b/w Don’t Look Back
b/w Don’t Look Back
(Released in the UK under license via EMI / Tamla Motown)
Smokey Robinson and his Miracles bandmates had written two of Motown’s biggest and best hit singles of 1964 – the Temptations’ My Girl and Mary Wells’ My Guy – and so I suppose it made sense to try and mine that seam a bit further. It’s easy to understand the reasoning; this was probably commissioned as a mashup of the two similarly-themed and similarly-titled records, equal parts “Girl” and “Guy”, the combination even resulting in a gender-neutral title. In fact, the result is far closer in tone and sound to My Guy, rather than the Tempts’ own legendary 45, but even that makes sense if you think about it; the group that sang “Girl” now, effectively, sings a variation on “Guy”. Fair enough. I get that part.
What I don’t get, though, is: …why now?
Sure, I could understand Motown (and Smokey) striking while the iron was hot, greenlighting this as a response either to Mary Wells’ controversial walkout or to the million-selling success of My Girl. Motown, after all, were never shy about pushing “soundalike sequels” hot on the heels of big hits; by adopting the maxim that one should never mess with a winning formula, they could almost always rely on a big hit being followed by another decent-sized hit. Money in the bank. But a year and a half had passed since Mary’s big smash and subsequent departure, while the Temptations had already issued two absolutely magnificent follow-ups to My Girl, both of them penned and produced by Smokey, the group building their legend with the excellent It’s Growing and the even better Since I Lost My Baby.
After three slowies, perhaps someone wanted to see the Temptations cut a more upbeat 45 to reinvigorate their live sets, but riffing on My Guy after all this time seems a strange idea at best. The iron was decidedly cold, and yet for some reason either Motown or Smokey decided now was a good time to give it a good ol’ bash anyway.
My Baby is on a hiding to nothing, then, right from the get-go; not only will it invariably (and unfairly) be compared with not one but two masterpieces, it’s also being set up for a fall by comparison to Smokey and the Temptations’ other collaborations as well. Expectations are sky high, too high for anyone to possibly hope to meet, and when the record turns out to be a nice enough diversion, a passable, sweet little snack of a single rather than the all-but-announced gourmet banquet for the senses, the disappointment feels even sharper than if this had just arrived as an unheralded stopgap 45 between albums.
The problems with My Baby run too deep to be easily fixed, then, and they start with the very concept. Having written two timeless musical poems of love and romance, songs that will in all likelihood long outlive anyone reading this blog, the idea of trying to take the best parts from each of them and shuffle them around to come up with a “new” third song was somewhat redundant to begin with – and Smokey doesn’t seem to have been particularly interested in that task anyway, of which more in a moment. But perhaps more importantly, Motown should have learned by now that lightning only strikes once; deliberate attempts to recapture the spontaneous, once-in-a-lifetime joy of a record, a record that only sounded that way by accident because everyone involved was in the zone, just never really work. (Ask the Contours, for instance.)
And without that spark, this just never comes close to having the impact of either of its forebears. Where we imagined Mary Wells bumping into passers-by as she skipped along the street surrounded by cartoon love hearts, or David Ruffin mocking the very forces of nature for their inability to break love’s spell, both swept along on a majestic, unstoppable tide of everlasting love, well, how does My Baby set out its stall? What’s the initial pitch our hero makes, taking on the almost-impossible task of convincing us, the listener, that that was mere child’s play, and that this is the real deal?
(deep breath, and…)
“Whose hairstyles are out of this world?
Whether it’s straight, or bouffant, or it’s curled?
(My baby! Pretty baby!)
Hair soft like a baby lamb
And I love to run my fingers through it…”
Yep – having come up with some of the most evocative, most enduring imagery in the history of the love song, the first and best thing this follow-up can tell us about the girl who supposedly occupies the narrator’s every waking thought, the girl of his dreams, the girl he can’t live without, is that she has hair.
Interesting thought here: neither My Girl nor My Guy spend much time actually telling us anything about the girl and the guy. Despite the titles, both those songs are about the narrators, and the way the girl/guy makes them feel. As soon as you start getting into specifics, you’re venturing away from the universal, narrowing your song’s appeal; and if you shift the focus to the guy/girl anyway (but stay away from describing this otherworldly creature, this eternal love of yours, in physical terms), you end up with a mush of platitudes. The second verse sticks out for this – Her personality contains more gold / Than any bank in the world could hold, our hero says, and then never follows it up with any kind of an explanation – I can’t take his word for it, especially since the subsequent lines are just full of more gold-based puns (“no guy’s gonna stake his claim…!”) before we get back to her appearance again. The sweetest part (and not at all coincidentally, I think, the part which most closely resembles those earlier masterpieces) comes at the end – she’s got his mind in a haze, got him walking around in a daze – which, briefly, I can believe.
So, it’s not another My Girl or My Guy. What is, it then? In short, it’s a nice, bouncy little record, a small-scale vignette unfairly saddled with a big fanfare of unrealistic expectation. One of Mary’s proposed follow-ups to My Guy was a lovely, springy number called When I’m Gone, left manifestly unfinished by Miss Wells’ unexpected departure from Motown, the backing track later “spruced up” (some might say burdened) with big string overdubs and generally more of an A-side treatment in a revised version by Brenda Holloway. My Baby, though, sounds like an evolution of Mary’s original version of When I’m Gone, with the same flex and snap and bounce.
The whole thing just rolls along like a happy cloud; so long as you’re prepared to ignore the lunkheaded words, the vocals themselves are lovely (the song may be nonsense, but the Temptations are clearly having a ball singing said nonsense, and the vocal melody in the verses is one of Smokey’s prettier contributions.) It’s not as taut as When I’m Gone, the whole thing coming uncomfortably close to a juddering halt as the chorus loses its way, meandering down a musical dead end which Smokey can only resolve with something approaching a complete dead air stop – but one more of those “doorbell” jingles and barrelling drum rolls, and we’re straight away back in business. It’s not enough to make me forget the second-rate lyrics, or the creatively bankrupt concept that got us here in the first place – but it’s nearly enough to make me want to forgive them. Nearly.
Is it a worthy follow-up to either My Girl or My Guy? You’d have to say no. Is it a worthy continuation of the recent glorious string of Temptations singles? Again, surely the answer would be no. But for all of that, is it a bad record? Of course it isn’t.
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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“Since You Won My Heart”
“Don’t Look Back”
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