(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
One of the salient features of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s best collaborations with the Supremes so far – Baby Love would be THE example, but you could also say this about Stop! In The Name Of Love, Where Did Our Love Go, Mother Dear, The Only Time I’m Happy, never mind a few more we’ve yet to meet – is the way that the words play against the music. On the one hand, all of those records (if you didn’t understand English) sound happy, HDH’s pumping, upbeat music and the Supremes’ high, perfect filigree harmonies catching your ear straight away. On the other hand, sit down and look at some of those lyrics, and it becomes clear we’re actually dealing with a series of emotionally damaged, desperate women.
The effect is undeniably powerful, it’s striking and it packs a punch, as though the dichotomy of the lyrics and the music serves to strengthen both, delivering maximum message for maximum impact. But it raises the question: why do Holland-Dozier-Holland and the Supremes not double down on joy, like Smokey Robinson with the Temptations’ My Girl and Mary Wells’ My Guy? Why don’t they turn in a happy-sounding song that really is happy, instead of wrongfooting future karaoke singers with unexpectedly dark themes?
And then we come to I Hear A Symphony, and it becomes clear: they couldn’t commit everything to happiness too often, because the effect is so potent that if used irresponsibly, it could literally have broken listeners’ hearts.
NECESSITY, INVENTION, AND OTHER NINE LETTER WORDS
My favourite Supremes record – do you like how I kept that below the fold there? – was in many ways a reaction (an over-reaction, really) to the perceived failure of their previous single. Motown had chosen Nothing But Heartaches as the next single from the magnificent More Hits by the Supremes LP, firmly in the hope it would become their sixth 45 in a row to top the charts; when it instead mystifyingly stalled outside the Top Ten, Motown went into crisis mode. Despite More Hits being far from mined out for hit singles (indeed, unsubstantiated rumours persist that Motown had already slated Mother Dear for a second abortive 7″ release), Berry Gordy demanded something new. The infamous memo Gordy sent to his bewildered staff:
“We will release nothing less than Top Ten product on any artist. And because the Supremes’ world-wide acceptance is greater than the other artists, on them we will release only Number One records.”
…was the direct result of Nothing But Heartaches not living up to commercial expectations, the first time the company had had to react to a big-ticket single from a big-name act unexpectedly tanking in the charts. The message was loud and clear: this next one had better be a huge hit, boys and girls. Or else.
Gordy’s canny political play in giving the Holland-Dozier-Holland team a subtle, easily-denied but nonetheless unmistakeable public bollocking seems to have worked. If I Hear A Symphony isn’t the massive departure from the earlier Supremes hit-making formula it’s sometimes painted as, well, it’s still a departure nonetheless, Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier using the opportunity to try out several new musical ideas on a bigger and grander scale than anything that had gone before, Eddie Holland for the first time allowing Diana Ross to finally be unambiguously, deliriously happy. Nobody was going to accuse the writers of not doing their best to obey Gordy’s memo, that’s for sure.
There were other factors at work too, of course. The liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 5 mention in a casual aside when discussing I Hear A Symphony that Motown sold more 45s in the US in 1965 than any other company, and that Jobete was named by the BMI as the most profitable publishing company for the same year.
This sort of thing did not go unnoticed by rival labels, many of whom started pushing for their own piece of the Motor City action. Some sent their acts to Detroit (as Smokey Robinson memorably put it, “they figured it was in the air, that if they came to Detroit and recorded on the freeway, they’d get the Motown Sound”); some set about mechanically recreating what Motown was doing, slavishly copying the Funk Brothers’ style as best they and their session musicians could manage.
One of the most successful copycat attempts came courtesy of New York girl group the Toys, whose A Lover’s Concerto blended the sound of the Motown rhythm section with a Bach concerto and promptly sold two million copies. Penny for Berry Gordy’s thoughts; it’s never been conclusively proven whether or not Holland-Dozier-Holland purposely set about, or were told to set about, making a pop record with classical influences as a reaction to the Toys’ record – but whatever the reasons, Motown rushed this one through alright, from writing to recording to record store shelves in the space of a week.
(Gordy, so the story goes, heard the rough acetate at 3am one morning, loved it, noted that the Supremes were in town on a stopover between live shows, and immediately ordered Brian Holland to get it finished and recorded that day. Eddie Holland recalls teaching Diana Ross the words while he was still writing them; several observers have noticed Diana’s lead vocal lacks the polish of earlier efforts, supposedly a result of the rushed recording. How much of any of this is actually true, and how much is mythologising, is anyone’s guess.)
Whether it was sheer opportunism or complete coincidence, the idea to write a classically-influenced track had been burning away in its composers’ heads for a while now. Brian Holland credited his schooldays being sent to watch the Detroit Symphony Orchestra courtesy of his dad’s job on the Ford assembly lines, Lamont Dozier namechecked Bach by name. So as well as the Toys, we might have to thank both Bach and the Ford Motor Company for bringing us here, because the cumulative result of all those factors was this record, and it’s brilliant.
IT’S A STRING THING
One of the things that most annoys me about much of the criticism I’ve read on I Hear A Symphony is that, plainly, the people doing the evaluating have no idea what they’re talking about. This is a record that ends up (like so many Motown singles of the era) swimming in strings, and so a lot of reviewers have simply made a ham-fisted connection between that and the title, noting I Hear A Symphony incorporates influences from classical music. Well, yes, it does, but the strings are only a small part of that.
Rather, it’s the song’s structure which takes its cues from classical music – a fact openly acknowledged by its composers. It’s the framework for a rather different kind of pop record than we’ve really encountered before here on Motown Junkies: a pop record that doesn’t sound like a classical piece but rather is constructed like a classical piece. A sparse, quiet beginning that stealthily builds into an ascending first movement, the same motif developed throughout the song (no chorus, just repetition, different voices playing that one motif) until we reach a barnstorming, blow-the-roof-off finish: it’s Holland-Dozier-Holland’s take on the pop song as classical fugue.
What to make of the more obvious classical trappings, then? What about those strings? I don’t think it’s so simple as the writers just adding them in there to make sure the classical allusions took proper hold in the audience’s mind. For fifty years it’s been a standard pop music maneouvre for writers/producers to slap on a string section and give their composition instant gravitas, dignity, class, but that’s not really what’s going on here; if anything, they’re relatively restrained compared to what the Temptations and Miracles were doing at around the same time, perhaps precisely because the reference in the title might make listeners over-ascribe meaning to the string parts.
Supposedly, the germ of the song came from Holland (B.) and Dozier spoofing love scenes from old movies, the music swelling as our romantic leads share a kiss, the writers thinking it would be an amusing notion if those buttery orchestral strings were actually diagetic and the characters on screen could actually hear them. This explains what happens the first time the string section makes itself heard: without that knowledge, the spectre of naffness briefly looms from stage left, a little violin sting straight after the word “Symphony” as if someone is hitting you over the head with the symbolism (because strings = classical = symphony, DO YOU SEE?), but then they disappear almost entirely from the track, the idea already planted.
No, the overriding impression one gets from I Hear A Symphony, musically, is a climb. It gets louder, higher, busier and more powerful as it goes on, so much so that it takes a few dedicated listens to work out just how the whispering vibes and soft repeating bass from the intro end up becoming the full-on hundred-man handclap love-in of the final fade-out.
AS YOU STAND HOLDING ME
Is this Eddie Holland’s best lyric? It’s certainly right up there for me, which maybe makes it even more surprising that he claims to have still been writing on the lyric sheets as he was handing them to Diana. Similarly, if Miss Ross was tired and rushed, it’s to the song’s credit, her slightly breathless voice fitting the sentiments perfectly, as though you can actually hear the tears glistening in her eyes. Brian and Lamont’s jokey ideas of hokey films have become something much more deep and powerful, something in line with the likes of My Girl and Baby I Need Your Loving: when you’re this much in love, the physical laws of the universe don’t apply. Music – not just any specific piece of music, but the entire spirit, the whole body of music that has ever been made and will ever be made – is on your side.
Perhaps Eddie and Diana not being given the chance to overthink this, their being forced to trust their first instincts because there simply wasn’t time to second-guess themselves, was a blessing. Diana’s narrator isn’t just in love, she’s so in love that only music can come close to explaining it. Furthermore, even though the song’s in the second person, it never feels like it’s being sung for her lover’s benefit; surely, surely, he already knows. But neither is she showing off; she’s simply got to tell the entire world about this, and they’ll understand. And we do.
These tears that fill my eyes? I cry not for myself, but for those who’ve never felt the joy we’ve felt.
It brings me out in goosebumps literally every time I hear it.
I’d never change anything about this record. The instrumental break, perfect as it is (and featuring another squalling sax break as was now standard, expected Supremes procedure) is also perfectly situated within the song, Diana giving us the feeling that the break is there because she’s just a little overcome and needs a moment before carrying on. And then there are those multiple key changes, taking us far from where we began; there’s no question of it being mere laziness here, no hint of the dreaded “truck driver’s” change as used by a composer who’s run out of ideas. Instead, each successive key change feels like a rush of adrenaline, Brian and Lamont – and Diana – suffused with reckless joy, almost as if they can’t quite believe they’re getting away with these, just like Diana can’t quite believe this is finally happening, that true love does exist.
(I talk of Brian and Lamont and Diana, when of course I should be adding “and Flo, and Mary” – but while they sound lovely, they’re less prominent than on any Supremes 45 to date here, this perhaps being the first of the Golden Age Supremes’ singles which really could have been a solo record. But I digress – that feels like a downer, when in reality nothing at all about this record is a downer in the slightest, such is the overwhelming, heart-bursting sugar rush of pure happiness that streams out of the speakers every single time.)
Together, the three push their luck with each clambering step up the ladder, and still it doesn’t break, so they decide to push it again and stretch for the next one. And they carry it off each and every time, the song climbing forever to heaven. Of course it took them back to Number One. How could it not? How could anyone play this alongside any other record in that week’s chart? It almost feels like an insult to call it a pop single at all, to make it mortal, to make it somehow share the same taxonomy as Little Jimmy Osmond. I love it.
The Supremes would go on to make several more timeless, brilliant pop records. They’re far from done with the top of the scoring range here on Motown Junkies. In commercial terms, you could well argue that despite the six Number One singles, they hadn’t even reached their peak yet, never mind started to decline. But for me, no matter what else they’d go on to do – indeed, whatever else Diana and Mary go on to do, even now, as I’m writing this – they’d never be quite this good again.
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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