(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
There’s a certain cruelty in putting this straight after the Headliners’ slightly dismal We Call It Fun and Voodoo Plan, two records cut by a bunch of earnest but ultimately plodding white rockers. Listening to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 5, when Something About You first struck up its bluesy, thumping 4/4 guitar intro, I briefly thought this was going to be the Headliners again. What’s more surprising is how long I let the record play before I came to realise (a) I was wrong, and (b) it’s actually the Four Tops.
What we have here is a Four Tops single that doesn’t really sound all that much like a Four Tops single. Of course, Levi Stubbs’ voice eventually conquers all, as it invariably always does, and it ends up being pretty good – but it’s probably the scruffiest Tops single since their arrival at Motown, based on the flimsiest structure. It’s the band that ends up pushing this forward, those unstoppable bass drums beating out the tempo and daring Levi and the boys (and the girls) to try and keep up. (They don’t exactly manage it – I’ve heard this song dozens of times now and I’m still not entirely sure what the second word is – but it’s a credible effort all the same.)
It’s just unusual that the Four Tops are kind of dispensable on this, something we’ve never been able to say before – even on Without The One You Love, a much worse record than Something About You for my money, the Tops were needed to make the record. Here, this could really have been given to anybody in Motown’s stable with the same kind of results, and while on the one hand that says the hitherto largely faultless Holland-Dozier-Holland team had turned in a universal song, it’s also an indicator that it doesn’t play to the strengths of anyone in particular, doesn’t invite anyone to tap into that seam of artist/song/producer team-up magic that marks out the best Motown singles. And, indeed, I think it’s fair to say nobody has really managed to make this their own; the Four Tops don’t.
I wonder how much my views have been coloured by Debbie Dean’s later version as found on A Cellarful of Motown 3. It’s not that Dean’s record is particularly brilliant or anything, it’s got Deke Richards’ late-60s MOR fingerprints all over it for better or worse – but the song seems to fit her better: her voice, her personality and the (frankly) less soulful backing are all more natural. Which, I suppose, is the problem – when a Four Tops song’s key ingredients all seem to be more at home on a Debbie Dean record, perhaps it wasn’t the best choice of material for one of Motown’s greatest groups.
Still, they are one of Motown’s greatest groups, and Levi Stubbs does his best to remind us we’re listening to a Four Tops single (and it’s easy to forget, especially when Levi’s not centre stage), a gentle reminder that we’re not in the company of mere mortals. But he’s the only real reason to stick around, his gruff, shouty performance calling to mind the heights he’ll be scaling in a few months’ time, only ever loosely anchored to the pumping 4/4 track (which, actually, now that I come to think about it, sounds an awful lot like the Supremes’ Back In My Arms Again shorn of the pounding piano part). He’s magnetic in his guttural exhortations, magnetic enough to lift this above the level of competent album filler. Albeit not all that far above.
It’s a strange experience, this. At no point is it ever in danger of being a bad record, it’s not even a forgettable one – it’s just oddly lifeless, almost more like a pastiche of a Motown 45 than the genuine article. For sure it’s the first time the Four Tops have been wasted, the first time their angelic blend with the Andantes’ female backing vocals goes unnoticed; the first time I’ve had to say that, hand on heart, that could be anybody singing behind Levi there. And yet, the band track is rippingly good, and Levi acquits himself in fine fashion, a magnetic performance on a song that probably worked better on paper than in the studio.
What to make of it? It’s pretty good, I guess, and yet I’ve never warmed to it, never thrilled to it, never breathlessly gone straight back to the beginning to play it again. It’s good enough, and maybe that’s the problem – I’ve gotten so used to expecting the extraordinary from these people (the Tops, the Andantes, HDH, everyone) that “good enough” somehow isn’t good enough.
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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