(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
For the A-side, I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch), the song called to mind was the Supremes’ Where Did Our Love Go – which was perhaps to be expected, as both songs were written and produced by the same people, the super-hot Holland-Dozier-Holland team. Here, on the flip, we’re reunited with Mickey Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter, who’d penned the Tops’ previous (hit) single Ask The Lonely (recorded five days before this one, both songs being included on the Tops’ self-titled début LP), and who therefore, following standard Motown protocol, should really have been given the next one too. This would have made a fine choice.
But Holland-Dozier-Holland, long-time admirers of the Four Tops and fresh from racking up a string of Number Ones with the Supremes, appear to have “pulled rank” (even though Stevenson was A&R director for the whole label, there was no-one hotter than HDH right now.) I like to imagine them throwing I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch) into the Quality Control meeting like a live grenade, knowing it would blow anything else off the table. Ah, politics.
Despite the different backstories, though, this record is just as reminiscent of something else as the A-side had been. Oh, the effect is much less overt here – Sad Souvenirs isn’t outright based around a whole other song we’ve already heard – but I still get what you might call echoes of other records. Various Bond themes – “Goldfinger” and “Thunderball” in particular. The Lewis Sisters’ upcoming He’s An Oddball. And, most bizarrely of all, Petula Clark’s “Downtown”. It doesn’t really sound much like any of those when you sit down and play it, and yet these past few days, whenever I’ve started humming Sad Souvenirs or going over it in my head, it’s somehow manahged to segue (in a horrific medley) into each of those at one time or another.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course. Those are all good songs, for a start. More importantly, Levi Stubbs has a voice made for melodrama, and here, among all the heraldic trumpets, and all the taut, decorative string stings, and all those drums beating out their molasses-slow marching tempo, the Four Tops’ developing sound – the three remaining Tops and the three Andantes, the label’s female backing singers, blending together in semi-operatic harmony behind their barking angel of a leader – well, that sound feels like it’s found its natural home.
As with Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops’ B-sides around this time seem to illustrate a kind of alternate development path – a path never followed, superseded by the time the record was ready, rendered obsolete by whatever was used on the next A-side. This is an absolutely obvious, and fitting, follow-up to and follow-on from Ask The Lonely: it’s sonically bigger, if lyrically shallower, and similarly arranged. The tune vamps dramatically between what sound like two different songs that have been grafted together, just like its predecessor. It also gives us a great pointer for the group’s future, in the shape of Levi’s shoutiest lead vocal yet; some notes take your breath away with their beauty and pain, some notes take his breath away as he barks and spits his phrases, but all of it calls to mind the astounding work he’ll be turning in just over a year from now. If you feel that you can’t go on…
But this was old news. By the time the question of the next Four Tops 45 was raised, both Motown and the group themselves had moved on, had already learned to incorporate the lessons learned here into new and better records. Holland-Dozier-Holland wrote a killer pop single to harness the Tops sound to a commercial beat, and Sad Souvenirs became an appropriately titled throwback.
As with all really good Motown, though, Sad Souvenirs is plenty satisfying on so many levels. It sounds wonderful: it’s well played and beautifully sung, with an excellent tune, eminently whistleable (even if, in my case, it morphs into a different song around verse two). It’s got good lyrics, elements of both Come And Get These Memories and 7-Rooms Of Gloom twisted up into a bitter, lonely stalk of a song, all the better for Levi Stubbs to climb right to the top, wondering whether to jump as the Other Six gather around on the ground and in the clouds. And it’s enjoyable to hear the stirrings of future greatness in a group that would already be classed as great even if they’d split up immediately after their first album was released.
Man, I love the Four Tops.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
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|The Four Tops
“I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)”
“All The Good Times Are Gone”
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