(One sided promo disc)
(Written by Phil Spector)
Eagle eyed readers (if there are any of you left out there, following my recent vacation absence!) will have spotted by now that I start each review with a number. My reasons for doing so are easy enough to fathom – it keeps internal links short, and it helps me keep track of how far I’ve got as I blog my way through the entire Motown catalogue, one record at a time. But the numbers also sometimes throw things into stark relief. Here we are, exactly 200 reviews since the Supremes finally broke into the national consciousness with Where Did Our Love Go, and in that time the group have gone from being three artless teenage girls from the projects to, arguably, the biggest group in America.
Over the space of a year and a half, the one-time “no-hit Supremes”, runts of the Motown litter, have chalked up five US Number One singles, two big-selling albums, sold-out live shows, a loyal following around the world, and a groundbreaking appearance on the cover of TV Magazine. Now, that progress is even more vividly illustrated by their being chosen as the voices of a civil rights public awareness campaign. Things Are Changing, indeed.
On the face of it, this should be one of the legendary Motown records: not only was this not widely released, it’s the only time Motown and Phil Spector ever officially worked together, and it’s a snapshot of a pivotal time in the history of both Motown and of America in general. But the closer you look, the more you dig into the convoluted backstory of this record, the more the shiny coating rubs off, the more the mythic glow fades away. What’s left is an interesting curio, for sure, and certainly not without its charm (by turns goofy and magical), but anyone anticipating a stellar collaboration between two of the greatest forces in Sixties pop music (or even just a splendid lost Supremes single) is bound to come away rather disappointed.
For starters, this song – and its backing track – had already gone through two distinct iterations before it ever got anywhere near Motown, and neither of those incarnations was intended for the Supremes; the girls are, effectively, special guest stars, appearing in someone else’s show. They take to their assigned task with pleasing aplomb, of course – it’s not as if they weren’t accustomed to singing over pre-recorded backing tapes, or that they were used to writing or producing their own material anyway – but this is no Motown-Spector exchange of ideas, it’s more like the Supremes being loaned out to sing for Philles for the day.
LET’S DANCE THE SCREW
The track was originally recorded as the only useable fruit of a short-lived collaboration between Spector and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, the two camps’ mutual musical admiration breaking down when it came to actually being in the same room. Both Spector and Wilson were already widely known for having odd working habits; factor in Brian’s increasingly paranoid, reclusive behaviour and Spector’s legendarily abrasive and prickly attitude, and the stage was set for fireworks.
It’s the sort of idea which can either bring out the very best in a genius – the stuff of legend – or fizzle out amid acrimony. Unfortunately, this was one of those that fizzled out amid acrimony; after a row over songwriting credits culminated in a walk-out, all that came out of the sessions was a half-finished idea for a Ronettes song, tentatively titled Don’t Hurt My Little Sister; not exactly the foundation of a bold, unstoppable new dynasty in American pop.
The Beach Boys themselves went on and finished their own version of Don’t Hurt My Little Sister, the song ending up as throwaway filler for the Today! album; meanwhile, Spector was left with the half-finished Ronettes track (which may or may not actually feature Brian Wilson on piano), and promptly shelved it.
Fast forward a few months, and the Advertising Council approached Spector to write a song promoting civil rights in the workplace, to support their campaign to raise awareness of employment issues faced by African-Americans and women – and especially African-American women – and to emphasise that, thanks to the Johnson Administration’s new legislation, things were indeed changing for the better.
(Anthony Chen gives the whole project a darker spin – an attmept by big business to stave off any further government meddling and the prospect of affirmative action by pushing the PR lie that everything was all better now, and that if black people didn’t now go out and get good, well-paid jobs (in industries that had previously slammed doors in their faces!), it would be their own fault. I don’t go that far, and certainly it was a laudable aim to get a campaign like this all over the radio whatever the underlying motivation, but I’d be lying if I didn’t point out the uncomfortable overtones of pushing the onus away from the companies and onto the would-be workers.)
Anyway, it’s fair to say the project wasn’t exactly top of Spector’s list of priorities, but he apparently dusted off the unfinished track, wrote some new lyrics for the song, incorporating the Council’s touchstone policies and slogans, and then handed the whole thing over to producer Jerry Riopelle to finish.
Once the track was completed, three different groups were press-ganged into recording vocals on the new song, as a glorified PSA: Jay and the Americans, whose version hews closest to the song’s Beach Boys origins; the Supremes; and, finally, Darlene Love and the Blossoms. (A fourth version, by Julio Angel and Lucecita, was released in Puerto Rico.) By the winter of 1965/66, the song in its various guises was getting radio exposure all over America, and no black woman ever had to worry about racist or sexist discrimination at work again (SUBS PLEASE CHECK).
IT DOESN’T MATTER WHO YOU MAY BE
Anyway. What’s never been made entirely clear is how the Supremes ended up involved in this project; it’s not completely alien to us here in the 21st Century, we’re used to seeing boy bands and girl bands du jour co-opted into fronting PSA and charity messages for the kids, and so it makes sense that someone might have approached the Supremes – arguably the top American chart act of the time, never mind the top black female group – with a tentative request to see if they were interested. Obviously they (or Motown, or ITMI) said yes – perhaps not even knowing the level of Spector’s involvement, never mind openly seeking to collaborate with him – but what happened after that is anyone’s guess.
The three different groups’ vocal tracks for Things Are Changing were all recorded separately, the Blossoms the only one done in-house in Spector’s studio. We don’t know who produced the Supremes’ vocals or even when they sang them; all we know is that here, with Motown’s golden summer of 1965 drawing to a close, there was yet another Supremes release jostling for attention, wading into an already saturated market looking for some airtime.
But more interesting to me is the idea of the Motown/Spector collaboration as a kind of passing of the baton. Earlier in their career, the Supremes had been at the vanguard of several Motown acts aping the Spector sound (as seen most notably on pre-fame Supremes singles like When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes and Run, Run, Run), and so it’s fascinating to see them doing it for real. And sure enough, the Supremes do enough here to show they could have hacked it as a Philles group, at least; their harmonies are sweeter and tighter than the Blossoms’ effort, and it’s fascinating to hear them effectively pretending to be the Ronettes or Crystals; a glimpse of an alternate musical history of Sixties America flashes up for a fraction of a second and flickers away again just as quickly.
So, yes, on this evidence, the Supremes and Phil Spector actually working together might have made something special happen. But it would have happened already; here, in 1965, the Wall of Sound is already passé, already datemarked as yesterday’s news in the face of both the British Invasion and (more pertinently) the almost aggressively perfect pop already coming out of Hitsville. Compare Things Are Changing not to Run, Run, Run but to Nothing But Heartaches, and it’s clear the world has already moved on. The Spector/Riopelle backing is muddier and murkier than Motown’s own attempts to mimic that sound, and now the Supremes bring an illustration of the new sounds which had supplanted it: tighter, clearer, sweeter, better.
NOW IS THE TIME FOR YOU TO BETTER YOURSELF
Because we don’t know the behind-the-scenes details of this, it’s hard to say where it fits into the Supremes’ story; here on Motown Junkies, we’re meeting the girls after their first (relative) setback in a year and a half of almost uninterrupted glory. After an astonishing run of five straight Number One singles, their would-be sixth in the series, Nothing But Heartaches, had unexpectedly stalled outside the Top Ten.
But we can’t take this earnest charity record as anything other than an extra-curricular jaunt – we don’t know if it was greenlit in an attempt by Motown to focus attention back on the Supremes again after their last single had spluttered out, or if it was slated for release months and months in advance; we don’t know if it was recorded from a position of confidence, or whether it dates from the days before their superstardom was assured. All we can do is listen to this cold, as a little extra treat, a bonus opportunity to meet the Supremes in this, their most spectacular year.
And it’s… alright. It’s not a classic or anything, but it’s probably better than we had any right to expect, even briefly thrilling in places, so I’m calling it a win.
Diana’s in her element doing the clunky spoken-word “sassy” parts; far be it from me to suggest that she sounds comfortable bossing other girls around, but she’s definitely having fun with this, perhaps more so than either Darlene or Jay and the Americans on their equivalent opening monologues. (“Get your man, take him by the hand, and bring him here to me!”)
But there’s no getting away from this being an afterthought; it’s not really finished, musically it leaves loose ends (the chorus feels like a classic Spector looping effort, things are changing / for the better, things are changing / for the better, but the loop is cut short with a swingeing off-the-peg economy measure to get us back to the verse again in quick time – Now is the time / For you to better your-SELF – which sounds forced and unwelcome, as if lurching unnaturally from Spector’s usual mode of writing to a different type of song.
Plus, the lyrics are as awkward as feared, and the Supremes can’t fully commit to them – it’s not exactly phoned in, but equally it’s never going to be anything more than a PSA, a glorified radio jingle. It’s a pretty jingle, and it’s as catchy as you’d expect of anything Brian Wilson had a tangential hand in, but a jingle nonetheless. Not bad, not great; rough and heavy-handed in places, beautifully sung in others. The soaring pre-chorus break (It doesn’t MAT-TER) is a thrill, worth a couple of marks all by itself, but other than that one spectacular moment, it all remains somehow earthbound.
But hey, it’s the Supremes, sounding lovely, singing Phil Spector for real two years or so after doing the whole ersatz Wall of Sound thing; it may not be vintage Supremes (or vintage Spector, for that matter), and it’s certainly not the stuff of legend that might have been expected of the only official Motown/Spector collaboration, but, well, it’s the Supremes pretending to be the Crystals, and don’t pretend you weren’t curious to hear how that turned out.
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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