(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
Martha Reeves and the Vandellas had returned to form, critically and commercially, in the most spectacular fashion with Nowhere To Run, which should have heralded a string of chart-topping, Holland-Dozier-Holland penned hits for the group. Instead, this was their first release in five months, the sound of an unstruck iron slowly cooling in the corner.
What happened is really anyone’s guess; Holland-Dozier-Holland wouldn’t write and produce another Vandellas A-side for over a year and a half, busy instead with the Four Tops and the unprecedented success of the Supremes (when Motown protocol would previously have meant they “won” the Vandellas job until they turned in a flop, I suppose there just wasn’t time for them to oversee three top acts). But that doesn’t explain why it took the best part of half a year to follow up Nowhere To Run – especially as when the follow-up You’ve Been In Love Too Long did appear, it was written and produced by another team (the less-heralded but still rising Stevenson and Hunter) instead anyway.
In the absence of hard facts, entirely unsubstantiated darker rumours have gathered around this delay, mainly concerning Martha’s position within both the company and the group, which we won’t get into here. Rather, suffice to say that for whatever reason, right in the middle of Motown’s glorious Golden Age, in Motown’s most successful year to date, one of Motown’s top-drawer marquee names inexplicably found themselves left out in the cold for five months. Luckily for all of us, when they finally returned, they did so in style.
You’ve Been In Love Too Long, then, is a funny sort of a follow-up to Nowhere To Run, borrowing that record’s dynamic pummelling and adapting it to the kind of horn-driven pulse and power of the recent stormers turned in by the Marvelettes and Velvelettes, and then melding that power to the strange, alien cadences of Martha’s increasingly outlandish voice.
She sounds more out of control (and breath!) here than ever before, and yet there’s no doubt she knows exactly what she’s doing. It’s strange, even disconcerting, to hear her swooping around the octave in her not-quite-holler, not-quite-drawl, not-quite-croon – she’s certainly not out of tune, it’s more that she’s doing something very individual and personal with her voice, using it in a way akin to a cross between a bluesy patter and a battering ram.
One wonders whether it’s a deliberate attempt to ape the frustrated instancy of Dancing In The Street, a song recorded twice because a careless tape op consigned Martha’s heartfelt first take to oblivion, resulting in a genuinely angry reprise that became her signature performance. Whatever the reason, you can’t help but take notice, can’t help but remember it.
Really effective, too, in that Martha – who sells the kind of character she plays here, worldly sass with a hint of vindictive motivation, far better than many of her labelmates – turns out to be a great choice for an advice song on this form. Most of the Vandellas’ shining moments before now have focussed on Martha the wronged, Martha the wounded, Martha the defiant; she’s still all of those things here, by implication, but now the focus is shifted to the second person, so that this is nominally not a song about Martha’s narrator at all. Except, as we come to realise, it becomes entirely about Martha’s narrator before it’s through.
In a way, the topography of the ever-shifting cliques and musical territory at Motown had marked out this territory expressly for Martha and the Vandellas to inhabit. They were never going to be the Supremes – they were too loud and tough and dirty for that kind of dainty froideur, and the events surrounding this belated release must have made it clear they weren’t going to be getting the songs either. But instead, here they take possession of something new, something more dangerous and exciting and grown-up, something that had lain just out of the Marvelettes’ grasp and was now ceded forever: from here on in, this is the Vandellas’ home turf, and they occupy it with panache. And with a super-catchy chorus to boot. Brava.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
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