b/w Tears In Vain
b/w Tears In Vain
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
Tempting, and legitimate, to ask whether Motown’s patience with Stevie Wonder was running thin by the spring of 1965. It had been six months since his last single, and getting on for two years since his last big hit, Stevie’s releases since then an extremely patchy grab-bag of harmonica freak-out novelties, ill-suited ballads and low-key pop songs. He’d taken a big step towards his future with his last effort, the self-penned Pretty Little Angel (scheduled but probably unreleased – its B-side, Tears In Vain, was dusted off for re-use here) – but Kiss Me Baby sees him reverting to type, the amiable, lunkheaded harmonica prodigy, a ball of energy leaping around on stage and shouting snatches of lyrics. Lookit, ain’t that the dancing blind kid?
And at a stroke, it plunges Stevie right back to square one, and what Nelson George summed up as the worst run of material for any Motown artist. It’s difficult to argue George’s point; I’ve found kind words for many of Stevie’s singles from Fingertips up until now, but quite honestly, if I was told I could never listen to any of them ever again, I’m not sure I’d feel that much of a loss.
What annoys me most about Kiss Me Baby, which isn’t actually a terrible record, is that it feels like Stevie being put – willingly put – back in his box, just as it felt like he was ready to throw the damn thing away. But no, it’s performing monkey time; I’m just not sure who’s meant to be the organ grinder in this analogy.
Motown had had the Contours slog through two years’ worth of tired, endless, increasingly joyless re-runs of Do You Love Me, in the hope of scoring another huge hit, and then in the hope of scoring some more of the diminishing returns which were still at least returns; but what was the motivation for packaging Stevie up as the “remove brain before listening”, good-time harmonica party tween? Back when he was 11, the act had won some points from people who thought he was cute. Doing the same things at almost fifteen? Not so much. He wasn’t harmless ol’ “Little Stevie” any more, doing his adorable tributes to “Uncle Ray”, the onset of puberty bringing a cracked voice and facial hair, but also an unmistakeable hormonal edge which took him out of puppy-love kiddie territory and into adolescent passion; these kisses ain’t for Grandma.
I can sort of see Motown’s motivation for releasing this, an old recording by now, as a single – Stevie had taken to using it as an energetic set-closer, a way to use up any remaining energy either he or the crowd had left in them at the end of a frantic set, the exact role which had originally given us Fingertips back in 1963. But honestly, if you’d told me this was the direct follow-up to Fingertips, I’d not have batted an eyelid.
And that’s the real pity. We’ve had a magnificent run of sides here on Motown Junkies recently, everyone at the company – writers, artists, musicians and producers – constantly upping their game. By shoving out a diverting but ultimately moronic ten-month-old semi-instrumental harmonica jam as Stevie’s new single, it did him a considerable disservice. When everyone else at Motown had made giant, seven-league strides from where they’d been back then, well, on this evidence Stevie was not only failing to keep pace, he was standing stock fucking still as everyone else went zooming by.
His harmonica chops haven’t rusted any, and his demented energy still raises half a smile (maybe a bit more if you’re feeling down and need a pick-me-up), but this is the sound of a young man still very much finding his own groove at this point, and harmonica aside there’s almost literally nothing else to this. Its only really memorable feature is Stevie literally blowing kisses in time with the track, lip-smacking so close to the mic that the sound is unrecognisable as human, never mind being a kiss; he does it completely acapella at the start, in an intro so horrifically irritating I actually skipped right on past it the first few times I listened to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 5. Beyond that, you could segue between this and Fingertips and barely miss a beat, except that this one quickly gets tiresome.
Not horrible, but dispiriting; Stevie doesn’t sound jaded at all, which somehow makes it worse, like he was keen to live down to the hype. Messy and incoherent, which aren’t necessarily bad things for a pop record, but also directionless and ultimately boring, which definitely are. Far from Stevie’s worst A-side, but yet another disappointing entry in what was fast becoming a disappointing canon; Motown must have wondered if he’d ever land another big hit again.
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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