(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
Right in the middle of the Supremes’ all-conquering run of five straight Number One hits in a row, and with the astonishing More Hits by the Supremes LP ready to hit stores, Motown seems to have been struck by a sudden paroxysm of paralysing self-doubt. Perhaps overwhelmed by the pressure of finding a sixth chart-topper to continue the winning streak, when faced with the task of picking what would be the next Number One single from More Hits – which on first listen (and on lots of subsequent listens, to be fair) sounds like an entire album’s worth of hit singles – Motown second-guessed themselves, not once but twice.
Uncharacteristically – but understandably – the label dithered in choosing the new single, tentatively slating two different songs from the album before eventually plumping for a third in Nothing But Heartaches. I believe they made the wrong choice, as so often happens when you overthink something, but that’s a story for another day. The story for today is The Only Time I’m Happy.
YOU MAKE ME FEEL SO UNWANTED, DEAR
Here’s my best guess as to what happened here. Motown slated the next available catalogue number, M 1079, for a new Supremes single (it was never used for anything else; claims the number was allocated for a single by Little Lisa, an artist we’ve not yet met here on Motown Junkies, are entirely unsubstantiated). For whatever reason, they got cold feet as to whether The Only Time I’m Happy – messier and more loosely-fastened than the five slices of immaculate pop that had gone before – was really the right pick. Separately, the label’s marketeers, tasked with drumming up excitement for More Hits, wanted to do something to promote the LP, like sending out an interview disc to radio jocks across the country.
It’s my theory – sure to be shot down in flames in the comment section, but it makes sense to me anyway – that Motown ended up conflating the two Supremes promo efforts. To that end, I’m guessing they canned the proposed “new single” they were getting less and less sure about by the day, instead arranging for it to be paired with the group interview, as an incentive for jocks to listen to both sides, and “released” (probably only as a promo, or a giveaway, rather than actually being sold anywhere) via the (possibly made up) NYC-based George Alexander label, of which nobody has ever heard anything other than this one single.
Murmurs of payola caused by Motown’s current ubiquity on America’s playlists avoided; impression of a group so popular they merit a special giveaway on a totally independent label made; Supremes brand image as America’s number one group further cultivated. More Hits went Top Ten and eventually sold over a million copies. Mission accomplished.
So it came to pass that right in the middle of that run of Number One hits, there’s a Supremes single from More Hits that hardly anyone’s ever heard of. But it means we get to cover it here on Motown Junkies, and that means it’s fine by me.
But first, there’s something I’ve got to get into before we talk about The Only Time I’m Happy in any detail. If you’re not interested in my lengthy, rambling thoughts about More Hits and the phenomenon of Sixties albums as seen in 2013, well, you might want to skip this next section. See you at the bottom there.
EVER LOVING PRIDE AND JOY
(A LONG ESSAY ABOUT MORE HITS BY THE SUPREMES)
This is a Motown singles blog, but – as I’ve said before – I freely admit I’m too young to have ever known Motown as a relevant, current musical force, and I was slow off the mark even when I was old enough to start listening. I wasn’t there, and whilst this whole blog is my best shot at doing justice to all this great music, these great people, it’s inevitably done through a prism of hindsight; no matter how hard I try, anachronism, presentism, recentism, misplaced nostalgia for things that never were, all of these things remain dangerous hazards. But the one thing I’ve found hardest to cope with is considering that Motown, as well as being the greatest singles label in history, were also a great albums label.
Most of the 587 songs we’ve previously covered so far here on Motown Junkies were not conceived to be heard on albums, and if they did somehow end up on a long-player, those long-players in turn were not conceived as “albums” in the way a modern listener would parse that term. The Sixties saw the true emergence of the album as a valid art form in its own right, rather than just another format of single, a glorified maxi-EP. Jazz musicians were the first to really appreciate the liberating nature of the longer format, and from there, starting with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald’s eye-poppingly brilliant …Sings the XYZ Songbook series, pop audiences began to be introduced to the idea of an album as a discrete artistic statement to stand alone. By the 1970s, with the advent of FM radio and the rise of the cult of the singer-songwriter, or even writer-artist, as opposed to the production line, the album as we now know it had settled into a better-understood set of parameters that artists, labels and fans could all get a handle on.
But what interests me – and troubles me, when it comes to the blog – is how to deal with early- to mid-Sixties albums, where the technology to put 40-50 minutes of music in one package was available but where the expected norms of what that meant hadn’t really been worked out yet. More Hits works as an album, in the modern sense, absolutely fantastically. Like the Marvelettes’ wonderful Playboy a few years before, it fits the modern expectation of an album like a glove, a group of songs recorded around the same time, some of them singles, some of them not, none of them crude filler or slapdash covers of non-Jobete material. If you didn’t know the landscape, and you were told that yes, Holland-Dozier-Holland and the Supremes had set out with the intention of making a great album, well, the record fits that narrative.
Of course, they didn’t set out to do any such thing. The landscape was changing alright, album sales were going up – and canny labels were recognising that not only were the margins on LP sales extremely appealing, but that there was room to push up the price without killing the golden goose so long as single prices stayed low. But we were still in transition. To take the other great global breakthrough group of 1964 as an example, it’s still anachronistic to see (for instance) the celebrations this month surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ Please Please Me LP, as if it was brought into the world as anything other than ten quickly knocked-off filler tracks to turn their first two singles into a triple-length EP.
Time was when the Beatles weren’t “respected” as Serious Artists (which, for a generation of critics, means “ALBUM Artists”) – not simply in terms of the amount of respect paid, but rather in terms of the very way they tend to be respected, even lionised now. It’ll never be like that for the Supremes, for three reasons:
– They were women.
– They were black.
– They didn’t write their own songs.
…but as the tide turns and those first two points, at least, become more and more irrelevant, well, it all adds up to something of a re-evaluation. Unfortunately, it’s a re-evaluation which doesn’t completely make sense, can’t ever make sense, because it’s viewed through a prism of misunderstanding that can never be satisfactorily cleared up.
There are albums from the early Sixties from great pop(ular) acts, black and white – the Beatles, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, the Beach Boys – which fit not only the obsession with dividing up whole careers into neat periods delineated by albums, but also the later expectations, the later mental cataloguing of later fans looking to explore back catalogues the only way they’ve ever known, album by album, because the album is sacred, the album is the parent of the great single, the album is the key.
This has its drawbacks. When we look at acts who straddled that era, who filled the mid-Sixties with pop singles and then went into the late Sixties and early Seventies making albums that very definitely were intended as stand-alone artistic statements – plucking examples from the air, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Rolling Stones, and, yes, the Supremes – it’s almost impossible for me not to retrospectively start applying the later cataloguing standards to the earlier work. So, Tribute to Uncle Ray winds up as part of the same continuous lineage, ripe for apparently fair comparison, as Talking Book, when we’re really comparing apples and oranges based on the fact they both run for about 40 minutes; to somehow put More Hits by the Supremes in the same conversation as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Bitches Brew or Dark Side of the Moon or Thriller is like comparing a marathon runner with someone who does the 110m hurdles, and then comparing both of them with a bus driver because, hey, it’s all getting from A to B, right?
But you’ve got to have a system, and for listeners born after 1970, and especially for listeners born after 1980 who had their entire record-buying lives shaped largely by CD reissues, that system seems, by default, to (unconsciously) use The Album as the standard unit of career division.
(“That’s a great song – which album is it from? Oh, you can’t get it on CD, it was a non-album single. Maybe they’ll do a rarities compilation. But hey, that ropey Side 2, Track 4 cover they tossed off in five minutes to fill space, well, of course that must be preserved forever. It’s as the artist intended, don’tchaknow?”)
A great many of the songs we’ve covered on this blog have been new to me, to a lesser or greater extent. After I finally “got into” Motown, I bought a lot of British compilation CDs to feed my new habit, and when The Complete Motown Singles series emerged I started voraciously consuming those as well, as you can probably tell, which is what led us here. All of that means I’ve had a lot of fun listening to all these records in a weird, hybrid context, at once removed from their original surroundings and also super-saturated in them: I’m hearing them as singles, a constant, steady parade of singles, in the order they were first released, shorn of baggage (I’m often surprised to discover which of these were big hits, which of them are much-loved, and indeed which of them are obscure and forgotten), each one given the chance to sound fresh and alive next to its original neighbours.
To me, More Hits is different. Something seems to have glitched in my head somewhere when it comes to trying to make sense of the Supremes’ recordings in 1965. For a start, there are so MANY of the bloody things, I’m surprised Misses Ross, Ballard and Wilson had time to eat or sleep between sessions; even here, restricted to 45s alone, there are an astounding 22 (that’s TWENTY-TWO) Supremes reviews slated to go up on Motown Junkies to cover the period between February 1965 and February 1966. So my brain seems to have taken emergency maintenance action in order to try and keep them all straight, and filed More Hits as a discrete album in the same bracket as Rubber Soul and The Beach Boys Today!.
This has a twofold effect, and it’s hugely contradictory. One: what a great album. (It really, really is – there’s not a track on here that I haven’t thought, while playing the whole LP through, “wow, that’s brilliant. This would make a great single”.) Two: paradoxically, it doesn’t actually respond all that well to being taken apart and parcelled out in single servings when you actually follow through and do it. Nothing But Heartaches works so well on the album, forming the second half of a kind of opening suite following Ask Any Girl, a one-two punch to start the record with a bang. Back In My Arms Again, which closes out side one, is a euphoric triumph, its slightly more sour, acidic notes perfectly balancing out some of the musical and lyrical sweetness we’ve had on the first side of the LP. Neither of them, though, seems to work properly when extracted to stand on their own; it almost feels wrong to hear them out of that context, as if we’ve broken up a priceless art collection because the pieces will make more money as individual lots.
More Hits is an incredible collection of great songs, an LP rather than an “album”. Simultaneously, and without contradiction, it’s also one of the best albums of all time.
Yes, I know that’s a strange thing to say (any part of it), but it’s at the root of all my thoughts on these (many!) upcoming Supremes singles and B-sides, and so I had to get it all off my chest.
We now return you to the programme as advertised.
Strangely, some of the tracks which don’t leap out at me as should-be singles while I’m playing More Hits actually seem to work better when they’re isolated (quarantined?) as 45s. This – which on the album comes over as a driving, charming, but (there’s no getting away from it) slightly shambolic singalong, especially when compared to the magnificent but sort-of-similar Honey Boy, which we won’t get to meet here in full (but on which subject I’ll have plenty to say in future entries) – absolutely comes into its own as a standalone single.
The edges are rough; there are moments when the girls stumble over the lyrics, and there are moments when the lyrics stumble over themselves, all weird scansion and unnatural phrasing, most uncharacteristic for a product of the Holland-Dozier-Holland hit machine. We get less hooks (and less musical ideas, to be fair) than in any of the previous five Supremes singles, and you can understand radio being wary of a record that starts out with a false dramatic spoken-word intro (“I just want to be happy; to love and be loved back.”) and then proceeds to roll its sleeves up and get as messy as this. You can understand, in short, why Motown may have got cold feet and pulled it.
(It’s not just musically messy – the lyrics, leaving aside the almost casual disregard Eddie Holland seems to have here for his singers’ need to breathe, are again wandering into some dark territory, the narrator proclaiming that real life is a series of crushing romantic disappointments, at best a distraction before she can go to sleep and dream about a better world where the object of her affections loves her back. But the Supremes were veterans of this kind of thing by now, and Diana Ross takes it in her stride.)
Plus, it’s almost comically stereotypical as a Supremes record, the group’s signature sound woven into its very fabric; when people think of the generic sound of the Supremes, it’s likely to be the ambience of More Hits they mean, and despite the trips and slips, The Only Time I’m Happy encapsulates that sound more than any of the other Supremes 45s we’ve yet seen. It’s perhaps not quite adventurous enough to conquer the radio OR deflect accusations of musical stagnation, and so I readily understand why Motown would have changed their minds and backed a different horse, or felt comfortable (essentially) discarding The Only Time I’m Happy.
Here’s the thing, though. It’s fantastic.
All things being considered, I tend to like records that are slightly “off” in some way. Oh, flawless pop perfection is always awe-inspiring to behold, but below that level, I have a soft spot for records that are a bit less sure-footed, a bit more free and easy. To find a golden age Supremes record (and a Supremes record through and through, not some sort of weird experimental outtake) that sounds that way, a Supremes record that sounds half-finished, and what’s more a Supremes record that sounds as though it was actually fun to make… well, it’s both a relief and a pleasure.
I don’t know how they’re even managing to sing some of these lines – there don’t seem to be any pauses for breath built into this thing (the central refrain, one huge long badly-scanning sentence: ‘cos that’s the only time you hold me tight i-in my dreams is the only time your love is mine – runs straight into the first line of the next verse). But if you ever wanted to know what happened to the goofy, freewheeling spirit of When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes, or what that song might have sounded like done by a group with the confidence borne of five number one hits under their belt.. well, voila.
Truth be told, I hadn’t appreciated this enough until it was isolated like this. But it’s a thrill; after calling it a single, the chorus seems to soar higher, the inherent clunkiness seems more endearing, and if I’m honest (am I ever anything but, dear reader?), I like it more than I probably should. I like it more than Back In My Arms Again, anyway; it’s this one I’ve come away whistling.
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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“I’m Not A Plaything”
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