beautifully judged.
- I don’t just mean musically, either – I mean conceptually, too. Levi, worried he’s not getting his point across effectively, keeps telling us, the listener, to “ask the lonely” – essentially, “if you don’t believe me, ask someone else who’s been hurt” – and that lovely Andantes vocal break comes after he sing-shouts “They’ll tell you!”, followed by twenty seconds of ghostly, sweeping harmonies. Effectively, the Andantes are playing the part of the “lonely”, a wordless representation of everyone who’s ever had their heart broken, everyone who’s pining for someone they can’t have, everyone who feels Levi’s pain. The narrator, just as he did in Baby I Need Your Loving, calls on unworldly powers to help him make his point, in this case a corporeal cloud of sorrow, the sighs of the lovelorn gathered together and made real. Quite a trick, that.
- And isn’t this just a beautiful song generally? The structure of the record puts Levi’s narrator in a difficult place which I originally took to be self-pity (and I wasn’t entirely wrong), and it’s definitely a song of pain, but pain expressed through fraternal advice bleeding into self-pity. “Don’t make the same mistakes I did”, Levi advises us, starting off broad and general, trying to help, but quickly it becomes more about him than us. And yet he manages to pull it off, selling grandiose lines in a grandiose setting without coming over as unsympathetic. Of all Motown’s big-ticket acts, it’s literally only the Four Tops who could have made this work – I can imagine some horrific covers of this song. But thanks to Levi, we feel his pain, and the pain of all those wounded souls he’s brought along to underline it. Again, quite an achievement.
AND SPEAKING OF ACHIEVEMENTS
This has gone from being one of my least favourite Four Tops singles to something I can’t stop listening to, which is no mean feat. It’s actually held up the progress of the blog, because I’ve not been able to move on. But it gets better each time I listen to it. (It’s also reminded me of a fundamental rule I should really have learned by now, which is never to underestimate the Four Tops. Perhaps when I get to their 1969 cuts, I’ll find similar things to love there too.)
But this. This is lovely. If I still don’t entirely trust that massive, sweeping chorus, it’s a record that’s nonetheless been creeping up and up and up in my estimation, to the point where I thought I’d better finish writing this before the song barged its way any further up the scale.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
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|The Four Tops
“Where Did You Go”
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