B-side of Danger Heartbreak Dead Ahead
B-side of Danger Heartbreak Dead Ahead
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
It’s not that there wasn’t a “Motown Sound”, or that Motown didn’t create records that sounded an awful lot like their other records; both of those things are true, but perhaps not in the way they’re usually meant.
The poor old Marvelettes, who had no strong musical identity of their own for listeners to identify with in the first place, spent their entire time at Motown in search of that identity, that unique “voice”, without arguably ever really finding it. They weren’t helped by the fact there was no Marvelettes album released between 1963 and 1967, no opportunity for fans to draw together the developing themes of their developing sound. It must have been a bewildering experience to be a lover of the group during the mid-Sixties; the situation, ironically, is not too different to that in which their erstwhile protegées the Supremes had found themselves a couple of years earlier, with all sorts of different and contradictory nods to the future. The girls were growing up – but what sort of group were they growing into?
Here in the mid-Sixties, as Motown gets bigger, and the sums of money involved in promoting and distributing would-be national hits get correspondingly bigger too, the number of experiments, oddities and throwbacks issued as A-sides begins to fall. By now, if you were a big-ticket Motown act – and for the Marvelettes, Motown’s first chart-topping group, that was still just about the case four long years after their début, albeit they were whooshing back down the Hitsville pecking order with every underwhelming chart entry – you’d only see a curveball A-side if your last single hadn’t lived up to expectations. The formula was in place – not a musical formula, as the prevailing Motown sound kept on evolving right the way throughout the company’s time in Detroit, but rather a commercial formula: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; if it’s broke, fix it right away. If all was well, your new single would bear a striking similarity to your last one, and if fans wanted the curveballs, they’d need to flip over; the B-side was where they’d be.
The Marvelettes’ last single, I’ll Keep Holding On, had been a Top 40 hit and flirted with the R&B Top Ten, passable business by their newly lowered commercial standards, and so the follow-up was accordingly cut from the same cloth; Danger Heartbreak Dead Ahead is a step forward in terms of production and maturity (if not in terms of quality songwriting). But it failed, and so this chapter of the Marvelettes story – where they occupied the same sonic and attitudinal territory as Martha and the Vandellas, but with rather less commercial success – was drawn to a premature close. Another false start, another dead end.
Does Your Cheating Ways offer any more of a clue to the future of the Marvelettes? It’s certainly unusual in that it’s drawn from somewhere the Marvelettes hadn’t visited in a while, acknowledging the influence of the kind of brassy, midtempo, calypso-tinged bossa nova sort of sound that made up most of their last studio LP (1963’s The Marvelous Marvelettes). But it’s not really a regression; the sound is slicker, the harmonies are tighter, and this ends up sounding for all the world like something written to spec for Kim Weston or Brenda Holloway. (Ironically so, given that Brenda herself was currently mired in a run of challenging cover versions of ill-suited material, as we’ll see again shortly.) There’s more than a hint of show tune pizazz about this, too, like it’s trying to flirt with the trappings of the kind of anthemic, soaring songs that made that style work, without necessarily being strong enough underneath to carry it off.
Instead, the overall effect is a bit messy, bordering on the chaotic. (If the A-side Danger Heartbreak Dead Ahead showed up the Supremes’ Nothing But Heartaches, here it’s the Marvelettes who suffer by way of an unflattering comparison; when put alongside the Supremes’ similarly outlandish blast-from-the-past exercise Ask Any Girl, this one just isn’t as intriguing. Indeed, I’ve found it hard to write much about the song itself; I’ve already forgotten the lyrics, and the tune is one of those that just sort of blends in with the background noise of everything Motown was doing in 1965 that wasn’t an immortal classic.
It’s to the Marvelettes’ credit that while it isn’t a brilliant record on any level, this still somehow manages to sound fresh, in its own idiosyncratic way, as it jolts along. There are plenty of reminders of the past in here, and a forgotten past at that (Motown, of course, built their marketing around the here and now, meaning less and less echoes of the pre-supernova days, the Playboy album and Mary Wells); but to answer my original question, yes, there are moments here where the Marvelettes’ future comes shining through, brief glimpses of the midtempo grandeur and sophisticated soul of the Pink Album and beyond.
If it’s still very much a snapshot of a group in transition – and if that transition would never really be adequately captured on vinyl in the absence of a couple more albums during this period – well, that transition was maybe the most striking Motown would ever see outside of Stevie Wonder, the Marvelettes going from arguably the most jejune and childish girl group of 1961 to arguably the most mature girl group of 1969, and any evidence of that is bound to be worth hearing on some level.
We won’t meet the Marvelettes again until November, when they’ll emerge from their chrysalis with a whole different sound (and a brilliant record to show it off). Strangely, considering this isn’t brilliant – and that it could easily have been recorded a year before by someone else without anyone batting an eyelid – Your Cheating Ways perhaps offered unwitting fans more of a clue to that new sound than first realised. Who knows, maybe this is plenty intriguing after all.
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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“Danger Heartbreak Dead Ahead”
“You’ve Changed Me”
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