(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
Astonishingly, this was the Supremes’ fifth straight US Number One hit. Easy to see why: right now, they were unstoppable, and this is another really good Supremes single.
Really good. Not great.
Back In My Arms Again shares a great many similarities with the group’s third American chart-topper, Come See About Me, the record it was apparently written to follow – and the similarity isn’t restricted to just what’s in the grooves. As well as being the two most “conventional” of that first clutch of five Number Ones for the Supremes, based around the same structure and (broadly) the same set of ideas, Back In My Arms Again and Come See About Me are the two which barely dented the British charts, this one limping to Number 40 while the magnificent Stop! In The Name Of Love was still riding high above it.
Plus, and this is important, both Back In My Arms Again and Come See About Me were old news by the time they were (rush) released, both having been leapfrogged by newer songs which gazumped their places on the release schedules: just as Come See About Me didn’t make its 45 bow until the newer Baby Love had stolen its thunder, so Back In My Arms Again was originally recorded (in raw, demo form) long before Stop! In The Name Of Love was even written.
That may explain why this – while it’s very good, and let’s not lose sight of that – feels like something of a retrograde step in a few ways. Re-recorded in the wake of the success of Stop!, it’s slick, stylish, even thrilling in places; but it’s not magical.
SINGING IN THE REIGN
It would be impressive for any group to have racked up five successive US Billboard Number One hit singles; when that group are the Supremes, for so long the runts of the Motown litter, it’s nigh on astonishing. But it happened, and you can look it up, it’s right there in black and white: in less than 12 months, the one-time “No-Hit Supremes” went from being nobodies to having five number ones in a row. The greatest girl group of all time. Pop royalty – and from a standing start.
More remarkable yet, all five were also really good pop records. (Even this, the last of the, um, “famous five”, is a fine pop single in its own right.) And the two albums they spawned – Where Did Our Love Go and its follow-up More Hits by the Supremes (left) – are classics, perhaps not recognised as such at the time (in a culture which didn’t really know how to handle the LP as an artistic statement rather than a glorified maxi-single, and from a 45-centric label whose LPs are still overlooked even now), but standing up supremely well fifty years later, all killer, no filler, with nary a dull moment on any of the four sides. This new version of Back In My Arms Again was the second chance the public (on both sides of the Atlantic) got to hear a sampling of what was around the corner on More Hits, and it’s very good.
It’s an excellent single, in point of fact. All the ingredients from the group’s rise to fame, and their newfound prominence, power and posterity, are here for your pleasure: a stomping 4/4 beat (now augmented by some frantic instrumental passages which are full of pounding bass and drum fills, making it more like 8/8 time), shimmering vibes, grizzling horns, three fine singers on great form, a pretty, bouncy tune contrasted with downbeat lyrics (albeit this time Diana Ross’ narrator actually gets to be happy, for now at least, but she spends most of the song relating her past woes and very little time contrasting them with her present joy).
Why, then, do I like it a bit less than their previous six singles? Why is it my least favourite Supremes 45 since When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes two years and a musical lifetime ago? Why, in short, don’t I love this?
OVER AND OVER
Having given it a lot of thought, I believe it’s because both the girls and the hitherto-peerless Holland-Dozier-Holland team have taken their eye off the ball. Put bluntly, it’s the sound of a group – a great group – resting on their laurels, finding comfort in polishing up what’s gone before, rather than moving forward.
Only part of that can be laid at the feet of the superseded, repurposed song; this expensive-sounding, expansive-sounding new recording wasn’t made by accident, but rather in the full knowledge of just how striking Stop! had turned out. H-D-H have the wisdom to base the whole thing around a similarly striking contrast, here between a deep, growling horn riff and the much higher, sweeter (if not softer) notes coming from the plinking piano, shimmering vibes and the cooing tones of the ladies themselves.
But the tune’s not anywhere near as strong as Stop!, or even Come See About Me – in fact it’s the weakest tune Holland-Dozier-Holland have served up for a Motown A-side for a while now. Where Stop! was a departure, and a thrilling one at that, from both the Where Did Our Love Go album’s musical template and the sound of Come See About Me (the Supremes single immediately preceding it in that royal flush of Number Ones), this feels like more of the same. Which was probably the original idea, I suppose.
Musically, it’s almost a caricature, an archetypal Supremes record, like something some future computer would churn out if you fed it all the Supremes’ singles to date, got it to understand what made Motown and the Supremes so great, and then asked it to write you a new one. It’s not a bad record, it’s never close to being a bad record, but I can’t put it up in the same exalted company as the previous four Supremes hits in this vein.
THE WISDOM OF TIME
When I say it’s more of the same, I don’t mean there’s nothing new happening here – there are three particularly obvious new ingredients here being added speculatively to the melting pot (one of them also particularly goofy, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing).
The first new ingredient, I’ve already alluded to: the thumping, ominous war drums that mix with the grumbling sax and the high, twinkling piano and vibes to create a genuinely strange amtosphere for what is otherwise an almost acapella chorus, opening the record in a bassy thunderstorm. It’s not ominous in the way that Stop!‘s intro was ominous, with its dark cloud of Hammond organ suddenly appearing over the horizon to devour us all, but it’s still interesting all the same.
The second new ingredient: Happy Diana. If Back In My Arms Again isn’t exactly a laugh riot – as mentioned, most of it takes place in the past, where Diana’s gossipy friends caused her to dump her boyfriend, leaving her with nothing but “many long and sleepless nights” – then at least her character gets to sing from a happier place, if not necessarily about one. Unlike the previous four Number One hits, she’s singing from a position of triumph, rather than despair, as she vows to stand by her man in the face of her friends’ accusations. The first of the Supremes’ big hits not to feature Diana either pleading or demanding something right in the title, it’s like a (not much more) grown up take on Run Run Run, or the Marvelettes’ Little Girl Blue. And like those records, right under the bouncy surface, there lies a darker theme, the girls’ past masterful meldings of pain and dancing ironically giving rise – off the page – to the biggest questions yet. Is the narrator’s happiness real, or is she putting on a brave face? Did this guy sleep around, or was it just bitchy innuendo? Someone’s right about him – who’s it going to be, the narrator, or what seems like every other person in the world? What’s going to happen to her?
The third, and goofiest, new ingredient is much more of a gamble: mindful of the need to market all three Supremes to a new audience already conditioned by Beatlemania to pick their “favourite” (see the single picture sleeve (right) which was used as the template for the album), Holland-Dozier-Holland have Diana Ross break the fourth wall, mentioning the other two Supremes by name as the friends whose unwanted advice messed things up. With them right there in the room.
“How can Mary tell me what to do / When she lost her love so true?”, she sneers, sounding genuinely annoyed, with a frisson of pleasure which doesn’t say a great deal for their friendship. In fact, the tone of this whole section, probably best described as undeservedly smug, casts a different light on the sympathetic nature of the rest of the record – and there’s bitchier to come. “…And Flo, she don’t know / ‘Cos the boy she loves is a Romeo”. Is Diana sure about this, and if so, has she told Flo? How is that different from what Diana’s friends have supposedly been doing to her, winding her up enough to sing a whole song about it?
Fascinating relationship vignette though it may be, I’m not sure it does the marketing department’s quest to make these girls seem like happy-go-lucky schoolmates and BFFs quite as many favours as Holland-Dozier-Holland seem to think. But it’s a surprising moment, and indelible (especially given our gift of hindsight, knowing what actually went down between these three ladies and where Flo ended up); once heard, it’ll stay with you forever.
Those are all great things about this record. (Even the fourth wall bit, which sets my teeth on edge, is fascinating – and I can appreciate clever marketing and cheeky winks to the audience when I see them.) But the “new stuff” isn’t enough to completely dispel the feeling that we’ve heard it all before, even when we actually haven’t. There’s no getting away from the fact that in the summer of 1965, musically at least, the Supremes could have been mistaken for a one-trick pony – a great trick, sure, but it was becoming more noticeable that the exact same trick had already been done better before. (And, in fact, would be done better again, courtesy of the Isley Brothers’ magnificent Holland-Dozier-Holland collaboration This Old Heart Of Mine, another similar groove making similar use of a similar tune, similar structure and similar instrumental breaks, except faster, stronger, pared back, not so ponderous.)
But Back In My Arms Again is not a bad record. Lord, is it not a bad record. It’s such a good record. Catch it on the radio, it pops right out of the speakers, alternately pummelling the listener with that pumping intro and then soothing them with the happy sounding chorus. The recently-dissed Flo and Mary again best both Little Richard and Paul McCartney in showing just how effective a well-timed oooooh! can really be, while Diana again proves what a remarkable gift she had for emotional interpretation; she’s no great actress on record, and yet time and again she sells a song so convincingly you’d swear she wrote it herself, so beguiling here that I still can’t decide whether I think her happy face is real or an act. It’s a special record alright.
It’s just that it’s not special enough, or rather it’s not special enough for me to completely fall in love with it, not the kind of unconditional love I’ve given to every Supremes single since 1963. The six Supremes singles before this one, going all the way back to When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes and the real start of the Supremes/HDH partnership… those were all special. Each of them – even Come See About Me, the most conventional of the bunch – has something magical about it, something almost intangible but definitely there, which marks it out as a great record.
Back In My Arms Again is a good, solid, catchy pop single, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all, but it’s not quite what I’m here for. Or rather, it’s trying too hard to be what I’m here for, and in self-consciously trying to make “a Supremes record”, it seems to sacrifice that spark of the divine which has marked out all those other Supremes records.
And there’s the rub, I suppose. Whilst it’s good, I’d find it exceedingly hard to argue against its being the weakest Motown Number One we’ve yet seen (Fingertips being much less of a song, but compensating us with a demented glee that never makes its way into Back In My Arms Again).
Of course, it’s still a Motown Number One, and those are still rare at this stage (if rapidly becoming less so), and looking at all the other US Number Ones of 1965, I’d put it squarely in the middle of the pack… but it’s surely a stretch indeed (even for the most dedicated, die-hard Supremes fan) to confidently assert this one would have made it to the very top without the exceptional four that came before.
The Sixties pop singles market seems to have reacted in strange ways to perceived stagnation. Just as had happened with the (by now ancient) partnership of Mary Wells and Smokey Robinson, the public tolerated one helping of “same again please” from its new-found darlings, lifting it to the commercial heights of the previous peaks, but that’s as far as it would go; it’s the follow-up that suffers.
As with Mary and Smokey, this is no bad thing if it forces the writers and singers into action, makes them up their game (and it did, of which more later in the year) – and lest it seem like I’m overemphasising the “failures” of Back In My Arms Again, they’re really all relative, and this is certainly better than something like Laughing Boy. But it’s a step sideways, even backwards, rather than forwards.
The theme of Motown in 1965 was reinvention, and what this one shows is that even an act with five Number Ones would have to involve themselves in that process a little bit. In the meantime, this is just about as excellent as treading water can be. Take that any way you like.
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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