(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
One of the all-time great intros, but then the ’65-model Vandellas were already past masters at this sort of grand opening. I’ll Have To Let Him Go, Come And Get These Memories, Heat Wave, Dancing In The Street… big, attention-grabbing overtures were their “thing” by now. And this is the best one yet.
That Nowhere To Run announces itself in such a blazing, apocalyptic fashion is absolutely appropriate. February 1965, already a whole month into the year which would end up defining Motown forever, and almost none of the big players – on either side of the glass – have made an entrance up to now. I like the idea of the Holland-Dozier-Holland trio watching with wry smiles as Motown stuffed January’s release schedules with weird curios and never-to-be-released flotsam; they’d politely applaud their peers, wait a moment, and then, BAM, unleash not one but two of their best singles, for two of the label’s best artists, one right after the other, a devastating one-two punch that must have left the competition reeling.
Here’s the first of them.
NOWHERE TO HIDE
Martha and the Vandellas were affected by the sudden, unexpected rise of the Supremes in more ways than one. Always an earthier, more soulful group than the Supremes, the latter’s rise not only eclipsed them in Motown’s pecking order, it also served to push the Vandellas further along the soulful path. As the Supremes cultivated a classy, immaculate pop sound, well, rather than compete on the same kind of turf, instead the Vandellas were getting noisier, more fluid, more brash, more exciting.
The theme of Motown 1965, a theme I’ll be coming back to time and again as we cover this busiest and most epic of Motown years, is reinvention, and Martha and the Vandellas – pushed off their perch as top dogs in the Motown stable (ooh, how many more animal metaphors can I fit in this sentence, do you reckon?) – had to do it more than most. Already they’d found a new sound – a brand new beat, if you like – with Dancing In The Street. While I don’t adore it as the timeless classic it’s sometimes painted as, it’s still become known as their defining record, and it was certainly the record which should have propelled them to bigger and better things, commercially and artistically, battling the Supremes throughout the mid- to late-Sixties for the title of Motown’s top girl group.
But that never really happened. Martha and the Vandellas, wracked by internal difficulties (culminating in a line-up change), worn out by endless touring (building the group’s name, but at the expense of new material, not to mention their health), stymied by Motown’s internal politics (seeing a great new Holland-Dozier-Holland song, Jimmy Mack, a Supremes-style 4/4 stomp imbued with the Vandellas’ unique attitude, rejected out of hand by Quality Control and consigned to the ashcan for three years), ended up losing all the momentum their new sound had generated.
Instead, they – or rather Motown – failed to strike while the iron was hot, not issuing a follow-up to their summer party anthem until soundalike Wild One nearly five months later, during the cold, slushy early winter. When Wild One, rather good but hardly game-changing, limped into the pop charts and stalled outside the Top 30, it was time for Martha and the Vandellas to go back to the drawing board and start all over again.
The change in the Motown landscape since we last saw the Vandellas swinging for the fences had another, more direct effect, too. The Holland-Dozier-Holland team, reunited with Martha & Co. for the first time in months, had played a vital role in Vandellas history. It was they who’d given Martha and the girls classics like Come And Get These Memories and Heat Wave, plus plenty of LP cuts to bulk out the Vandellas’ first album, but “HDH” (as they’re universally known) were now in very high demand, and the majority of their time was allocated by Motown to the label’s two biggest projects, the Four Tops and the Supremes. The Vandellas still managed the occasional look in during 1964, but the rejection of Jimmy Mack, held back for three unfathomable years, may have capped things off on that front; HDH had cut their teeth on the Vandellas, but now they’d found more obliging blank canvases. Henceforth, collaborations between Holland-Dozier-Holland and the Vandellas would be few and far between.
(Case in point: When it appeared, Nowhere To Run sauntered into the Top Ten. In 1963, Motown house etiquette stated a writer-producer scoring a big hit on an artist would automatically get the chance to do the follow-up, and if that was a hit then they’d do the next one, and so on. But things had changed, and instead, HDH would cut just one more new Vandellas single during Martha’s entire remaining time at Motown, and not for almost two years at that.)
With their run of three awesome Number One hits for the Supremes at the tail-end of 1964 (Where Did Our Love Go, Baby Love, Come See About Me) selling scads of copies all over the world, Holland-Dozier-Holland had become Motown’s top creative team. Already transitioning from hitmakers to kingmakers, tasked (like Smokey Robinson) by Motown to provide hits and kudos for any struggling act on the books – but only provided it didn’t interfere with their work pumping out new material for the A-listers – any act in 1965 who found themselves in a studio with HDH knew they had to make it count.
Galling though it must have been for Martha Reeves to find herself grouped in with the also-rans so soon after being the queen bee, she was smart enough to know those rules applied to her group too. You may have made these boys’ names, but now you’ve got to wait in line with every other schmuck, and God knows when you’ll get the chance again. Make it count.
Oh, wow, did they make it count.
SO HIGH, I CAN’T GET OVER IT
When I started this blog, Motown Junkies time was moving way, way faster than Motown time proper, but things have slowed down so much that we’re actually now moving more slowly. For example, I managed to cover the whole of 1959 in three days, but 1964 took me almost sixteen months. For Martha and the Vandellas, who hit their greatest heights to date in 1963, that feels like a very long time.
Having been bowled over by Come And Get These Memories, an emotional juggernaut, and then blown away by Heat Wave, the group’s exuberant atomic zero hour, it’s been taken as read here on Motown Junkies that I hoped to approve of each subsequent Vandellas single, that they were likely to be good. And they are, by and large; we’ve never had a bad one so far. But moments of true, genuine magic have been in short supply – I always felt a bit left out because I’ve never truly loved Dancing In The Street, and beyond that, the pickings get slimmer. Quicksand, Live Wire, In My Lonely Room… they’re all good, sometimes rather better than that, but they’re not masterpieces, they’re not amazing.
The effect of coming across Nowhere To Run, then, which is amazing, is akin to suddenly rediscovering the taste of a long-forgotten ice cream (or the scent of a book) you loved as a child: the feeling of hearing a Vandellas single and realising that once again, they’re the best group in the world. I’ve missed that feeling.
Damn, this is a good record.
I wonder if Vandellas fans back in 1965 felt the same way? Certainly this is a massive kick on from where the group has previously gone; if Heat Wave was primarily a band record, Nowhere To Run is a group record, the gigantic drums and bass (and snow chains) deployed in the service of the girls’ vocals, serving as an extension of the group themselves rather than a spotlight cameo even as they’re perhaps the record’s defining feature. Now, this is partly because the Funk Brothers had honed their craft so well in the last few months; the cuts laid down in the autumn and winter of 1964 are leaps and bounds ahead of those from eighteen, twelve, or even six months earlier, but it feels like the development of yet another new Motown sound.
EVERY STEP I TAKE, YOU TAKE WITH ME
When we talk of “the Motown sound”, it’s a misnomer, not because I’m somehow trying to pretend that Motown didn’t operate to a formula, but rather because there were so many “Motown sounds” throughout the history of the label. At any given time, you can readily identify a family tree of similar-sounding records, from the midtempo calypso of the Mary Wells/Smokey Robinson heyday of the early Sixties, the rash of rollicking Phil Spector pastiches in 1963, the steady 4/4 stomps of the Supremes in 1964, the ten-minute wah-wah psychedelic soul of Norman Whitfield in the late Sixties and early Seventies… and now, here’s another one for you. A kind of storming, barrelling, loud R&B romp, crackling with energy, call-and-response harmonies and beautiful voices lashed together and harnessed for the power of the song; pop music, but with a tougher, sharper edge than what had gone before, the spirit of the blues riding high.
The two great vectors of this new sound were Holland-Dozier-Holland, as ever, and Norman Whitfield, who between them turned this into an art.
Whitfield had different ideas to most Motown producers, even at this early stage, and that extended to the band, the rhythm section in particular. What he did with the Velvelettes, and then the Temptations, in late 1964 reverberated through Motown in 1965, and its echo is felt most keenly right here. The Funk Brothers had several run-ins with producers during their time at Motown, the hardened and seasoned jazz cats bristling at being ordered around by high-handed producers who were barely out of high school. In the early days, they’d particularly scoffed at Holland-Dozier-Holland’s airy, half-formed ideas, their inexperience, and their lack of hands-on knowledge. Nelson George’s Where Did Our Love Go is full of anecdotes of clashes between HDH and the musicians: a story of grudging respect at best and open hostility at worst.
Norman Whitfield wasn’t like that. An intensely moody character, probably the most demanding of Motown’s taskmasters, a hawkeyed observer who’d initially been content to sit silently for hours watching how everyone else did things, he was also an outspoken loudmouth when it came to telling other people how they should be doing their jobs. That lip sometimes got him into trouble – but he was funny too, cracking wise and sharing his cigarettes with the tambourine shakers (and more importantly, sharing his money, cutting them in on bonuses when he scored a hit), and he knew what he was doing. As a result, Whitfield and Clarence Paul were the only non-players to be invited to the musicians’ inner circle (and their after-hours party nights). Whitfield then started to get the very best out of the rhythm section, in a way that no other producer had yet managed, bringing some of the muscular, menacing sneer of the bar-room to Motown. The Sound of Young America staying out late.
If Whitfield pioneered getting that sound on record, Holland-Dozier-Holland were right on top of this new development. The Velvelettes, Whit’s pet project, had two remarkable singles in ’64 to prove the point, Needle In A Haystack and the peerless He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’, the latter co-written by Eddie Holland – not to mention the Temptations’ roughly contemporary Girl (Why You Wanna Make Me Blue), another Whitfield/Holland co-write. And right in the middle of all of those, another obvious cousin: Nowhere To Run.
HDH must have been delighted to be working with the Vandellas again, just to be able to make a record like this one. It must have been exciting for everyone involved, since Martha and co. were made to do this sort of thing; good though Jimmy Mack is, this is more like “well, we’ve tried doing the Supremes thing, and it got us nowhere; let’s do something they can’t do.” The desire to explore new territory, new sounds, results in one of Motown’s best singles so far; it’s magnificent.
SO DEEP, SO DEEP
Almost everything about this record proclaims its makers, on both sides of the glass, to be Motown royalty, and so it’s unusual to remember that the career trajectories of Holland-Dozier-Holland and Martha & the Vandellas were headed in opposite directions after this. But we can’t be sad for too long over the string of brilliant records which should have followed this one, records that were never to be, simply because this one is so good.
It just sounds so strong, in every sense; it’s a song of torment and pain, and Martha sells it quite brilliantly. Some reviewers have called her a passenger, praising the band and producer for raising up her performance, but this works because she’s a star again. She’s angry and defiant, making this sound like a powerful, even menacing statement of independence when it’s actually a song of involuntary devotion – the narrator is furious things are panning out this way, even though she’s ultimately going to acquiesce to the feelings she doesn’t want (How can I fight a love that shouldn’t be?), making for a character every bit as richly realised as the narrator from Come And Get These Memories.
From that blazing opening, this is just a full-on assault of a record, big and brash and textured. The sound is remarkable. Many people know the story of Ivy Jo Hunter dragging a snow chain into the Motown studio and slamming it on the floor until his hands were bleeding, all to provide a unique percussion effect, something like a thousand tambourines in the background. Stories are jumbled as to whether that first happened on Dancing In The Street or here on Nowhere To Run, but what is clear is that the percussion here is just out of this world, a barrelling, slamming groove (always slower on vinyl than it is in my head), anchored by that chain, pulling jagged bass and horns and drums behind it (all three played by people having career days here) and dragging huge great furrows in the earth.
But what shouldn’t be overlooked is that this is a Holland-Dozier-Holland tune, and as such there’s a killer melody to go with the groove, stuffed full of hooks and stitched together with immaculate precision. I mentioned when reviewing Marvin Gaye’s startling Baby Don’t You Do It that there aren’t many mid-Sixties Golden Age Motown singles I’d be keen to hear doubled in length, stretched out as a storming 12″ mix, but this is definitely one of them – you get the feeling this groove could just carry on forever. And it’s insanely catchy, not to mention its uncanny ability to get you moving.
Because it’s not got a surprising or beautiful tune (and because, let’s be fair, it’s not by the Supremes), Nowhere To Run has perhaps been overlooked as being among some of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s very best work, while the Vandellas were already buckling themselves in for a bumpy ride throughout the rest of the Sixties. If the Vandellas’ career yielded up several more classic records even after Motown had decided Martha and HDH should go their separate ways, it’s almost maddening there weren’t any more of these to savour. But stick the record on, and all of that stuff melts away; it’s damn near perfect, and I love it.
If I haven’t gone into the usual amount of in-depth analysis I normally break out for my favourites, it’s because this is perhaps the most primal, the most direct of my fifty top Motown tunes, the anointed few to get ten out of ten: if it’s also the most musically complicated in terms of the work everyone’s having to do to make this come off, nonetheless everything’s right up front for the listener to enjoy, in what’s maybe the clearest Motown statement of intent we’ve yet experienced. It’s Nowhere To Run, it kicks arse, it’s getting a ten.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
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