(Released in the UK under license via EMI / Tamla Motown)
Motown’s embarrassment of riches was laid out for the world to see here in the early spring of 1965, the point where the singles catalogue starts to look like a box of chocolates, or an all-you-can-eat buffet of musical splendour. Both the label and the company were on the crest of a wave, a true Golden Age worthy of the nickname, and as Motown’s biggest acts kept on delivering great record after great record, it must have felt like the sun would never set. Here, to coin a phrase, the hits just keep on coming.
For the Temptations, coming off the back of the biggest, most ubiquitous hit record they’d ever have, they’d already crested that wave commercially, enjoyed success they’d never match again (though of course they weren’t to know it at the time). But of all the various ways Motown changed the landscape of black pop music, planted their flag in commercial territory previously dominated by white acts and white labels and what have you, perhaps the least noticed is also the most important: lasting impact. Compared to what had gone before, a never-ending raft of black one-hit wonders, stars who had flared up ultra-brightly before burning out and disappearing again after barely eighteen months in the spotlight, Motown, completely unexpectedly, turned out to have longevity. Nobody may have expected it at the time, but the Temptations had another ten years of big hits in them, and – albeit after a lot of line-up changes – they’re still a going concern today, a working band rather than an oldies act. And the reason for that is because, having waited so very long to climb to the top, they worked bloody hard to stay up there.
This blog, in the last couple of weeks, has turned into the Smokey Robinson and Pete Moore show, It’s Growing the fourth side out of the last five to be penned by Smokey and his Miracles bandmate. Of all of them, this feels the least effortless, the most forced; that’s not to say it’s the worst, but compared to My Girl – which was the last time we met the Tempts, and to which this was the custom-built sequel – this feels like it took real effort. It’s no surprise to discover that the record took Smokey eight separate recording sessions, endlessly mixing down tracks, dubbing in new instruments, new backing vocals, new everything, to get it to what we’re hearing now. And what we’re hearing now, bizarrely, is less of a direct continuation of the My Girl theme, and more of a nod in the direction of the Four Tops.
It’s a kind of lyrical cousin to the mega-hit, sure, Smokey having David Ruffin list various natural phenomena and then link them with his being in love by way of an anthemic chorus. That’s where the similarities end, though; if anything, this has more in common with the Temptations’ earlier breakthrough hit, The Way You Do The Things You Do, stuffed with half-jokes, all following the format: Like (INSERT UNEXPECTED PEN PICTURE OF SOMETHING THAT GROWS)… it’s growing!, a clever idea and a fun device, but also dangerous in that it automatically calls attention to its artificial nature. Smokey and David pitch it just right – not too po-faced, not too playful, aiming to emulate My Girl and match tone with meaning, attempting to convey the earnest giddiness of falling in love.
Ultimately, it’s an idea that only ever almost rises above its inherent clunkiness, and which therefore shouldn’t form the most promising backbone for a great pop song. Those eight recording sessions, and the amount of extra “stuff” Smokey manages to shoehorn in here, seem to indicate that Smokey knew it, that the magic – the feeling you get from truly great Motown, the sense that everything just clicked into place – wasn’t quite flowing on this one. Having committed to it as the new single (indeed, not just any single, but the follow-up to the big hit, no less), knowing the world would be listening, he and the group would have to do everything in their power to make this stick, to make this special. In short, they’d have to work very hard indeed.
Work hard they did, because this is excellent.
Lyrics aside, this record is half great craftsmanship, half flashy three-point trick plays. The craftsmanship almost speaks for itself; the twanging, crunchy guitars, the building tension throughout the song mirrored by the ever-rising chord progression (including a majestic key change two-thirds of the way in), the sense of anticipation heightened first by a long wait for a chorus and then by a series of pregnant pauses right on the brow of the hill, David and Smokey teasing us before finally giving us the push we need to race breathlessly down the other side. It’s a thrilling record to listen to.
But part of that thrill is just the sheer amount of weird things happening here. Opening with a clumsy, ham-fisted keyboard riff (on a piano tacked so harshly that almost every source I’ve read states it was actually Earl Van Dyke bashing away on a child’s toy instrument) that acts as a kind of call to action, this is a very different kind of Temptations record to what we’ve become used to. For a start, the Andantes are here, the sound of female voices most unusual on a Tempts track to begin with, giving this an instant Four Tops feel; the girls’ echoey, operatic backing vocals have been bounced down so many times they take on a ghostly quality, and in such surroundings David Ruffin (again magnificent on lead) sounds very different to Levi Stubbs. Then, there’s the bizarre woodblock percussion effect in the middle of the chorus, someone beating out just one hit of the claves and then disappearing for several bars, the effect so many commentators have likened to the striking of an anvil. Why is it there? Smokey’s answer would be: why the hell not?
It’s too much of a glorious mess to have been a huge hit on original release – quite apart from some jarringly woozy production touches, a result of its tortured creation, it takes too long for a casual listener to properly appreciate it, and I’m not sure it could ever have been a radio staple. Certainly audiences in 1965 weren’t entirely convinced by its follow-up qualities, coming on the heels of one of the best records ever made. But it’s both insanely ambitious and impressively executed, and it adds up to yet another excellent side in this magnificent run.
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!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
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“All That’s Good”
“What Love Has Joined Together”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
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