b/w He Holds His Own
(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
Oh, how much I love this.
Mother Dear was the second of Motown’s three attempts at choosing a follow-up single to Back In My Arms Again from the bounty of riches gathered for the superb upcoming More Hits by the Supremes LP, after the abortive promo-only release of The Only Time I’m Happy. This time, happy to report, they got it right – only to overthink the pick and pull Mother Dear from the release schedules before any copies were pressed up, the single withdrawn in favour of another song from the album sessions, Nothing But Heartaches.
(I believe that was a mistake, if you weren’t already sure where I stood on the matter.)
This, though. Wow. Whilst it’s not perfect – and the Supremes themselves had already had several brushes with pop perfection by now, so we know what that sounds like – it’s a record that for me encapsulates everything about the Supremes in the summer of 1965, for good and for ill, and ends up as one of the most overlooked of all Motown’s pop classics.
What if it had been released? Would it have kept alive the Supremes’ winning streak, extending that near-mythical run of Number One hits and becoming their sixth straight Billboard chart-topper? I don’t know if I’d go that far; on the one hand there are strange things going on in the background here and it’s not a particularly comfortable listen lyrically, and on the other hand there’s more than a hint of Motown-by-numbers about it, the song very obviously drawing from the same well as Come See About Me and Back In My Arms Again, the least radical two singles in that amazing run of five Number Ones. Plus, it’s hard not to mention the elephant in the room that is the Beach Boys, of which more in a moment. But despite all of that, this is a great pop song and it would have made a splendid addition to the Supremes singles canon. Ah well.
HIGHWAY TO HAWTHORNE
So, anyway, the chorus to this seems to borrow quite a lot from the Beach Boys’ Help Me R(h)onda, a song which Holland-Dozier-Holland would already have had the chance to hear in two distinct versions earlier in the year, firstly on the fairly-awesome Today! album and then as a completely re-recorded hit single a month or two later. But (a) the two songs aren’t really all that similar, apart from the Help! Help! me! refrain, (b) Help Me Rhonda is a genuinely excellent record and well worth mining for underused hooks, and given a quick respray, they work just as well here – Mother Dear is as catchy as all get-out – and (c) if we take it as read it’s fairly likely HDH owned a copy of Today!, well, on the evidence of that album’s magnificent centrepiece Please Let Me Wonder, Brian Wilson had heard this single’s proposed B-side He Holds His Own (originally a Mary Wells cut from the My Guy LP) once or twice too. Honours even, I’d say.
AND BACK TO THE MOTOR CITY
Enough about the Beach Boys. Mother Dear is the Supremes through and through, so much so it might veer perilously close to self-parody were we not talking about geniuses here, on both sides of the glass. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea – it’s been fascinating, when discussing More Hits on this blog, to see the spread of opinion among readers when it comes to which tracks on the album they really love, and I wasn’t so very surprised to see this cited as the first one some people would consign to the ashcan. But for me, if you like the mid-Sixties Supremes – or even the idea of the mid-Sixties Supremes – Mother Dear has what you came for.
I love that it somehow manages to be at once traditional and experimental, the sound of an ultra-successful group regressing and progressing, all in the same space. We start out in a totally different place to where we finish, musically, lyrically and thematically, and the whole thing ends up stuck in my head for hours to boot.
The intro sounds like it’s from another planet, never mind another record, the rat-tat-tat machine gun drum fill that heralded The Only Time I’m Happy taken to crazed extremes, with an instantly-unnerving stop-time arrangement featuring blaring horn blast for good measure. Diana Ross starts out sort-of-reprising her spoken word intro from that song, but she’s much, much cleverer here, cuter in both the American and British sense, transitioning so smoothly from an anguished semi-narrated cry in the dark –
SOMETHING’S ON MY MI-IND!
Mother dear, the boy keeps me crying
Don’t know which way to turn
KEEPS ME SO CONFUSED
Keeps me so confused…
– to the beauty and grace of Baby Love, so beautifully that after a hundred listens I still can’t pin it down, can’t quite see the join where the song proper begins.
The song proper is a rolling 8/8 stomp in the finest HDH fashion, here punctuated by a stop-time break that acts as a kind of refresher pause for the band – and the tune – to gather their musical forces ready for another drive. Despite the outwardly simple setup, the arrangement is probably the most complex of any Supremes record we’ve seen so far, both the musicians and the backing vocals rising and falling in the mix, peaks and troughs throughout the song, HDH showing their genius (there’s that word again) by bringing each ingredient to the boil at precisely the right moment and in precisely the right proportions before letting it fall away again, the Supremes showing their genius by taking those intricate, interlocking vocal patterns – that looped cooing six-note Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh rundown is an absolutely killer backing vocal refrain, incidentally, one of the loveliest tune-within-a-tune miniatures we’ve yet seen here on Motown Junkies – with such aplomb.
There’s more than a hint of the Velvelettes in the way all three ladies tackle the vocals here, and more than a hint of the Marvelettes in the way Diana alternates between slavishly following the main backing vocal line and pealing away from it altogether in a seemingly-maverick move; but the real similarity is to Where Did Our Love Go, two seemingly unrelated vocal lines suddenly coming together and splashing the listener with the force of a bucket of water being thrown in your face.
The lyrics are all over the place, but I’m absolutely sure they’re intentionally so. Diana’s narrator, a psychological wreck to compare with any of the characters HDH have drawn for her so far, engages in an ostensible monologue asking (praying?) for her mother to help her out of her current predicament. It’s a familiar pickle for Motown female narrators: she’s in love with a guy who’s obviously bad news, but she can’t take the decisive step and walk away, so she needs a helping hand. Help me, mother dear! But as the song progresses, her resolve wavers, sliding drastically back and forth (he’s not that bad, is he? What would I do without him, anyway? Oh God, I can’t live without him! What am I doing?) before Flo and Mary interject/intervene to remind her again – that staccato, almost barked “HELP! HELP!” like a literal slap in the face for Diana’s narrator, ironically giving her some of the help she’s asking for. But she’s almost self-defeating – it’s no use, I can’t break loose – and by the end of the song we’re no closer to a resolution than we were when we started.
(The closest analogue I can think of, actually, is the quick-cut montage from the film Tangled where Rapunzel can’t process the magnitude of what she’s done. If you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If not, um, never mind. But it’s like that, anyway.)
Brilliantly, the music keeps up with all these changes, so that it reflects the narrator’s mood without ever playing it too much on the nose that it lacks subtlety. The foreboding horn break from the intro keeps cropping up to remind us all is not well; the vocal refrain is beautifully sad in the way only Holland-Dozier-Holland can make a song beautifully sad; the verses, where the narrator seems to be flirting with some kind of masochistic pleasure in her dilemma to match the masochistic pleasure of loving her bad boy in the first place, bounce along with the unbridled brio of Come See About Me. As with so many of the great Motown records, I find it hard to pick a defining moment of greatness which adequately represents Mother Dear, just because there are so many of them packed in here. It’s fantastic.
Why was it pulled? Surely not because of the similarities to Help Me Rhonda; rather, it seems that Motown were paralysed in the agony of choice, unsure what to do when presented with a sheaf of material like More Hits where almost every song had all the attributes Quality Control had come to prize when selecting sure-fire hit singles. Easy enough to pick something like this out from an album which was otherwise a pile of sludge, like the Vandellas’ Heat Wave or the Miracles’ Mickey’s Monkey, but what’s the plan when they all sound bright and breezy and catchy and impeccably well-produced and effortlessly commercial? The magic of Motown runs in the veins of Mother Dear, and it’s only a pity it didn’t seduce the decision-makers deeply enough; while it might not have topped the charts, it would have made a fine, fine single.
The Supremes were riding high, perhaps higher than they’d ever ride again. This is right up there with their best to date, an outside candidate (though ultimately unsuccessful) for a place in my top fifty and the corresponding ten out of ten here at the bottom. This will have to do.
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!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
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|The Four Tops
“Your Love Is Amazing”
“He Holds His Own”
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