Not for the first time and not for the last, the Velvelettes come at me with a curveball, showing just how very out of (ahead of, even?) the regular Motown loop they really were. Though this one probably makes more sense now than it did at the time, I’m guessing.
I’m never normally a fan of the tyranny of genres, the practice of tying things down and fencing them in with musical labels; I think it only serves to distort one’s perceptions, scare people off who might otherwise have enjoyed a record, on the grounds that “oh, I don’t really like (jazz/country/hip hop/soul/metal/rap/whatever)”. For sure, my reasons are personal enough – it’s just that kind of nonsense which stopped me from coming to Motown sooner, a sort of mental category error telling the glum-faced teenage version of me that I shouldn’t be enjoying pop records. But if we were to start boxing things up, well, Since You’ve Been Loving Me is a fine candidate; this isn’t so much soul as it is indie pop.
It’s a startling development, not least because it comes strapped to the back of the rollercoaster assembly-line R&B-pop of A Bird In The Hand Is Worth Two In The Bush, and it sounds nothing like the Velvelettes at all. What it sounds like, in fact, is a better-sung take on something like The Ace of Cups – slow, thoughtful, padded with great thudding chunks of bass and plaintive guitar riffs. And, of course, this still being the Velvelettes and all, excellent.
Goodness me, how much I love this. I remember the first time I heard it, it sounded like an artefact out of place, a late-Sixties Californian garage rock ballad feel to it when I was expecting more of the thumping and sweeping and eerie brilliance of the best Velvelettes sides; even now, several hundred plays later, it still exudes a strange feeling, like an interloper.
In a few years’ time, when we get to the late Sixties and early Seventies and the rise of side projects like Rare Earth Records, MoWest etc., we’ll have to interrupt the Motown R&B story for a pop-rock diversion on a fairly regular basis – but here at the end of 1965, with the third-rate country & western horrors of the ill-fated and ill-conceived Mel-o-dy Records project now far behind us, it still feels thrillingly odd to find something new and unexpected in Motown’s archaeological strata.
So, it’s a weird and unfamiliar experience – but it’s also a riveting one, beautifully written, the unfamiliar writing team of Marv Johnson and Eddie Holland coming up with a Supremes lyric set to an unfamiliar pattern. Briefly, the narrator – played to tears-of-joy perfection by Cal Gill – recounts her sorry past relationship record (her world of loneliness, as she puts it) and contrasts it to how happy her new love has made her, making her believe things she’d never even thought possible before, things that she’d assumed were just for other people and pulp romances. This being an Eddie Holland lyric, the picture is painted so vividly and with such economy of phrasing that this woman (who incidentally sounds much older than Cal herself actually was, perhaps by ten or even twenty years) has her entire life story, past and future, conveyed in just a few excellent expository lines:
Since you came into my life
I dream a different kind of dream at night
Instead of crying myself to sleep
I think of the next time our lips will meet
Instead of closing my eyes, counting the tears
I visualise our love, growing through the years…
…And here’s Cal Gill, again showing why she was Motown’s least-heralded should-have-been superstar. Absolutely solo for the first part of the record, exposed in the rivulets of dead air that criss-cross the tape between tambourine bashes and vibraphone pling-plongs and that fat-fingered monster bassline, she still ends up turning in an amazing lead vocal that calls to mind Chrissie Hynde and even Cher as much as it does Martha Reeves. Meanwhile the other Velvelettes are used very sparingly, hardly appearing until the song bursts into full colour.
When that happens, in a full-on, drum-laden choral breakdown a minute and a half into the record, it’s absolutely energising. Up until then, Cal has been in a tussle for superiority with the track, as though she’d been idly voicing some of her private thoughts and just happened to wander near a switched-on microphone; as the track proceeds, she starts to take control, and then suddenly she begins to vault up the stave and ramp up the volume –
…With each word you speak so sweet
You make me feel,
feel so complete,
so darling, keep on…
– and the drum beat suddenly forces itself to keep pace, switches to a four-to-the-floor stomp, while the rest of the Velvelettes start chanting:
Keep on loving me, the way that you’re loving me
Keep on loving me, the way that you’re loving me
… and Cal extemporises over the top in the finest Velvelettes fashion, and just for a moment, the whole thing crystallises and you realise the hairs on your skin have pricked up and this is just special, very very special.
On the full-length version of the track, as featured many years later on the Velvelettes’ belated Motown Anthology album, this is the thrilling jumping-off point for a driving, valedictory final minute, clearly unfinished but triumphant all the same, underlining the underlying theme of the song – Cal’s narrator was a wreck who didn’t believe in love, but now you just try and stop her.
Here, on this 45, the song’s been hacked down to an edit of just over two minutes, meaning the track starts a brutal fade just after Cal’s got started, turning that valedictory mid-song change into a last-minute coda. It’s a tidier and smarter mix than the full length take, which obviously wasn’t ready for release – but it’s surely not what its creators intended, breaking the pacing of the song (musically and emotionally), and meaning it can’t realistically (for me!) claim the one extra mark which would take it into my all-time favourites.
But it’s still remarkable, in almost every sense – it’s both surprising and surprisingly fresh, it’s raw and honest and beautiful, and I love it. And it’s the Velvelettes, so, you know, come on.
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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“A Bird In The Hand (Is Worth Two In The Bush)”
“Don’t Mess With Bill”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
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