B-side of I Hear A Symphony
(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
B-side of I Hear A Symphony
(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
Once again, Motown fail to capture the magic of a classic A-side. The Supremes’ sixth chart-topping single, I Hear A Symphony, might just be the perfect Supremes record. Everything about it glowed with quality: the sheer pop beauty of the tune, the sweetness of the vocals, the achingly lovely lyrics, the neat scansion, the seamless construction, the graceful instrumentation.
Who Could Ever Doubt My Love, yet another track from the More Hits by the Supremes album pressed into service as a B-side here, has none of those things. Where I Hear A Symphony was almost effortlessly elegant and intricate, this is harsh, earthbound, the joins not quite properly sanded down, the vocals stretching to meet the music, the music stretching to meet the vocals.
Right from the start, a stabbing orchestral sting pounds out the rhythm like a drunken Morse Code operator, strings being scraped loudly and gracelessly just to tap out (and crudely emphasise) a beat. The drum track is clunky and intrusive, throwing in a series of altered-time fills that don’t ever really fit with the rest of the song. The lyrics are wordy and laid out in oddly-constructed, oddly-divided sentences, leading to Diana Ross almost sounding as though she’s stuttering over some of her lines. And Diana herself is slipping back into old habits, her voice high and reedy, straining in places for both power and control. Even the production is slightly off, several moments of audible distortion affecting the string and guitar parts, twisting them into rough-edged, buzzing echoes of themselves.
I’ve talked before about the mythical “quality of Motown”, a concept closely related to another elusive idea, “the Motown Sound”: the idea that some great Motown tracks are so well-built, so full of inspired performances, that they can seem magical. Who Could Ever Doubt My Love, on the other hand, is mortal, earthbound in a way that very few Golden Age Supremes tracks are; every join is visible, every gasping, stretching breath and microscopically mis-timed moment underlining that this is the work of very human hands.
So, with all of that in mind, why is it such a remarkable listening experience? Why is it my hands-down favourite song from More Hits? Why do I come out in goosebumps every time I hear it? In short, why is this so good?
That it ends up packing such an incredible punch – first flooring the listener, and then sweeping you away in a stunning kaleidoscope tunnel of light and darkness, not unlike being rolled down a hill in a barrel – is probably testament to its creators’ instincts (on both sides of the glass), if not necessarily their prodigious skill. It’s a magnificent song, an instinctive, defensive reaction that seems to be coming from a wounded and vulnerable place, but expressed with absolute conviction. All the more surprising, then, to find it strapped to the back of one of Motown’s loveliest, frothiest creations.
Between them, Who Could Ever Doubt My Love and I Hear A Symphony add up to the ideal Supremes single, a yin/yang pairing of tracks verging on genius. I’ve said before that I find the Golden Age Supremes, magnificent though their many three-minute triumphs surely are, to be a treat best served in small portions; a mid-Sixties Supremes greatest hits playlist for me would end up being weaker than the sum of its individual parts, simply too much sugar to take in one sitting. Indeed, there’s an argument to say that the Supremes benefited more than anyone else from The Complete Motown Singles series – and, therefore, the way I’ve heard these songs to review them here on Motown Junkies – by setting each of their magnificent pop jewels back in their proper context, separating them out, surrounding them with a sampling of obscurities, lesser lights, and some other high-scoring contemporary chart candies, and thereby making them shine as bright as they did on the radio back in 1965.
Taken as a whole, this particular 45 serves much the same purpose. One of the things that makes I Hear A Symphony a masterpiece is the temporary laying-aside of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s usual pattern (bouncy, pumping melody playing against angsty, wounded lyrics) in favour of unalloyed joy on both sides of the glass. But it’s a trick they couldn’t employ too often, couldn’t rely on too heavily lest they end up drawing away some of the power in the heartbursting rush they’d created. (Look at some of the laughably overblown MOR sides we’ve covered by the likes of Tony Martin or Sammy Turner; if you don’t keep your powder dry, if you bring in your massive finale too early, you not only leave yourself nowhere further to go, you end up making it rather less special each and every time you keep doing it over and over again.) However beautiful I Hear A Symphony is in isolation, however magical the illusion that the song might really “go on and on and on” forever, it ends at exactly, precisely the right time, just in time to stop (most) listeners beginning to tire of its relentless, invincible happiness.
By putting Who Could Ever Doubt My Love on the flip, that full stop is emphasised; from the very beginning, that heavy-handed intro crashing in, we’re in no doubt that we’ve wandered into different territory, heading off in a very different direction. Two of the Supremes’ best songs – and they’re both brilliant for completely different reasons – in a perfect state of complementary harmony.
GOWNS, GLOVES, GUT PUNCH
I always found it somewhat jarring when Berry Gordy, asked to define the Motown Sound, came up with a much-quoted aphorism: “a combination of rats, roaches, soul, guts, and love”. When most people think of Motown – and this isn’t a lazy generalisation on my part, but rather my own personal experience from four years of talking to non-fans about my writing this blog – when most people think of Motown, it seems they think of poise, of the mid-Sixties Supremes, the mid-Sixties Temptations, the mid-Sixties Four Tops, the early Jacksons. Glamorous ladies in evening dresses, with their long gloves and clipped movement and innocuous sweetness; handsome men with sharp suits and gleaming smiles and processed hair clicking their fingers and dancing in perfect synchronisation; squeaky-clean kids with mile-wide grins and handclaps and sparkly disco balls. If most (white) outside observers seem, on some level, to be aware that as an independent, black-owned label, Motown couldn’t just have popped into existence with their best acts topping the charts, doing prime time TV specials and playing the Copa, well, there’s not a great deal of engagement with the actual mechanics of how all of that happened. And surely, that’s the way Motown wanted to keep it. They certainly worked hard enough for people to think that way.
The idea of rats and roaches running the floors and climbing the walls of Hitsville while those immaculately-presented ladies and gentlemen were writing themselves into pop history is an incongruous one, given Motown spent so much time and money pushing themselves as being so very classy. Maxine Powell, who ran Motown’s Artist Development unit (jokingly referred to as a finishing school, but that’s actually not a bad comparison at all), was tasked with taking a bunch of gum-chewing street kids, many of them from the projects, many of them not burdened with an over-abundance of formal education, some of them from very bad backgrounds or already involved in petty crime, and getting them straightened out and straightened up, smoothed and trained and trained and smoothed until they were ready – in her own words – to play just two venues, Buckingham Palace and the White House.
(She managed it, too. Penny for her thoughts on Gordy’s comments.)
But the more telling part of what Berry said is the middle part. Soul. Guts. Not words you’d necessarily associate with the Supremes, you’d have to say. And you’d be wrong.
In many ways, what the Supremes were doing was new, and as commentators have been saying ever since – to this day, even on comment threads here on Motown Junkies – it had very little to do with the R&B and blues that had built the Motown empire in the first place. Even the most ardent Supremes fan would be pushing it to call, say, Baby Love a “soul” record. Never mind the wider soul and R&B fan community, there are many Motown fans who can’t stomach the Supremes too. The Four Tops and the Temptations were never quite so consistently sugary; the Supremes provided Motown with the ideal vector (in a society still heavily riven with racial tension and naked prejudice) to infiltrate not only white American radio and white American living rooms, but white American culture as a whole, to finally achieve the parity Berry Gordy had always dreamed of, and that came at a price. The move certainly didn’t cost Motown its soul (take that in any sense you want), as I’ve hopefully already long since demonstrated, but nonetheless some observers have consistently felt betrayed by Motown cutting unashamed pop records.
Which is fair enough, to an extent. There’s no law that says in order to like the Supremes you have to like the Jackson 5, or (perhaps more pertinently) that in order to like Junior Walker you have to like the Supremes. And there’s no getting away from it, these mid-Sixties Supremes records are manufactured pop music in the truest sense. Think of a dessert, each ingredient carefully weighed and parcelled before cooking… the resulting cake is both beautiful and delicious, but you perhaps wouldn’t want to eat twelve of them one after the other, and it’s wholly understandable that some people will even go so far as to proclaim they don’t like cake at all, it’s too sickly, it’s bad for you and rots your teeth, it’s no substitute for a ribeye steak. And so it goes with the Supremes. No matter how much blood and sweat and sleepless nights and emotional pain went into these records, “soul and guts” is simply not a phrase you would readily associate with the mid-Sixties Supremes.
Soul, though, is a state of mind. Who Could Ever Doubt My Love is a soul record through and through. One of the things I like about it is that, for once, it’s not perfect; indeed, it seems to go out of its way to proclaim that. But it’s a breath of fresh air all the same, and delivered for maximum effect just when things were in danger of becoming too samey.
The edges are messy because they’re smeared with tears; the softening of that jagged backing track is done by Flo and Mary, positively angelic as their harmonies vamp in and out, smudging the lines to make this human, make the narrator a real person with real frailties and real anxieties. In its way, to be laid bare like that – and I’m not just talking about Diana or Mary or Flo here, I’m talking about Holland-Dozier-Holland, about the Funk Brothers, about Motown as a whole – takes more guts than to release a confrontational jazz-blues jam. And for me, that’s what soul is about.
A VICTIM OF CIRCUMSTANCE I HAVE BEEN
On the A-side, Diana Ross’ lovestruck narrator couldn’t believe her luck, riding a cloud, climbing and climbing and turning around to suddenly realise she was at the top. Here, once again, she can’t believe the situation she finds herself in, but here the driving emotion is not joy but injustice, so keenly felt that the entire track seems to share her keenly-felt, almost inarticulate anger, her disbelief, her inability to understand. Why? Why has this happened? It’s not even a rhetorical question, it’s as though she really does want someone to explain. WHAT IS GOING ON??
The story is simple enough; the narrator has been falsely accused of cheating on her partner. But the impression that I get from Who Could Ever Doubt My Love is that her pain – and it’s real, genuine pain alright, like I said, some proper blues-level pain – her pain isn’t necessarily for the faltering relationship itself, or the depth of her feelings for this guy at all (we never find out anything much about him), but rather her shock that he would so readily believe these unsubstantiated accusations. It’s the way he’s misjudged me that really hurts me so, she weeps.
And check out that title. Not “My love is real”, not “Don’t doubt my love”, not even “Why would you doubt my love?”. No, we’re on a universal scale here – who, in the world, could ever, in the entire history of human relationships, call my love into question? Right from the off, we’re on her side – the notion that this is merely one side of the story, that she might actually not be telling the truth, didn’t even register until several listens in, and the feeling runs so deep here with this one that I dismissed the very idea out of hand.
(Kudos, too, for that unconventional phrasing, and for the use of a line like “forsaking all others, giving my life to him”. Literate pop, in the best sense of the word. But I digress.)
So, on the one level, this is effectively an elaborate screed amounting to “Dude, what the hell?” – but then you notice another unusual thing about the lyrics here, because they’re not in the second person a la Stop! In The Name Of Love: the song isn’t actually being directly addressed to Mr Untrusting Bloke there. In fact, it’s not at all clear that it’s being addressed to anyone at all; the lyric might even work better if we imagine Diana singing this to herself, into her tear-stained pillow, crumpled-up kiss-off note in her hand. It’s a cry straight from the heart, and it’s made super-believable by virtue of its not being wrapped up in an icing-sugar bow; it’s so raw you can practically taste the tears.
And it’s another killer tune – everything about this is whistleable, hummable, sweeps you up in its arms even as you know it’s going to spit you back out again. All of those weird little off-kilter moments and bits that sound like they’re going to be stop-time interludes and offbeat drum riffs and string parts appearing out of nowhere, all those bits where the track seems like it’s about to break down altogether (When I’ve been nothing but good to hi-im… good to him, SO good to him…), they all somehow fit together to make this – for me, anyway – just about the most breathtakingly strange but equally strangely breathtaking thing the Supremes have yet put together.
What we end up with, really, is the missing link between the poise and grace of More Hits by the Supremes and the rougher-edged moments of the preceding Where Did Our Love Go LP, a kind of summation of the Supremes’ sound just as they were getting their big break as opposed to having soared several months past it. Stately, stentorian backing with Flo and Mary cooing their soothing harmonies and Diana waxing emotional over the top: it’s a formula I thought we’d already long since dispensed with, but its reappearance here is a nice surprise for sure.
So, yes, this is one of my very favourite of all the Supremes’ records. And the fact that so much about it is slightly off-centre, the fact that it practically advertises up front that it’s not perfect? Well, that’s just about enough to make me think it really might be. Crafty blighters.
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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“I Hear A Symphony”
“As Long As There Is
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