(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
Hastily-recorded (and, more unusually, just as hastily-written) as a follow-up to the chart-topping, million-selling I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch), there’s no denying It’s The Same Old Song bears more than a passing resemblance to its predecessor. But people who ought to know better have seen it as a rare unguarded admission on the part of Motown (or HDH) of self-plaigiarism, something to be quote-mined when denigrating Motown hits for all sounding the same as each other. Even THEY admitted it! Ha ha ha ha!
In fact, It’s The Same Old Song came about because Holland-Dozier-Holland were called upon to write a brand-new single to order, something – anything – for the Tops to have in the shops in order to combat their former label Columbia’s bandwagon-jumping ploy, a cleverly-marketed re-issue of a long-forgotten flop (1960’s spirited Ain’t That Love, now remixed and sped-up to sound more like the Motown Four Tops and less like the well-travelled but luckless doo-woppers of five years before). They wrote it on the hoof, in the studio, on the day it was recorded, mixed and sent to the pressing plant. Not that you’d really know it; It’s The Same Old Song is a little muffled in places, a little jumbled and breathless, but as far as I was concerned, it didn’t feel rushed or unfinished for me until I found out it really was.
I’d argue, strongly, that – stripping away the folklore – this is actually one of Motown’s less egregious examples of soundalike sequel syndrome. It’s impossible to deny the family resemblance, but this is harder-edged than Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch, and noisier to boot: it’s taut and pacy, more in keeping with the Tops’ later banging mid-Sixties anthems like Shake Me, Wake Me… a very different feel to the rolling rhythms of I Can’t Help Myself.
Despite the various claims that the two songs are hung on the same musical skeleton (they aren’t – this one’s much further divorced from the Supremes’ Where Did Our Love Go, the obvious-in-hindsight progenitor of I Can’t Help Myself, although it does add in a ripping instrumental sax break which calls to mind the Supremes hit), or that the repeated four-note riff in this one is simply the four-note riff from the last one played backwards (it isn’t – that comes from something Brian Holland said in an interview once, as an aside, some thirty years later), this is a new song in its own right and doesn’t deserve its status as poster child for a lack of Motown creativity. It doesn’t even really to be bracketed alongside the likes of, say, Quicksand or Two Lovers or A Love She Can Count On (all great singles in their own right, incidentally) in terms of, ahem, “drawing inspiration” from what came immediately before.
The title is an intentional joke, occasioned by the increasing perception that all Holland-Dozier-Holland’s songs sounded the same, together with the ludicrously unrealistic time frame imposed on this. It’s a cheeky wink, something that HDH might have done among themselves for a bet (in the face of an accusation that all their songs sounded the same, I can absolutely see them challenging each other to write a coherent and internally-consistent song around such a phrase), but it’s certainly not – as I’ve seen argued – compelling evidence Motown were laughing in their fans’ faces while selling them six copies of the same (old) song with three notes changed.
Ha ha ha ha, but it’s the same old song, they said so themselves! Ha ha ha ha! Yes, dear.
This went top five, while the Columbia record was snuffed out having barely skimmed the lowest depths of the Hot 100. Motown had grown big, but they hadn’t grown fat; their quick reactions and whip-smart handling of their production, distribution and PR contacts allowed the upstart black-owned indie label to squash direct competition from one of the biggest record companies in the world. Point, Gordy.
I hadn’t realised it until I came to write this, but it turns out I’m rather fond of this record, actually. I’d never fallen for the hype that called this the epitome of Motown repeatedly scrabbling down the back of the sofa for new ideas, but I’d not realised just how forceful and exciting it is. Lyrically, it’s impressive given the artificial surroundings of its birth: the narrator and his girlfriend have split up, and Levi Stubbs – in an echo of Martha Reeves’ wounded narrator in the Vandellas’ magnificent Come And Get These Memories – can’t bear to listen to their old favourite record any more. It was clever then, and it’s clever now. More so, given the context; part of me really hopes this was written for a bet.
It’s got a great chorus, perhaps even more whistleable than the gentler earworm of I Can’t Help Myself; that had worked its way in through a kind of repetitive, rolling, strolling grind, whereas this one’s got an actual hook, the sort of thing you can imagine going down splendidly on nightclub dancefloors in 1975 given a bit of a disco twist; a mental image of four guys in white suits, sequins, wide collars, flares, shades, Afros, all moving in perfect time. This is nowhere near smooth enough for any of that, and yet the song (if not the recording) sounds as though it might have fallen through a wormhole from a decade in the future. More than any Tops record we’ve covered so far, this one would be great for dancing.
As always, Levi Stubbs is the Tops’ greatest asset, the pain and pleading in this one very much grist to his mill; he handles an extraordinarily well-judged lead vocal in fluid fashion, the hurry and haste of the song’s construction perhaps leading him to adopt a slightly different approach, running lines and syllables together between the lengthy pauses built into the song. It’s yet another striking example of Levi’s mastery of his craft, not just in terms of his voice – although he sounds great – but in terms of having the intelligence to pick his way through the assault course of a hastily-assembled arrangement to splendid effect, roaming around free of the tune when there’s room for him to roam, sticking to the melody line when there isn’t.
It works really well; the same can’t really be said of the backing vocals, which are strangely – if entirely understandably – simple, even sparse, for a Four Tops record, It’s The Same Old Song actually making the least use of the female house singers, the immortal Andantes, of any Tops song we’ve covered so far. The harmonies are sketched in rather than carved in stone, and the hints of more complex ideas (the excellent bit late in the song, presaging Sly Stone, where Levi and the BVs trade lines call-and-response style with “We used to dance to the music!”, is particularly good) only serve to highlight the lack of arrangements earlier in the song. It doesn’t sound completely intentional, either – in an echo of the Originals’ forthcoming We’ve Got A Way Out Love, the backing Tops’ staccato interjections (Same! Old! Song!), bark-delivered without any sustain at all, feel like they were probably meant to have been augmented by overdubs that never got done amidst the chaos.
The best thing about this, though, is the Funk Brothers’ snappy backing track; the recording’s slightly fuzzy, blurry edges are a symptom of its having been cut at speed, but the trade-off is that we get to see what a tight band the Funks have become, especially when handed a prefab Holland-Dozier-Holland 4/4 stomp. The machine-gun drum fill that opens the song, ratatatatatat, gives way to a jam par excellence, the band riffing on all the musical tropes they’d learned from all those hits not just for the Tops, but the Supremes and anyone else who was using HDH’s template.
What it all adds up to, somewhat unexpectedly, is yet another excellent single. I say “unexpectedly” because I’d been waiting for a chance to ease up on the flow of constant praise that Motown Junkies has become as we make our way through the summer of 1965, and based solely on its reputation, this seemed like that chance – but no, this one’s absolutely fine by me.
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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